I do not seek to militantly fight racism. I simply adduce myself as evidence of its stupidity
My views on race are ones that I think are quite unusual among the panoply of purported solutions for its evils. The history of race is a history of evil and systematic dehumanization. The historical weight of this evil which still looms large and unresolved in our times demands that in the name of moral wisdom and moral utility we relinquish and annihilate entirely all-racial identities and categories.
Racial/ethnic identities are conceptually vacuous and they cognitively hijack and paralyze their users. Because they are conceptually vacuous they create a house of horrors. To wear them is to take on the mantle of an undiagnosed schizophrenia. Objective external reality is displaced and the referent of reality is our distorted internal consciousness. When I say we, I refer to the human race. Racial identities have done plenty of damage to the life of dignity we have been desperately trying to adopt and practice as an indispensable social good since the Enlightenment. The butchery and carnage done in the name of racial/ethnic identities is alive today and is awaiting the spectatorship of all those interested. The numbers continue to rise daily as the collapse of civil society around the globe advances. The collapse occurs ast times in swift apocalyptic blows, and at others in the form of millions of tiny and sometimes not so tiny scratches. One day the mighty tree that is human civilization itself may ultimately fall.
There are those who will say that the historical weight and burdens of racial evil are not sufficient conditions for relinquishing racial identities. After all, many of the indispensable social goods that we need to matriculate morally and socially in our societies have been derived from our racial identities. This is quite false, however. In the case of the majority of cultures such goods are never derived entirely from racial identities. They are derived from the public sphere of civic and moral values, values whose historical gradations fall way outside any parochial conception of race. Values, for example, which some might think are those of contemporary white people, have their conceptual derivations from individuals who in any real and cultural sense were not white. Aristotle, Voltaire, Plato, Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and René Descartes were not and could not have been white. The racial categories and, indeed, the criteria that are used in contemporary North America to allegedly determine and objectively designate racial ascriptions were non-existent. Such individuals had no conception of themselves as white people. Today those who attempt to assign a racial index to the thoughts and value systems inherited from various historical periods commit egregious anachronisms. A great deal needs to be said about those sorts of cognitive aberrations to the extent that they persist in perpetuating myths about the color of ideas and the corresponding correlation between those ideas and the types of human beings qualified to be their bearers and practitioners. Ideas that take on a racial sheen because their originators have been assigned racial identities based on already dubious criteria are not ideas that will be attractive to people as viable options to adopt for their own emerging and contested identities.
The caveat against relinquishing racial identities because they are the fountainhead of much of our social goods in the form of values, customs and norms and styles is most evidently directed, however, against racial minorities who have been the victims of racial oppression and systematic dehumanization. The caveat is issued against the backdrop of a larger culture that periodically has betrayed its ideals of fairness and justice for all by engaging in specious enterprises of denying persons, based on their racial ascriptions, indispensable recognition and social goods that are part and parcel of moral and social human development. I have written about the political value to be gained by politically identifying with a racial identity as opposed to strong cultural identification. I will reiterate here, however, that anything short of a very skeptical and provisional stance to racial attitudes will defeat any attempt to combat the evils of race and racism.
But the same logic that is applied to defeat the spirit of seriousness that characterizes any racial identity may also be applied to the racial identities of racial minorities. That is, although the socio-historical and contemporary conditions affecting the question of the feasibility and morality of racial minorities holding on to their identities still remain, the conceptual criteria for determining the truth or falsity of racial identities from a biological perspective still holds. Thinkers such as Anthony Appiah and Naomi Zack have already proven in their respective works why race fails as a biological concept. From the socio-cultural perspective, as well, modern North American blacks have more in common with the values of the Enlightenment than they do to any construction of a hermetically sealed pan-African continental identity. Any black identity developed within the linguistic parameters of the English language of the contemporary era with its rights based, dignity bearing, entitlement focused paradigm is a cosmopolitan, hybridized and, therefore, non-racial identity.
The problem of racism is really not a problem of race, but is rather the corollary of its genetic antecedent: tribalism. Racial identity is one variation of this wider phenomenon and all attempts to fight the practical consequences of racism will be stymied until we face the wholesale concept to which it is tied. My purpose here is not to get caught up in a distracting accusation that is often voiced by those skeptical of the project of questioning racial authenticity. The accusation is on the order of: Is it not unfair to demand that blacks and other ethnic or racial minorities be forced to divest themselves of their racial identities when in doing so they leave themselves unprotected and unarmed with the vital resources they need to survive and maintain a sense of dignity in a violently racist society?
Only a blind fool or a pernicious discriminator would deny the persistence of racism and the dire need for strengthening the moral lives of those harmed by it. But to maintain a long and systematic hope for a future devoid of race is to also practice the fundamental requirements needed for seeing that vision realized even in the midst of a social and political reality that leaves that vision unanchored to anything tangible. I remain committed to the view that ultimately strong racial identities lead to a sullying of the soul, largely because of the cognitive distortion which must be kept in place for them to remain alive.
My goal is to address those who, while forced to live racial identities, would prefer not to have their internal lives dictated to by the false beliefs upon which race is predicated. How can I refrain from internalizing the external portrait and constructions of race which bears little resemblance to the deepest sense of who I take myself to be, a sense that too often fails to match up to the external portrait of what a racialized person ought to feel about him or herself? There are, then, those who dare to erect self-identities that are not just impervious in deep structural ways to the societal designs of race, but also defiantly seek to recast them in non-racial terms. The freedom to overthrow the self-image that racial identities force us to adopt is crucial for many reasons. In the first place, it helps us to be aware of how a false sense of autonomy about our adoption and celebration of racial identities beguiles and implicates us in the more specious accoutrements of race.
Let me be specific. Philosopher Cornell West argues that blackness is an ethical identity that functions as a response to modes of systematic oppression. This is conceptually false. It is an inspiring idea and a gallant attempt to recover a concept that all too often has been attributed with brutish, nasty and downright despicable features. But the invocation of a term that has a normative thrust to it is one that also has to satisfy epistemological criteria of all sorts. What exactly are the essential attributes of the term such that it would designate a particular moral status to all those to whom it is applicable? How are the terms of the concept fixed so that those who fail to satisfy both its strict conceptual criteria and its normative criteria fall outside its sphere of applicability? Would a black criminal or a black person who has never experienced racial subjugation and systematic denigration be able to adopt the concept? These questions and the answers they yield point to the absence of strong criteria that would give the concept such a strong identity. They point to the absence of any real currency that blackness as ethical response aims at.
In reality this is the way that all racial identities function. They purport to do a great deal more than they are conceptually able to do. Racial terms are applicable to too many people with too many varied attributes, dispositions and personal characteristics for them to function like rigid designators. Yet, that is exactly how the term blackness aims to function.
Most bearers of racial identities wear them out of faith, a vapid faith whose source is in the socio-cultural baggage that gives the identity its varied meanings. Among the panoply of racial identities that exist in America, black identity is the most derivative. I hasten to caution against a host of criticisms I can well anticipate now. I am well aware of the arguments for the reconstructive work that a certain type of political racial identity can yield. I take it, however, that such proponents would be aware of the spirit of pragmatism and realism that is indexed to the use of the racial term.
For ordinary folks, however, autonomous ownership of the term, and therefore of a crucial part of their self-image and identity is a social good that simply eludes them. When you inherit and uncritically wear and practice a racial identity you are unwittingly implicated in the use of the stereotypes and the being-for-others predicates that accompany the term. Racial oppression and denigration cannot be fought while holding onto to a racial identity because ironically the racial mechanics one holds onto as a way of combating stereotypes, dehumanization and oppression are the inverse of the same mechanics deployed by racists in the subjugation enterprise.
If racial and ethnic identities are such social goods that locate the essence or some core element of the human constitution that have intrinsic value, then why is it that racial, ethnic and national epithets are summoned so quickly to denigrate and insult. No one would actually say, “you damn moral person, “you lawyer,” “you stupid ethical cosmopolitan.” Oh, the statements could be said but their utterances lack the force to insult and dehumanize, because as concepts they could not wound the way those who yelled them would like. But tribal invectives do wound and do harm and if they had intrinsic value they could simply not function that way. One could feel no psychological harm or the sense of being insulted as a result of being harangued by them.
It is true that quite often tribal affiliations are used neutrally, as mere descriptive terms. All such usage, however, betray a deeper emotional and structural component to the term. Even the most innocent and seemingly non-controversial individual use of tribal terms are parasitic on larger social and cultural senses of them. One could say that this is true of how ordinary language functions. What makes neutral usage of tribal terms problematic is that one’s individual usage is really less individualistic that one thinks. One has less ownership of them than one is inclined to believe for the simple reason, that say unlike a term such as father, or friend, one is less able trans value tribal terms by investing them with personal attributes of one’s own. No matter how much you think you are subverting tribal terms with assemblages of your own, their transformative status will lack any real social currency. In other words, it not likely to alter in any real sense, the stereotypes and social/cultural understanding people will have of the terms. Unlike other terms which have very strong conceptual attributes which give the terms their identity regardless of ttheir social utility or public cognizance, tribal designators gain their formal identities from social and political orchestrations which is one reason why they are often arbitrary and either too broad or narrow as designators.
Tribal identities, I would argue, are inherently problematic, divisive and repugnant. Let us ask ourselves why we feel so sullied and strange when others treat us like we are them and also why we feel faceless, contentless when they treat us like we are not them. I reject the answer that such feelings are simply reinforced by an historical consciousness, by memories of injuries and thoughts of impurities of those who seek access to our being by use of them. Racial/ethnic bearers wear confusing, arbitrary and conceptually vacuous terms and so they will undoubtedly become cognitively confused. To live in a conceptual asylum is to live within the confines of conceptual inanities whose metaphysical roots you have not at all examined. Autonomy is lost when self-reflectivity is criminalized or, not to be so extreme---when it becomes a social pastime whose indulgence leaves you socially handicapped. After all, the chocolate addict who spends hours in the gourmet shop thinks he is free because he has the ability to choose among so many varieties.
My theses are directed not at those who are convinced of the indispensable value of tribal identities. I can no more convince them of my view than I can someone who believes in winged horses, elks and boogie monsters. I am interested in those who wish to begin the process of depathologizing the self and of recovering wholesome agency. It is your birthright and proper estate and it is not possible if your deepest moral core is contaminated with the pollutants of tribalism. This is not just a re-socialization of the self resulting from occupying the platform of a moral rehabilitationist. This is a question of entirely uprooting the false metaphysics of race and the havoc it has wreaked in the souls of human beings. It is time to get out of the madhouse, to stop practicing madness while accusing others of harming you by their madness. This is a question of thinking long term and of holding on to an unshakeable sense of the future and of reason.