This is a conversation of Yancy interviewing Albert Mosley. In an earlier post referencing this book, I quoted an interview with Lucius T. Outlaw in which he criticized Appiah’s position on the concept of race. This interview is from another philosopher that was present at a conference in which each of their arguments, I’m guessing, were put on the table or vocalized in some way. Mosley goes on to give his thoughts on both of their positions, and then states his.
YANCY: Did you attend the particular African American philosophy conference in 1994 held at Rutger’s University?
MOSLEY: I was there.
YANCY: Would you explore the conceptual rift that occurred there between Anthony Appiah and Lucius T. Outlaw.
MOSLEY: Anthony Appiah has argued that race is a fiction and has spearheaded a movement among philosophers to disavow race as a legitimate and useful concept. He’s made a very strong case for this and I think many African Americans have reacted negatively to his efforts. The fact of the matter is that the majority of African Americans do identify themselves in terms of race. This act of self-identification by race reinforces an important sense of historical continuity. Their parents and grandparents were classified in terms of race and most associate denying their racial identity as an act of self-hatred. But Appiah has argued that the very concept of race is fiction. And within the literature of biology and anthropology this claim has been made by many others. ….Moreover, biologists have shown that there is no such thing as a race gene, something that makes every person who has that particular gene (or constellation of genes) Negro or Caucasian or Oriental. As a result of World War II, there was a concerted attack by scholars against the illegitimate use of racial categories; especially the idea that race determines a peculiar national orientation. Appiah has taken this orientation and applied it to the American situation in his essay “The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race.” There, he argues that W.E.B. Du Bois used the notion of race in characterizing African Americans, but was never able to define it adequately because it can’t be adequately defined.
YANCY: What was Outlaw’s response to that?
MOSLEY: …Some biologists believe that there are distinct human populations and other biologists do not believe this. Outlaw has a similar point of view. He argues that you can’t deny that race exists simply because it’s a historical construction. At the conference, Outlaw was bemoaning the fact that he had to continue to comment on commentaries about his and Appiah’s differences, and rather offhandedly characterized Appiah’s position as a form of ethnic cleansing. Given what was happening in Yugoslavia at this time in terms of ethnic cleansing, Appiah was insulted by the analogy, and he walked out of the room. …..the passions generated reflect the importance of the issue. One of the attacks on affirmative action is based on the idea that there is no such thing as an African American. Were we able to get rid of all references to race there would be no basis for affirmative action on the basis of race. Many African Americans believe this is simply a ploy designed to consecrate the status quo and ignore the historical wrongs that have been and continue to be perpetrated against African Americans. Restitution for opportunities denied because of race could not then be corrected on the basis of race.
YANCY: In your essay “Negritude, Nationalism, and Nativism: Racist or Racialist,” you discuss the distinction between a racist and a racialist. Would you briefly define the two terms?
MOSLEY: A racialist position accepts the claim that there are races and that there might be differences between races, both physiological and even behavioral. A racialist wants to allow that possibility. There is physiological evidence of such differences and a racialist would not preclude the possibility of correlated differences in behavioral traits. In the article, I make the analogy between races and varieties of dogs, not in order to taint the notion of races, but in order to point out that if you segregate any population long enough they will develop distinctive traits as a result of assortative mating. This is how people create varieties of dogs. Pit bulls didn’t exist three hundred years ago. ….A racialist would argue the same thing with respect to races. There has been geographical isolation between continents as well as social isolation within continents that has led to the existence of distinct groups of people. Now, this doesn’t mean that those groups have always existed or should be preserved into the future. So a racialist need not believe that races are primordial groups created by God after the blood or the Tower of Babel. But there is no reason to believe that groups cannot legitimately be differentiated into racial varieties.
YANCY: And to that extent, are you a racialist?
MOSLEY: I see no reason to deny racialism. Racism, on the other hand, would not only say that there are different races, but that certain races are superior to other races. That I would deny.
I think that some of the points Mosley makes are valid and sound. However, I think his argument is resting on a separate ethical issue. He’s almost saying that the notion of race has to exist; otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to right the wrongs that have been done to blacks in the past. Which, is….possibly true, but that isn’t a sound argument. Just because a negative consequence may come from a notion, theory, or fact doesn’t mean that that notion, theory or fact is false or wrong. It’s almost like saying “well, god has to exist, otherwise there would be no moral foundation.” While it is arguably true that the lack of a god would render morality baseless, that doesn’t mean that god exists; this doesn’t mean that now morals are objective with a solid foundation, it just means that the consequences of this fact/probability are not that favorable. In the same sense, just because the concept of race would breakdown arguments for affirmative action does not mean that now race exists and is something testable, tangible, and real (whatever that means…). Truth isn’t always favorable or comfortable. But what is “truth” anyway besides something that many credible people accept until something else comes along…?
That being said though, I have for some time now tried to figure out an analogy in the non-human animal kingdom for the differences in race, while showing that race is nothing more than phenotypical variations. I thought about dogs, but dogs do not just vary in their appearance, and this is the problem with his analogy. They also differ in personalities, temperaments, and levels of aggression. Some dogs, like Chows, are known for the loyalty they have for their owners, and their aggression towards children of their owners. Other dogs, like Labs are friendly while Rottweilers and Pitt Bulls are more aggressive. So, unless he wants to continue with that analogy and say that the differences in races are not just external, but also internal (personalities, temperaments, etc.), then he should abandon this analogy. Are we also going to start referring to people of mixed heritage as the human equivalent to mutts?
Although I think it is logically problematic to include the moral consequence of a question about the reality of a concept, I still think he is not fully thinking about the consequences of both findings. If race is found to “exist”, then I feel that the consequences would be worse than if it was found to not exist. If it does exist, then now they have an argument for affirmative action, and blacks will have some type of retribution for the dehumanization that was and is being done to us…..and on the other hand, we would have bigots coming out the woodworks with their arguments about how we’re a sub-human species yet again. “blacks and Latinos fill the prison walls not because there’s any link between poverty and the rate of violence….but solely because they are less human than whites and their affinity for violence is simply…in their blood”. Right? Can’t we all see these “arguments” arising once everyone deems race a reality? So what do you think is the worst outcome? Having a basis for affirmative action or returning to a time in which any non-white is thought of as inferior and thus treated accordingly?
Overall though, I would say that I would still side with Appiah. Outlaw’s arguments had some validity to them, but not enough. I think the anthropologists and scientists of the 1800’s who put too much effort into deciphering what made one a negro….from hair follicles, to the arch of one’s foot, to the color of one’s palm…..to the way one walks, the way one carries themselves. These people (bigots) had a similar argument for race that was also hinged on what they considered an ethical issue. If race doesn’t exist and there is no separation between the Negro and any other human (or even an argument that said blacks WERE human…), then slavery would be wrong. Therefore, race must exist because that would mean that they were wrong in treating humans like cattle. This was their argument and it is eerily similar to Mosley’s. I see that as a problem.
We should be trying to figure out what is true, what stands against arguments, and what can be logically the end of an argument. Should we be thinking about the consequences of an argument prior to making that argument? I would say no.
Simply put, I don’t think that race is real/factual/truth. However, this does not mean that I excuse or deny in any way degradation and rift that has occurred between humans due to this concept. I am black, I am a product of a slave trade justified by race, I am a descendant of a slave…I am a descendant of people whose ethnicity was used interchangeably with the term “slave”, I am the product of every negative thought of blacks, I am the product of blackness, my identity does have a lot to do with my color, my “race”, by thoughts…my blog, have to do with this concept and its historical actions and current repercussions, I am the product of an inferiority complex branded on my people, I am the product of 400 years of dehumanization based on race, I am the consequence. I cannot deny this even if I wanted to.
But let’s assume that race is not real, as Appiah and I are arguing, then what is the standing for issues like Affirmative Action? I personally am somewhat on the fence about Affirmative Action. I feel as though we, as blacks should learn to advance in this society without a handout from the individuals that have put us in such a position to ask for handouts. It’s like asking the man that has kidnapped you from your home and beat you senselessly for a job. I want blacks to be in a position to where we don’t need handouts, and if we aren’t there yet (which I would agree, we aren’t…), then we need to get there ourselves. Then again, I can completely see Mosley and others’ position that says that we have been wronged in the past, and situations where others have benefitted from the back breaking labor blacks have done in the history of this nation should be leveled, and that affirmative action is one way in which that can be done. But can his point not be argued were race argued to not exist? No. even during the time in which non-whites were being treated like animals, they didn’t have any scientific or realistic idea of race. One was white if they had white skin and straight hair and one was black if they had dark skin and kinky hair. It was that absurdly simple (I’m reading about the trials during this time in a book entitled What Blood Won’t Tell by Ariela J. Gross). The idea of race was never based on anything legitimate, so why should it for affirmative action arguments?
The idea that if race does not exist, then affirmative action would have no grounds, is just assuming. We have affirmative action now; does this mean that the United States government has reason to believe that race is a verifiable concept? Or do they feel that the wrongs of the past need some retribution? Well, the latter would imply that the government or the majority of whites in this country (or even non-whites, for that matter….) actually realize and acknowledge what they have done to minorities. Which is certainly not true, I feel.
Race, I feel, does not exist. But this does not change the fact that most people think it does, and it affects the way people see me, the way others treat me, and thus affects my job prospects, my status in society, by financial standings, and my personal esteem. But that doesn’t mean it exists. …but just to give credence to the polemic, if race effects all these things in my life, and the life of others, then would that make it real?
I think something we need to ask ourselves, especially people of color, is whether or not we would feel the same way about race had it not been for the hierarchy of value placed on it in the past. If my people were never taken from Africa and stripped of their culture, worth, and humanity, then would I even feel the need to refer to myself as African American or black? Would I feel an unspoken connection with those of color? What would it mean to be black in the Americas if there was never a slave trade? What would it mean to be African in a country that was never colonized? What would it mean to be the “other”(as bell hooks would say…) if there never was a “self”?
Give me your comments. I want to know what you think.