We are pleased to announce our next Ethics discussion on Chike Jeffers’s new article, “The Cultural Theory of Race: Yet Another Look at Du Bois’s ‘The Conservation of Races.”  Jeffers is an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. The article is available open access here.  Tommie Shelby, professor of African and African American Studies and of Philosophy at Harvard, is kicking off the discussion with a critical precis of Jeffers’s article. Here now is Tommie Shelby:


Jeffers’s article is rich, subtle, provocative, and carefully argued. It makes
contributions to a number of related debates within what has come to be called
the philosophy of race. Jeffers offers a fresh interpretation of Du Bois’s
influential essay “The Conservation of Races” (1897) and helpfully situates his
reading within the context of leading commentaries on that piece. Extracting
insights from Du Bois, he defends a cultural theory of the meaning of “race” that
highlights the cultural dimensions of racism. And he stakes out a position on
the ethics of resistance to racism, calling for the conservation of racial
identities now and in the imagined postracist future.

In recent
philosophical writings about Du Bois’s famous essay, one frequently encounters
the claim that Du Bois was here defending a social constructionist theory of
racial difference, which is typically contrasted with a scientific/naturalist theory
of race that emphasizes inherited biological differences. On the social
constructionist view, races are entirely the creation of social forces and institutional
conventions, which are structured by group-based domination. Jeffers
persuasively argues that this interpretation of the early Du Bois gets two
things wrong. First, it fails to see that Du Bois did not completely reject the
scientific theory of race. Du Bois acknowledged that there were biological
differences between the races but insisted that these physical traits, which he
held to be largely superficial, could not explain the “deeper” differences
between the groups we call “races.” Second, the social constructionist reading
mistakenly takes Du Bois to be reducing race to political dynamics when, in
fact, Du Bois thought of races as primarily cultural groups that have intrinsic

Jeffers does
not deny that Du Bois was engaged in a political project in advancing his race
theory. This was not some purely academic philosophical analysis of the concept
of race. Du Bois was trying to justify the need for race-based solidarity and group
organization to fight against the forms of oppression that blacks and others
suffered under. But, says Jeffers, his race theory cannot be reduced to this antiracist
project. Races, for the early Du Bois, would be worth preserving even in a
world without racism, because races embody and sustain valuable cultural
traditions and ideals.

Now Du Bois
defended the claim that races should be preserved—which we might call the
racial conservation thesis—by invoking a racial origins narrative and a
philosophy of history. He believed that races, not individuals or classes, were
the primary agents of historical progress. Each race had its own distinctive
contribution to make to civilization and human progress, and these racial
ideals could not be fully realized unless races maintained their cultural

defends the racial conservation thesis drawing on insights from Du Bois’s “Conservation”
essay. However, he doesn’t want to defend it in the way that Du Bois does,
namely, by relying on a dubious anthropology and a speculative philosophy of
history. Instead, he agrees with the political theory of race that races are
not primordial natural groupings operating according to laws of historical
development but rather socially constructed groups. Yet he insists that these
socially constructed races have created their own distinctive cultures in the
crucible of racial domination and, through this culture, have become relatively
cohesive ethnoracial peoples. Race is, Jeffers argues, a social
construction but this construction has political and cultural dimensions. The
political side demands that we eradicate racial hierarchy and exclusion; the
cultural side demands that we preserve the integrity of races.

are weak and strong forms of the racial conservation thesis. The weak version
says that we should not allow cultural diversity to be suppressed in favor of
cultural homogeneity. Individuals should be permitted
to maintain the cultural aspects of their racial identities without this
negatively affecting their rights or life chances. The strong version says that
members of racial groups have a duty
to actively preserve their group’s cultural integrity. Jeffers maintains that
the weak version may be appropriate in the postracist utopia but the strong one
is valid until then, at least for members of subordinate races. His argument
for the strong version is based on the claim that resistance to the cultural dimensions of racism requires that those
subject to this form of domination refuse to assimilate.

I find
Jeffers’s interpretation of Du Bois compelling and agree with his criticisms of
Du Bois’s version of the cultural theory. I also think he properly registers
two key worries about his own version of the theory: its paradoxical implications
for thinking about “white identity” and its seeming conflation of race with
ethnicity (or nationality). I do however have some further doubts and questions
about Jeffers’s defense of the weak and strong versions of the racial
conservation thesis.

think the weak version of the conservation thesis is basically correct, and in
its defense I would simply say that unreasonable pressures to assimilate or to
abandon one’s people’s traditional ways wrongly interference with individual
liberty. And cultural intolerance born of racial hostility is certainly
unreasonable, to say the least. I take it Jeffers would not disagree. But he
also wants to explain why it would be valuable (though not a duty) for the
members of historically oppressed racial groups to maintain their racial
culture even after racism (political and cultural) has been defeated.

says, “There is, in fact, reason to think that the historical memory of
creating beauty in the midst of struggling to survive oppression can and should
persist as a thing of value in black culture long after that oppression has
truly and finally been relegated to the past” (20). I’m not entirely sure what
this claim means, for there are two ambiguities in this and similar statements.
I would distinguish valuing something because it is beautiful or useful from
valuing something because our ancestors created it under oppressive
circumstances, as these are different modes of value. I would also distinguish
appreciating what our ancestors’ cultural traditions meant to them from
appreciating these traditions as things valuable in themselves.

something is a beautiful or otherwise worthwhile cultural product or practice,
then we should admire it and seek to preserve it regardless of its racial
pedigree or the circumstances of its origin (though admittedly its origins
might taint it in some way). We don’t need a cultural theory of race to explain
why we should preserve beautiful or useful things. What is at issue is whether
the fact that one’s oppressed ancestors created a set of traditions under
trying conditions provides one with an independent reason to carry on these
traditions, and if so, what kind of reason this is.

a politically constructed racial group, in the process of their long and
successful historical struggle against racial domination, developed a set of
distinctive cultural practices, some of which were indispensible for their
survival and sanity under unjust conditions or were essential weapons in their
protracted fight against injustice. Their descendants, now free from racial
domination, should take great pride in their ancestors’ resilience and triumph
over oppression. They should also feel gratitude for the sacrifices their
ancestors made to set them free. Accordingly, they might rightly celebrate and
commemorate the cultural traditions that played such a crucial role in their
ancestors’ lives. This would serve as remembrance of their ancestors’ ordeal
and as tribute to their accomplishments. But, first, this would be a way of
honoring one’s ancestors by celebrating something that meant something to them.
We value it because it was valuable to them and we value them. And, second,
there are other ways to express gratitude or pay tribute to one’s racially subordinate
ancestors—e.g., constructing and visiting memorials or museums, learning and
teaching the history of their struggle, and building on their legacy by
fighting against other injustices.

from finding beauty and utility in these traditions or honoring their heroic
creators, I don’t see that a member of a historically oppressed racial group
would, in the imagined postracist future, have a reason to practice and further
develop these traditions. I’m not certain whether Jeffers would agree with my
interpretation of the meaning and implications of the weak racial conservation
thesis. I suspect that what I say here doesn’t quite capture everything he had
mind. But perhaps he will tell us.

concerns about the strong version of the conservation thesis are more serious. Jeffers
wants to embrace Du Bois’s conclusion that races should be preserved but to reject
the philosophy of history that Du Bois used to defend it. The trouble is that Du
Bois’s perfectionist philosophy of history (or something similar) would appear
to be needed to justify the claim that members of subordinate races have a duty
to conserve their race’s culture. Du Bois argues that each race has a unique
contribution to make to human progress that only it can make and so its members
must maintain their cultural identity until that mission is complete. The
resistance argument that Jeffers endorses is parallel only if we assume that
preserving the denigrated culture of one’s race is the only appropriate way to
resist the cultural dimensions of racism. What is missing from Jeffers’s
argument, as far as I can tell, is a good reason to believe that the only
appropriate response on the part of oppressed racial groups to Eurocentrism and
racialized cultural intolerance is for these groups to maintain their (alleged)
cultural distinctiveness in symbolic defiance. I’m skeptical that this reason
can be supplied.

agree that blacks, for example, should not seek to assimilate to
European-derived cultural norms out of a sense of inferiority or to gain the esteem
of whites who look upon us with contempt. This would be an undignified
capitulation to white supremacy and a blameworthy accommodation to injustice. Indeed,
one defensible mode of resistance to the cultural dimensions of racism is to
draw attention to or to exaggerate even our minor cultural differences from the
dominant group. This is one way that we affirm our self-respect in the face of
injustice and express our solidarity with those similarly oppressed. We should
also resist racially motived social pressure to abandon the cultural ways that we
find valuable and meaningful. What I seriously doubt, though, is that a black
person has a duty to not assimilate if he or she finds more value in cultural
ways of European origin. Such a person should of course do their part to ensure
that those who favor the cultural ways of their racial ancestors are free to
embrace these traditions without unfair repercussions. But I don’t see how the
person’s assimilation or love for European culture would be a betrayal of the
black freedom struggle.

cultural racism sometimes expresses itself by suggesting that members of
subordinate races are incapable of fully assimilating European-derived culture.
Such racist ideologies have functioned as a rationalizations for denying some
groups important opportunities. Could an appropriate mode of resistance to this
kind of cultural racism be to demonstrate that one can, in fact, embody these
cultural characteristics? I think it could. And if so, wouldn’t this show that
there couldn’t be a duty to maintain the integrity of one’s race-based cultural

23 Replies to “Ethics Discussion at PEA Soup: Chike Jeffers’s “The Cultural Theory of Race: Yet Another Look at Du Bois’s ‘The Conservation of Races'”

  1. I appreciated the distinction between a “political” and “cultural” sociohistorical conception of race that Jeffers’ draws and that he argues is present in Du Bois’ 1897 “The Conservation of Race.” I agree that Du Bois thought that the preservation of a distinctive culture was one of the reasons to conserve racial categories. Jeffers’ use of that distinction to argue that cultural retention is an independent reason to conserve racial categories is an important argument because many who are attached to their racial categories that are associated with cultural traditions strongly agree with Jeffers. No independent poll data on this issue comes to mind, but “culture” is one of the two primary reasons (the other is being “political”), in my experience in public and classroom discussions, that are offered for the preservation of racial categories in my experience in public and classroom discussion about for the preservation of racial categories.
    My question about Jeffers’ approach though has to do with his employment of Du Bois’ view of culture. Jeffers notes that Du Bois emphasized the “creative power of “diversity” and he also believed in an ultimate integration of the world’s cultures. Du Bois certainly did believe in a larger historic convergence of cultures, but this was the convergence of the best contributions of the cultures of civilizations. Recall Du Bois’ hope that Americans, and at his time primarily black and white, would become “co-workers in the Kingdom of Culture.” This kingdom, as Robert Gooding-Williams has pointed out, in The Shadow of Du Bois, was a realm built by cultural and political leaders. Du Bois was adopting a model of romantic expressivism, which was inspired by his heroes Emerson and Carlyle, and his doctoral education in Germany. Indeed, one finds obvious precedents in Herder’s social-cultural-historical conception of race. It is these ideas that are behind Du Bois’ grouping of race with nation and culture (as well as religion and language) that was well underway in the nineteenth century when Du Bois employed them to understand America’s future and its color-line in the early twentieth. It is important to note here that Du Bois also clearly understood how that, if you will, Herderian approach didn’t exactly work for black Americans or blacks as a race: he noted that races sometimes share these traits but sometimes don’t.
    My point here, is that “culture” for Du Bois isn’t something that we all just have or are born into. There are seeds of culture, striving, ideals, that are buried deep in an oppressed people (Notice, for example, his characterization of the black masses throughout the Souls, and in particular in the short story, “Of The Coming of John”). But for the worthy “contributions” of the Kingdom of Culture to be occur, those seeds must be developed, elite African Americans must undergo a bildungsroman, and this high culture must then be imparted to the masses and then to the world-elite.
    Much has already been written about Du Bois’ cultural and political elitism, but Du Bois’ view points to the obvious diversity about what is and should be thought of as a group’s culture and that in turn will affect what various parties mean by “conservation.” Du Bois’ cultural argument for the conservation of race, doesn’t likely match the different and current views about culture and its conservation. Think here of Gilroy’s anti-anti-essentialist argument for black culture and identity in his The Black Atlantic. And for the record, I tentatively accept the theory of culture as “tool-kit,” which is more often understood as the economic theory of culture,” such as employed by the sociologist Ann Swindler in her Talk of Love: How Culture Matters. What of all the variation, the diversity in existing conceptions of black culture? What then is useful about returning to Du Bois in this argument? (To be clear: I think that theorists of all stripes should pay far more attention to Du Bois) Is it that Jeffers is just focusing on the distinction between a political and cultural sociohistorical conception of race? Is it that in Du Bois’ argument for the distinctiveness of culture in the conservation argument, there is a bit of the debate that critical race theorists (outside of Lucius Outlaw and Kathryn Gines) have left off? Or is he offering a Du Bois-style argument about the conservation of a particular cultural geist?
    My larger questions about intellectual history and the particulars of the conservation of culture aside, Jeffers’ brings back to the debate the important issue of culture and the vital part in plays in the life of many who ascribe to racial categories. Jeffers’ writes: “What it means to a black person, for many of us, including myself, can never be exhausted through reference to problems of stigmatization, discrimination, marginalization, and disadvantage, as real and as large-looming as these factors are in the racial landscape as we know it. There is also joy in blackness, a joy shaped by culturally distinctive situations, expressions, and interactions, by stylizations of the distinctive features of the black body, by forms of linguistic and extralinguistic communication, by artistic traditions, by religious and secular rituals, and by any number of other modes of cultural existence.” The joyful facets of the lived experience of the black (to genuflect to Fanon) is extremely important and has been missed, especially the analytic-side of the debate. Jeffers’ words brought to my mind Baldwin’s question at the end of the Fire Next Time: “What will happen to all that beauty?”
    That beauty and our love of that beauty are absolutely good reasons to argue for the conservation of social categories that continue to receive support from those ascribed, and self-subscribe, to them. It is just that what we should keep in mind is the creative and powerful diversity of all that beauty.

  2. Chike, very nice article. In particular I agree with Tommie that it does a wonderful job of presenting a more refined excavation of Du Bois’ views. At the same time, I (unsurprisingly, perhaps!) have some questions, not about Du Bois interpretation, but about the substantive merits of the cultural theory of race that you find promising.
    Let me start with a clarification question. You suggest that cultural and political elements are relevant to both the “significance” of race and the “existence” of race (e.g., p. 420, or 411), and also to the “origin” of race (419). I think everyone should quickly grant the significance part, but I want to be sure I’ve accurately sorted out exactly what the existence part comes to. Is the idea that races just are (some subset of) cultures, on the cultural view? That’s the only way I can see the cultural view being a relevant entry into the debate over the existence and nature of race, but I want to be sure. I was a little confused, for example, because you say that the political theory of the origin of race generates an answer to the circularity charge (note 51). I wasn’t convinced by that argument (I’m full of non-surprises today), but rather than pursuing that, I’m just focusing on a different — though perhaps related – point about the structure of the dialectic here: the circularity charge is an objection to certain theories of the nature of race, not theories of the origin of race. So I’d like a little more clarification of what races are supposed to be on the account offered here. I’ll assume in what follows that races are supposed to be cultural groups on the cultural theory, but of course please correct me if I’m wrong!
    With this assumption in hand, here’s a second question. You say that the theory of race in “Conservation” might have “practical usefulness” even if it is not a sound theory of race (417-18). The usefulness, if I follow correctly, is roughly that we all benefit if we find unity and equality while retaining distinctive cultures. So one question I have is: why tie this to race, per se? Why not just have different cultural practices? (Perhaps this is another way of framing one of Tommie’s points.) More precisely, why say that race is constituted by culture? We can have whatever is practically useful without the constitution claim, I think. These questions all come, then, to the question posed by Du Bois and re-asked by Appiah: why conserve race, if what ultimately matters here is culture?
    Here’s a final question. I’ve argued elsewhere that political constructionism fails to capture our notion of race because, as you also observe (421), it means that racial equality is conceptually impossible, akin to married bachelors, which I take to be an implication that violates the ordinary concept of race. I’m inclined to think something similar about a cultural version of constructionism: it incorrectly implies that if all cultures truly melded, there would be no more races—the whole idea of a world with (wholly) culturally intermingled races is an oxymoron. Despite what Star Trek seems to coherently imagine, it’s unimagineable! Or, to stay with worlds closer to our own, picture a variation on our world where cultural practices were truly distributed randomly: say we all got struck by some agent that made us pick up cultural practices anew at random; or say that God instantaneously created an exact duplicate of our population and planet, except for the distribution of cultural practices, which are now distributed randomly; or say that radical egalitarians manipulated us to swap consciousnesses with people from races other than our own. Whichever scenario we run with, doesn’t Al Gore (the person with Al Gore’s current body) still count as white in this altered world? These and other reflections lead me to think that racial groups must be defined in terms of visible traits, not any social facts, including cultural facts. (I should acknowledge here that your last three paragraphs seemed to start to address these sorts of concerns, but I never really saw an answer to the heart of the matter as I think about it, so I’d love to hear more here, too.)

  3. Interesting article, and interesting discussion. I would like to add a small defence of Dr. Jeffers’ claims against Dr. Shelby’s critique. Before going on I should note that I was slightly sure that Dr. Jeffers meant to endorse what Shelby refers to as “The strong conservation thesis” rather than attribute it to DuBois. But in either case it is an interesting argument, and I am sure Dr. Jeffers can clarify what he meant to endorse in this discussion. In the following I’ll act as if the argument is unambiguously something Jeffers endorses.
    Dr. Shelby says that:
    “The resistance argument that Jeffers endorses is parallel only if we assume that preserving the denigrated culture of one’s race is the only appropriate way to resist the cultural dimensions of racism.”
    I take it Shelby is arguing that Jeffers’ argument is enthymemic. The suppressed premise in question is the consequent of the conditional above, “Preserving the denigrated culture of one’s race is the only appropriate way to resist the cultural dimensions of racism”. If this premise is false then Dr.Shelby does not believe that Jeffers’ other premises give us reason to conclude that there is a duty to engage in racial-cultural preservation. And, indeed, Dr. Shelby offers a reason to suppose it is false – by demonstrating that the uniqueness claim is violated with a simple counter example.
    I agree that Jeffers’ argument is enthymemic, but I do not think that Jeffers requires such a strong claim to complete his argument. The resistance argument Jeffers offers would go through, I would argue, just in case we have reason to believe that preserving the denigrated culture of one’s race is the best strategy we have available to us for resisting the cultural dimensions of racism.
    The two italicised subclauses make a substantial difference to the strength of the claim that Jeffers must defend. Firstly, Jeffers needn’t claim that racial-cultural preservation is the only option available. Secondly, Jeffers need only defend the proposition that racial-cultural preservation is the best strategy relative to the options we are presently aware of.
    To see why this is all that Jeffers need defend, consider the possibility that, indeed, we do have reason to believe that racial-cultural preservation is the best strategy for resisting the cultural dimensions of racism. In that case, ceteris paribus, a person committed to resisting the cultural dimensions of racism ought support (or contribute to in whatever manner they can) racial-cultural preservation, just on grounds of efficiency. All the arguments which support utility maximisation in decision theory would (granted the hypothetical) thus support racial-cultural preservation. This would seem to me to be considerably more support than action-guiding moral arguments usually have. In so far as instrumental rationality can ever be the source of duties (as perhaps it can when combined with worthy aims, as combatting the cultural dimensions of racism surely is) then it would seem in this case a duty has been incurred.
    If I am right that this weaker premise is all that Jeffers needs, I believe it would follow that Shelby’s purported counter example to Jeffers’ argument is no such thing. For it would be consistent with Jeffers’ argument that being conspicuously-good-at-doing European-stuff is one way of resisting the cultural dimensions of racism. A person who adopted that strategy needn’t be accused of treachery, or anything so harsh. They are indeed doing something to advance the cause of anti-racism. But they could be accused of inefficiency, or of sub-optimal behaviour. They are not doing as much as they could to advance the cause of anti-racism.
    I do not know whether racial-cultural preservation is indeed the best strategy for resisting cultural racism. I think it would be very difficult to establish. But it strikes me as, at least, possible to establish. One could survey (as best as one’s information allows) the proposed strategies for combatting cultural racism, then consider their likely effects with history as one’s guide. Whereas it strikes me as near impossible to establish the claim that Dr. Shelby believes that Dr. Jeffers requires for his argument. How one earth could one establish that a given strategy was the only available strategy? Indeed it is probably straightforwardly false, as Dr. Shelby’s example of the conspicuously-talented-at-European-stuff person shows. As such, while I do not claim to know whether or not the claim I believe Jeffers’ must defend is true, I do think that showing that it is this he must defend rather than Shelby’s alternative constitutes a defence of Jeffers’ argument.
    I find it very hard to project the right tone when discussing things online, and this is particularly worrisome when one is offering critique of an argument. I hope that this came across in the friendly and interested spirit in which I intended it.

  4. Let me begin by thanking the very good people at PEA Soup and Ethics for the honour and the opportunity to have my paper discussed in this way. It is truly exciting as a young scholar to receive this sort of attention.
    Before I go on to thanking Tommie Shelby, I would like to mention two other people who were essential to this paper’s success: Paul C. Taylor and Kathryn Gines. I mention them now because, to my great shock and dismay, I discovered that I somehow left them out of the article’s acknowledgments. Both of them read the paper and gave me invaluable feedback. I am truly sorry that, by forgetting to update a previously written version of the acknowledgments, their contributions went unremarked. I am glad that I can at least thank them publicly here.
    Now, my gratitude to Tommie Shelby for his careful reading and thoughtful criticism of my article is immense. Shelby’s already-classic book, We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity, came out during my second year of grad school and I was already reading the articles that led up to its publication during my first year. He has, ever since that time, been an incredibly important intellectual force in my life. One way to sum up my sprawling, ambitious dissertation is as a long response to him: he argued, to oversimplify, that black nationalism can survive criticism and be upheld as an appropriate response to antiblack racism, but first we must jettison black cultural nationalism. Central to my dissertation was the claim that black cultural nationalism can survive Shelby’s criticism once we jettison racial essentialism.
    Shelby has therefore been a target in much of my work and this is because he is brilliant. He applies his consummate skill in philosophical argumentation to issues I care about deeply, making his work always exciting and a joy for me to read. Also, he’s a great guy in general. For all these reasons, I am truly thankful to him for his efforts here.
    Moving now to my substantive response to his précis, let me first thank him – or rather, thank you, as I will switch now to the second person, Tommie – for your attentive reading, as your summary of my work is excellent.
    You worry that there are ambiguities in my defence of the value of maintaining black culture past the end of racism, and you wonder whether I have convincingly showed why it would make sense for black people in this post-racist future to continue the traditions of their ancestors. Let me first try to sort out the ambiguities.
    I say: “There is, in fact, reason to think that the historical memory of creating beauty in the midst of struggling to survive oppression can and should persist as a thing of value in black culture long after that oppression has truly and finally been relegated to the past.” You encourage clarity, firstly, with regard to the difference between valuing something because it is beautiful and valuing it because one’s ancestors created it under oppressive circumstances. You are quite right that these are different forms of valuing and it is the second form that I am talking about at that point. The “thing of value” here is not black music, for example. What I am doing here is taking for granted that something – say, for instance, black music – is beautiful or contains beauty and saying that the historical memory of its creation under oppressive circumstances is a thing of value, as this further enhances appreciation of the beauty of black music, inspires one to make the best of bad circumstances as well, encourages appreciation of one’s blessings, etc.
    Secondly, we should distinguish, as you say, between appreciating what the traditions of one’s ancestors meant to them and appreciating these traditions as valuable in themselves. This is a useful distinction in general, but I hope my first clarification shows that it is not very relevant to the type of valuing at stake in that particular sentence. The thing to be valued here is a collective remembrance of creating beauty under oppressive conditions. The ancestors at time t may have had a similar collective remembrance of the creation of beauty by the ancestors at time t minus whatever, but our collective remembrance in the present (or in the post-racist future) is, obviously, importantly different, as it includes the creation of beauty by the ancestors at time t. Thus, if the distinction is to be observed at all here, it is appreciating the tradition of collective remembrance as valuable in itself that matters, not appreciating what past forms of collective remembering meant to our ancestors. I do think that recognizing such a practice on the part of our ancestors can be seen as relevant to thinking about why we should continue to carry out various forms of commemorating the past today, but it should also be clear that if we’re talking about what commemorating the past will mean in a post-racist future, there is no chance that it will have the same significance as commemorating the past had and continues to have for those of us who do so as part of an ongoing struggle against racism.
    I think the above clarifications, if they have indeed clarified, are key to addressing your worries generally, as it seems to me that you are, naturally enough, thinking about practices like music or cooking or dressing in certain ways when you are thinking of the traditions to be carried on in the post-racist future. These types of things are certainly among the types of things that I am saying it can make good sense to continue to value in the post-racist future and I will say more in a second about the question of whether that is connected to the fact that they were practiced by one’s ancestors, the fact that they are valuable in themselves, or both. But part of culture, in my view, is the creation of historical memory, and this is significant to measuring the extent of our disagreement. You speak of “constructing and visiting memorials or museums, learning and teaching the history of their struggle” as something separate from carrying on cultural tradition. But why? One might think this is different because memorials and museums are open to everybody, not just members of the racial-cultural group. But others outside the group can also adopt the musical forms, recipes, outfits, etc., and these adoptions can even become standard aspects of the outsider culture. What makes the difference between the outsider visiting the memorial and your great-great-great-grandchild visiting the memorial, if this descendant identifies as black (even “in part”), is the appreciation of the memorial as *her* story, as the story of her particular people, as expressive of who she is as a black person. Telling stories of the past in order to celebrate who *we* are and how *we* got to be who we are and where we are is part of preserving culture in at least two senses. Firstly, if we think of culture as a set of practices handed down, it is itself a practice that is continuous with similar storytelling in the past. Secondly, if we exclude this and think only of other practices like music and food and dress, it is not sufficient to listen to this or that music, eat this or that, or dress this way or that way in order to self-identify as part of the culture. It takes historical memory of the sort I am describing to say that, even if I don’t actually listen to that particular music very often and only occasionally eat that food and have never worn that outfit, I consider myself with good reason a member of the same cultural group of which those ancestors were members.
    This may strike some as a pretty thin form of cultural membership, but I think it ought to be seen as important in itself as well as perhaps the paramount spur to the kinds of creativity that render cultures repositories of distinctive value (distinctive, that is, in the ways that make for thicker forms of membership).
    Speaking of which, let me turn now to the question of whether carrying on, say, a certain cooking tradition ought to be seen as valuable apart from being viewed as valuable in itself. If it is viewed simply as valuable in itself, the question arises whether the fact that the ancestors did it is meaningful at all. Well, if the tradition is kept vibrant and is enjoyed by its participants partly because they know they are carrying on the tradition of their ancestors, then yes, it is meaningful that the ancestors did it. I think, in a post-racist future, it will make sense for many people who consider themselves black to carry on cooking traditions and other such things not simply because they are valuable in themselves but because the connection felt with their ancestors is valuable as well.
    There is a caveat, of course: it could be that something that is bad in itself could come to be valued by someone or by a group of people because their ancestors did it. In such a circumstance, they would be doing wrong by so valuing it. This once again makes it seem to some that the fact that the ancestors did something must always be inessential to its being valued. But this does not follow. Once we restrict our purview to that which is not bad, it could be that the connection to the ancestors is precisely what makes the difference between choosing to cook this or choosing to cook that. In such a circumstance, the fact that the ancestors did it is essential to its being valued. I see this as natural, good, and beautiful.
    I promised you and others to post a reply “this evening” and, even with the extra hour I have to play with being on Atlantic Standard Time, I have failed to keep that promise. I will therefore post this reply and come back to respond to your worries about the strong conservationist thesis. Thanks again.

  5. I’d just like to add a couple of corrections to my earlier post. I can live with some typos, but in these two cases the typo changes the meaning of the sentence in a dramatic way.
    1) I said “I was slightly sure” about Chike’s allegiance to the strong conservation thesis. This should have been slightly unsure.
    2) I said that under a certain hypothetical all the arguments in favour of “utility maximisation” would speak in Chike’s defence. This should have been all the arguments in favour of expected utility maximisation.
    Sorry for my earlier sloppiness. I look forward to seeing how the conversation progresses!

  6. Part 2 of my reply to Tommie Shelby:
    You understandably press on the question of how the “strong version of the conservation thesis” can be defended. I say “understandably,” of course, because it is here that one finds my opposition to your account of what is necessary and what is unnecessary for an emancipatory black solidarity. As you know, I have other work, some of which is still in progress, where I more directly express this opposition. In this essay, however, it lies more below the surface of claims like “black people ought to resist the pressure for sameness” (p. 419) and the reading of Du Bois on p. 424, where the term you use to express what is distinctive about the strong conservation thesis – a certain “duty” – is found.
    So how might I defend this idea of a duty to defend, preserve, and cultivate black culture?
    Let us first note that “love for European culture” cannot be all that it takes to betray the freedom struggle, because it is possible – even on some very simplistic, essentialist accounts of cultural identity – to be wedded to a particular cultural identity while still greatly appreciating what is of value in other cultural identities. You’re not wrong to worry that this is what anti-assimilation could mean, as you may be rightly worrying about real-life situations in which people are criticized as “not black enough” because of things they enjoy that are associated with whiteness. But, of course, as a black person who likes being a part of the discipline of Philosophy, it would be a bad idea for me to lock myself into arguing that liking something associated with whiteness prevents one from properly contributing to the fight against racism…
    Black cultural resistance as anti-assimilationism must therefore mean something less demanding. Here’s how I conceive of it: insofar as a black person is dedicated to collective resistance by black people in the face of anti-black racism, s/he ought to maintain and encourage others to maintain some investment in and critical appreciation for black culture. To be invested in the culture is to care about the culture and its development, to appreciate it is see value in it, to appreciate it critically is to avoid valuing cultural elements blindly and at the expense of rationality and morality, and all of this naturally leads, I think, to voluntary, healthy, active participation.
    But why can’t someone be committed to the struggle while failing not only to participate but also to appreciate the culture and/or to have any sense of investment in it? It seems to me that the person who purposefully opts out of the minimalist commitment I describe is simply not well-positioned to address the cultural dimension of racism. Such a person may be acutely sensitive to the ways in which black people are wronged by being portrayed and treated as not just different but totally alien, as not fitting in the modern world, as deserving of less because they are not on the same level as white people. But such a person is ill-equipped to interrupt patterns of Eurocentric privileging of white cultural standards and at least subtle forms of the denigration of black cultural difference if the person is unwilling to commit to caring about black culture and developing appreciation for its creative power and value. Perhaps when the attacks are not at all subtle, this person can counted on to express condemnation for blatant unfairness (say, for instance, if encountering someone claiming that no books written by black people could ever be worth reading). But the lack of investment and appreciation is likely to be a liability otherwise (as, for instance, when a discussion of the great books of world literature proceeds to be mostly or all-white in content and lacking, most relevantly, any nod to the classics of the black world).
    But there might now be the worry that I’ve made black cultural resistance in the anti-assimilationist sense too easy and perhaps even simply unworthy of the name. It might seem, that is, like there would be some bite in the thesis that black people need to fulfill a specific set of cultural obligations (wear this, celebrate that holiday, go to this church, etc.) but that a general commitment to caring about and seeing some value in black culture is nothing to write home about and not what we think of when we think of maintaining cultural integrity. I would say in response that I am not trying to make black cultural nationalism toothless but I am also trying to give it the just right amount of teeth and no more, and if it turns out that the right amount seems relatively toothless in comparison with the extravagance of some other, more familiar versions, so be it. It’s still black cultural nationalism, I believe, because I see a commitment on the part of black people to maintain and encourage among themselves the maintenance of investment in and critical appreciation of black culture as leading, very naturally and directly, to the preservation and cultivation of black culture through forms of active participation. The reason I withhold “participation” from the definition of the duty is to emphasize that there is no demand here that one participates this much in this many particular practices, much less a precise specification of the practices in which one must participate (thus I aim to provide what some think impossible, a model of black cultural nationalism without racial essentialism). And yet it’s not so toothless as to be completely uncontroversial, because I do believe that the assimilating black person you have in mind is excluded: someone who identifies as black but as having no commitments whatsoever with regard to black culture, much less a commitment to being concerned about its content and direction, a commitment to finding and celebrating value within it, and a commitment to encouraging others to do the same (by the way, I see the last commitment as involving a special focus on the young, so as to facilitate a process of enculturation that stands in opposition to Eurocentrism and a resulting lack of pride on the part of black people).
    OK, having tried to spell out some of why I think there can be a defensible requirement to work toward the goal of preserving and cultivating black culture as part of resisting anti-black racism, let me now speak about the question in your last paragraph. I think Liam Bright’s attempt to defend my view against this counter-example was quite brilliant and I think what he says about the counter-example specifically is very close to what I want to say:
    “it would be consistent with Jeffers’ argument that being conspicuously-good-at-doing European-stuff is one way of resisting the cultural dimensions of racism. A person who adopted that strategy needn’t be accused of treachery, or anything so harsh. They are indeed doing something to advance the cause of anti-racism. But they could be accused of inefficiency, or of sub-optimal behaviour. They are not doing as much as they could to advance the cause of anti-racism.”
    What I want to say, I think, is that even the accusation of sub-optimal behaviour must rest on the assumption that we are talking about someone who is not only great at embodying the best of European culture but who refuses to consciously embody anything African/African-derived (i.e., anything culturally black). There is nothing sub-optimal, for example, about the great black opera singers who have, in so many instances, not only excelled at something considered the height of Europeanness but also practiced what I would call black cultural nationalism through their decisions to regularly and prominently feature spirituals in their repertoire (and it is of course obvious why Du Bois would agree that this is black cultural nationalism par excellence!).*
    Thus I want to say, as Liam thinks I should, that the person you describe does indeed resist anti-black racism but is lacking a commitment that I take to be necessary for fully participating in the struggle. What’s interesting and what I will admit to not having completely worked out is what to call the kind of resistance you describe. I have tended to use the term “cultural resistance” only for the defence of black difference (although this includes celebration of black cultural elements as distinctive contributions to Western culture). Distinguishing as I do between the political and cultural dimensions of race and racism, I have tended to use references to the “political” to refer to the justified fight for black sameness. And yet it seems odd to call the kind of resistance you describe political, not cultural, as it is precisely about culture. I could decide to accept that oddness, thus increasingly rendering “cultural” and “political” technical terms of mine, not mapping squarely onto common usage. I could avoid using those terms and come up with terms like “sameness resistance” and “difference resistance.” Perhaps there are other solutions as well. Something for me to think about.
    In any case, this brings to a close my first attempt at addressing your concerns, Tommie, and I’m sure I will continue to try to address them further as I respond to other comments and hopefully hear your reaction to my thoughts. I close by expressing once more my gratitude for this exchange.
    *For those who are not so familiar with Du Bois: the so-called “Negro spirituals,” which Du Bois calls the “sorrow songs,” are absolutely central to his depiction of the value of black culture in his best-known masterpiece, The Souls of Black Folk, but his love of opera is also on display in that book, especially in the chapter Ronald Sundstrom has already referred to in his comment (“Of the Coming of John”).

  7. Ron, many thanks for your comment. I’m glad you found my distinctions useful and my article a helpful expression of a view often voiced in the classroom.
    I agree that Herder is an especially important antecedent for Du Bois and I treated him as such in my dissertation. Here’s a quotation from Herder that I find particularly appropriate for considering the way he served as a precursor to Edward Blyden, Du Bois, the Negritude thinkers, and others in what I call the Black Gift tradition, which combines black cultural nationalism and cultural cosmopolitanism: “The Negro, the {Native} American, the Mongol has gifts, talents, preformed dispositions that the European does not have” (Herder, Philosophical Writings, 395).
    You are right that I don’t focus much on the importance to Du Bois of the elite in my article. The quotation on p. 419 that speaks of the cultural *destiny* of African Americans is indicative of what you gesture toward by speaking of culture as involving seeds to be developed: culture, for Du Bois, is a teleologically evolving process (indeed, at this point in his career, “culture” and “civilization” are still synonyms, although some have wrongly tried to argue that the essay therefore does not involve culture in our sense of the term).
    In any case, all this leads to the question of why we ought to pursue the question of race, culture, and the conservation of race through Du Bois. I have the personal reason, first of all, of finding Du Bois to be one of the most interesting thinkers that ever lived, so taking him as a starting point comes easy for me that way. But the reason others should care about taking him as a starting point I do in this essay is simply the accident of how philosophy of race developed after Appiah’s 1985 article. David Miguel Gray (who also has a forthcoming article on “Conservation”) has told me that he sometimes tells audiences that “Conservation” has attained the stature of something like Descartes’ Meditations for philosophy of race and African American philosophy. The way you and others have critically interpreted the essay has made it a sort of useful common ground and this is my major non-self-interested reason for taking it as my starting point (again, the self-interested reason is that I just love reading and writing about Du Bois).
    Let me close by saying that your comparison of a quotation from my article to the work of Baldwin humbles and honours me greatly, and I thank you very, very much.

  8. Let me heartily concur with others in this discussion who have praised Jeffers’ paper. Its refreshing take on Du Bois, positive assessment of Outlaw, and bold defense of a non-racist raced future is invigorating. Just as important is Jeffers’ sophisticated philosophical methodology: he develops a complex analysis that refuses linear causality or facile distinctions, and for that reason presents a more realistic analysis that can stand up to our best social science. On his account, we must understand the meaning of race as having multiply dynamic dimensions. Jeffers’ articulation of the political grounds of race, the cultural content of race, and the potential non-racist future of race should set the terms of the debate for some time to come.
    I largely agree with his account, but I do have some questions. Mainly, I want to raise questions about the broadly volitional character of Jeffers’ account, and also whether his account can stand as an account of race simpliciter, implying that it would include whiteness as well as all other races. Following Du Bois, Jeffers presents an account of race in relation to African Americans (or perhaps even more broadly Africana peoples of the diaspora, or possibly all black people whether in the diaspora or not). For this group, the history of colonialism and racist ideologies is obviously critical: without that history, it is reasonable to wonder whether the racial formation we think of as black identity would have emerged. Thus, the political theory of race accords a key causal role to non-black forces wielding both practices and ideas, not to mention weapons. In response to enslavement, forced migration, social terror, and group interpellation as belonging together, people developed cultural practices and traditions that form a broad and diverse family resemblance of content that makes up the cultural identity of blackness. Thus, although the political grounds of the category ‘blackness’ was not instigated by black people themselves, in regard to the category’s cultural content, it is black people’s agency, rather than non-black’s, that plays the primary role, though because it is a response to contextual conditions not of their own choosing there is no simple causal story to tell here.
    Shelby’s interesting question about whether one should be obliged to value racial identity or not, or assimilate or not, assumes, I think, a volitional capacity to value or to assimilate. But this assumption of our volitional capacity in regard to racial identities stands in tension with Jeffers’ acceptance, even into the non-racist future he optimistically imagines, of the validity of lines of descent as a criterion of inclusion. We might hold that it is up to us to decide whether, and how, to honor and remember our forebears, but I would argue this is not quite right. If we choose not to remember our forebears, we are choosing to forego self-knowledge, or an understanding of how we came to be who we are in a thick sense (perceptual attunements, affective orientations, as well as substantive cultural practices and ways of being in the world). Some may not wish to honor their lineage (here is where white differences may emerge), but remembering it at all seems less open to reasonable debate.
    Moreover, when one does remember one’s forebears, for example in the practice of Passover in which Jews recount macro historical experiences, there is an automatic effect of a kind of reinforcement. In other words, one cannot remember, especially when remembering is done in some public performance, without it having effects on one’s sense of self and thus one’s future way of being in the world. So, I would argue we choose not to remember at the peril of reducing self-knowledge, and as we remember we further reinforce the sense of self as substantively connected to a past and to certain others as well as to certain practices. Volitional capacity does not disappear—remembering is always an act of interpretation, as the diversity of the Haggadot read at Passover seders will attest—but our relation to the experiences of our forebears is not simply a volitional matter.
    Thus, I read Jeffers’ account as less volitional than Shelby’s questions would imply. We still have a range of choices to make to be sure, but the choice to escape our lineage entirely is not a realistic choice. I am curious about Jeffers’ response to this point.
    Now what does this mean for whiteness, or for other group categories of race? If this is truly a theory of ‘race,’ rather than a theory of African American racial identity, it would need to apply across the board. Jeffers notes the difference with whiteness in regard to what might be legitimate, that is, non-racist, attitudes toward the historical formation of one’s white racial identity. Expressions of white pride in a white past have always been in my experience motivated by racism. But Jeffers maintains the parallelism across white and black when he insists that it would be disingenuous of whites to disavow their whiteness. He further suggests that rejecting white privilege does not require rejecting all aspects of whiteness, and remembering the history of whiteness would be useful for motivating a social critique of hierarchy that will no doubt continue to be useful.
    I realize that Jeffers’ paper is not focused on whiteness, but there is much more to be said here given the different histories. If the political ground of whiteness is a social construction of unearned privilege, what will ground whiteness in a non-racist future? What is the discrete cultural content of whiteness that offers to unite—even under a family resemblance model—all the diverse ethnicities that were subsumed under the category? If super-exploitation and social terror were pretty indiscriminately applied to Africana peoples in the diaspora, making political unity a reasonable project, the privileges of whiteness were pretty meager for many poor whites as well as others within the group, such as the disabled, gays and lesbians, and so on. Thus, whiteness poses different, perhaps unique challenges for a future continuation. Like Jeffers, I believe simple disavowals of whiteness are disingenuous methods to escape responsibility, but (as he acknowledges) this does not resolve the difficult question of the future of whiteness.
    So if Jeffers’ and Du Bois’s counsel on racial identity for black people doesn’t quite apply in all respects to whites, is it really a theory of race in general? We must go beyond blacks and whites to ask about further racial categories, each of which, I would suspect, holds specific and unique challenges both to backward looking and forward looking practices. The category of “Latino” has been unquestionably racialized in the minds of white racists, signaling an inassimilable, uneducated, inferior grouping undeserving of social inclusion, yet this category is too internally diverse for talk of a shared culture. Asian Americans, an even more diverse grouping, are also racialized but the racism they face takes a markedly different form from the attributions of intellectual inferiority we generally associate with the term.
    Joshua Glasgow asks Jeffers why he insists on the concept of race when his future projection predicts a move to a cultural or ethnic form of identity. I think Jeffers is right to maintain the importance of the concept of race—it is what explains the past as well as the formation of the present that will no doubt persist into the future for some time—but I wonder why he does not avail himself of the concept of ethnorace. This concept may make it easier to accommodate the differences both among and within the categories, acknowledging the need for a specific analysis of each.
    I look forward to more debate on the ideas Jeffers has provided for us.

  9. From Chike Jeffers:
    I started a reply to Josh but my wife has gone into labour… will obviously be busy! But I thank everyone who has participated thus far, I look forward to reading the contributions of some who have told me they plan to post comments in the near future, and eventually I will reply to everyone. Thanks again (and I will have news about a baby next time I reply!).

  10. Congratulations Chike! That is awesome! Wishing your whole family the best.

  11. I would like to join the chorus of admirers and friendly critics of excellent Jeffers’s paper, and express some discomfort engaging in philosophic debate when Jeffers is engaging with the joy and challenges of a new life in his family. I have been an admirer of Jeffers since I heard him present an extremely fine critique of Shelby’s views at a conference of the California Roundtable on Philosophy and Race a few years ago. I am very pleased to see the current piece published in Ethics.
    Jeffers’s account of Du Bois depends on drawing a distinction between the political and the cultural. He uses it to contrast two different accounts of race in Du Bois’s essay. He contrasts two different forms of racism by means of it.
    Jeffers also argues for the importance of culture to black identity, and the importance of taking culture seriously as part of a racialized existence, and as a source of personal value connected with racial identity (except for whites: see below). But I think Jeffers overstates the importance of culture to racial meaning by the way it is contrasted with “the political.” The characterization of the political does not do justice to the tradition of thinking about race in the political way that Jeffers rightly recognizes to be an alternative to the cultural one.
    The political view is essentially that race is created by the subjugation of one group by another as rationalized by a (racial) ideology—“the power dynamic separating people into dominant and subordinate groups.” (409) Jeffers agrees that race is political in this sense. He thinks race is both political and cultural, and I agree. My concern is that he includes within the “cultural” as opposed to the political everything that racial groups thus created do in response to, and subsequent to, this initial creation of race. It includes the “forms of life” racialized groups adopt (412: “valuable forms of life to be celebrated rather than eradicated”). The “cultural” becomes the locus of belonging, pride, tradition, and meaningfulness, connected to one’s racial identity.
    This way of counterposing political and cultural is expressed particularly clearly on 420:
    “There is no doubt that part of why race has such a major impact on our lives, especially the lives of people of color, is because, historically and in the resent, it has functioned by slotting people into positions of relative privilege and disadvantage. The political theory of race captures this well. And yet, in speaking of the impact of race on our lives we necessarily speak of the shaping of lives by our socialization into particular ways of life where being of this or that race is among the modes of identification that influence how we think and act. Race must therefore also be understood as a cultural phenomenon.”
    What seems to me misleading about this formulation is that practices, traditions, modes of activity, and ways of life that groups racialized in the political sense create are often focused directly on the unjust disadvantage, stigma, and discrimination that they suffer. These involve attempts to challenge that unjust disadvantage, to undermine the ideologies on which they rest, to organize their members and their allies to change those power relations and to assert power for themselves. U.S. slavery provides a clear and instructive example. Slaves engaged in rebellions, carefully planned escapes (for example by means of the “Underground Railroad,”) sometimes formed communities of freed slaves, spoke out publicly against slavery and organized to challenge slavery through the Abolitionist movement. These activities would naturally be thought of as “political,” at least in the sense that they aim to challenge “positions of relative advantage and disadvantage,” but also in the sense that an identity formed around these practices and the traditions of resistance to which they contributed, engages directly with what Jeffers is calling the “political” aspect of race.
    Jeffers implies that the “political” is what happens to the group, and the “cultural” is what they do in response to it. He generally implies that all forms of meaning-creating through engaging with one’s racial group traditions are “cultural.” Perhaps in some sense they are—but not in a sense that contrasts with the “political.” He does not explicitly recognize the way that the political in the sense of resistance to racialization figures into collective and individual meaning-making, into historical collective memory, into the ways we can gain a sense of belonging to an historical community defined partly not only by being mistreated, discriminated against, and stigmatized (on racial grounds) by others but by how our ancestors and our current group responded and responds to that mistreatment, how it creates “ways of life” infused with that political project. We can take pride not only in the cultural forms created by our people but in the political projects and practices they engage(d) in.
    Jeffers does not deny any of this. And perhaps he would draw on his often-cited recognition that the cultural and the political are often intertwined in the life of racial groups. Nevertheless his portrayal of that mixture does not give adequate recognition to its more distinctly political dimension.
    In his reply to Shelby’s post, Jeffers says he wants to rescue a form of cultural nationalism that does not fall afoul of Shelby’s critique of racial essentialism, and promote cultural nationalism in response to Shelby’s argument to exclude cultural nationalism from black political solidarity. I was convinced when I heard Jeffers present a form of this argument at the CRPR, as mentioned above. But in the Ethics piece he goes too far in the other direction, sidelining Shelby’s articulation of a purely political form of response to stigmatization, discrimination, and, indeed, racialization. Shelby’s argument shows how the political can ground a sense of meaning, belonging, tradition, and solidarity. Jeffers fails to recognize this in his article. But his resuscitation of a form of black cultural nationalism does not require it. It requires only that the importance of the cultural dimension not be overstated through a diminution of the political, when the two are being contrasted.
    I think this point relates to Jeffers’s remarks on white identity. I agree with Alcoff in wanting more but I think Jeffers is basically heading in a good direction on this. But I think he should bite the bullet of the logic of his argument and say that the idea of white cultural identity should be decisively rejected. Jeffers says that black cultural identity is reactive to white racism, and will, even in the envisioned post-racist society, continue to draw on the memory of that racism. By this logic, there cannot be a white cultural identity worth having. There can be white ethnic cultural traditions (as Jeffers recognizes), but not racial-cultural ones.
    However, there can be a white political identity worth having, one that recognizes unjust white privilege and takes its stand against that privilege, drawing on traditions of whites who have been part of the struggle for racial justice. An anti-racist white political identity is a counterpart of a black one, and can be a source of meaningfulness and of belonging to a tradition. It cannot be a source of racial belonging however, and in that way is not analogous to black identity. (I think this is essentially Jeffers’s view but the cultural/political framework is not made fully explicit.)

  12. Chike, great paper! I learned a lot from reading it. Although I’m no Du Bois expert, I find your reading of “Conservation” compelling and persuasive. However, I, like Josh, am more interested in the metaphysical claims you make about race. In particular, I would like to step back and ask some questions about semantics. I have three. My first question is below.
    You talk about “the concept of race” in your paper, but I cannot find where you state which concept of race you take yourself to be articulating the meaning of. Are you giving a meaning for ‘race’ in U.S. discourse (throughout U.S. history), in just contemporary U.S. discourse, in discourse across all societies that use ‘race’, or some other linguistic community or sets of linguistic communities? I ask because words are just communicative devices, and very well can shift meanings across different linguistic communities. I believe Josh talks about semantic shift in chapter 3 of his book. For that reason, many people specify the linguistic community they’re interested in. For instance, Ron Sundstrom, Paul Taylor, Larry Blum, Josh Glasgow, Sally Haslanger, and many others all express a vested interest in contemporary U.S. racial discourse. But seeing as how you’re Canadian, I was wondering whether you saw yourself as articulating a meaning for ‘race’ in contemporary U.S. racial discourse as well? If not, then you very well may be talking past Paul Taylor, Sally Haslanger, and others who are focused on current American race talk. For instance, it’s possible that Canadian race talk is such that ‘race’ picks out a cultural social construct, while American race talk is such that ‘race’ picks out a political social construct. I suspect that you do take your meaning of ‘race’ to at least cover contemporary U.S. discourse since you take yourself to be responding to people like Taylor and Haslanger, but I just wanted to make sure. So, my question is, who’s use of ‘race’ is your theory of race a theory about?
    Second, given your answer to my first question, I would like to know what evidence you use to justify a descriptivist modeling of your meaning of ‘race’? For example, you mention that ancestry is part of the concept of race, but why think that ordinary ideas about race constrain what race is, as opposed to just providing reference-fixers for an object that ‘race’ directly refers to (in the relevant ordinary discourse)?
    Third, I see from footnote 62 that you point to Hardimon (2003) as evidence for ancestral content in the concept of race. However, Hardimon’s evidence for that claim is based solely on the etymology of ‘race’ (the English ‘race’ comes from ‘razza’, which means ‘lineage’ in Italian). But the problem here is that this evidence is seriously confounded. For instance, the current American English ‘race’ could simply be an eponym of its Italian predecessor. Also, it could be the case that ‘race’ once had ancestral content in its U.S. meaning, but its meaning has since shifted. In other words, pointing to etymology to defend current semantic content presupposes that no semantic shift has occurred, which we have no evidence for, especially in the case of ‘race’. So, I was wondering what evidence you use to place ancestral content in the concept of race?
    Thanks for putting up with my questions! Again, great article, and congratulations on the newborn!

  13. I’m coming to this discussion a bit late but I have enjoyed reading it greatly. (And my congratulations to the new addition to your family Chike!). I’ve often told my students that Du Bois’ Conservation occupies the fundamental position in philosophy of race that Descartes’ Meditation II occupies in many an introduction to philosophy course. (Although I think Du Bois has been recovering from Appiah’s critiques a bit better than Descartes has from Princess Elizabeth’s). Jeffers has provided us with an insightful and fresh look at Conservation and offered a compelling reading. One of the great strengths of Jeffers’ essay is how he clearly brings out the paradoxical claim of emphasizing equal treatment in virtue of preserving differences among groups. This paradox is easily dissolved but rarely so well:
    “The message here, one which I believe is absolutely crucial, is that racism works and must be addressed both in terms of the way it creates difference and the way it suppresses difference. Insofar as racist social structures create difference in the sense of refusing black people the same opportunities for power and resources that white people have, black people must fight for sameness. On the other hand, insofar as racist discourse sets up the ways and values of white people as the standard by which black people are judged to be deficient, thus denigrating black cultural traditions and creativity, black people ought to resist the pressure for sameness. What Du Bois articulates in “Conservation,” then, is a sharp critique of Eurocentrism: he claims that the liberation of black people requires that they demand equal rights and fair treatment but that they simultaneously affirm that “their destiny is not a servile imitation of Anglo-Saxon culture, but a stalwart originality which shall unswervingly follow Negro ideals.”
    I just have a few questions/comments concerning what Jeffers’ takes to be Du Bois political theory of race as I hope to get a better understanding of Jeffers’ view of Du Bois.
    Jeffers delineates three theories of race in Conservation: the political, the scientific, and the cultural/sociohistorical, and the . He takes it that while the three are presented Du Bois promotes the cultural theory. Jeffers pronounces:
    “I would thus identify the first theory of race that Du Bois describes and evaluates as claiming that race is fundamentally political—that the substance of race, the only basis for the division of humanity into distinct races, is the power dynamic separating people into dominant and subordinate groups.”
    And a little further on,
    “He[Du Bois] is acutely aware, of course, of the problems of antiblack oppression and the false ideas used to legitimize it. Nevertheless, he thinks that seeing oppressive group relations and their discursive rationalization as exhausting the reality of race constitutes a failure to penetrate the surface of the topic, and he implores us to go beyond the “pressing, but smaller” issues of racial injustice in order to confront race in all its breadth.”
    There are clear political motivations for Du Bois’ projects in Conservation, but I’m a bit confused as to why Jeffers claims there is a full blown political theory of race here (this is an honest confusion: a few citations might clear this up). Developing a political theory of race and elucidating its shortcomings would be useful for motivating the cultural theory; but, it could be that the political motivations for social and political equality are all that are needed to motivate the cultural theory.
    Granting that there is such a political theory of race in Du Bois, there’s also a distinction to be drawn between a political theory of race, as used in Du Bois’ time versus socially constructed political theories of race. I think that Du Bois, on Jeffers’ interpretation, takes it that political institutions treat races as real in order to justify discriminatory treatment (I think this is what is meant by “antiblack oppression and the false ideas used to legitimize it”). But if these were the sanctioning devices for discriminatory treatment, I take it that Du Bois thinks that they would depend on some sort of realist conception of race. This political theory of race would have two faults with it. First, it’s fundamentally scientific. Second, it doesn’t recognize the importance of culture. A few words of clarification concerning which one(s) Du Bois is using would be appreciated (I take it Jeffers’ intends the latter socially constructed theory (e.g. see page 411), but I’m not completely sure why). I think both motivate the investigation of a cultural theory of race.
    I take it that the cultural theory of race helps provide motivation for racial solidarity and that Jeffers finds political theories of race inadequate in this endeavor. But, I’d like to hear from Jeffers a bit more about how much work a political theory of race could do in terms of explaining what makes races distinctive. Are discriminated groups discriminated against in different ways such that we get the racial classifications we use? If so, can we call upon these distinctions in such a way that doesn’t already assume what races are? (or if it is ok to makes these presumptions, why so?). What forms of discrimination are included in a political theory of race and what forms are excluded (e.g. discriminatory treatment based on gender and class)?
    On a related point , Jeffers suggests that “the political theory of race gives us clear reason to hope for and work toward the abolition of races.” However, given Du Bois’ and Jeffers’ conservation project, I take it that this will end up being a shortcoming of a political theory.
    However, I’m not sure that a political theory would require anything like the abolition of race. For instance, programs of compensatory and distributive justice might call for the acknowledgement of distinct races. Political acknowledgement of races and governmental protection from oppressive groups can help reduce the prejudice that these groups suffer. Thus, it seems that both a political and cultural theory of race have something to contribute to the project of social equality and neither would require a disavowal or abolition of racial distinctions.
    Jeffers warns us to keep separate Du Bois’ political motivation for his project in Conservation from a political theory of race. Taylor is then cited as a cautionary tale of what happens when one conflates these issues. But what is given is an argument in which Jeffers rightfully points out that we shouldn’t use Du Bois’ position 40 years on to explain Du Bois’ earlier position. In the following paragraph, Jeffers mentions how these issues of motivation and racial theory come together in Taylor’s own work. So I’m wondering what precisely was Taylor’s error: projecting his view onto Du Bois? Additionally, does Jeffers think that the latter Du Bois would be committed to a conflation of political motivations and racial theory? Does Taylor accurately capture Du Bois’ view in Dusk if not Conservation? So I’m hoping he can say a bit more about this set of issues.
    This is a highly enjoyable essay that deserves multiple readings (and I’m sure some of my questions will reveal that I have not had time for this yet).

  14. Hello everybody. Three weeks ago, my son Ayo Jelani Jeffers, my second child, was born. His older sister (Aminata), my wife, and I are all very happy!
    I apologize for taking quite a while to rejoin the discussion and I am very grateful to those who posted comments during my absence.
    Let me now reply to Josh. Thanks, Josh, for your questions. You are right to press me on distinguishing origin, existence, and significance. You ask, first of all, whether I’m saying races just are cultures, as opposed to making the less controversial point that races have some cultural significance. I am not saying that races just are cultures if “cultures” here is being used in opposition to all other types of social distinctions, as I argue that what all plausible social constructionist accounts must do is account for culture and politics – ways of life and power relations – in accounting for the existence of races. So if you were confused about my endorsement of a political theory of the origin of races because you thought my intention was to argue that races are purely cultural, then the answer is no, I was not saying that. I argue that we have reason to follow Du Bois in seeing the cultural aspect of the existence of races as highly significant, but he is the one that can more reasonably, if not completely accurately, be seen as saying that racial difference is nothing more than cultural difference. I would deny that.
    So what are races? Races, on my account, are a certain kind of social group. They involve the *significance* of particular appearances and ancestries, but the *existence* of these biologically based aspects of race are insufficient for the *existence* of races. Since we social constructionists argue that many of these physical/genealogical profiles pre-existed races, the question of *origin* becomes a central part of the question of *existence*, although I argue that we must not let it become so central that we assume that the condition of origin (a certain power relationship) must persist if races are to continue to exist. But this is why I am not off-topic in addressing the circularity charge while addressing the question of origin. I would love to hear more about why you think that charge has not been answered. I think it is clear that my account is not circular in the way that Appiah suggested that (a certain interpretation of one criterion of) Du Bois’ account is circular, and that is of course a different matter from whether or not my account of race is acceptable overall. Knowing some of your general criticisms of non-biological accounts of the nature of race, I am not surprised that you don’t accept my account but I cannot guess as yet why you would think it can be shown to be circular on its own assumptions, if that’s what you think.
    Why tie the bringing together of unity, equality, and diversity to race? Well, we should bring those together generally, so the link is not exclusive. My argument is that, in the case of racial difference, here too such a goal is worthy and valuable. Note that there’s also a claim here about the nature of racism, namely, that if one ignores issues concerning the stigmatization of cultural difference, one will fail to address racism in its totality. I think neither the idea that culture is really what matters when, say, black culture is being stigmatized nor the idea that it is really race, not culture, that matters in such cases can be sustained. It is rather both race and culture which are at stake. Note that the practical goal of achieving diversity and equality is not taken here to be a reason for thinking that race is constituted, in part, by cultural difference – that practical goal is indeed not properly tied to race if the constitution claim is rejected. So the question remains whether I can convince you of the constitution claim.
    With that in mind, let us move to the question of which worlds Al Gore counts as white in. Social constructionists are committed, irreversibly, to the admittedly counter-intuitive claim that someone who looks like Al Gore but was born, say, a Teuton in Europe in the 2nd century BC is *not white*. Insofar as Al Gore looking like he does but not counting as white is enough to defeat a theory, social constructionism stands no chance in the face of your intuition. What I have long found curious is your attachment to this intuition given that you don’t think races actually exist – it seems to me that if the social constructionist has reason to be embarrassed, it is in front of the everyday person who thinks it is obvious that race exists, not an anti-realist like yourself who is also demanding that we revise our common sense notions concerning race. A social constructionist like myself takes the existence of people having of a physical profile relevantly similar to Al Gore’s as necessary but not sufficient to the existence of white people. Is that a position you can imagine being true? Or is it a nonstarter?
    I agree with you – against a strict political constructionist – that a world in which races are equal is possible and I agree with you – against what you thought me to be saying – that a culturally uniform world that still has races in it is also imaginable. But I also don’t find it very useful to try to reach these conclusions with fantastical thought experiments, such as those that redistribute practices randomly in an instant. I reach those conclusions that I share with you based on what I can imagine as a possible future given the history of the world as we know it and the nature of the human body as we know it (this is why I’m not a fan of the thought experiments you use to thin out the concept of race, stripping ancestry and geographical origin from the concept, as they require imagining fantastical scenarios or rendering ourselves unnecessarily ignorant about how human reproduction works). I can imagine (and I desire) racial identification persisting as a meaningful cultural practice past the end of racism. Likewise, I can imagine (but do not desire) a culturally homogenous world in which appearance and ancestry is still significant and still a source of hierarchy. I do not treat the end of cultural difference as the end of racial difference. What I argue, against political constructionism, is that neither should we treat the end of hierarchical difference as the end of racial difference.

  15. Linda, your very kind assessment of my article and its potential impact honour me greatly. Thank you very much.
    I am definitely sympathetic to your thoughts about the need to not over-emphasize or overplay the volitional component in relating to one’s heritage. I am reminded of one of the best attempts by Sandel to articulate the communitarian insight: “As a self-interpreting being, I am able to reflect on my history and in this sense to distance myself from it, but the distance is always precarious and provisional, the point of reflection never finally secured outside the history itself.” That being said, I don’t think Tommie made assumptions about what we can or cannot do in relation to our heritage that I would want to reject. You may be right that most of us cannot choose whether to remember our heritage and certainly there are some basic ways in which we simply cannot escape our lineage, but I think Tommie is correctly challenging me on the relevant normative questions concerning how we ought to remember our heritage and what one ought to make of one’s lineage in bringing one’s individual contributions to the social process of the creation of one’s self. I agree that seeking to forget where we came from is a way of forgoing self-knowledge, but I think of that as a strong move on our side in the debate, not a point that shows the other side to be already laden with untenable or incompatible assumptions.
    You ask important questions about whiteness and its future. You wonder what would ground white identity as a cultural formation in a post-racist future in which the benefit of privilege could no longer motivate this form of self-identification. Well, note first that many people are much more comfortable making generalizations about something called “Western culture” than they are about something called “black culture” (and I, like Du Bois in “Conservation,” have a Pan-Africanist rather than solely African American scope in mind when thinking about the latter). But what do they have in mind when they speak of Western culture? Generally, they have in mind the culture of white-dominated societies. In Europe, the specific ethnic culture or set of cultures of the “native” inhabitants is taken to be representative of one portion of this larger expanse of Westernness. In settler societies, on the other hand, we often have the interesting phenomenon of whiteness going unmarked and even treated as “no (specific) culture,” although the national identity of being American, Canadian, Australian, etc., is understood to participate in the larger cultural formation of the West. But the idea of having no culture is, of course, anthropological nonsense. I suggest, in the paper, that what’s problematic about the distinctive experience of being white in the Western world is, in the first instance, the way that it has been privileged, not the constellation of beliefs, values, practices, etc., that we might choose to call “white culture.” That white culture is greatly influenced and shaped by the cultures and contributions of people of colour is a useful point in the face of racist conceptions of its purity and superiority, but it is not yet, I believe, a reason to deny its existence.
    So what I imagine will sustain white identity in a post-racist world is a form of cultural self-identification rooted in the specific historical trajectory of European and European-descended cultural formations. There is incentive, at present, for white people wishing to avoid the appearance of racism to treat ethnic communities with which they can identify as easily detachable from this larger historical trajectory of whiteness/Europeanness. Such incentive would no longer be there in a post-racist world. As for the ways class, sexuality, and ability also enable some self-distancing from the aura of privilege associated with whiteness, this can be even more disingenuous than self-distancing on ethnic grounds. Poor white folks, gay white folks, disabled white folks are not as a rule less distinct culturally from non-white counterparts simply as a consequence of their disadvantage.
    I have things to say about Latino and Asian identities, but I want to hold off and express them in a future response, after responding to others. On the notion of “ethnorace,” though, I will admit that I am not attracted to its usage for a number of reasons. Its ability to highlight culture may make it useful for the projects of others, but given my desire to destabilize the sidelining of culture when thinking of race, it is advantageous for me to stick with the word “race” when making my arguments. I also worry, though, that it can too easily be used to paper over the confusing intersection of race and culture, relieving us of the challenge of understanding this intersection in all its complexity. I would not want to accuse you of such papering, given how extremely useful your work is in showing the complicated nature of this intersection (in the case of Latinos, especially). Nevertheless, I worry that “ethnorace” can be treated or, better yet, *abused* as a sort of throwing up of the hands, let’s-just-have-our-cake-and-eat-it-too move in the face of these complications.

  16. Larry, thanks so much for your comments. Your support ever since we met at the Roundtable in 2010 has been greatly appreciated.
    I view your first criticism as completely constructive, not only because I presume that that’s how you (like the other participants in this discussion) intend it to be taken but also because I certainly share your concern that we should not draw too thick a line between the political and cultural aspects of race, making them too unlike and unrelated. As you anticipate, I believe my suggestion in the article that every aspect of social life is always both political and cultural goes some way toward addressing this concern. But I am happy for the opportunity to further clarify and I recognize that in future work, I have to strive to more clearly avoid confusion about this matter.
    Your primary concern, as I understand it, is that the way I draw the line in the article makes it sound like the cultural dimension of race is all about the agency of group members and the political dimension all about what is done to the group by others. You rightfully note that an important part of what it means for race to be political is that agency is exercised on the part of groups such as black people as they struggle against oppression. Black people – myself included – often take great pride not only in our cultural traditions that could arguably exist independently of this struggle but also in the collective effort involved in resisting white supremacy right now. Let me further note that, just as the political is not just about what happens to the group, the cultural dimension of race is not just about what originates within the group. It is also partly produced by conditions not generated by group members (including oppressive circumstances).
    That being said, I still believe that one very important distinction between the political and cultural dimensions of race is the way that a focus on the former leads us to seek the end of race, while a focus on the latter does not. The agency on the part of the oppressed is very significant but it is aimed at bringing an end to the condition of being oppressed. The agency I point toward in highlighting the cultural dimension of race is aimed at the perpetuation of group identity. It is thus a form of agency we have reason to project indefinitely into the future, whereas we have reason to hope that the agency exercised in relation to the political dimension of race will one day no longer be necessary. Whether I am critiquing Shelby or not, this difference is an important one for me to articulate and I will try, in my future work, to ensure that I do so in a way that does not suggest that agency, meaning-making, etc., are strictly cultural, not political.
    Coming now to white identity, I do not yet feel ready to bite the bullet you suggest I should bite. I still think a white cultural identity in the post-racist world is possible. You suggest that the logic of my argument negates this possibility because I treat black cultural identity as reactive to white racism. Is your thought here that I must be suggesting that racial culture only comes about as a result of and in opposition to to whiteness, and thus whiteness cannot persist as a cultural reality in a post-racist world? This is not what I intend to argue. I would put things this way: whiteness, like blackness, like various forms of indigenous identity, like various forms of Asianness, like racial identities of all kinds, is originally produced by Europe’s imperial project. The cultural identities formed in the wake of this project are not wholly “reactive” if, by this, we mean that they are, in content, somehow completely dependent on this imperial project. These identities are importantly shaped by pre-existing traditions. Think of Native/Aboriginal identity in North America and the ways in which many associate a certain spiritual relationship with nature with this identity. Whatever this is (a pan-ethnic religion? a proto-environmentalism?) and however central it is or ought to be to indigenous identity in North America (as you will recall, my commitment to non-essentialism requires that I advocate no fixed position on such questions), it seems clear that it is not best understood as something wholly created by the experience of colonialism.
    One of the implications of this is that white cultural identity too should be seen as relying in part on pre-existing traditions. Many of us believe that, prior to whiteness as we know it, there existed what we call Christendom. Without trying to argue too much with historians about the relationship between these cultural constructs, I would argue that we can talk about the centrality of Christianity to pre-white European identities without completely collapsing this orientation into the project of European imperialism. Part of why this is important is that this way in which Christianity has historically been central to white identity need not die with the end of racism. I say this not because I am predicting that white identity in the post-racist world will involve widespread adherence to the Christian faith – I need not predict this and the opposite can be true without affecting my point. What I am suggesting is that if white cultural identity exists in a post-racist world, it will be a cultural identity that understandably and non-perniciously venerates cultural traditions shaped by Christianity. The history of literature and music among European people/people of European descent, for example, cannot be understood without taking this historical importance of Christianity into account.
    I have emphasized traditions that pre-exist race as we know it in large part to correct the misperception of racial cultural identity as I conceive of it as wholly reactive (what I used “reactions” to describe in the article are “calls for black pride”). But I can see aspects of white culture that only arise in the modern period (the period of the rise of white supremacy) as innocently surviving into the post-racist period as well. I know this view is controversial, but it remains the bullet I wish to bite, not the one that preserves white-vs.-non-white asymmetry by assuming the death of whiteness in order to imagine the death of racism.

  17. Chike, congratulations again on your family’s new addition! And thanks for your lengthy reply. I’d be happy to get into the circularity (+redundancy/indeterminacy) objection, but maybe it would be better to do so later: it’s tangential to your main concerns and my main questions, and it partly depends on the answer to those main questions, about which I’m not yet fully clear.
    Returning, then, to the question of what exactly race is on the Duboisian view articulated in your article, I appreciate the clarification, though I’m still somewhat unclear on the details. If I follow you now, you claim that what makes a group of people a race, as opposed to a non-racial group — be it an economic class or a gardening club or whatever – is neither merely political (plus recruited physical) facts nor merely cultural (plus recruited physical) facts, but some combination of physical and political and cultural facts about that group. Is that accurate? If so, are the political and cultural elements both necessary, or would one suffice?
    I ask both out of curiosity and because it will impact how to evaluate the view. Consider, for example, this claim from your latest comment to me: “I agree with you – against a strict political constructionist – that a world in which races are equal is possible and I agree with you – against what you thought me to be saying – that a culturally uniform world that still has races in it is also imaginable.” That suggests to me that neither political nor cultural facts make a group a race. (If that’s right, I’m happy to see that we’re in agreement that strict political constructionism and strict cultural constructionism don’t work!) But then it also appears to leave the constructionist facing the question of what social facts make groups races. That is, if race can (hypothetically) outlive any particular power distributions and any particular cultural distributions, then it looks like race is neither political nor cultural nor the conjunction or disjunction of the two. So I’m having trouble seeing how to generate a viable constructionist theory out of these various factors given the anti-constructionist points you agree with in that bit I just quoted. (Or maybe I’m over-reading your article to take it to be not only offering a new reading of Du Bois but also suggesting a viable constructionist model?)
    I’m also not sure I follow your reply to my second question. My question was: if the value in question is the ability to have both cultural difference and equality/unity, why not secure this value via culture? Why do we need race, too? (Thus my question was actually meant to be somewhat different than the one Linda attributed to me: not whether we have any reason to maintain the concept of race, but whether the specific arguments for keeping it put forth in your paper, Chike, actually justify keeping the concept of culture instead of race.) I appreciate your point in response that culture isn’t necessarily exclusively valuable, and I was trying to grant that the goal in question is valuable. I just was looking for more about how conserving race helps us achieve this goal in addition to what we achieve by conserving culture. Or is the idea that it’s just a coin-flip, and we could just as well conserve either one? Or, for a third alternative, is the idea that we might get the value in any number of ways—we could just as well invent a new social distinction, wherein we consciously divide ourselves into those with attached earlobes and those with detached earlobes, and then get that value that way as well? I.e., we don’t need race to get the value, but the more ways of getting this value, the better?
    On my third question, about the Al Gore case, I need to hear more about why you find my position “curious,” but let me clarify a bit. My basic worry about constructionist theories of race is that they are not theories of race, relevantly so-called. (What counts as the relevant usage of the term is of course a big question.) This worry can be shared by both anti-realists like myself and what you call the “everyday person.” It is akin to being an anti-realist about mermaids (as I am!) and arguing against someone who believes that manatees are mermaids: what this person has identified as mermaids are not actually mermaids, relevantly so-called. (I can share that argument with an ancient sailor who is an “everyday” realist about mermaids.) To your other question, the Al Gore cases are just supposed to help show that social facts do not determine race. They indicate, but do not fully demonstrate, that physical facts are all there is to race. (My more elaborate view is that visible traits are supposed to fully determine racial groups, but ancestry can help determine the racial membership of individuals. A cluster of arguments is needed to get all the way there, though.)
    In any event, it sounds like we agree about what verdict is most intuitive in such cases, although we disagree about the evidential value of such cases. You seem to think that the less likely a case is, the less evidential value it has. As a preliminary I should say that my suspicion is that some of the outcomes described in my cases are not so improbable: I suspect that someday cultural practices and political power might well be distributed independently of race. Also, I don’t think that some of the arguments you reference, the ones about thinning out the concept, actually do take us very far from real life: history provides plenty of real-life cases of people who are ignorant or who represent race differently than we do today. But in any case, I do take “fantastical” cases to have real evidential value. I think that “fantastical” cases like Frankfurt-style cases or Putnam-style twin earth scenarios tell us a lot about the boundaries of our concepts (e.g., responsibility and alternate possibilities), which is what this particular question is about (whether socially defined groups count as races, relevantly so-called). My view is that all respectable theories are going to accommodate reality pretty well; we need to attend to novel experiments, thought or otherwise, both to abstract away potential confounds and to find tests that can adequately differentiate between the various theories.

  18. Quayshawn, my brother, thank you for your questions. The first thing to be said is that I take myself to be talking about something global and thus not restricted to one particular linguistic community or social context. Du Bois certainly took himself to be talking about a worldwide phenomenon, albeit one with different import in different places. Speaking to the American Negro Academy, his intention was to think about race as broadly as possible but then also arrive at practical implications relating specifically to black life in the US. As for me, I am, as you note, Canadian, but this is not a piece in which I try to speak very specifically to the Canadian context (for such a piece, see my recent article, “Do We Need African Canadian Philosophy?” in Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review/Revue canadienne de philosophie). There is no doubt that North America as a broad context including both the US and Canada shapes my perspective greatly, but I take race to be a global phenomenon and thus did not intend to circumscribe my thoughts in such a way as to be speaking to the North American context alone.
    Now, it is true that one way in which I can be seen as speaking *primarily* to North Americans is by noticing that I am intervening in debates in philosophy of race as a subdiscipline of academic philosophy, and it is true that this field is heavily dominated by North Americans and, indeed, by folks in the US, in particular (although the new book on the field that many of us have been discussing and reviewing is by a Brit located in Australia!). You list a number of these American folks, some of whom have already participated in this conversation, while suggesting that defining a particular linguistic context to be addressed is helpful.
    But it is misleading, I think, to treat the people you name as equally devoted to privileging US racial discourse in their work. Josh does indeed very blatantly identify contemporary US discourse as his target in trying to analyze the concept of race, but it would be a mistake to treat this circumscription as similar to what Paul is doing when he declares the centrality of US discourse to his work. When Paul talks in Ch. 1.2 of his book about writing from a certain perspective within the US, he is quick to point out, first of all, that this is therefore a perspective shaped by particularly English ideas of human diversity (it should be clear that this already draws important connections between not just the US and the UK but also the US and Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the anglophone Caribbean, etc.). Beyond that, though, and more importantly, Paul goes on to argue that while we may follow Root in holding that race does not travel, it is compatible with that to hold that the concept of race does (or, as he puts it, “terms in a racial vocabulary” may not travel but “race, as a principle of social differentiation” does) (2nd ed., p. 9). Since you are asking about the very idea of race and not just particular racial terms, I think this is enough to show that Paul is not a good example of marking one’s linguistic context as a means of allowing for distinctions between divergent concepts expressed by the term “race.”
    About the other philosophers you name: I believe Ron and Sally are like Paul, that is, their attempts at fixing the concept of race do not seem geared toward explaining what’s going on in US discourse specifically, even if US racial realities provide their primary points of reference (indeed, it is pretty important to Sally’s project that she not be understood as striving to capture what some particular folk take race to be). Larry, I would admit, is perhaps a bit more like Josh in taking as his primary concern what he takes to be a particularly US idea of race. But what is the significance of all this? Well, you raise the worry that my emphasis on the cultural aspect of race might be more suited to Canada and less suited to the US if it turns out that Canadian race-talk picks out a primarily culture-based social construction while US race-talk picks out something primarily political. Interestingly, Larry can be seen as suggesting in Ch. 6 of I’m Not a Racist But… (in the section entitled “European Variants of Racial Thought,” pp. 126-127) that the European conception of race has traditionally been more cultural and less phenotypical than the US conception of race. But it is significant that Larry also recognizes the US conception of race as a product of the European conception (p. 111) and furthermore sees the European conception in recent times as having “moved closer” to the American model (p. 127). What Larry is really onto here, I think, is the mutual shading into each other of the concepts of race and ethnicity, and this is a story usefully told from a global perspective, one which will give the US’s heavy influence in the process its due but without pretending that talk of “race” anywhere in the world can be sharply distinguished from talk of “race” anywhere else. For this reason, I find your worry to be unnecessary and pushing in the wrong direction.
    Your second question is about whether ordinary ideas about race constrain what race is. It is closely related to the third question concerning whether ancestry is part of the concept of race. Note first that I think all social constructionists have to admit that ordinary ideas about what race is do not constrain what race is – as I suggested in my reply to Josh, social constructionists take facts about time and place to constrain whether someone counts as a member of a race in ways that sharply conflict with ordinary intuitions about race membership. More generally, it can be argued that it is an ordinary idea about race that it depends on biology in a way that social contructionists join anti-realists in rejecting. But since social constructionists depart from anti-realists by holding that ordinary discourse about race, though perhaps confused, nevertheless refers to real entities, it becomes incumbent upon social constructionists to justify departures from ordinary discourse in a way that anti-realists do not have to.
    Let us come now to the ancestral component of race. I can’t see what would justify departing from the common sense position that one is normally born into a race. I actually have a paper I have been working on in which I argue that there are special cases in which one can choose one’s race, but those are special cases (related to the phenomenon of racial ambiguity). Can you help me think of why one would doubt that people are normally the race they are partly because their parents were the race or races they were?
    I strongly disagree with your characterization and assessment of Hardimon’s defence of an ancestral component. It is not the case that he relies solely on the etymology of the term. I think he aims to rely above all on common sense about how speakers of English use the term “race,” but even if we disregard this foundational implicit appeal, you are leaving out his explicit appeal to the evidence provided by the “one drop rule.” I furthermore think his appeal to etymology is cogent and that you have not said anything to suggest otherwise. Why wouldn’t the onus be on you to show evidence of a semantic shift? I don’t see the grounds for putting the onus on him. I’m not sure if you would similarly put the onus on him to show that there has been no semantic shift since the heyday of the one drop rule, but in that case as well, I would put the onus on you. We have good reason to think that the one drop rule is not as dominant as it once was, but none of that evidence tells against an ancestral component to the concept of race. Finally, it is important to note that I do not rely only on Hardimon for my view that there is an ancestral component to the concept of race. I rely also on Paul (see footnote 56). I could rely on Sally. I could rely on Larry. I could rely on pretty much anybody, with the notable exception of Josh. So I wonder once again what is the source of your doubt?

  19. Thanks very much, David, for your kind compliment – you understood exactly what I was trying to achieve in the passage you quoted. Thanks also for your requests for clarification, and my apologies for taking so long to answer.
    On the political theory of race: I think there is a political theory of race in “Conservation” because I believe “political theory of race” is an insightful description of the viewpoint Du Bois evokes before he gets to his more commonly recognized discussion of the scientific theory of race. I link two things: the opening evocation of a theologically grounded belief on the part of the American Negro in “one blood” and Du Bois’ request in the third paragraph that his audience push aside their usual concern with “the pressing, but smaller questions of separate schools and cars, wage-discrimination and lynch law.” Note that his audience is, of course, an American Negro audience. Now, if we look only at the “one blood” part, we get an anti-realist approach to race ascribed to the American Negro (and I note that it is funny that this has not been remarked upon and discussed more often). But putting together this ascription of a rejection of the biological conception of racial difference with the ascription soon after to the American Negro of a primary concern with socioeconomic discrimination and targeted violence, I argue that the view being described is one according to which biological race distinctions are unreal but what does manage to make race a category capturing real distinctions is the existence of institutionalized oppression of the kind that affected black folks under Jim Crow. I argue that recognizing this outline of a sociohistorical conception of race and the way Du Bois pushes it aside in order to build toward his alternative sociohistorical conception of race helps us (a) better understand “Conservation” and (b) be more conscious in the present about the possible divergences between a focus on politics and a focus on culture in the elaboration of social constructionist accounts of race.
    Your next question, I think, requires pulling apart the content and the use of scientific (e.g., biological or, we may say more broadly but also more vaguely, “natural”) conceptions of race. If I understand what went wrong here, I think you mistook the use of the scientific conception of race for political ends as a phenomenon that can be described with the term “political theory of race.” If so, this is a misreading. What I am calling the political theory of race, as described and criticized by Du Bois, is, firstly, the rejection of the scientific conception of race – that is, it involves the perception of the dominant hierarchical naturalistic conception of race as a series of “false ideas” – and, secondly, the affirmation that race is socially constructed in the sense that power relations between groups of human beings bring races into existence. I hope this clears up the confusion.
    Now, moving on, I am not sure I would want to commit myself to the claim that the political theory of race is inadequate in providing motivation for racial solidarity. Is a social theory according to which we must strive toward a classless society inadequate in providing motivation for solidarity among those in subordinated classes? I don’t think so. I am inclined, then, to grant that a focus on politics in social constructionism about race can adequately motivate certain important forms of racial solidarity – namely, forms of solidarity aimed at overcoming oppression. What it can’t motivate is a desire to indefinitely project one’s group identity forward into the future and, if we want to describe a shared commitment to doing so as a kind of solidarity, then it makes sense to say the political theory of race is inadequate in motivating a certain kind of solidarity.
    You ask how a political theory of race works to explain what makes races distinctive. Yes, different ways of discriminating against people help to make different races distinct on a social constructionist view focused on politics. Such a view need not, however, emphasize differences in discrimination in such a way that this type of difference is severed from the recognition of differences in appearance, ancestry, and geographical origin. To make reference to the latter type of difference is not to assume that races just are groups differentiated by appearance, ancestry, and geographical origin. It is simply part of recognizing how groups are discriminated against differently to recognize the different ways in which their distinctive appearances and ancestral origins are made the basis for discrimination.
    Must a political theory of race lead us to work toward the abolition of racial difference? I remain convinced that the answer is yes. I don’t know of any social constructionist who believes we need to stop acknowledging racial distinctions right away. But if races are groups whose existence depends upon relationships of dominance and subordination, then of course the abolition of race is the final goal. Only if we assume that programs aimed at combating racism will never fully succeed in destroying it, thus requiring the continued existence of such programs forever and ever, would the political theory of race lead us to accept the permanence of race. Even then, it would remain true that the political theory of race leads us to work toward the abolition of races – it would simply be the case that our task could never be completed.
    Finally, yes, I basically accuse Paul of projecting his view onto the 1897 Du Bois. I would not accuse him of misreading the passage from Dusk of Dawn. However, your question speaks not merely of that particular passage but of the “view in Dusk” – presumably Du Bois’ overall view in the book as a whole. I think that’s a great question. I think the “riding Jim Crow in Georgia” definition of blackness suggests a paradigmatically political theory of race – indeed, even to the exclusion of a cultural theory – but I believe the book as a whole reveals a more complex intertwining of the political and the cultural (and no, I don’t think Du Bois conflates motivation and theory – not sure I even know what it would look like to wrongfully conflate one’s own motivation with one’s own theory). In footnote 52 of the article, I note that Paul himself shows us how the political and the cultural can be combined in a manner not all that distant from what I advocate. How much, then, does his overall combination match the late Du Bois’ overall combination? A great question I cannot answer at the moment. But suffice it to say that I do hope to eventually pursue in depth the question of how exactly the late Du Bois combines the political and the cultural in conceptualizing race and I will, at that point, extol some of the progress in the gradual theoretical development that I see as getting under way in “Conservation.”

  20. Hi Josh, thanks so much for the follow-up questions. I hope they lead us to a greater understanding of each other’s positions, regardless of whether they lead us to agree.
    Using something like the terminology you offer, the best way to describe my position is that what makes a people a race are social plus recruited physical/ancestral/geographical facts. I make the argument that political plus recruited physical/ancestral/geographical facts are what brought races into existence but that this then allowed for the development of cultural facts that could sustain the existence of races even in the absence of the kinds of political facts that generated and have helped to sustain the existence of races up til now. So yes, in one sense, I hold that neither political nor cultural facts are strictly necessary but I hold that social facts of some kind are strictly necessary. Does that help to clarify?
    (One might wonder whether political and cultural facts exhaust social facts or whether I believe the existence of races could be sustained by non-political, non-cultural facts – for my purposes in this article, it’s fair to say that political and cultural are exhaustive – we might speak of legal and linguistic and other types of social facts, but they are likely to be categorized within my two main categories in this context – so, for example, many legal race-sustaining facts would be clearly “political” in my sense, many linguistic race-sustaining facts would be clearly “cultural” in my sense – although I should also quickly acknowledge that social facts in general are partly linguistic in nature)
    About my reply to your second question: you ask about the different ways we might obtain the value of cultural diversity plus equality/unity and you wonder why race should be one of those ways. My response, as before, is that there are indeed many ways to obtain this value and I am claiming that race is one (I don’t know where I said culture isn’t exclusively valuable, although that’s true – what I did say is that race isn’t the exclusive locus for the bringing together of unity, equality, and diversity). To say my arguments simply show the value of keeping culture seems to me to be not an objection to but rather an evasion of my claim. If you accept that cultural diversity plus equality/unity is a worthy goal, the next question is whether you accept that the preservation of race is one way of achieving that goal. You should not ask why we need race to achieve that goal, as that suggests that you think I am saying the goal cannot be achieved if race is not involved. I am not saying that. And I am also not saying that it’s a coin flip or that we need to artificially multiply forms of diversity. What matters to accepting my claim is whether you are willing to accept that races can be cultural groups whose preservation is not irredeemably problematized by other aspects of their existence. This is the controversial claim to engage with.
    On Al Gore: you and the ancient sailor may agree that manatees aren’t mermaids but what would be more interesting and relevant is to see a case in which you refuse to accept that some particular being is not a mermaid. I can imagine that me saying Ariel is a mermaid but this particular being that looks just like Ariel is not a mermaid will be confusing to the ancient sailor. It will be important for me to acknowledge the oddness of my claim before I begin trying to tell my story about how that could be the case. On the other hand, I don’t feel as embarrassed in front of you – you don’t believe mermaids exist, so if you accept the existence of beings that look like Ariel (which you presumably don’t but need to in order for the analogy to be apt), then you necessarily classify them as something other than mermaids. This means that you and the ancient sailor agree on manatees but this agreement does little to show how you could serve as a helpful arbitrator when me and the ancient sailor get to arguing about which beings count as mermaids and which don’t.
    And so I return to my question to you, which you left unanswered: could anything show or make plausible to you the idea that someone who looks like Al Gore but who happens to be a Teuton in Europe in the 2nd century BC (with no recent ancestry from outside Europe) is not white? If not, doesn’t that mean that you see social constructionism not as a plausible but flawed alternative position in the metaphysics of race but as a complete non-starter? I think it is worthwhile to get clear on this.
    Your last paragraph shows that I needed to be clearer in saying I am sceptical about some of your methodology. I didn’t say or mean to imply that anything was implausible about a future without race. I said that I could imagine such a world. I find it useful to imagine such a world in order to get clear on how we think and ought to think about race. But I can imagine such a world based on the history of the world as we know it thus far and the nature of the human body as we know it. What I find of questionable value are your thought experiments that require leaving such knowledge behind. This is why I prefer not to reach conclusions about what a culturally different world would be like through a thought experiment in which we leave behind the flow of history as we know it to envision some agent striking us such that we pick up cultural practices anew at random. Now, I have to be careful – I can think of a footnote in my dissertation where I made a point through a strikingly similar thought experiment. This, however, does not necessarily convince me that they are useful – it might be that I was ill-advised in constructing my version. (Actually, I think at least part of what worries me is the way your thought experiment is meant to lead to a conclusion about race – if, upon reflection, I were to decide that there was nothing wrong with my version, it would likely have something to do with the fact that, in that footnote, I was trying to make a point about the nature of culture, not the nature of race.) In any case, about thinning out the concept of race, you get rid of ancestry by means of making us imagine a world in which people gain their appearances in a very different way than the way we are used to – that is, you ask us to leave behind what we know about human reproduction. You get rid of geographical origin by asking us to see as plausible someone who is completely ignorant of the history of the world as we know it. This is the type of stuff I see as less than useful.
    But perhaps my worries about those thought experiments are not super important to hammering out our differences on the ontology of race? I do think that hearing your view on whether anything could convince you that the Al Gore lookalike in ancient northern Europe is not white is very important.

  21. Chike, thanks for the continued discussion. Unfortunately, I have to be brief, but a few notes:
    – That clarification does help with some of my questions (although I still have hesitations about how this is going to be the basis of a viable constructionist view).
    – I certainly agree with you that, in numerous ways, the mermaid story is not a perfect analogy to the race debate. That story was just intended to illuminate the dialectical position that I occupy (since you found it “curious”), namely that the “everyday realist” and I can share an anti-constructionist interpretation of racial discourse.
    – Your reiterated question to me is: “could anything show or make plausible to you the idea that someone who looks like Al Gore but who happens to be a Teuton in Europe in the 2nd century BC (with no recent ancestry from outside Europe) is not white? If not, doesn’t that mean that you see social constructionism not as a plausible but flawed alternative position in the metaphysics of race but as a complete non-starter?” I’m not sure how to differentiate between a “complete non-starter” and “flawed position”—I’m just trying to sort out which evidence tells for or against which theories. I would say, though, that of course something could make me accept that position, namely (what I think are) sufficiently good arguments for that claim and against reasons to think otherwise. After all, for many years I was a constructionist, so I could imagine becoming one again! But in collecting all of the relevant conceptual data here, the counter-intuitiveness of constructionism’s implication about the Al Gore-type cases is pretty substantial evidence, in my estimation, that can only be discounted in light of sufficiently weighty counter-evidence.
    – I think the methodological commitments are tightly entangled with the ontology, since we must have (implicitly or explicitly) some criteria for evaluating data used in defending and critiquing rival ontologies of race. (Just to correct one point, I don’t suggest that we think that someone who thinks differently about the geographical origins of alleged races must be considered plausible [on the contrary!]; rather, I suggest that they are still talking about race.) I’m still not seeing your reason for objecting to tried-and-true devices (like fictional cases) for identifying the boundaries of our concepts, but right, perhaps this is a question better left to future discussions! Until then, thanks again for the conversation.

  22. Thanks very much for taking the time to post a quick reply, Josh. I’m glad that I was able to clarify my view and grateful that you posed questions that allowed me to do so.
    I found the mermaid story useful to reflect upon, especially given its relation to parallel arguments you make elsewhere (e.g., re: salt and whales in “On the New Biology of Race”). I hope to have suggested that this is not simply a problem of an analogy not being perfect but a problem of there being limits on any anti-realist’s ability to engage in an argument about who counts as a member of race x given their commitment to the view that neither x’s nor any other races exist.
    I’m fascinated to know that you used to be a social constructionist. Maybe we can indeed bring you back around some day! You say you can imagine being convinced by arguments for the claim that the person I made up is not white. That’s good to know… I got the sense that no arguments could work because the initial judgment that our Teuton *is* white would not be based on any arguments in which holes could be poked but rather on a rock solid intuition about who *must* count as white in order for us to even begin having a discussion.
    Thanks for the correction re: plausible talk of race vs. talk about race. This is where I want to say, somewhat in the style of your own arguments, that once you’re talking about someone with such an utterly implausible conception of race, you’re talking about a conception of race that is utterly irrelevant to the debate about keeping or discarding the concept.

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