Racial Identity, Abolition, and Reckonings
with John McWhorter and Kmele Foster
When John McWhorter and I visited Denver earlier this year to participate in the 2022 Heterodox Academy Conference, we had a lot of interesting conversations. One of them was with our friend Kmele Foster, an entrepreneur and public intellectual who co-hosts The Fifth Column podcast with Matt Welch and Michael Moynihan. When it comes to thinking about race and identity, Kmele is something of a radical, though not in the way that many “antiracist” ideologues consider themselves radicals. As you’ll see below in this transcript of my appearance with John on The Fifth Column, Kmele rejects race as a category that need have any bearing on an individual’s self-conception.
I find Kmele’s way of thinking about these matters intriguing, though I have to admit I worry that he’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In Tuesday’s post, I argued while we should not allow ourselves to become prisoners to socially legislated identities, neither should we discard communal traditions from which we may draw sustenance and strength. Kmele says he doesn’t think it valid to feel personal pride or shame about even our parents’ and grandparents’ actions, whereas I confess that there are many aspects of my own black heritage of which I am quite proud.
These are deep disagreements but productive ones. We need radical thinkers like Kmele who take up positions that cut against the orthodoxies of both right and left. I’m curious to know what you think. Should more people take up Kmele’s vision of individuality and self-possession? Or do we need traditions that derive, at least in part, from identitarian categories, some of which are racial in their conception? Let me know in the comments!
You can listen to the entire conversation here, and you’ll find a full transcript below.
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KMELE FOSTER: The first time you and I talked, John, it was probably December of 2017, and shortly thereafter we had this larger conversation with Glenn, Thomas Chatterton William, and the wonderful Coleman Hughes. And we've had two of those conversations, the last of which happened in early 2020, the beginning of the pandemic but just before the racial reckoning really kicked off. I know during that summer of 2020, there were moments where I felt pretty depressed about the fact that folks seem to be talking past one another.
But I feel a bit differently. And I'm wondering if you both could give me your appraisal of the culture broadly. You're both on college campuses. So you have a sensibility about what it's like on college campuses, but also in terms of the political discourse and the discourse around race in particular.
GLENN LOURY: I think one thing we might ask is, have we peaked? Have we reached peak woke? And are things beginning to move in a different direction? I think the discussion around criminal justice, rising homicide rates, the obvious policy bankruptcy of the “defund the police” slogan are some of the things raising questions about whether that narrative about black lives mattering is robust and is something that deserves the kind of support that it has gotten. So that's one thing.
KMELE FOSTER: Broadly, in terms of just the cultural context and our ability to have discussions about these things, for a while, it felt very hard to broach those subjects without echoing the popular narratives about allyship and anti-racism. Do you feel like that is starting to change or are you getting an indication of that? And perhaps we don't feel particularly restrained in our ability to talk about this stuff, but I'm regularly interacting with people who don't have a prominent perch, or even people who do, and they feel as though they have to say things they don't really mean or that they can't be completely honest when expressing their perspective on things. Do you see that starting to change at all?
GLENN LOURY: Well, that's out there for sure. But if I take the experience I have with my students at Brown, I teach a big undergraduate course on race, crime and punishment. It's got 100 students enrolled in it. They write papers, they read a wide range of materials, and we discuss. And I actually sent around a memo to some of my friends saying you wouldn't believe the paper topics that these kids are coming up with for their assignments. They're questioning all of the verities. I think that they were hungry to hear, as it were, the other side of some of those questions.
So I'm cautiously optimistic about my college students’ intellectual integrity. They are under pressure to conform. They don't want to be called a racist. They want to be known as anti-racists. On the other hand, they haven't completely surrendered their faculties of reason on these questions that are actually very difficult.
JOHN MCWHORTER: I would agree with Glenn. I think that in the summer of 2020, which is beginning to really feel like the past to me now, not just because of the pandemic, but because of race issues, there was this moment where, because of a weird cocktail of the pandemic, the nature of what happened to George Floyd and then the nature of social media and Zoom and Slack and how it's easier to be mean to people on those platforms, suddenly a hard leftist, radical anti-racist platform was being used as a way of silencing people and was dominating thinking people's culture. All of a sudden in June 2020, that happened.
Since then, I think we've gotten to the point that that kind of person still has a great deal of cultural and even administrative power. But it's becoming increasingly clear that it's a reign of fear. I'm not gonna call it terror, but it's a reign of fear. And I think that, among a great many enlightened, left-of-center people, it's established that something went wrong, something is excessive, and that it might be that we need to, to an extent, stand up to this.
Now, has that happened? Have the hyper wokesters, you know, taken their tails under and run back off into the forest? No. And my optimism changes from month to month as to whether or not these people's power is going to be permanent. But my general sense is that there's been enough of a pushback from people who are not coming from a know-nothing position that I think what we're going to see is that 2020 was a really weird and, in many ways, horrible year. In many ways. And it created extremes of behavior that wouldn't have happened in 2019 and that will seem increasingly unnecessary and incongruous the further we get from that year. I hope that's where we are. But from even week to week, one can be more optimistic than the week before.
KMELE FOSTER: I mentioned to you earlier that I've talked to people about these same things. Like, “How are you feeling? Are you at all optimistic?” They'll point to a couple of different things, but a number of people have mentioned the fact that you are now contributing to the New York Times, which has traditionally had a bit of a monoculture on these issues. A few outliers who have voices there, who are critical of some of these trends. And in a similar vein, Glenn, I also hear people talk a lot about prominent people who are having success on Substack, as you are. So I'm wondering if you guys see that as a material change in terms of the media ecosystem.
JOHN MCWHORTER: There’s a real change, such as … And it's not like me to talk about things like this much, and this is not false humility, but if I take the camera and I put it on me: Substack. I don't know about things. I don't embrace technology easily. I sit in my chair and I read books about dinosaurs. That's what I do. But I read about this Substack thing, and I had a book—Woke Racism— which I got the feeling was not going to be taken up by anybody.
So that's one indication of what it was like in 2020. I wrote that book and at first nobody bit except conservative presses, which is not what I wanted. So I thought, well, I want this to get out there because I can tell there's a hunger for it from people who are left of center. So I taught myself how to use this Substack thing, and I started putting chapters out. And to be perfectly honest, my Substack, when I was on it, was an enormous success. I had no idea what had happened. And it wasn't conservatives. It was people from my world who were clearly hungry for this. That was the first thing that said to me that these people taking over don't represent how most people think.
And then for the Times? Yes. I wouldn't have been hired by them before. And I think that my being hired by them when I was, last year, was a response from the people who run the Times who are not like some of the extremist writers. The people who run it are not of that ideology, in my experience. And they realized they needed the Times to be able to make a different kind of statement. So yes, that is what I was for. And I'm happy to serve that purpose. But that also shows that the takeover of that kind of person, this sort of flaming leftist, push people out the windows, radical sort of person, that doesn't represent the way all enlightened and concerned people think.
So yeah, “me” is a sign. I hate to say that about myself, but that was a sign when the New York Times hired a black writer who would say the sorts of things I do. And I have not been censored. You know, I get tempered a little bit. It's clear that they want to make sure not to get in trouble. But I'm not censored. I've said everything that I truly feel there
GLENN LOURY: Can I ask you a question?
JOHN MCWHORTER: Mm-hmm
GLENN LOURY: Are you censoring yourself? Do you ever have that moment where you don't go there, because, well …
JOHN MCWHORTER: All right. Honesty. There are things I say in our conversations that I would not try to write in the Times because it wouldn't be worth the trouble. I'd probably get a filtered version of it in, but I don't feel like dealing with the struggle. So a little. But I would only say a little. It's not a whole lot, but a little. Sure.
KMELE FOSTER: There's a sense in which that's probably understandable on some level, that there's certain sophisticated ideas that I'm not willing to unpack in particular contexts. I think it's different when there's a cultural milieu that is aggressively hostile to particular kinds of conversations. Which, again, I think there's a very real sense in which we have existed in a milieu like that for a while, at least for most people. But I wonder if you've got some broader thoughts on the kind of media ecosystem, Glenn, changes that you've seen or for the better or worse?
GLENN LOURY: Well, I'm very happy with my experience at Substack. The community that has grown up around my posts, the comments and the back and forth that I see coming from people, the contributions that come over the transom from people who would like to be published at the Substack, because they think they have something to say on the issues at hand. The general reaction that I'm getting from what we're putting out there, which does have a contrarian, heterodox kind of identity. I mean, you know, there is now a Facebook group called “Glenn Loury for President.”
JOHN and KMELE: [laugh]
GLENN LOURY: I didn't do it, okay? And as I told them, if nominated, I will not run, and if elected, I will not serve. But I'm just saying that the voice and the character of the critique that I'm trying to make about cultural nostrums taken for granted does seem to find, uh, and it does seem to find an audience. And it's not only, although it is to some degree, right-wing white people who are glad to see a black guy saying something that they've been saying themselves all these years.
JOHN MCWHORTER: It’s inevitable.
KMELE FOSTER: Yeah. Well, I wanna talk about that for a little bit, because we are in the midst of a culture war. Everyone acknowledges it now. Depending on who you're talking to, they'll tell you one side is responsible or they won't even acknowledge that one side is participating in the culture war. But I think we know better than that. However, we want to talk about the forensic analysis of who's responsible for what, I've become very exhausted by the culture war.
And I'm frustrated by two things. One is that when I look at something like education, which has been the center of the culture war for a while, the K-12 education system in the United States fails many, many, many children profoundly. And it was doing that before the pandemic, and post-pandemic it's doing so to an even greater degree. And I think there's something almost criminal about the fact that we've devoted so much of our energy arguing over who gets to decide what kind of political propaganda is going to go into the history curriculum or whether or not merit is racist. It's just really disheartening, and to the point where I almost get a bit emotional.
And the other thing that I've seen that makes me very frustrated is that it is traditionally the case that there are a lot of people on the right who share some of our concerns about the culture broadly and race issues. But amongst their ranks, I think there is a lot of reactionary fervor and a growing sort of illiberalism there that is disconcerting to me. To the extent I'm concerned about “wokeness,” I'm concerned about the illiberal attributes of it, the kind of circular reasoning, the reduction of people to their immutable characteristics, the unwillingness to hear and to engage in constructive arguments.
And I see way too many elements of that, way too much kind of performative nonsense from conservatives who say they're doing it on the basis of principle, but for the most part seem to be interested in wielding a cudgel against people who they, in many instances, don't seem to believe they can beat culturally. They see the New York Times and all these other elite media organizations as kind of arrayed against them in this cultural battle. And they think that the only thing they can do is pass a law to stop them, to break them up in some way, to punish Disney for having gay characters in an animated movie, which just … there may be legitimate issues there, but there's something about it that I just find really pernicious.
JOHN MCWHORTER: What's scary is that those people are closer to the levers of power and the law often than the left. The left has the culture, the right has the laws.
KMELE FOSTER: At the state level, yeah.
JOHN MCWHORTER: There are always gonna be people of that spirit. I think that, though, if we're talking about this issue of the culture wars and who's winning, we have to remember that, for example, 20 years ago, 15 years ago, the typical left disposition on racism was that there needed to be a conversation on race. And they called it a conversation. But what they really meant, as I used to say back then, is that they wanted a conversion. Their view of these things is so simplified that they think everybody needs to understand that any problem black people have is due to racism. If everybody doesn't know that and believe it, then there's a serious problem and America is still a racist country. That is a flabby vision. Lots and lots of people basically had already had that conversation, understood that racism played a role.
It was unreasonable for those people to be waiting for all of America to think the way, for example, Ibram Kendi does now. We know that from a distance. Today, I think people like us, and I think there is an “us,” often say we're tired of the wars. There are these people like Ibram Kendi who have this kind of power over a certain number of readers and listeners and watchers, and as long as they're there, we're losing. I don't think that we're losing to the extent that Glenn is a huge hit on Substack with legions of perfectly intelligent people.
Frankly, to the extent that I write for New York Times twice a week, and they don't seem to be ready to fire me, to the extent that you are online, that we are visible, that there are people watching us, I don't think that's a failure. I don't think that we need to consider ourselves a failure just because there are other people who are pretending that Robin DiAngelo makes sense. Those people will always be there. A conversation is always gonna be diverse, and no one ever wins. I feel like at this point, the kind of views that Glenn and I have are much better represented in the mainstream than they were in, say, 2005. This is great. So I'm feeling pretty good, in that sense. It only ever gets so good in my experience.
GLENN LOURY: Let's ask the question. Why what you just described, Kmele, is happening. That is, on the right, people are seizing on culture war territory and are lashing out, like the governor of Florida. Gaslighting. “Oh, there's no such thing as critical race theory. Nobody's teaching critical race theory.” When in fact we know that the cultural milieu in K-12 education on those kinds of issues has been shifting in a direction that a lot of people on the right are uncomfortable with.
Telling people that they're bigots because they are concerned about the transgender developments that are going on and their common sense is being offended and they're saying, “Wait a minute. Yesterday, everybody knew what a man was and a woman was. Today it's all up in the air. And you're telling me I'm a bigot?” Gaslighting. Bluffing. “The violence in the inner city is no big deal. Nothing to see here.” Bodies piling up. Let a police officer step across the line, and everybody goes ballistic. Day in, day out, day in and day out, the bodies pile up. Nothing to see here, nothing to see here.
That's a bluff. Everybody can see what's going on there. A spiral of silence in which people have views that they know are at least defensible, but they can't say them out loud because the whole ton of bricks falls on 'em, whether it's on Twitter, on their job, where somebody says you can't say that I think that black person promoted by affirmative action is incompetent. I think you actually should have had the better qualified person for the job. When Ilya Shapiro said that at the Georgetown Law School about Ketanji Brown Jackson's appointment to the Supreme Court, he got pilloried for having done that.
That generates a sense of backlash, a sense of aggrieved mistreatment that fuels this conservative reaction against the, uh, the woke sensibility. So it's not just like the conservatives are over here, the wokesters are over there, and they're all fighting it out on the grounds of critical race theory. Some of what's going on on the right is a predictable consequence of the illiberal way in which the left, the woke left has pressed its case.
KMELE FOSTER: I certainly agree that there's a reactionary spiral. But as you're talking, I'm thinking about something else that's been nagging at me, and it's the fact that there's the possibility of overstating our case and making assertions about the inevitable consequence of being honest in different contexts, and speaking out on the job. And, well, I know I've helped people through some of these circumstances. I've done reporting on it, that there are often grave injustices perpetrated against people who do nothing but be honest in a respectable way and are still interpreted in the worst possible way and have their companies completely undermined by ridiculous cultural political controversies.
But still, it is the case that there are plenty of contexts in which people have been able to be honest and have constructive conversations and be strategic and thoughtful about the way they approach these issues. And I wonder if we don't spend sufficient time talking about, one, how to do that well, how to have those conversations successfully, what values are required. But two just highlighting the places where either we're making progress or it's just not nearly as bad as it looks. Because there's something about galvanizing people and encouraging them to be brave and depend on the tools of liberalism to try to adjudicate some of these debates.
JOHN MCWHORTER: That’s hard though, because what the weary executive does these days is get DEI training. And whoever you hire to do that, except for some noble exceptions, is gonna come in looking to confirm a certain race-racism narrative. And they have a sense of what racism is, and it's an overly expanded and facile and punitive one. And if you go against what they think of as racism, then you're going against what they're there to do, and you just let that be what your company's DEI training is. And you've done your job, because you had some DEI training.
We have to get beyond that and give more publicity to people who are interested in doing DEI in other ways. Although I think all three of us also know that when we really have arrived will be when a company is comfortable saying, “We're not gonna have DEI training because that has nothing to do with what any of our problems are.” That's the next thing, not having to make that gesture at all. I'm not sure how long that's going to be, but there needs to be better DEI training, and it can't be done with the sorts of people who are trained to see racism behind every tree and under every rock. That's the problem. Those people are not going to change.
GLENN LOURY: Now wait a minute, man. Isn't DEI by definition ideological indoctrination?
KMELE FOSTER: I suppose it depends on the practitioner
JOHN MCWHORTER: The way it's done.
GLENN LOURY: Well, tell me about how it can be done that it doesn't come down to telling people what they're supposed to think about race.
KMELE FOSTER: In many instances, that appears to be the case. And I suppose my own criticism of DEI would be perhaps even a little deeper than that, because my own ideas about race and identity are slightly more radical than most people's. So any of the conversation around these issues, any of the supposition about, the need to think about people primarily in terms of their immutable characteristics at work and satisfying some arbitrary benchmark so that we can be “representative” of the broader community is something of an insult to the dignity of the people who you hire to work for you and something of an insult to the people who are members of your community.
I think something I said the other day is that it's harder and harder for me to believe that we can truly recognize the dignity of one another until we see each other as individuals. And I think we've been very busily patting ourselves on the back for capitalizing the B in black. But that seems like a move in the opposite direction that we need to be moving in.
GLENN LOURY: No, that's a very radical position.
KMELE FOSTER: Increasingly less radical.
GLENN LOURY: I once had a conversation with a Chinese American woman named Wai Wah Chin, who is an activist in New York City on behalf of maintaining the exam school admissions criteria, more or less as they are. And I said casually that the Chinese Americans are overrepresented amongst the students entering into the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant and whatnot. And she said, “How is it that they’re ‘representing’? They're individual human beings. They're not representing anything. What do you mean ‘overrepresented,’ ‘underrepresented’?”
And I was really stunned by the force of that point. I was not conscious of the extent to which I had imported into my own thinking a moral position that is questionable, wherein I see these individual kids about whom one thing that's true is that they're Chinese. But there are a hundred things that you could say about them And I put that kid in a box and say “represents” something. That's a very significant move. It's a move that I made without any critical reflection. And it's a move on critical thought that I think is dubious.
JOHN MCWHORTER: These things are hard because, Kmele, to your point, as my students say— or “based off of” what you said instead of “based on” what you said—and also Glenn, to your point, what DEI is in terms of how almost anybody does it who gets paid is a coded way of trying to teach the organization's workers that it is wrong to subject black and Latino people to the same standards in terms of hiring, in terms of performance, and in terms of behavior as you would expect from other people because of slavery, Jim Crow and redlining.
That's the lesson. The lesson is basically, “Expect less, change your sense of standards, and here's why.” And that is a pernicious message. That is a dehumanizing message. That is a message that's more about making white people feel good about themselves than black people. And it does go against where we really need to go, which is this Kmele world, where everybody is just seen as an individual and there's no race at all, which I completely understand. But I lack the imagination to get there within my lifespan.
KMELE FOSTER: But you just articulated the position so well, so I don't think that's true.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Other people will never come with you on that, yet.
KMELE FOSTER: I don't think it's true. I’m making some progress!
JOHN MCWHORTER: I may be a conservative person who says it's too early.
KMELE FOSTER: But let's talk about this for a little bit, because we've talked about this in some context. And I know that on The Glenn Show, at some point you were answering some reader mail, and folks were asking about what they described as “race abolitionism.” And I suppose I've called it that as well, really only jokingly. In truth, my perspective is just individualism. This is not terribly technical. It's not a negation of anything. It's not colorblindness as an ambition, which has always struck me as a very strange goal, because I don't need to ignore something that isn't really there.
What I mean when I say that is that race, the social construct of race. And that's easy to say. Everybody gets what that means in some way, shape or form. But race is also an ideological commitment. And I think if folks are looking for further reading on that, you can consult the Field Sisters’ Racecraft, which is a great book on that.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Very important.
KMELE FOSTER: And by ideological, I mean that it does all sorts of work in precisely the way the story you just told, Glenn, illustrates. I actually gave a talk at ASU just before my son was born, and I started with this account of taking my four-year-old daughter to a new school on the first day. And it was February, it was black history month. And I've got particular feelings about honoring people's achievement on the basis of their race. I think there's something kind of silly about that, but whatever. I know that their motives are good.
But there's this thing on the wall and a bit of a montage of different books and everything arrayed on a table. And one of those books facing us as we got off of the elevator to go into the school was a book called Hey Black Child. And my heart kind of sank a little bit. The thing about having a kid, as you know, is you entrust them to someone and you wanna be sure that they see them the way that you do, with all of the potential and possibility.
My daughter is a remarkable little human who is both the best and worst person I've ever met, in that she inspires me all the time, but she doesn't get the rules, so she can be really nasty and mean. But she's boundlessly curious. She once asked me a question that has always stuck with me. She said, “Daddy, is infinity invisible?” This four-year-old contemplating this grand idea of infinity and thinking, “Can I see it?” More recently, she's added on to this. “Well, is infinity everywhere?” In a profound sense, “Well, yes, sweetheart. It is. Let's talk about this. Let's engage.” But when I saw that book, I thought to myself, do these people have the capacity to imagine that my daughter is something other than “a black child,” undifferentiated from the rest of the rest of the mass of children?
GLENN LOURY: Kmele, excuse me, what book?
KMELE FOSTER: The book was called Hey Black Child.
GLENN LOURY: I don’t know it.
JOHN MCWHORTER: As I’m sitting here boiling, because yes, you see that individuality in your children, especially as a black parent in the early twenty-first century, as opposed to the middle of the effing last one. And you see a book like that. And I know people, I know white people who will say, “Yes, your daughter's curiosity and talent is great. But think of the racism that she's going to encounter as she gets a little older and therefore there have to be books called Hey Black Girl that validate her.”
And of course the real answer is, is this racism gonna be something that is concrete enough that you define an identity around it in the 2030s as opposed to in 1962? And they have no answer to it. They have made their statement by showing that they know that racism exists. It disgusts me. I know exactly what you mean about books like that shouting at our modern brown skinned children. Yeah. It's awful.
GLENN LOURY: But isn't there a way in which you can develop a sense of racial identity that's not reactive, that is not grounded in the view that the person is a victim of racism, but rather is analogous to the ethnicity that we see of communities in which there's a … the Irish? So five generations down there might be some intermarriage and stuff like that, but they still think of themselves as Irish. St. Patrick's day, whatever goes along with being Irish. The Italian, there's still a sense of “I'm Italian.” The Jew. That's a case unto itself, of course.
But nevertheless, the propagation across generations of a sense of continuity, of cultural identity. and might there not be a story on behalf of blackness? And I don't just mean dark skin. I mean, descent from enslaved persons in the United States who migrated up the Illinois Central Railroad from Mississippi and Alabama to places like Chicago and Detroit, who fought first to be citizens, then to be equal citizens against travail, and so on. Those stories imparted to one's children. You descend from people of this sort, you embody the aspirations of prior generations who labored so that you could have this opportunity. The food you eat, the music that you listen to, the style, the way you carry yourself, the musical form that you can create, and art and the literature that I read of people who have struggled with the conditions of blacks in the history of the United States, producing great works of profound human interest but rooted in the African American [experience].
So why eschew all of that? I agree that the racial coloration is itself meaningless, but that experience, those stories, that narrative, that history is not meaningless. It's something around which a sense of identity could be built. And why would I throw all of that out on behalf of a race abolition program, Kmele?
KMELE FOSTER: Yeah. Well, I've actually got two answers to that. I mean, the first is I don't wanna throw that out. In fact, what I wanna do is sort of open the doors so that everyone can imagine themselves as a part of that remarkable tradition that you just described. There is an amazing human story of us deciding, and really this is perhaps one of the greatest cultural innovations we've ever discovered, like figuring out how to expand our circle of concern and imagine other people as members of our tribe.
And I can contemplate that up from slavery narrative and imagine myself as a part of that continuum and put myself in the shoes of the great slave rebellion leader and also put myself in the shoes of a white man who was murdered because he published an abolitionist tract to fight in this struggle for justice. That's inbounds for me. That's part of my story, so none of those things are off limits to me. I want everyone to be able to partake of all of the best parts of it.
But there's something else. And it's that I have a very distinct idea about pride as something that is earned And dignity as something that is innate to every individual, not on the basis of your immutable characteristics. And to the extent it's been denied the demand you make for it is on the basis of your humanity and not your gender or your sexual orientation or your race.
And there is something … I'll make this personal. My grandfather was an illiterate dock worker. He passed away. My biological father is a philandering scoundrel. I don't have to be ashamed of any of their limitations or defects or failures. One of my ancestors was a great slave rebellion leader in Jamaica. I don't get to partake of his greatness in any sort of unique way either. To the extent I am to be viewed as honorable, to the extent I can imbue myself with a sense of pride, I need to earn it, and I should do something honorable.
And I think giving that charge to young people and embracing that for ourselves is the only recipe for sort of a durable dignity. And we can't build that in a really serious way until we get beyond race. And until we get beyond the crutch of color blindness, that's not good enough. I think we have to tell the truth about race, that it is insufficient to contain all of our diversity.
GLENN LOURY: One thing, I wanna ask you about this. What is the connection between eschewing racial identity, as you advocate, and achieving dignity? How are those things connected?
KMELE FOSTER: Well, I'm saying that dignity is an individual characteristic. It is something that can be attributed to individuals and not to races. But it's also, I think, a recognition of what race is designed to do and the way that it actually operates in society. We abide by all sorts of ridiculous rules when it comes to race. In practice, we still observe something like a brown paper bag test and something like a one drop rule. We impose it on ourselves and we do all of that at some expense.
I mean, you talked earlier about the ways that people can see racism everywhere. There's a real sense in which blackness, as an identity, can't be divorced from the hypersensitivity about race, from a cultural standpoint. The belief that if you go into some store, if no one talks to you, it's because they must be watching you because they’re racist.
JOHN MCWHORTER: There's a huge temptation to think of it that way.
KMELE FOSTER: Or if they're following you and asking you if you need help …
JOHN MCWHORTER: It’s because they think you're a criminal.
KMELE FOSTER: That is a horrible, pernicious circle to be trapped in.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Kmele, this is the question that I would have for you on this. It would be what your sense of “tribe” is. Most human beings need a sense of belonging to a tribe.
KMELE FOSTER: Agreed. Yeah.
JOHN MCWHORTER: And if you take away “black,” what would you replace it with? And I imagine maybe you're thinking that people will have tribes based on whatever their personal interests are or something, but there'll always be this huge temptation among many for your tribe to be not only about skin color, but whatever your cultural tastes are, even aspects of how you carry yourself, et cetera.
What I can't think beyond, why I'm going to be the person in a hundred years who looks like the ones who sang [sings] “hold off,” is because I can't see most people getting beyond that sense of tribe. All three of us are weirdos. We are people who march to the beat of our own drummer, don't mind people hating us, and there are always people like that. But in any group of people, that's probably one in a hundred. That doesn't mean that we're anointed. We're weird. But what about most people, where they need this. How do you replace that if we're not gonna use racial identity?
KMELE FOSTER: I mean, I think you've already alluded to it. We all consider ourselves American. Lots of people do that, And I think the success of the American project—and despite the polarization that exists now, I think it is still fair to call it a success. That's one example. But we exist in so many different communities at the same time. We're members of a limitless number of tribes. I don't see any reason, apart from a sort of Stockholm syndrome, to buy into the notions of race that were concocted by slavers and try to refurbish it and make it something I can be proud of.
GLENN LOURY: Why doesn't your individual-focused argument apply to nationalism?
KMELE FOSTER: it does!
GLENN LOURY I don't see the limits on this
KMELE FOSTER: No, I don't have a sense of national pride. I am grateful to be an American, and I think there's a meaningful distinction between being grateful for something you didn't do and having pride in it.
GLENN LOURY: No, I’m making a different point. That is, suppose you want to have a welfare state. You want to take care of the poor. You want healthcare for people who don't have it. You want protection in old age. You want the educational system to serve well people who might not be able to afford [healthcare].
In other words, that has to require cooperation. That requires that people who are successful be willing to surrender something through taxes and other arrangements in order to create the institutional context of mutual care. That requires identification. I care about other people who are my fellow Americans. It's not a boundless, limitless connection to other human beings. It's specific, historically engendered. We have fought wars, we hold high, our flag, we sing, and our eyes moistened when we hear our anthem.
We are Americans. We share this thing together, and therefore I'm willing to sacrifice even to the point of fighting and dying to defend my country. That's a real thing in human history. To only focus on the individual and to not see the functional role that that kind of connectivity plays in creating larger structures that we, in the case of the welfare state example, need to achieve our collective aspirations. We give up something. The intellectual move, “Well, I'm an American, you're a Frenchman, you're a German. What's the difference? People speak different languages, they have different food, but at the end of the day, we're all humans.” That elides this necessary web of connectivity and identity that underlies the political structures that we rely on.
There is no world government. I care about people in other parts of the world who might be starving. I care enough to give money to try to help them. But I'm not gonna fight and die for them. That's not my country. That's, in some sense, not my problem. At least not in the same sense.
KMELE FOSTER: Agreed.
GLENN LOURY: And I wonder whether or not that argument—the argument I just made on behalf of nationalism as a necessary, historically engendered, structurally significant force that allows us to create institutions that help us to achieve our collective goals—doesn't also in some way or another apply to ethnicity, of which blackness—and I speak now about African American identity, not about simply race but about the narratives and the history, the shared aspiration, et cetera—is one instance. Ethnicity is, it seems to me, a perfectly rational, perfectly morally defensible way of human beings organizing their thinking about themselves and their relationships to other people.
KMELE FOSTER: I think you make a lot of very salient—and I mean in a very beautiful and eloquent way—a lot of salient points. And I want to talk about them more at another time, because I know we're running out of time. But I'll say this as succinctly as I can. There's no conflict between recognizing the individual as kind of the fundamental unit of human society and of these various communities that we're members of, in saying that the communities that we join and that we imagine ourselves a part of are important, too.
It's the micro and the macro, and I think they work together. In the Austrian school of economics, as you well know, there tends to be a focus on the micro, and a belief that really the macro, it's not even a thing. It's all micro. And it's because I value those connections so much that I want to really talk about the dignity of the individuals who make up these units. And I agree with you that, in terms of having meaningful, tangible concern for another human, then it spurs us to act on their behalf to help them.
Proximity matters a great deal. But that's just it. I think it's more proximity than it is ethnicity. People can do this on the basis of ethnicity. And I'm not even sure I'll make a moral claim and say that I think it is bad to do that, in a sense, that I'll judge them. But I would challenge people to try and imagine themselves beyond the confines of immutable characteristics or heredity or what they imagine as their sort of shared ethnicity. Even that is an abstraction. And we live our lives by abstractions, but this is the last thing I'll say on this. Race is an abstraction like a map is in abstraction. And if I give you a map with too many details on it, you can't find your way anywhere. If it's one to one, and every rock and stick and stone is there, you can’t find your way.
GLENN LOURY: That’s not a map.
KMELE FOSTER: And there's a sense in which race is an abstraction that I'm not sure is terribly helpful, that's helping us navigate important problems or relate to one another in profound ways.
JOHN MCWHORTER: That’s good.
KMELE FOSTER: Or even be honest about things as basic as privilege and disadvantage. The notion that my daughter and my son, who will grow up in a two-parent household with parents who are incredibly bright, if I do say so myself, who are well-off, and who travel the world and will give them every opportunity … Any lunatic who would suggest that they're disadvantaged or presume as much needs to have their head checked. And that is kind of the default position on account of our obsession with race. We can be better
JOHN MCWHORTER: If only most people who appoint themselves to think about race would think that hard. I mean, that's good, that analogy with the map? That's deft. I love that.
KMELE FOSTER: Thank you.
JOHN MCWHORTER: We're encouraged not to think that hard about race and that is a lot of the problem.
GLENN LOURY: Let me tell you something, Kmele. I spoke at the National Conservatism Conference in Orlando last year. These are conservative nationalists. Yeah. They invited me. I spoke. The biggest applause line in my speech was when I said “I am a man of the West. Tolstoy is mine. Dickens is mine. Einstein is mine.” In other words, the fact that I descend from African slaves does not preclude me from joining with the great intellectual and cultural traditions of the milieu in which I am embedded, which is the West.
So those conservatives loved hearing a black American embrace the West, which is going in the other direction. It's a flipside of what it is that you've been saying. I'm not black. I'm not only black. I'm not defined by blackness. But I am embedded within a cultural tradition which is mine. Even if the old dead white guys are the ones who are, you know, you think about the history of science or whatever it is. I mean the Europeans. But that's my culture.
KMELE FOSTER: Agreed. Yeah. Everything is permissible to me. John, Glenn, thank you very much for all of the remarkable things that you've done, all the time that you've given me, in terms of our conversations. I've learned a tremendous amount from both of you, and I appreciate you greatly and just wanna thank you for spending some time with me.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Kmele, you're golden.
GLENN LOURY: It’s my pleasure.
KMELE FOSTER: Thank you. Thank you.