Race: May 2006 Archives

I'm trying to work out a taxonomy of the various views someone might hold regarding the nature of racial groups. One of the views, sometimes called racial realism, takes races to be natural kinds something like species in biology. On this view, their basis lies in biological facts completely independently of any historical origins of racial groups, social facts about how we treat each other, or lingustic facts about how we use racial language. I'm not interested for the moment in whether this view is true. I'm interested in various forms it might take.

One element of this sort of view that virtually all the scholars who work in this area ignore is that the natural kinds of race may not involve anything particularly insidious. This view could hold that racial groupings are based on skin color, bone structure, hair type, and virtually nothing else. As long as its proponents insist that such characteristics would be enough to constitute a natural kind, then it's a realist view. This isn't the most historically influential racial realist view. That view holds that certain intellectual, moral, and probably several other characteristics must follow from being part of a certain racial group. But it is a kind of racial realism.

What I've been puzzling through for the last two or three hours is what some people mean by calling this sort of view "racial essentialism". First off, I'm not sure if that term is supposed to apply to the milder kind of racial realism that most people who work in this area ignore. Second, I'm not sure what it means even if it's just supposed to apply to the more extreme view that was used for so long (and still is in some quarters) to legitimate white supremacism and other forms of racism.

Something most white people would never pick up on without help is that it's sometimes insulting to compliment black people. In particular, it's insulting to say something nice about someone who is black that you wouldn't say about someone who is white. Such a compliment assumes that it's surprising that this would be true of someone who is black. A good example is the common practice among media types to speak of certain black people as articulate (see Mixed Media Watch for an example). How often do you hear white people being called articulate? I don't think it's all that common. Pay attention, and you'll discover that it's a good deal more common with black people, especially young black men. I've never heard a young white politician being called articulate, except I think in the case of one who happened to be a teenager, where there might be less expectation for such a thing. But Barack Obama, J.C. Watts, and Harold Ford, Jr. get it all the time. You don't generally hear it of professors of linguistics, unless it's John McWhorter. You won't hear about economics professors being articulate, except when it's Thomas Sowell.

Now I'm loath to call this racism without explaining more carefully how I'm using that word. Such a statement would be received as nonsense by most white people, because most white people (indeed, most English speakers) use the word 'racism' to refer to a deliberately negative attitude, and that's not what's going on here. This is why academics who specialize in race matters have come up with terms to describe this sort of thing to distinguish it from the more standard and obvious cases of racists. This is unintentional racism. It involves racist structures in society. It involves residual effects on the attitudes and actions of well-meaning non-blacks. But I think this is a case of that sort of racism, at least generally. See MW's comment in the Mixed Media Watch post for good reasons to think this is often a kind of racism even when you don't think it is.

This is something I've been aware of since reading John McWhorter's Losing the Race. As I said, it's not the sort of thing that most white people would notice otherwise, even ones who are more sensitized to these general sorts of issues. I paid attention to when I heard the word after I read McWhorter's discussion of the issue. What few occurrences I encountered did seem to fit the mold. But then a few weeks ago I heard someone call Ann Coulter articulate. Does this refute the claim that calling young black men articulate stems from some kind of racism?

Laurence Thomas has a thoughtful post on one particular assumption in the mindset often associated with what sometimes is called political correctness [note: the post might not load up; if not, then just click in the URL line at the top of your browser and hit the Enter key manually to reload]. This assumption underlies the claim that men have no right to comment on abortion and that white people can have no insight into racial issues. Now I understand the view that people who experience something will have special insight into that experience that others will not have. There are things men just don't understand about what it's like to be a woman, and thus there are insights into womanhood that men will not appreciate as well as women can. There are things about being gay in mainstream American culture that a straight person will not understand. Even though I'm married to a black woman, I will never quite understand what it's like to grow up black in the U.S. That's something that black people can know in a way that I never could. Philosophers call this being epistemically privileged. (For non-philosophers, 'epistemic' just means relating to knowledge.) I have no problem with the thesis that those who have certain experiences are epistemically privileged in exactly the sort of way that this general mindset says is true of people who are gay, Asian American, female, etc.

Now what Laurence questions is not this thesis itself but its use in certain political contexts. For instance, some act as if only women can comment on abortion because men don't have access to what women alone can know from their unique experience. It would then be immoral for white people to comment on racial issues because of their not having experienced any form of racism against them. Laurence particularly wonders why it's mostly experiences of suffering that give this special kind of insight, when it seems that suffering can just as easily blind someone to the truth. For example, people who are seriously abused as children sometimes end up thinking they are worthless people who are to blame for their abuser's actions. He also suggests that political correctness is often just an attempt to get people to cower through accusations of racism, misogyny, heterosexism, or some other crime of thought, and its result is to perpetuate a lack of trust on both sides of the accusation. I think he's pretty much right on his diagnosis of many cases of political correctness (which isn't to say that it's right about all charges of racism, just the p.c. ones).

But there are a few other things going on that I'd like to reflect on for a little bit. Some of this derives from my comment on his post, and some of it is further thought on the issue.

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