Transcending Race

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For an interesting take on all this talk of Senator Barack Obama transcending race, see this post by Too Sense. One Drop argues that those speaking of Senator Obama transcending race are actually exhibiting a kind of racism. The way some people speak of transcending race, you get the idea that Obama is making headway with white voters because he's somehow risen above the fact that he's black.

I very much appreciate One Drop's affirmation that black people who have "made it", such as Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, are still as black as they ever were and as black as anyone else who is black. Colin Powell, who occupied high positions both in the military and the civilian government, is black. He didn't transcend his race. It's insulting to them and to all black people to speak as if these people did.

I must note that it isn't just white people who think this way. Black people can operate from the same assumption. They don't usually say Colin Powell transcends race, though, as white people operating under this assumption will. They say he's not really black and that he's sold out to the white power structure by his willingness to hold a position in it. It's a pretty negative attitude toward the person, whereas this idea of transcending race is at least on the surface positive. But both come from the same false assumption, that blackness is incompatible with success in a world dominated by white people (and most often white men).

On the other hand, as I commented at One Drop's post, there's something very different that someone might mean by the expression "transcending race". Rather than seeing Obama as somehow beyond his race, as if his race doesn't matter at all, some people (I am convinced) are seeing him as standing for more than the issues that are particularly associated with being black. They see most blacks who have run for president in the past, most notably Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley-Braun, Jesse Jackson, and Shirley Chisholm (but most definitely not Alan Keyes) as being too focused on concerns that are black, in a way that white people who haven't adopted those concerns would be less attracted to their candidacy. In other words, Obama has a wider attraction because he deals with wider issues, and he presents the issues that are specifically related to black people in a way that white people can see that they support them too.

Now there's a different danger with this kind of "transcending race". If it assumes (or gives the impression) that so-called black issues aren't important for non-blacks to be concerned about or that what's bad for blacks isn't bad for everyone, then I think that's bad. It displays a real insensitivity to race issues. But I don't think it's quite as bad as the kind of "transcending race" talk One Drop points to. I'd say that it's a pretty unfortunate feature of the Obama campaign but one that he can do little about at this point (and I suspect wasn't responsible for in the first place). But those who participate in it are perpetuating something racially harmful.

There's actually a third group of people talking about Obama as transcending race who do neither of the above. They see him as transcending race but see that as negative. They're well aware of the fact that, for many, transcending race can be one or both of the above two things. Then they accuse Obama of inappropriately trying to transcend race (or perhaps being used by others to do so) in order to appeal to white people. Those who make this complaint will thus see him as a sort of race traitor. I don't think it's fair to go that far with it, but I do think a lot of the reason why he's got the support he's got from white people is that they see Obama as a safe black. Talking about someone as transcending race in that sense can be perfectly legitimate when it informs us about a real racial dynamic, one that can be dangerous. So it's not clear to me that all talk of transcending race is bad, even if the first kind is very bad and the second is at least unfortunate.

12 Comments

I would have to say that a point that you are missing is that obama is a clear party to all of this, as demonstrated sublimily by showing his white mother in his ads. this is such and obviuos attempt to show white america he is "white-enough", lets dont forget the numbers blacks only make up a small percentage of active voters, and can most often not vote unless they are very motivated, and that is just to big a risk for obamaS advisors, his only hope is to be "white-enough" not black-enough all being done as obama says at the end of every commercial "I approve of this message"

I’m a thirty-something ‘white guy’ who lived in middle-class suburban Atlanta, GA for the first thirty years of my life, and was educated by its relatively balanced (i.e. racially mixed) post-segregation public school system in the ‘80s. Based upon my limited experience, I’ve noticed two predominate mind sets: in one camp are the obviously ignorant bigots and racists who are convinced, despite scientific evidence and common sense, that their genetic make-up is superior to others; the other extreme, while typically shying away from blatant qualitative distinctions, seems to over-emphasize cultural diversity, which ultimately tends to view people not as individuals, but as members of a group—often defined by something as superficial as skin color (and even further subdividing by lightness vs. darkness, male vs. female, etc.).


Certainly, the way in which people of African heritage have historically been denied full civil liberties is inexcusable and shameful. Regardless, the remedy that began in the 1950s with Brown and continued with the 1964-65 CR Acts have (or should have) been the beginning of the end of the irrational us-vs.-them mentality in the country.


Having said all that, unfortunately I think that the burden is on ‘non-whites’ to downplay the irrelevant, arbitrary color distinctions, thereby revealing the superficiality of skin color. As long as Jackson and Sharpton, et al. stoke the fires of race (and by extension: class), the wound caused by past sins will continue to fester. After all, less than thoughtful white and black folks are often easily persuaded that the supposed race/class distinction is meaningful. Let’s hope that Obama can truly transcend race by demonstrating that his skin color has nothing whatever to do with the content of his character.

Robert, I think you're underestimating both the degree of racism that doesn't involve active and deliberate white supremacy but is in fact unconscious and non-deliberate and the importance of racial identity in the present circumstances given that we need to speak of race to address actual injustices directed along racial lines. It's true that the basis of race is biologically arbitrary, but it's morally important to recognize the reality of racial groups given their social importance and the negative consequences of racial thinking and acting, particular in the hidden ways that most white people never see. A vision of a world where what we now call race is morally irrelevant is wonderful, but we're not at a point where we can pretend to be color-blind without actually partaking in racism by our attempts to be color-blind.

I agree with you in part; by mentioning the conscious extremes, I was implying the various degrees of unconscious bigotry and racism between. My point remains the same though, which is that emphasizing racial identity—even in a noble attempt to counter past and present injustices—works to perpetuate the misplaced animosity that gives rise to those injustices. And while I understand why you say that “we’re not at a point where…”, it’s rather like trying to count to infinity: we’ll never get to the place where race is irrelevant as long as we insist that race is relevant. But I don’t quite understand your last statement about partaking in racism by attempting to be color-blind. Can you elaborate?

The color-blind ideal is a way we who are white like to pretend that race is irrelevant. It makes us feel as if we're being good by not paying attention to something that people have inappropriately paid attention to in very negative ways. But being color-blind means turning a blind eye to racial injustice, because you can't identify the people who are being systematically disadvantaged. So you have these proposals to prevent governments from collecting information on race, generally out of a decent desire to avoid discrimination, but the result is that you can't identify systematic mistreatment when it does occur.

it’s rather like trying to count to infinity: we’ll never get to the place where race is irrelevant as long as we insist that race is relevant

That's right, if the word 'relevant' means the same thing in both instances. But it doesn't. The way we have to insist on race as relevant is in recognizing that people inappropriately make it relevant and thus create racial realities that would ideally not exist. The way it's not relevant is that ideally it wouldn't exist. So the two are perfectly consistent. The question is whether our recognition of its irrelevance in that sense requires ignoring race when race is made relevant, and I think the answer to that has got to be no. There are enough systematic ways that race has an impact that we unintentionally further it when we ignore race.

I think that if 'transcending race' is really shorthand for 'transcending racial boundaries,' the racist undertones are at least diminished. I get this feeling (and I admit that I'm at least somewhat guilty of this) that there is some underlying racist thought in the fact that people wonder at Obama's appeal to many subsets of voters: in many ways, he also transcends the black stereotype (he's erudite, an excellent orator, intelligent and quick-witted in debates, etc.). In this sense, I think the charge of 'transcending' anything really does amount in most cases to Obama conforming to "white" standards, which is somewhat depressing.

But I could be (and hope that I am) wrong. I'm not really an Obama supporter (despite the fact that practically everyone here in IL is), but if we are potentially going to get a black president, doing so because he was low enough on the "blackness spectrum" to get the thumbs-up from white voters doesn't quite seem right.

"But being color-blind means turning a blind eye to racial injustice, because you can't identify the people who are being systematically disadvantaged.”

My argument is that color-consciousness is exactly what gives rise to so-called racial injustice. And what you call systematic disadvantage (I assume you’re reffering to illegal actions) is universally applicable, regardless of race or sex or religion and so on.

”So you have these proposals to prevent governments from collecting information on race, generally out of a decent desire to avoid discrimination, but the result is that you can't identify systematic mistreatment when it does occur.”

Again, it seems that the cure is worse than the disease. Why not treat everyone as individuals with inalienable rights, instead of subdividng folks into arbitrary categories, thereby creating classes of victims? Besides, injustice is not color-specific; if one’s individual liberty is comprimised, the motivation for the injustice is secondary at best.

To accept the superficial and false distinction of racial identity is simply to validate the racist, who, out of ignorance, fear, stupidity, bigotry, or even pure hatred, created the falas distinction in the first place and indeed uses it to justify his immoral behavior.

How does it give rise to racial injustice by noticing that someone discriminated against someone else according to race? It simply doesn't, so the claim is factually false.

Even worse, it's contradictory. Your claim is that paying attention to race gives rise to racial injustice, but how do you know what this race thing you're paying attention to even is? You're paying attention to race. So even to say your claim is to be race-conscious. There simply isn't such a thing as color-blindness in a world like ours.

Why not treat everyone as individuals with inalienable rights, instead of subdividng folks into arbitrary categories

False dilemma. Why not acknowledge the reality of race and recognize individual rights? You don't sacrifice one by doing the other.

thereby creating classes of victims

Recognizing that something is true of a class of people doesn't create that class of people. Recognizing that a certain group is being harmed isn't what makes that groups victims.

if one’s individual liberty is comprimised, the motivation for the injustice is secondary at best

So you're assuming that the only kind of racism worth discussing involves racist motives? I'm not going to grant that premise. There's plenty of structural racism that involves no base motives of any sort. It just happens. Natural and understandable motives that are perfectly fine give rise to it. The motivation is certainly a secondary issue there, but that's no reason to pretend the harmful effect doesn't occur on the group that's proportionally more affected.

To accept the superficial and false distinction of racial identity is simply to validate the racist, who, out of ignorance, fear, stupidity, bigotry, or even pure hatred, created the falas distinction in the first place and indeed uses it to justify his immoral behavior.

Not only is this a complete non sequitur, but it's statements like the above that cater to the worst sort of racist. Your assumption is that the reality of race justifies harmful treatment. That's nuts. Mere existence of racial groups (no matter whether they're socially caused by evil and unfortunate processes) does not entail that it's ok to harm people based on such groups. Those who think it does are giving ammunition to racists.

Never mind the fact that the distinction isn't superficial or false. Racial identity goes a lot deeper than you seem to think. It affects every aspect of our beings, even if the ways it does so with white people are largely invisible to white people. It's not deep in any biological sense, but neither are the bases of most identity-forming social roles. As for false, that's question-begging. Asserting that it's false when that's the issue we disagree about isn't going to get you very far. My very claim is that there is such a thing as race given our current social context, and that context is as real as anything biological.

How does it give rise to racial injustice by noticing that someone discriminated against someone else according to race? It simply doesn't, so the claim is factually false.
What I wrote was: “color-consciousness is exactly what gives rise to so-called racial injustice”, by which I meant that bad actors use color (among other things, like sex, class, etc.) as an excuse to act immorally. It’s not merely noticing superficial differences like skin color or socio-economic status (which obviously exist) that give rise to injustice; but when those superficial differences are elevated and given substance and meaning, they are used as a weapon by unscrupulous people to harm those who are thought to be different.

Even worse, it's contradictory. Your claim is that paying attention to race gives rise to racial injustice, but how do you know what this race thing you're paying attention to even is? You're paying attention to race. So even to say your claim is to be race-conscious. There simply isn't such a thing as color-blindness in a world like ours.
That's just silly. I realize that people have divided individuals (and themselves) into groups that are based on skin color. But again, once this false distinction is established and widely accepted, it's not surprising that it would be used to marginalize those in the minority.
Why not acknowledge the reality of race and recognize individual rights? You don't sacrifice one by doing the other.
I don't acknowledge the reality of race because I refuse to make a distinction between individuals solely on the basis of skin color or geographic origin or genetic make-up. Why create a distinction between things that are alike? Do we say that blondes and brunettes and red heads are different types? Do we say that tall and short men, or fat and thin women are different types? Why then should we think that black and white are meaningfully different?
Recognizing that something is true of a class of people doesn't create that class of people. Recognizing that a certain group is being harmed isn't what makes that groups victims.
Granted, but that's not really what I was getting at. I was pointing out that groups can't be harmed, only individuals can be. But when we think in terms of groups and classes, individuals that correspond to a particular group are more likely to be targeted. For example, once we accept that blacks are essentially the same as each other and whites are essentially the same as each other and that blacks are different from whites, then we don't need to know anything in particular about an individual; all that we need to know is whether one is like us or not. But if thinking individuals would consider character instead of skin color, the non-thinking bigots would eventually go the way of the flat earth crowd.
So you're assuming that the only kind of racism worth discussing involves racist motives? I'm not going to grant that premise. There's plenty of structural racism that involves no base motives of any sort. It just happens. Natural and understandable motives that are perfectly fine give rise to it. The motivation is certainly a secondary issue there, but that's no reason to pretend the harmful effect doesn't occur on the group that's proportionally more affected.
I don't follow. I define racism as: an erroneous belief that race is primarily determinative of ones capacity; and that differences in race produces an inherent superiority. The fact that racism exists is not in doubt, but the way to combat it is not to validate it. Rather, we ought to point out the absurdity of racism instead of treating racial differences like an all-important fact of nature.
Your assumption is that the reality of race justifies harmful treatment. That's nuts.
I've assumed no such thing. I did, however, assume that racists use the false distinction of race to justify harmful treatment. Big difference.
Never mind the fact that the distinction isn't superficial or false. Racial identity goes a lot deeper than you seem to think. It affects every aspect of our beings, even if the ways it does so with white people are largely invisible to white people. It's not deep in any biological sense, but neither are the bases of most identity-forming social roles.
Then it's not racial identity...it's just a socio-political identity that uses skin color as an easy excuse. That's pretty sad. It's also costly inasmuch as it helps to legitimize the racist, who thinks that race alone is an accurate measure of one's quality.
As for false, that's question begging. Asserting that it's false when that's the issue we disagree about isn't going to get you very far. My very claim is that there is such a thing as race given our current social context, and that context is as real as anything biological.
It's not question begging at all. It happens to be a fact that so-called race is a superficial distinction rather than a meaningful one. Based upon the above, you seem to be equivocating on the word race: initially we were speaking of genetic make-up, but then you switched to a socio-political distinction. I would agree that 'Black and White and Latino' have taken on a decidedly political meaning, but it hasn't replaced the false biological meaning; it's just added another layer of harmful division.
Regardless, if we don't marginalize 'flat earth' racists by minimizing superficial differences (black-white, rich-poor, north-south), we'll get more of the same: Us vs. Them.

What I wrote was: “color-consciousness is exactly what gives rise to so-called racial injustice”, by which I meant that bad actors use color (among other things, like sex, class, etc.) as an excuse to act immorally. It’s not merely noticing superficial differences like skin color or socio-economic status (which obviously exist) that give rise to injustice; but when those superficial differences are elevated and given substance and meaning, they are used as a weapon by unscrupulous people to harm those who are thought to be different.

OK, but the fact that someone uses something for ill doesn't incriminate the thing they use, never mind mean it doesn't exist.

But again, once this false distinction is established and widely accepted, it's not surprising that it would be used to marginalize those in the minority.

You need to distinguish between what's true at different times. The views held by those initially doing the dividing were false. Then those false views led to marginalizing, mistreatment, oppression, and so on. In the process, it became widely accepted. But the very wide acceptance that resulted from the initial mistreatment is what gives race social significance. That's what the reality of race is. Pointing out that the initial stage involved false views doesn't show that the current identification of socially-determined categories is a factual mistake. It's not.

Why create a distinction between things that are alike?

So you're going to insist that there's nothing in common to those who have been consistently marginalized, oppressed, and mistreated historically and to a somewhat lesser degree still? But isn't that common treatment the very thing they do have in common? Why doesn't that constitute a shared identity? It's certainly arbitrary to select people out by whether their earlobes are attached and then take that to have moral significance. But if people consistently did so, then there would be a shared identity among people who have attached earlobes such that it would constitute a socially-determined class with a distinct identity. This treatment itself is what makes the group's existence meaningful.

once we accept that blacks are essentially the same as each other and whites are essentially the same as each other and that blacks are different from whites, then we don't need to know anything in particular about an individual

That sounds like the assumption that the racist grants that I would never grant. Just because there's something in common to black people (i.e. how they will be treated) and just because there are several traits often present in black people (i.e. skin color, hair type, genetic ancestry) doesn't mean anything about how we should treat individuals who may not have the particular traits in the second list or when the treatment in question has to do with assumptions that aren't part of what black people do have in common.

But if thinking individuals would consider character instead of skin color, the non-thinking bigots would eventually go the way of the flat earth crowd.

That's true, but non-thinking bigots aren't all of what lies behind racial problems. Much of it is unintended consequences of understandable actions, and much of it is unconscious responses that the people doing it might even be upset about if they realized they were doing (and some even do realize it and try to stop it, but unconscious responses aren't exactly easy to overcome).

I define racism as: an erroneous belief that race is primarily determinative of ones capacity

Then I would dispute your definition. The word used to mean that, but it doesn't anymore. Racism is first and foremost a negative attitude toward people because of race, and that's sometimes deliberate and conscious and sometimes not. Racism is derivatively a set of practices that systematically harm people along racial lines, whether deliberate or not and whether noticed or not. Someone can hold the views you call racist without being a racist (but perhaps we'd call it a kind of harmful racialism). Someone can participate in racist practices without being a racist. But all of these things together counts as aspects of racism as a set of larger phenomena that includes attitudes, intentions, beliefs, and practices.

Then it's not racial identity...it's just a socio-political identity that uses skin color as an easy excuse. That's pretty sad. It's also costly inasmuch as it helps to legitimize the racist, who thinks that race alone is an accurate measure of one's quality.

Racial identity just is a social-political identity according to things like skin color, hair type, bone structure, and so on (but more accurately often relies on other things, such as ancestry). I'm not sure what something would have to be for you to count it as racial identity, but the thing I'm calling racial identity is exactly what almost everyone working on the theoretical issues of race calls racial identity. It's pretty much what the term means at this point in the history of the English language.

As for its being an excuse, anyone who uses it as an excuse not to take responsibility for their actions might have a moral problem, but that's not sufficient to say that racial identity itself doesn't exist or is inappropriate. Recognizing common bonds because of common treatment is perfectly fine, and coordinating one's efforts to oppose ill treatment along racial lines is perfectly legitimate. Calling that racial solidarity is not morally problematic, and it doesn't require using race as an excuse not to take responsibility for one's life. It's perfectly possible to be responsible and to hold others accountable for their actions as well.

It happens to be a fact that so-called race is a superficial distinction rather than a meaningful one. Based upon the above, you seem to be equivocating on the word race: initially we were speaking of genetic make-up, but then you switched to a socio-political distinction.

When was I speaking of genetic makeup? I don't think race is genetic makeup, so I doubt I was speaking of it that way. If you can locate somewhere where you think I was doing this, it might help.

I would agree that 'Black and White and Latino' have taken on a decidedly political meaning, but it hasn't replaced the false biological meaning; it's just added another layer of harmful division.

I would distinguish between what words refer to and what people using them think they are referring to. People once thought water was an element. Now we know it's not. But we didn't suddenly say there's no such thing as water. We discovered that the word 'water' refers to something other than what we thought it referred to.

Regardless, if we don't marginalize 'flat earth' racists by minimizing superficial differences (black-white, rich-poor, north-south), we'll get more of the same: Us vs. Them.

I don't see why we can't affirm differences without taking them to be determinative in the way racists want them to be, and I don't see why we can't recognize common bonds due to social treatment while also recognizing that ultimately we're all the same with respect to what counts most: moral treatment and the possibility of intellectual potential and other things of that sort.

Then I would dispute your definition. The word used to mean that, but it doesn't anymore. Racism is first and foremost a negative attitude toward people because of race, and that's sometimes deliberate and conscious and sometimes not. Racism is derivatively a set of practices that systematically harm people along racial lines, whether deliberate or not and whether noticed or not.

Ah, that explains the communication break-down here. I'd say that most non-academics would think that your racism is more like bigotry. Even still, I think that individuals fuel the fire, albeit unintentionally, by forming race-based political interest groups and then insist on being viewed only positively, as a collective. The problem, though, is the unintended negative consequences that the members of the racial group suffer: racism (both my definition and yours). Again, groups don't suffer; it's the constituent members of the group that bear the scars. So, why not down-play superficial differences in order to mitigate the racism that feeds on those differences? There may well be a benefit to acknowledging a shared heritage and experience, but I don't see why one would use that for the basis of self-identity...especially in light of ignorant of racists, who tend to wield political power.

Someone can hold the views you call racist without being a racist (but perhaps we'd call it a kind of harmful racialism). Someone can participate in racist practices without being a racist. But all of these things together counts as aspects of racism as a set of larger phenomena that includes attitudes, intentions, beliefs, and practices.

Perhaps you could give some concrete examples to illustrate your point.

Well, I think it depends entirely on what you mean by self-identity. I'm committed myself to the thesis that Christian self-identity should be, for a Christian, the only primary identity a Christian has. That doesn't mean recognizing what's common to people along other lines, and it doesn't mean ignoring the ways that things like race shape how people view things, how people respond to things, and so on. What a lot of people mean by identity is the latter, and that's all I mean. Denying racial identity in that sense is denying those things, and that seems to me to be sticking your head in the sand.

As for the second point, I'm just trying to include a lot of kinds of things under the category of racism, seeing that category as including whatever things fall under the primary sense of the word 'racism' and whatever things derivatively connect with racism and thus fall under the term in a looser sense provided that you qualify it properly (e.g. institutional or structural racism, residual racism, and so on).

I'll refer you to an earlier series of posts I wrote for examples. See my racism double trilogy.

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