Among the core tenets of critical race theory is the idea that race is a social construct.
While few would deny the apparent differences between different population groups—such as the massive difference in height between Norwegians and Indonesians—the idea that race doesn’t reflect reality has risen in popularity over the past few years. “Race is not a characteristic of a person, but an imposition by society,” says Dr. Mansa Keita’s pseudonymous Twitter account. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” writes the critical historian Nell Irvin Painter in her book “The History of White People.” “Race is the child of racism, not the father,” asserts award-winning anti-racist author Ta-Nehisi Coates in his memoir “Between the World and Me” (which has been made into an HBO film).
In their much-admired book “Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life,” the sister duo Karen and Barbara Fields compare a belief in race to a belief in witchcraft, which can, in a puff of smoke, transform the verb of racism into the noun of race through the process of what they call “racecraft.” Race is not something that someone is, according to this understanding, but something that is done to someone—the “fingerprint” of racism, as the Fields sisters say.
My own views are mixed. I was once decidedly in the “race isn’t real” camp and even advocated against the use of race on the U.S. Census. When we see race first and foremost, we don’t see the human person. As an American, I think we need to focus on our cultural identity as a nation and what we share as human beings—what others have called American humanism—because overemphasizing race in a multiethnic, multiracial society is a recipe for ceaseless conflict and division.
Defining Race and Racism
It’s possible to agree with this position prescriptively—that we ought to look past race as individuals and societies—without buying the idea that race doesn’t exist. It’s really easy to get stuck trying to form a narrative about race. I don’t personally believe that race has any inherent political or moral meaning. I like the American writer Shelby Steele’s observations that “race is a mask through which other human needs manifest themselves” and that we often “make race an issue to avoid knowing other things about ourselves.”
That said, there are inherent limitations to racial difference in a multiethnic society that are detrimental to overlook, and the argument that race doesn’t exist has been used to justify sketchy racialist policies that only expand the meaning of race in an effort to overcome it, such as using race as a proxy for COVID-19 relief or to determine who qualifies for early vaccination.
I want to make clear before going forward that this isn’t an essay about whether race is biologically real. It bothers me, however, that many in the “race isn’t real” camp don’t seem to engage with data that contradicts their view. (Granted, the same could be said about race realists on the other side.)
There seems to be a pretty solid connection between genetic ancestry and geography on the one hand and racial self-identification on the other, which suggests that race as a social category is not unconnected to a person’s ancestry. Social psychologist Bo Winegard writes, “two recent discoveries are important here: (1) Genetic variation corresponds strongly with SIRE (self-identified race/ethnicity); and (2) Genetic variation is non-randomly related to ancestral geography.”
But even without some comprehensive study, it’s kind of obvious that race has some biological component, because we can literally see it. In any case, most everything in human life is a combination of nature and nurture. Still, even if race were an accurate category, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that we should think about groups that way. There is an is-ought, description-prescription distinction here.
There’s an important grain of truth in the argument that race doesn’t exist. And it’s also worth noting that this view is coming from a good place, in my opinion. For starters, we have a clear example of the social and conceptual side of race in the form of the historic “one-drop rule,” by which a single drop of “black blood” or African ancestry was enough to disqualify someone from being “white” in America.
Basically, people who had mostly European ancestry would still be considered Black socially if they had one Black ancestor. This is why American descendants of slaves are significantly more mixed than European Americans, since qualifying as Black required far less African ancestry than qualifying as White required European ancestry.
In Brazil, the opposite is the rule–anyone with even the smallest portion of European ancestry is considered “branco” (White). It was once the case that Syrian, Mexican and Indian Americans (i.e. South Asians) were considered Caucasian in the United States. Up until the 20th century, various European ethnic groups were thought of in terms of race—the Irish or Italian race, the Mediterranean or Nordic races. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin somewhat hilariously commented on the “swarthy” complexion of certain European nationalities, to which Anglos were the exception, leading some in the “we-know-better-now” Twitterverse to wonder what exactly he was smoking.
Even today, each racial category in America includes about a dozen separate ethnic groups with different histories and cultures. The Census categories “Hispanic-American” and “Asian-American” were first developed for political expediency more than for accuracy or necessity. In short, categories of race do not capture the cultural variety and complexity of various ethnic groups in the country.
But just because something is constructed doesn’t mean it is not real; just because something has been named by human beings does not mean it exists only in the realm of our imaginations. Morality, too, is a social construct, changing over time and manifesting in different ways across societies, and yet it clearly reflects something within us that’s all too real. Human beings have moral instincts, however these instincts happen to reveal themselves. As Thomas Hobbes says in his classic “Leviathan”: “And though at some certain distance the real and very object seem invested with the fancy it begets in us; yet still the object is one thing, the image or fancy is another.”
The same goes for race. I think that a good way to think of race is that it represents the intersection of appearance and ancestry—skin color and hair texture—and human beings happen to care about both of those things. We can’t help but notice race because it’s fairly obvious, and human beings can be shallow. It’s easy to overthink race because it’s so obvious. It doesn’t do anything other than exist.
To renowned African American economist and writer Thomas Sowell, race is a social concept with a biological underpinning. It doesn’t have to be one or the other: two things can be true at once. “What is a Jew?” asks Sowell in his 1994 book “Race and Culture.” His answer: “A Jew is anyone who is socially regarded as a Jew, whatever the religious or biological realities may be.” Likewise: one is Black or White, simply, because one is socially regarded as Black or White.
To Glenn Loury, another brilliant economist and writer, race refers to “indelible and heritable marks on human bodies—skin color, hair texture, bone structure—that are of no intrinsic significance but that nevertheless have, through time, come to be invested with social expectations that are more or less reasonable and social meanings that are more or less durable.”
Loury draws a crucial distinction between “categorization” and “signification,” between sorting people into groups in our minds and what specific meanings we assign to those groups. Whereas the human tendency to categorize people is quite unavoidable in a society with multiple groups of people, the specific meanings we assign to groups are very much socially and historically constructed.
Another long-time thinker and writer on racial issues, Shelby Steele, has long argued that human beings primarily use race as a means to attain moral and political and social power or otherwise to cover up some latent insecurity. “Because our truest motivations for using race are always ulterior,” Steele contends, “every race-based policy or program—from segregation to affirmative action—is a duplicity in which what we say merely rationalizes goals that we are unable or unwilling to state.”
Like a collective Rorschach test, race acts as a blank canvas upon which different meanings are projected. This is not to say that studying race or racism is wrong, only that, when it comes to race, the margin for error is practically zero. There is very little incentive to say anything honest publicly about race issues, and there is too much to be gained through being dishonest.
Human beings are basically meaning-oriented and meaning-seeking creatures in an otherwise absurd universe, and—in my view—race is just an extension of this. It speaks to this vacuum of meaning that we’ve found so many complicated ways to make a big deal about something so inconsequential in our spiritual and romantic and personal lives.
What about racism? As far as I can tell, racism is any double standard based exclusively on race and nothing else. If you treat a Black person worse than a White person or vice versa in the same situation, I’m comfortable saying that’s probably racist. If someone makes a broad statement about an entire racial group in a way that could stigmatize individual members of that group, I’m going to go with racism. (As a general rule, especially in a multiethnic society, it’s just not a good idea to throw shade on entire races of people.)
Racism can express itself consciously through ideology, and it can have a structural dimension as a consequence of specific policies. Most of the time, I’d wager, racism emerges unconsciously from moment to moment out of expediency or convenience, sort of like being a jerk. Race is by no means the only historic justification for oppression, and racism is but one human evil among many.
Because of our supercharged racial history, however, there’s a sense that race and racism exist in their own galaxy apart from our own. There’s a human dimension to this issue that is conspicuously absent.
I think the comedian Shane Gillis had it right when he said in a recent stand-up special that we think of racism as something a person just is or isn’t, as though it’s set in stone. But morality is defined by actions more than beliefs, in my view. Gillis compares racism instead to hunger, which is different at different times and can be triggered differently in different situations.
You might not think you’re at all racist, “but when a cheeseburger cuts you off on the highway …” It’s a joke, of course, but Gillis is articulating a different attitude toward these things that may help alleviate some of the moral charge around terms such as racism to ultimately give us conversational breathing room to discuss these things more openly and honestly.
What we make of race and racism in society is important, and there are two separate visions at play.
If race truly doesn’t exist, it’s only necessary to realize that fact and awaken, using that understanding to mold a different reality through activism and pedagogy. But if race simply is—if there is something automatic about noticing race in diverse social settings—the progressive project of racial enlightenment is like playing with fire, as though raw tribalism could be transformed into virtue with a flick of an intellectual wand. At a certain point, you hit the wall of human nature.
Indeed, it’s almost impossible to emphasize color-blind and anti-racist principles without at least some reference to race, and there likewise wouldn’t be any virtue in refusing to judge people by their race if the fact that we see race at all is an expression of our racism. What’s more, if race never existed, the grand achievement of multiracial democracy and its historical unlikeliness would be unremarkable.
Likewise, if racism is primarily a consequence of structural and historical oppression and inequality, critical race theorists would be right to “deconstruct” race so that we might one day overcome it. But if racism is as inevitable a part of human life as stupidity or arrogance, arising from the same tangle of tribalism and egoism that motivates most forms of evil, race consciousness will only return us to a state of nature, a war of all against all.
If race is the “fingerprint” of racism, any semblance of racial difference in our culture and society, any statistical disparity between racial groups, any instance of geographical separation, any stereotype, or even any joke about race can be framed as evidence of racism to justify far-reaching political and cultural changes. But if race simply is, if disparities between groups are common across the globe, if people often sort themselves by race, if human beings notice race automatically, if stereotypes have some connection to reality, if sometimes people make jokes about race as a pressure valve in a diverse and stratified society, than framing all of this as racism is a moral error.
However, if race and racism are symbiotically intertwined in such a way that it isn’t obvious which way the causal chain moves, some fusion of both visions may ultimately be necessary.
The real problem with the “race isn’t real” narrative is that it’s been weaponized by some progressives in a way that can be described only as a new kind of racism, or as author John McWhorter has called it “woke racism.”
Consider the acclaimed race writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates hasn’t been on the scene for a while and it’s hard to know how he’d feel about everything now (though I doubt his views have changed much). In recent years, less nuanced writers such as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo have taken up his mantle, and today, criticism of Coates has become somewhat old hat in the world of race commentary.
What’s significant about Coates, however, is that his writing was immensely popular and set the stage for the racial reckoning of 2020 and the set of racialized policies that ensued. In his viral 2014 Atlantic essay “The Case for Reparations,” Coates argues that the entire socioeconomic gap between White and Black Americans was caused by historical racism and that the only way to reverse it is through race-conscious policies, namely by paying reparations to American descendants of slaves.
While reading some of Coates’ old blogs, I discovered something I believe is even more significant about his position—something I’ve never seen anybody push back on before. Apparently, Coates’ ideas about racism and racial inequality are based entirely on the view that “race is the child of racism, not the father,” as he writes in his memoir “Between the World and Me.”
Elaborating on the origins of “The Case for Reparations,” Coates writes that “the process began with the understanding that racism was a ‘done thing’ and not an irrepressible clash between people of different hues.” He clarifies elsewhere:
If we accept that racism is a creation, then we must then accept that it can be destroyed. And if we accept that it can be destroyed, we must then accept that it can be destroyed by us and that it likely must be destroyed by methods kin to creation. Racism was created by policy. It will likely only be ultimately destroyed by policy.
If racism is a “done thing,” there’s no harm in using race to undo the damage. The same moral logic was applied by The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which asserts that racism is the essence of America. If the idea of race is unique to the American Experiment and if racism made race, then racism must be foundational to the country’s existence up to today. The solution, according to the project’s head, Nikole Hannah-Jones, is, unsurprisingly, reparations in the form of race-conscious policy.
There’s nothing wrong with being concerned about racial disparities in a country with a history of racism. It’s actually rather compassionate. There is something wrong, however, with attributing every racial disparity in a society to racism—historical, systemic, or otherwise.
To be as blunt as possible, disparities between groups don’t tell us anything about where or whether there’s racism at play in an institution or society at large. What’s more, there is a basic contradiction between the progressive demand for equal outcomes, on the one hand, and the demand for group recognition, on the other. The same people who police Black culture for appropriation are the ones saying every culture is the same, such as when Black or Indigenous “ways of knowing” are considered on par with the written word.
But the fact is that groups are different, by definition, and the main difference between groups, aside from appearance, is culture and behavior. Some groups spend more energy on art and sports while others spend more on grades and homework, and it shows at the margins. So long as deep poverty is addressed, I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with different groups having different outcomes in different areas. One could even see it as a good thing, contributing to American cultural diversity.
Crucially, it’s not a competition: We’re in this together. We should encourage a spirit of cultural experimentation that goes beyond the threshold of race.
Even still, calling for public support for one’s group is completely different from denigrating an out-group. Coates does both, and he fails to extend the same assumption of equal humanity. During a lecture about his memoir, Coates, sporting a Howard University sweatshirt, reiterated the racecraft concept, with a twist:
We speak as though … there are these two distinct groups of people. … Black America is descended from Africa; white America is descended from Europe; we came into conflict in this place and if only we could … respect each other’s differences everything would be OK. But it’s more complicated than that. Black identity exists on two levels. There is the racial level of black identity, and that is the thing you check on your Census box. And there’s a racial white identity. … Those two categories are all about power. … In addition to a racial identity, black people have an ethnic and cultural identity, too. … White people, as white people, do not have an ethnic and cultural identity. It’s just power. It’s just race.
This conclusion—that White people lack a cultural or ethnic identity outside of evil power—is unfortunately a recurring theme in Coates’ work. If White Americans were the first and only people in the history of the world without any culture or ethnicity, it could mean only one of two things: they are either more than human or less than human.
“The power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white,” Coates writes in “Between the World and Me,” “and without it, white people would cease to exist for want of reasons.” Coates tells his 15-year-old son, “Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it.” I think there’s a word for denying the humanity of an entire race of people.
Although it’s not particularly popular to observe, it’s just not actually true that White Americans don’t have any culture or ethnicity—certainly not any less than any other group in modern life. In fact—for anyone interested—there is a deep history of Anglo-American mythology and symbolism recounted by the political scientist Eric Kaufmann in his 2004 book “The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America.” This history found expression in the romantic nationalist vision of an Anglo-Saxon yeoman republic.
An ethnic or cultural identity is bound by a set of collective myths, symbols, dreams and memories that for many contribute to a richer and more fulfilling life, and it’s a kind of symbolic assault to deny these to someone by associating any expression of their group with the taint of human evil. Kaufmann quotes the French philosopher Régis Debray on the importance of ethnicity and culture:
With its stress on a beginning and flow in time, and a delimitation in space, [it] raises barriers to the flood of meaninglessness and absurdity that might otherwise engulf human beings. It tells them that they belong to ancient associations of ‘their kind’ with definite boundaries in time and space, and this gives their otherwise ambiguous and precarious lives a degree of certainty and purpose. By linking oneself to a community of history and destiny, the individual hopes to achieve a measure of immortality which will preserve his or her person from oblivion.
This is precisely the feeling Coates expresses about his own group. But his account is deeply color-coded, and with no distinction between Black culture and African physical features, it borders on racial fetishism at points.
“Between the World and Me” is scattered with passages on the sanctity, beauty and power of the Black body. “Black is beautiful—which is to say that the black body is beautiful, that black hair must be guarded against the torture of processing and lye, that black skin must be guarded against bleach, that our noses and mouths must be protected against modern surgery.” Coates navigates this paradox by blaming racism for imposing his race. “We were given the one-drop—it was not our choice. But we took it. Flipped it. Until we were something broad but tight. By another man’s hand we were made a race. But by our own, we became a people.”
I’m sure Coates would agree, whether his work reflects it or not, that it would be impossible to explain the global impact of Black American culture in art, music, literature and sports were Blackness merely a consequence of victimization and suffering.
Coates goes on to glorify a “black diaspora” that seamlessly spans time and space to connect African peoples the world over. This is very clearly about race and not culture, since culture varies a great deal across the many African-descended countries. Though Coates doesn’t seem to know very much about White people in general and though some of what he says borders on mysticism, I have no reason to believe that his portrait of Black identity is anything but sincere.
In an essay for First Things, R.R. Reno compares Coates’ cherishing of Black identity to how Southerners cherished Southern identity after the defeat of Civil War: the last gasp of something old.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has a lot more in common with Allen Tate than James Baldwin. Like I’ll Take My Stand, the manifesto Tate and his friends wrote to defend white Southern culture against absorption into the soulless materialism of Northern prosperity, Between the World and Me should be read as a nostalgic hymn to the writer’s culture—black America’s solidarity in fear and wisdom in suffering. It’s also a defense of that culture against the seductions of middle-class success.
As the world becomes more interconnected and culture is increasingly globalized, the need for group identity still isn’t going away. A balance must be struck between modern culture and human nature.
A New Vision of American Identity?
It’s hard for modern Americans to feel the same visceral reaction to Coates’ anti-White polemics as, say, to a White person unapologetically criticizing some aspect of Black culture. This, however, may simply be a product of our conditioning, causing us to react more to some kinds of criticism than others. But once we recognize that White and Black in America is really just a proxy for majority and minority dynamics, this double standard makes more sense.
Much of the criticism of Whiteness and White supremacy by critical race theorists is actually a criticism of the majority culture for mistaking its particular identity for universal humanity (White people apparently have a culture only when there’s something to criticize). In what Eric Kaufmann has called asymmetric multiculturalism—the prevailing paradigm of American identity—minorities are encouraged to express an ethnic group identity while majorities are stigmatized for doing so and are encouraged to melt into cosmopolitan universalism.
“Diversity” is simply the opposite of Whiteness: an all-Black cast on a TV show, as Kaufmann points out, would never be considered insufficiently diverse. While some criticism of the majority culture is fair play, majorities are composed of human beings with the same dreams and symbolic longings as those of other groups. As the median American citizen comes to look something like Zendaya in the coming decades, a new vision of American identity is called for that can balance majority and minority identity.
Since the late 1960s, the message from civil rights activists has been split between integration and separatism, between “it’s a profound injustice that Blacks are not fully accepted into the mainstream” and “Blacks don’t need the full acceptance of the boring and yet somehow simultaneously evil White mainstream.” In my view, this paradox is a major part of why we haven’t been able to really move on from a lot of this stuff yet.
Personally, I’m an integrationist, because Black Americans are already so much a part of mainstream American life, and something seems fundamentally unjust about members of one of the country’s oldest ethnic groups not accepting their own birthright. Integration goes both ways, however. A vision of national identity that opens the space between majority and minority identity is crucial to securing both cultural freedom and solidarity for as many as possible.
One possibility is an expansion of the ethnic symbols of the White majority to include traditionally nonwhite groups, a development that Kaufmann has dubbed “Whiteshift,” or otherwise the creation of some kind of futuristic Omni-American identity around America’s core ethnic archetype: part White, part Black, part Native, with enough breathing room for more recent immigrants to find their way in. At the very least, elite discourse on race should reflect what’s actually happening on the ground floor of American culture, where people are interacting with all sorts of groups every single day unremarkably.
A Shared Humanity
Much of what is so strange about race in America came out of the historical crucible of the postwar period when the country finally began to acknowledge that anti-Black racism was evil. When President Lyndon Johnson signed several major civil rights bills into law and launched the Great Society, he was effectively saying “I am guilty” on behalf of White Americans everywhere.
While racism was still fairly abundant in the early 1960s, a critical process had been set in motion by the Civil Rights Act that would ultimately change the moral character of American society. How often does a country at the height of its power look at itself and admit error at the risk of its own moral legitimacy?
To move on from that historical moment, however, Americans had to tell ourselves a beautiful lie: that we already had changed. Slavery and Jim Crow were simply too horrifying for most everyday people to absorb. In the face of such overwhelming evil, we gravitated toward vague gesture and iconography. This meant something very specific for each group, and the country was largely composed of White and Black Americans at that point. Basically, White guilt activates Black victimology and Black victimology activates White guilt; when race comes up, White Americans act guilty and Black Americans act angry.
Shedding Our Masks
For this masquerade to work, however, each group has to squeeze itself into a racial mask: Most Whites don’t spontaneously feel guilty toward Blacks, and most Blacks don’t spontaneously feel angry at Whites. (I’d say our feelings are far too ambiguous for such a clean formulation.) White guilt is primarily a cultural and historical phenomenon. Just beneath the surface of the post-’60s racial contract, however, was the power of each race to stigmatize the other: Blacks can call Whites racist, and Whites can call Blacks inferior.
More than a half century since this contract was formed, it’s worth asking: Is it working? Perhaps the time has come to shed the masks and start anew.
Ever since all this came to pass, there’s been a fundamental imbalance in the race debate in America. It’s not that progressives are wholly wrong but that they have a moral monopoly on the issue and would have no way of knowing whether they were wrong. Without feedback from moderates and conservatives, reality is lost, and the outcomes suffer. It’s not enough just to criticize the progressive narrative on race, in my view. Those of us on the other side of this issue would be wise to articulate our own vision of American identity and racial equality as a counterbalance.
Thankfully, there is a rich tradition of debate and dissent in the Black American community from which to draw, from the journalist George Schuyler to the novelist Ralph Ellison, the social critic Harold Cruse and the all-purpose literary renaissance man Albert Murray. With such a robust intellectual history, there’s no reason this conversation should be so one-sided.
For now, we are trapped in a dynamic of blaming racial inequality either on White people’s racism or on Black people’s decisions. So much commentary on race these days amounts to something like “White people need to do this” and “Black people need to do that.” But there could be another way. To draw from an analysis by Glenn Loury, racial inequality today emerges primarily through racially stigmatized social relations.
On this view, persistent inequality may no longer be due mainly to a racially discriminatory marketplace, or an administrative state that refuses to reward black talent equally, as was the case in decades past. Rather, today’s problem may be due, in large part, to a race-tinged psychology of perception and valuation—a way of seeing black people, and a way of black people seeing themselves, that impedes the acquisition of traits that are valued in the marketplace and are essential for human development.
In other words, it’s the dynamic between the culture of the larger society and that of the minority group that shapes its outcomes. For example, many Black Americans resist identifying with mainstream America out of a sense of racial authenticity—to deflect the charge of “acting White.” This, in turn, makes it harder for many White Americans to sympathize and identify with Blacks, which in turn diminishes Black opportunity, which in turn enhances racial stigma, and so on.
“This can lead to a vicious circle,” says Loury. “The status of a racial group as stigmatized in the social imagination—and crucially, in its own self-understanding—can be rationalized and socially reproduced because of that group’s subordinate position in the economic order.” What progressives mean by “systemic racism” and what conservatives mean by “cultural pathology” may be two sides of the same coin, and the path toward racial equality is to interrupt the dynamic between the society’s perception of a particular group and the group’s perception of itself. In other words, we must untether our social lives from the stigma of race.
Loury contends that this is about who we are and how we see each other. I was listening closely when the protests of 2020 broke out, and what I heard was an aching desire among many Americans to live in a country that can look at a random citizen and see that person as one of our own. The subtext of the protests around George Floyd’s murder was “this is not who we are.”
Unfortunately, that “we” did not include everyone. Once again, race got in the way of achieving an authentic American identity. If Floyd’s death had been seen as a human tragedy instead of a political opportunity, things could have been otherwise. Imagine reparations programs based on human need and American citizenship instead of race, healthcare for the sick and disabled, job opportunities for the working class and safety nets for the impoverished.
Whatever race is or isn’t, it’s a poor proxy for the things that matter in life, such as what it means to be an American or what kinds of suffering we should address. Instead of focusing on what makes us authentically Black or White, we should work on what makes us authentically American, authentically human. Ultimately, everything having to do with race is human. And nothing human is alien to me.