Our advent sermons this year are from Isaiah 59-60, and this week we are starting with the first half of chapter 59. (I know this isn't the first week of advent, but we were working through Genesis and had to finish chapter 50 last week.)
One thing that stood out to me about this week's passage is the progression of pronouns in Isaiah 59. The prophet starts out in verses 1-3 speaking in the second person. "Your iniquities have separated you from your God" and "have hidden his face from you." He speaks to the people about their own sin and its effect on them. At this stage he is accusing them, and he is not part of what he is criticizing. They do this.
He then shifts to third person in verses 4-8. At this point no one calls for justice. They give empty arguments, speak lies, conceive of trouble, are quick to shed innocent blood, and walk paths without justice. No one who walks in their ways will know peace. He isn't just accusing others now. He's talking about an objective situation, without placing himself in it our outside it. He's noting something that is true.
Then we see a shift to the first person in verses 9-13. "Justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows." He speaks of his own people, him included, as if they collectively walk around blindly and mourning, looking for justice and deliverance but not finding it.
But verse 12 shifts to an explanation. "For our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities." Rebellion against God, oppression, revolt, and lies are in the same breath given as the reasons why "we" end up with the effect of verses 14-15. Justice is driven back, righteousness pushed off at a distance, truth stumbling in the streets, honesty unable to enter. "Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey."
He's still giving the effects on those around him, but he's identifying with them in their sin and collectively recognizing that it's not just some other group of evildoers that he is calling out. We are all in this group. And when he calls for justice, the reason it's not happening is because of the doing of injustice that he is also participating in.
You might argue that he's just collectively identifying with his fellow Jews the way Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel do in Ezra 9, Nehemiah 9, and Daniel 9 when they weren't committing the sins of the people but were still offering prayers of collective repentance for the people they belonged to. But I think this is different. Ezra didn't commit the sin of marrying pagans who didn't worship God that he was lamenting. Daniel didn't bow to the idols around him in Babylon. Yet they collectively repented as a way to lead their people to repent.
But the things Isaiah is dealing with here, though not all sins we all commit, includes things that he and any other generally righteous people in his time, were complicit in. So even though he starts out pointing out the sins of others and describing the effects on them, none of that false, he ends up identifying with it enough to describe it as something true of "us" in a way that leads him to express public and collective repentance that he seeks those around him to join with him in. And then he says that the reason they have not experienced the justice that they now long for (which they started out not even wanting) was because of their own injustice.
If, as I think is true, the presentation of the prophecy of Isaiah should be taken at face value, and it was actually composed by Isaiah himself in the 8th century looking forward to a time much later when the Jewish people were living in exile in Babylon, then there are even more interesting implications of this. Isaiah is here identifying with not just his own generation of God's people in their current rebellion but with the future rejection of God's ways by a generation that he isn't even part of. His notion of collective responsibility and group identity is that strong, which speaks volumes about how easily we get away from those notions with Western individualism. And all of this is compatible with recognizing that in one very important way we really are responsible for what we ourselves do. That runs all through this (and through the other collective repentance prayers of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel).
And it's also jarring to many of our sensibilities, where we like to think of things in an oppressor/oppressed binary, to see God's prophet speaking to oppressed people and telling them that one chief reason why they are oppressed is that they are themselves complicit in injustice, and then he has his prophet communicating this identify with them in that injustice, as much as he also seeks in that identifying to offer a prayer of repentance for them to turn from that injustice and experience the fruits of righteousness and peace.
It's hard for me to read this passage and think anyone in our current setting (politically left or right) should come away from this feeling comfortable about themselves. If they do, they are either rejecting its teaching or not understanding it.
I've been paying attention to what I am seeing about the Dobbs case on social media, but I've had some time today to do some reading of the opinions and figure out which things people are saying are actually true. I'm seeing some real ignorance about how the Supreme Court works and about the legal issues in the Dobbs case. We live in a time where there is a grand tradition of social media activists who don't know very much about the issues they are commenting on but still feel like they need to further their own and everyone else's ignorance by chiming in on things they don't understand, and you end up with lots of hot takes that don't reflect reality. There is a good deal of misrepresentation of what the decision does and what some of the concurring and dissenting opinions actually say. Here are a few things I think need to be recognized.
1. Justice Alito, in the majority opinion, distinguishes between the abortion issue and other cases of privacy rights that served as a basis for the original Roe decision and the Casey case that partially overturned Roe while partially upholding it. Those other privacy rights, says Alito, do not involve one important thing that sets this issue apart. That one important thing is called "potential life" by Roe and Casey and actual unborn life (the more scientifically honest term) by the law at issue in Dobbs. You don't have that issue with any of the other cases that served as a basis for Roe's use of substantive due process. I also note that Justice Thomas signed on to this decision in full, which means he also recognizes that. The justices are often willing to say when they sign on to all of a decision except for one small part. He didn't say he disagreed with any of the decision. In fact, he said he agreed with all of it. He isn't denying privacy rights in other cases. But more on that in the next point.
2. Justice Thomas, in his concurrence, points out that those other cases rely on substantive due process. He indicates, as he has been doing since he first got onto the Supreme Court, that he is willing to consider overturning the entire substantive due process framework, because it is completely at odds with what due process in the 14th Amendment actually was about. To present that as threatening to overturn cases truly misunderstands how the court works. He isn't proposing legislation. He's simply affirming a principle that he has argued for his entire career, that substantive due process is a fictional notion not grounded in the Constitution and should be revisited. This is not actually even news. It's his longstanding view.
3. Also, it is worth pointing out what Justice Thomas does not in fact say. He does not say that he would overturn those cases in their result. He explicitly denies that, in fact. He says that the substantive due process ground in such cases needs to be reconsidered, because there is no constitutional notion of substantive due process. Rather, the privileges and immunities clause is what needs further investigation to see if that clause can ground such rights. And he does not forecast an opinion about whether it does. He says it needs investigation. He has signaled that he is open to seeing lots of rights assumed in that clause that are not explicit in the Constitution. What you would have to look to is where the framers of the 14th Amendment got such language and what rights they thought the notion involved. He has argued in some dissents that there are some such rights. He has long thought that the court should be considering that question, and they consistently ignore him. But some of the younger justices have shown more interest in that. Perhaps now is the time they will follow his lead in that. In any case, he is simply reiterating his view here that they ought to be turning to that clause in future cases and not allowing cases that were wrongly decided on the basis of substantive due process to have any place as a precedent for future decisions. To see this as a call for the Supreme Court to declare contraception illegal or to decide out of the blue to roll back the current status quo on same-sex marriage is just nonsense. He is saying no such thing. The people who are saying that do not understand his long-time view on this or the particular opinion he wrote for this case.
4. Also on the reasoning of Justice Thomas' concurrence: I have seen people claim that Thomas, to be consistent, should have included the Loving v. Virginia decision, suggesting that it also relies on some of the stuff that Roe later relied on, and if you question the precursors of Roe-like rights you also have to overturn that decision. But of course Thomas is in an interracial marriage, so they are claiming that pure self-interest leads him not to include that. The most obvious problem with this take, other than its extreme lack of charity, is that Loving v. Virginia does not solely or even mainly rely on substantive due process. It relies mainly on equal protection, which is a different clause in the 14th Amendment. Bans on interracial marriage violate the equal protection clause, and they would do so regardless of whether substantive due process view continues to operate or whether we return to a more historical view of what due process is. That is why he does not mention it.
5. I also think a couple points in the concurrence by Justice Kavanaugh are worth noting. He says that a constitutional right exists to disallow bans of abortion without exceptions for saving the life of the mother. He cites Justice Rehnquist's dissent to Roe for evidence that conservatives on the court have always had such a view. Presuming that at least Chief Justice Roberts agrees with him (and I suspect others do too), there are at least five votes, then, probably more, to overturn any ban on abortion that does not have an exception in the case of saving the mother's life. It's in fact likely that all nine justices accept a right to self-defense as the ground for that. That right is clearly in the second amendment, according to the Heller decision that I'm quite sure at least six of the justices on this court agree with.
6. Kavanaugh also says that a right to travel in the Constitution bans any laws against banning travel to another state to have an abortion that would be illegal in one's own state. Assuming Chief Justice Roberts agrees, as is almost certain, that would pretty easily be five justices in support of such a view, which means no such law would survive constitutional review under this court.
7. I've seen a lot of reiteration and endorsement of Senator Susan Collins' claims that several justices lied to her in private meetings. Of course, we can't know what anyone actually said in a private meeting, but she has claimed that they reassured her that they would vote to uphold Roe if it ever got challenged. I tend to doubt that that's what they actually said, and when she has been more precise she has said something very different. She has said that they affirmed that they saw Roe as settled law, which is of course not a statement that they would always vote to uphold it.
To a legal scholar, saying that something is settled law is a contrast with being not genuinely in effect. Something that is not settled law is something that is not clearly in effect, and maybe you don't even need to follow it. Or it's not clear whether you do. Settled law does not mean it can't be overturned. It means it's the actual law in place at the moment. I would affirm that Roe was settled law until Casey, and then the parts of Roe that Casey upheld were settled law until they were overturned. But that doesn't mean its being settled law means it couldn't be overturned.
And one reason we should know that, even apart from what I've just said, is that every single one of these justices consistently stated that they would not forecast how they would vote in particular cases. And that means that they could not have meant that saying something is settled law would mean they would not vote to overturn that settled law.
The notion of stare decisis means strong consideration is given to precedents of the court, but it never means a decision can't be overturned. Different justices have different views on how strong that principle is and what it would take to overturn a particular precedent, but none of them take stare decisis as absolute. The Lawrence v. Texas decision that declared a right to sex acts between same-sex couples overturned a settled precedent in Bowers v. Hardwick. That was settled law, and stare decisis gave strong reasons not to overturn it without strong enough arguments to overcome those reasons. But the court decided there were such strong reasons, and it overturned the decision. That doesn't mean they didn't believe in stare decisis.
Any senator who doesn't realize this does not understand the principle. So assurances that they support stare decisis are, like assurances that they think Roe to be settled law, not really very clear evidence one way or the other of how they would vote in a particular case. And they all said so explicitly. They said it over and over again, because Democratic senators kept asking them about it, despite having gotten all the answers they were going to get.
So any conclusions she drew that conflict with their explicit and repeated claims were just wishful thinking on Collins' part. What she has now done is to turn around and call them liars because of her wishful thinking. And Kavanaugh actually spends a bit of time explaining the high bar needed for stare decisis and why he thinks that bar was met. He has in his opinion answered the question in very explicit terms and given detailed reasoning why he could affirm stare decisis and say that a high bar must be met to overturn Roe, all the while being willing to consider and ultimately be convinced by arguments to vote to overturn it. His opinion is publicly available for those who want to see that reasoning. In any case, the fact that he does give such reasoning shows that the claim that he lied is simply false. Anyone is free to disagree with his opinion, but don't go claiming that he has no such reasons. Any claim that he lied is in fact refuted by his actual opinion in this case.
8. The opinion by Chief Justice Roberts interestingly focuses mostly on whether the case needed to be decided so broadly. He identifies a narrower issue the court could have decided and simply left it at that. But it's worth noting that what he says about that narrower issue would substantially have eroded what Roe and Casey have allowed. Roe and Casey both considered viability the place at which states could sometimes regulate abortion, but it had an absolute prohibition on regulating abortion before that point. His opinion would have erased that point as the point that regulation can begin, but it would have not established any point after conception to replace it. It would have a replaced a point of development that is constantly moving as science advances. The viability point is thus not constant, since viability has moved earlier in the time since Roe.
But viability is relatively precise at any given time compared with what Roberts would have left us with. His incredibly vague non-answer to when states could enforce abortion restrictions is the sort of thing that is generally considered unconstitutional in Supreme Court decisions. His attempt to find a narrower spot would leave great unclarity and many continued court cases to establish what states could actually do. He seems very resistant to rolling it back to conception but very adamant that it couldn't remain at viability.
That seems weird to anyone who recognizes that the best pro-life arguments rely on the difficulty in finding any point of development to draw as a line between conception and birth for when moral status begins. There scientifically can't be any such thing. Unless you go with the view that moral status and its consequent right to life develops gradually and thus is also vague, which can then serve as a vague ground of when rights begin, the view seems incoherent. But if you look at his actual reasoning, you will see that he's actually dodging that question. He's not grounding his moving back from viability in any view about when moral status begins. (I assume he thinks it does start at conception, because he seems personally pro-life, but that's not where he goes for this question. It's quite obvious that viability can't be when moral status begins anyway, unless you want to build in a bunch of ableist assumptions about moral status. What you are capable of doing cannot be the ground of what moral status you have if people with severe disabilities have moral status. But that's a side note. That issue isn't raised in his opinion.)
Roberts doesn't ground it in moral status. He grounds it in the ability for someone to discover being pregnant and to have time to decide whether to have an abortion. His view is thus not a pro-life view at all but a pro-choice view, at least in terms of deciding when the law can ban abortions. He wants to allow some time for that, and clearly the three months of the law being considered in this case is enough time for someone in a normal situation to discover being pregnant and make that decision. So he's fine with three months, but he thinks viability is late enough that it doesn't need to be the line. Three months is enough time to discover that you are pregnant and decide to have an abortion, so why does it have to be viability? That would be a very serious revision to Roe if his view had won out. But it would be a pretty different situation than the one that did win out. I don't think a lot of the commentary I'm seeing recognizes how different his view would have been than simply upholding Roe would have been. Simply upholding Roe is not what he would have done, despite the fact that many have presented his narrower view as doing so.
I encounter people of all sorts fairly regularly on social media. There is a real debate about how the word "racism" should be used. I have a lot to say about that, but I'm not interested in that debate for the sake of this post. There are those who have tried to rework our categories in such a way that prejudice and discrimination are not racism. Racism is purely a structural or systemic thing. Prejudice and discrimination are bad, but they are not racism. We ought to resist them and avoid them to the extent that we can, but racism is just the institutional, structural, and systemic stuff. In their view, we should reserve the word "racism" to refer to the system itself, not the people who do it or their attitudes or actions. Thus racism can only be in one direction, the direction that society enforces with structural, systemic, and institutionally determined forces that act mostly to the advantage of white people and mostly to the disadvantage of others. I happen to think that approach to how we should use the word "racism" is wrong in a few ways, but as I said I'm not interested in that debate for the sake of this post. I'm interested in a reaction against that view that I think goes too far in the other direction.
A very common response to those who reserve the word "racism" for structural, systemic, and institutional stuff is simply to deny that there is such a thing as systemic racism. That sort of statement has been increasingly common on the right in response to what they (rightly in my view) regard as problems in how people (mostly on the left) are conceiving of racism. But what seems to me to be an overreaction is simply to deny that there is such a thing as systemic racism or to deny that it is our most serious sort of racial problem.
The idea of systemic, institutional, or structural racism goes back before the Civil Rights era. People had been calling attention to these sorts of problems well before the time of MLK. But it began to be more mainstream as people noticed that changes in laws and societal attitudes were not bringing along changes in some of the other forces that advantage or disadvantage people along race lines. MLK began to see this toward the end of his life, and he began to recognize that just getting people having the right attitudes and making changes in laws to prevent explicit and deliberate discrimination would not be sufficient to solve all of our race problems. There are systemic, structural, and institutional forces that lead to disadvantage and advantage in ways that no one intends. No one is deliberately discriminating or explicitly prejudiced. Yet disadvantage and advantage occur. The problem is in institutions, structures, and systems rather than in beliefs, desires, emotions, or actions of individual people. That is the concept of systemic racism.
On one conception of racism, the one I was raised with, the one that feels to me like how the English language actually operates, these systemic problems are simply not racism. I completely understand those who don't like to call it racism. I myself don't like to call it that. Racism is an attitude of the heart or a set of actions of individuals. But that's a linguistic issue. It's not an issue of what the world is actually like. The thing people are in fact calling systemic racism, and in fact the only thing that term has ever referred to, is real. Not only is it real, but it consists of what seem to me to be the more significant and substantial problems that we have in our society at this point. The stuff I'm inclined to call racism is becoming less present, less effective in causing real problems. Why? Because there is such a stigma attached to racism, to even being perceived as racist, that it's diminished to a much greater degree than the systemic problems have. But the systemic problems remain. And the systemic problems do trace back to racism in the classic sense, when you look hard enough and far enough. They wouldn't be present without racism having occurred.
Here's an non-racial example for anyone having trouble understanding the concept of a systemic problem. Adderall is a controlled substance. People take it when they have no condition requiring it, and people take doses that are much too high. That means it's illegal for a pharmacy to put it on auto-refill, and it's illegal even to prescribe it with refills. You have to call your doctor every month to get them to submit a new prescription. Typically, the people who are taking Adderall are the same people who have executive control issues and are going to have a harder time being organized and remembering to call about that new prescription, which places an additional burden on people who are already worse off when it comes to things like this. That results in days without the medication that helps them be more organized and attentive. No one is trying to make life harder for people with ADHD and autism who rely on this medication. That's not the point. The goal is to prevent abuse by those who don't need the medication to begin with. But because of laws designed to prevent that abuse, the people who need the medication suffer. This is what a systemic or structural problem looks like.
Are there such problems that occur along race lines? There certainly are. There are institutional, systemic, and structural forces in our society that work against people of color, some of them stronger for certain groups than for others, some of them not because of any present discrimination but just because of the effects of past discrimination (e.g. housing segregation today is not a result of present-day bank practices but because of past discrimination in mortgages and racial contracts of who could live in which neighborhoods), and there remain disparities in infrastructure, housing quality, locations of shopping or other necessities nearby, and so on. School segregation no longer has any laws forcing it, but kids tend to go to school where they live, and the quality of schools reflects the resources of the neighborhood. Together with policies like school choice, which allows enterprising parents and students to get out of the bad schools but also thereby makes the bad schools worse for those without that initiative and drive, our schools get more segregated and more disparate in quality and outcome, and that occurs along race lines. There is many careful studies that identify biases that affect law enforcement and criminal justice, disparities in health care, stigmatizations and stereotypes that affect our behavior even if we think the stereotypes are false, and so on. It should be obvious that many of these things are not racism in the classic sense, but they are the only thing that people have ever meant by terms like "systemic racism." They are disparate results that occur along race lines in ways that are predictable and systemic. The forces in our society tend to produce those results along certain lines in ways that are consistent and recurring. And these problems are much more serious than a privileged white kid using the N-word or not inviting the one black kid in the mostly white neighborhood over for a birthday party.
Now if you prefer to call these things "systemic advantage" and "systemic disadvantage" or something like that, I have great sympathies for why you might want to do that. But the fact remains that these are the only thing that terms like "structural racism" and "systemic racism" have ever meant. Words mean what they are used to mean. So those terms do in fact refer to these sorts of problems. That is so, whether you want to think of these sorts of issues as racism or not. I tend to be in the "not" category on that myself. But systemic racism is real, and those who consistently deny it are in effect denying that any of these problems are real. It does not help the cause of the political right in trying to push back against some of the excesses and unhelpful behaviors of the left on race issues if it just looks like you are denying observable facts, and that's what denials of systemic racism look like to the left. If you want to have real conversations where you engage with real people and actually try to convince them of things, to help them see that you have a legitimate point against anything they are saying, it helps to understand their view and get it right first. You are not doing that if you simply deny the reality of systemic racism and say no more. That strategy is doomed to failure. It is no wonder that they will call that strategy "white fragility" or "white supremacy," because it just looks like a desperate attempt to pretend that our most serious problems along race lines simply don't exist. Let's stop doing that, please. If you don't want to be accused of white fragility and white supremacy, then do not set yourself up to be accused of it by behaving in exactly the way the left predicts you will act. And then maybe there will be room for an actual conversation where people seek to understand each other and move forward.
Matthew Franck notes [note: link is now dead, and I haven't been able to find the specific post if it's still up) that on one of Barack Obama's exam questions from when he was teaching law, he asks whether an equal protection challenge can be brought against a law requiring states to be color-blind. Franck says he knows of lots of people who think the equal protection clause requires states to be color-blind, but he hasn't encountered a serious argument anywhere that such laws violate the equal protection clause. I haven't either, but I don't read law reviews. Still, such an argument isn't hard to imagine, and I think it's actually a sound argument.
The equal protection clause entitles people of all races to equal protection of the laws. The laws therefore need to be able to rely on the distinction between members of one race and members of another if they are to ensure that each race is equally protected by them. Therefore, color-blind laws, which disallow the state from paying attention to race, violate the equal protection clause.
It sounds like a pretty good argument to me. As a policy issue, I don't mind restricting affirmative action in universities to class rather than race, or at least ensuring that the standards aren't lowered as much as they are. There's a significant argument that the way affirmative action is typically practiced in that setting (as opposed to in the workplace, which is a very different matter) seems to me to harm the people it's intended to help, given that admissions officers already go out of their way to promote diversity (so there's no discrimination to combat at that level), and it means accepting people who won't be able to do as well and then will appear less good when they graduate than they would at a lower institution with much higher grades and more time for extracurriculars. There are other negatives too, but that's the one that seems decisive to me. I think it's much better to work at the high school level and below to help kids do better in school, to care more about school, and to think of college as something worth doing.
But I can't see how it could be good to ban affirmative action by not allowing a state to recognize racial distinctions in any way. That sort of law is not just bad policy. It really is unconstitutional because it prevents enforcement of the equal protection clause.
Here is what I don't see a lot of people saying in response to the Dr. Seuss books that the publisher will no longer be making. Theodore Geisel was a very progressive, liberal-minded person, anti-racist in the most literal sense of that term. Yet he portrayed people in ways that we today recognize to be stereotypical and somewhat offensive. People have been calling him a racist for years, when his views were anything but. How could the author of the Sneetches, an explicitly anti-racist story in the literal sense of that term, be counted as a racist just because he had absorbed some of the stereotypical imagery of his day and brought it out in his depictions of people from around the world when wanting to expose children to multi-cultural stuff and to think more globally?
"To be White is to see oneself outside of Race." -- taken from an advertisement for a race discussion coming up at Le Moyne College.
I believe the quote comes from Robin DiAngelo. Yes, there is something she means by that that is true. She's talking about the structures and unconscious ways of behaving that are unfortunately and systematically associated with some of the ways that white people conceive of themselves in relation to race. In short, they don't conceive of themselves in relation to race. Race is something other people have, in effect. They are the norm, and others are the deviation, and racial identity is not something they have to think of themselves as having. It is a problem when white people conceive of themselves that way.
Even so, I would maintain that it's a misuse of language that is both misleading and alienating, and I think it's a terrible idea to use the word "white" or the word "whiteness" in that way. The actual meaning of "white" when used in a racial way, to most people, does not refer to those social patterns. It refers to which ancestry someone has, and talking this way is the best way to reinforce the unhealthy and problematic racial patterns in our social relations.
Talking as if this is essential to races and race relations gives the impression that (and therefore reinforces subconsciously) the idea that the unhealthy patterns are just the way things are. It does not allow us to separate whiteness as someone's ancestry and whatever social stuff we have added to that. It doesn't allow us to move away from thinking problematic racial relations are part of white identity, because it deliberately defines them as part of whiteness.
Not only that, but by saying something that seems patently false to most people, it comes across to most people as ignorant and racist. There is something the person actually means that is not ignorant and racist and is in fact intended to serve racial justice. But it comes across that way, and in my view people who talk that way are in fact to blame for that misimpression. They are the ones who are talking unclearly and using terms in nonstandard ways that ordinary people will not understand. So they are damaging their own message by coming across as racist extremists.
Furthermore, it is alienating to white people who care about racial justice and who recognize that there are many ways that white people can do the thing described in the quote, because it is speaking as if it is essential to white people. As I said, I know that is not what DiAngelo means. She means that it is essential to whiteness, and she isn't seeing whiteness as what it is to be descended from Europeans or whatever. She is seeing whiteness as participation in societal behaviors and patterns. And there is something right about what she is recognizing. That is important to see. Many of her critics refuse to see that, and there is something intellectually dishonest about that if they have actually read her carefully and charitably with an intent to evaluate her rather than to start with the assumption that she is wrong.
But what it comes across as is the kind of racial essentialism that science disproved in the mid-20th century. It comes across as treating all white people as being the problem. It presents itself as othering white people in order to get out a message about how white people other non-white people. And that is the "but you did it first" Trumpian whataboutism that the left frequently recognizes and points out when they see the right doing it but yet engages in just as frequently and loudly when they feel like being just as toxic as those they regularly condemn. Those who care about racial justice need to move beyond this kind of talk if we are to have real conversations about race that move people in a direction where they can hear us and accept what we are saying.
I have now completed my metaphysics of race series, so here is a list of all the posts with links for easier navigation.
1. Metaphysics of Race: Introduction
2. Classic Biological Racial Realism
3. Race Anti-Realism
4. Races as Social Kinds
5. Social Constructionist Views of Race
6. The New Biological Race View
7. The Ethics of the Metaphysics of Race
8. Minimalist Race and Whiteness
9. Short-Term Retentionism, Long-Term Revisionism
This is the eighth post in my metaphysics of race series. If you want to start at the beginning, you can go right to the introduction to the series, or you can go to the list of all the posts with links.
In the last post, I introduced the notions of retentionism, revisionism, and eliminativism. Should we give up on race notions (eliminativism), keep them as they are (retentionism), or seek to modify them (revisionism)? I argued that in the long-term we ought to seek to change them but in the short term need to keep them as they are. What does this look like in practice? I will start by looking at a couple issues regarding the use of race language itself, and in the next and final post in this series I will look at practical behavior that seems supported by evidence-based studies to serve the short-term and long-term goals of my approach.
The Ordinary, Minimalist Concept of Race
I want to start by thinking about what Michael Hardimon calls the minimalist concept of race. He also calls it the ordinary concept of race. He is distinguishing this notion from a more robust notion of race like the scientific essentialist notion that races have genetic components built in that determine all kinds of things about us, such as our intelligence, moral value, and capabilities of various sorts. He thinks that notion of race is no longer part of the ordinary concept of race. There might be experts who look at the history of race who see that it was true about early ideas in the modern development of the concept of race, but ordinary people do not think that that's what race is. One way we know this is that philosophers working on these questions have collaborated with sociologists to do careful empirical study of people's notions of race and of particular races. We can also look at how language is used by ordinary people, a opposed to scientists, sociologists, or philosophers working on these questions. Words mean what people use them to mean, and all it takes for a word to change its meaning is for people to use it in a different way for a long enough time that it gradually becomes a new meaning for the word. If we stop using it in the first way, then that no longer becomes its meaning.
Hardimon argues that the minimalist notion of race is the ordinary concept of race of most people. It's the view on the street. We don't let academics or activists decide what words mean unless we start using the words the way the activists and academics are using them. Once we do, then those are part of the meaning. But we don't defer to expert son the meaning of a term. The experts have to do empirical research to see how people are using terms, and we should listen to their expertise on that. But it's not like physics where we just have to hear what those who have studied subatomic particles think about the nature of electrons. There are no such experts on what race-language refers to, other than those who have done empirical research on how language is used.
So here is Hardimon's account of what it is to be a race:
"A race is a group of human beings
(C1) that, as a group, is distinguished from other groups of human beings by patterns of visible physical features,
(C2) whose members are linked by a common ancestry peculiar to members of the group, and
(C3) that originates from a distinctive geographic location"
I tend to think that's a pretty good definition. It might require a tweak or two to allow for weird cases like a duplicate of Chris Rock, say, appearing out of nowhere and with no ancestry or history, who I think obviously would still count as black. (But I realize there are philosophers who think the Chris Rock duplicate wouldn't even be human, never mind black.) I also think Tuvok, a black Vulcan in Star Trek, is obviously black, and he certainly isn't human. But those tweaks are oddities on the extremes of our language use, and problems with that sort of thing are similar to problems in deciding whether someone is the same person after being dismantled entirely by a Star Trek transporter, while a duplicate is constructed somewhere else out of new matter that looks and talks and has memories just like mine. I happen to think the transporter killed the original person and created a duplicate, but a lot of philosophers agree with how Star Trek presents such cases and thinks it merely transports the original person to a new location. We don't need to think our disagreement on such side cases tells us our definitions of "person" or "human being" are wrong. We can push those issues aside for most discussions, and the same is true of weird side cases of race (although in both cases I would want to get to those discussions eventually to get a full theory together).
But I agree that Hardimon's account is the basic idea that most people have of what it is to be a race and what is true of the racial groups we ordinarily refer to. Hardimon's definition notices that races are groups of people with differences. Those differences have to do with patterns of visible physical features and common ancestry distinctive of each group. That common ancestry originates from a certain location.
That's it. There is no commitment to whether races are social kinds or biological kinds. For all this says, they could be both or neither or one or the other. This definition captures what it is to be a race in a way that we can then still have the debate about which kind of thing the races we have are. And it seems to get the basic aspects of racehood correct, in my view, and Hardimon and others have given empirical research that I think back that up.
Given such a definition, I want to get to an issue that looms large right now in certain circles. There is, in my view, a very harmful way of talking about certain kinds of race-based phenomena. It's also a very popular way of talking, and I don't think those who talk that way realize how harmful it is to speak the way they do. It is confusing to many who hear them and don't understand them, and it reinforces the very things about race that we should want to revise long-term and remove from our notions of races. It in fact is not in the minimalist, ordinary concept of race, so speaking this way reinforces aspects of race that are not even in the ordinary concept. In my view, what we ought to do is steer more toward thinking of race in that way and away from other ways, including ways tied to the social constructions we add to race. We need to realize those constructions are there, but we don't want to reinforce them.
This way of talking that I think is so destructive is common in a field that is sometimes called whiteness studies. It is common on an academic level from people who do whiteness studies or who work on questions of systemic and structural problems related to race. It has filtered down into a certain segment of the general public, especially among activists, but I am seeing it more and more among people who are just becoming aware of and interested in race issues (those who might describe themselves, or those whom their critics would describe them as, becoming more woke). Thr National Museum of African-American History and Culture, a subsidary of the Smithsonian, recnently caused a bit of a flap over posting a document to their website that engaged in this use. The document was removed, and they replaced it with this justification of that use of language.
I think this way of talking is both false and dangerous. It involves thinking of and speaking of whiteness as something other than being a member of a race in the sense of the ordinary concept of race above. It is becoming common to speak of whiteness as an ideology or a set of social constructions or a set of advantages rather than as simply the property of belonging to a certain group. In this way of seeing whiteness, it is the way that systems of power and influence, advantage and privilege position white people. It is an agenda of seeking to preserve those and continue to institute them. It is the way that society maintains white advantage. This is a real phenomenon. Most of it is unconscious. Some of it is the very indirect consequence of practices long ago that set up systems that still have those results today. Some of it just the inevitable result of not very carefully evaluated ways of living life as a member of a majority group. Some of is is from having been affected by stereotypes to have biases that are often unconscious. Some of it is having absorbed stigmatized notions and a sense of what is normative from what is around us. All this is to say that I am not denying the phenomenon that people are calling whiteness. What I want to say is that we should not be calling it whiteness, and I think it is morally wrong to do so.
There are several strong reasons for thinking this way of talking is deeply immoral. And no, it's not that it's racist. I believe I've said enough to show that it's not racist. It's targeting a genuine phenomenon and simply mislabeling it, and that sends a message that people wrongly perceive as racist. They can be blamed for that only to the extent that they understand this gross misuse of language is occurring, and many of them don't. The most obvious reason not to talk this way is that it is inaccurate. You end up saying false things. If you say that whiteness causes some kind of disparity, you are telling a falsehood. Whiteness is simply membership in a group that has ancestry and surface-level physical features in common, going by the Hardimon definition above that I have endorsed. Unless you are die-hard essentialist about races, thinking races have essential natures that make people racists, you are simply saying something false when you talk about whiteness in this way. We should care about truth. Truth is important. Whiteness does not actually cause anything of the sort. Merely being a member of a group that has certain visually identifiable features and ancestry does not cause anyone to resist calls for a living wage. So why are we calling it whiteness?
Marilyn Frye saw this problem 18 years ago when she distinguished between what she called whiteliness (which corresponds to how the use of "whiteness" I am critiquing) and mere whiteness, which corresponds more to what the ordinary, minimal concept of race would say that whiteness is. She called the stuff we should avoid and seek to change by some new term rather than trying to co-opt an existing one that already has a meaning and thus could sow nothing but confusion among those not in the insular circle of those talking about whiteness in this way. Alas, her voice did not win out.
A further reason we should avoid this way of talking is that it confuses people. The point of communication is to get what you are saying across to the person you are talking to. This use of the term is very insular. People who read a lot of scholarship about race understand it. People who spend a lot of time in activist circles understand it. But go back to the ordinary concept of race. How do you expect most people are going to hear if I say that we need to dismantle whiteness? What do they hear if you tell them that oppression of black people is whiteness? What do they hear when I say that I am engaging in whiteness when I exhibit unconscious biases against certain racial groups? What do they hear when I say that it is whiteness (and it is bad) to expect people to be on time for something or to want to do well in school? What do they hear when I say that it is whiteness to have little concern for those of other races or to use white privilege to discount the experiences of others? I would add that the newest trend (and it's all over social media) is not to stick with using "whiteness" in this way but even to extend it to "white people," i.e. saying that white people do such-and-such and then when challenged on it to say that they don't mean it's something white people do but something that whiteness does, in this already-problematic sense of the term. And we get even further along on the path to make the statement sound as racist as possible while insisting it does not mean that.
I will tell you how most white people hear this sort of statement. They feel as if they are being accused of being the most despicable racist possible. They hear it as saying that all white people are white supremacists and neo-Nazis of the worst sorts, because the statement is connecting something terrible and evil with whiteness, as if there is something like a racial essence (something biologists rejected more than a half century ago) behind why white people are so evil. In other words, it comes across as the most vile racism there can be. Saying something that sounds like that in order to try to communicate something very different is simply a big communication fail. I feel like posting one of those "You had one job" memes with someone using the word "whiteness" (or worse, "white people") in this sort of way. It's almost as if people who talk this way are trying their hardest not to get their message across and instead to try to make lots and lots of white people mishear them in order to be able to accuse them of having white fragility when they object. As a friend of mine has been saying a lot recently, I'm generally not one to go for conspiracy theories, but this seems like a case where it's sorely tempting. I hope that's not the motive, but it's accomplishing that goal very well. People are drawing their battle lines. I spend lots of time literally every day having to explain what people mean when they say stuff like this and how it's not the racist thing that it sounds like, and people simply don't believe me. They think I'm trying to explain away and justify actual racism for simply explaining what people who talk about whiteness this way mean. That alone is an incredibly powerful reason never to talk this way. Ever. It's easily one of the best ways you can divide people over race without ever lifting a finger.
As if falsity and miscommunication, leading to divisiveness, were not already enough reasons, there is a more subtle reason why we should not talk this way, one that connects directly with the overall project of short-term retentionism and long-term revisionism. It actually gets things backwards. What we want to do is recognize racial realities and use racial terms in a way that captures what really happens, but we want to move toward removing the problematic associations and assumptions connected with those terms in practice. We want to move toward the ordinary, minimalist concept of race, and speaking this way goes the wrong direction. It actually reinforces the aspects of race thinking and racial interaction that we want to move away from.
I have two sons with autism, and one of them has low impulse control. Behavior is a frequent topic of conversation in our household, and we have spent much time looking at evidence-based research about autism and behavior. One of the things an evidence-based approach will do is expose him to various conditions and then see how he responds. He is very quick to figure out what people will respond to. The behavioral therapists who worked with him would stop responding to his attempts to fake-hit them to get away from a certain task, and he would quickly learn that fake-hitting wouldn't get him the iPad he wants. He would have to ask or write it out or sign, depending on which method of asking they were reinforcing during that trial. When they gave him the iPad if he fake-hit them, they reinforced the fake-hitting. When they ignored the fake-hitting by only gave it to him when he asked, they were reinforcing the asking. It is well-documented that in cases like his nearly any audible or physical response to the behavior you want to reduce will reinforce it, because he's likely either seeking sensory feedback (and you are giving it to him) or trying to get attention (and you're giving it to him. So when he pushes me during one of his online sessions with his teacher during this pandemic, and I respond by telling him, "No" or pushing back or any other response, careful study of him and other people like him actually shows, I am reinforcing the behavior. The way to reduce to behavior is to ignore it when he does it but to model for him what he should be doing and to reinforce that when he does it. That's a bit counterintuitive, but it's what careful psychological studies have shown over and over again in this kind of case.
How does using "whiteness" the way I have been describing reinforce what we want to remove? Well, it builds it into the very definition of whiteness. You can't very well tell people that whiteness is evil and that they need to divest themselves of it, all the while building into their very identity that they are the kind of people who have essences that manifest themselves this way. Those who use this term this way don't believe that, but they are speaking publicly to people who see whiteness just as their belonging to a group that is grounded in skin color, hair type, ancestry, etc. When you say of such a group that something that sounds like it is part of their essence to behave in this kind of way, it reinforces all the associations with whiteness that we should be working hard to remove from our racial identities. You can't very well divest yourself of whiteness when people are working very hard to send a signal that being white includes all these terrible things. And I can't imagine what this is reinforcing about white people in the minds of those who talk this way regularly. We don't want to build racism into our race definitions. We want to move toward the minimalist concept so that we can affirm that racial essentialism is false and not send any messages that come across as assuming it, We want to remove racist elements from our racial concepts, so let's not reinforce those notions by using language in a way that divides rather than brings us together, that sounds like it has assumptions about racial essences that science disproved 70 years ago, that confirms all the notions that any racially forward person should not want to reinforce.
If that doesn't convince you, compare the parallel way of talking that we would get if we did the same thing to blackness. If we want to see whiteness as an ideology of white supremacy or a set of systemic structures that perpetuate white normativity, then we should also see blackness as an ideology of black inferiority or a set of systemic structures that disadvantage black people. We should not see blackness as merely belonging to a category of the minimalist race. We should not see blackness as cultural, either, not if the cultural elements we are referring to could ever be seen as positive. Blackness would have to be (to be parallel) the forces in place that operate to exclude, stigmatize, and enforce disadvantage. Blackness would be just as evil as whiteness. It would be because of someone's blackness that they do less well on standardized tests. It would be because of someone's blackness that they don't know what clothing is appropriate for a job interview or would need to be prepped for how to dress for such an interview. Can you see how racist that sounds? Yet it's precisely parallel, and if it's conceptually legitimate to use "whiteness" in the way that people are, then it is equally conceptually legitimate to use "blackness" in such a way. Indeed, both concepts are getting at a real phenomenon. But should we call that phenomenon whiteness and blackness? I don't see how it is remotely legitimate to do so, either in terms of accuracy or when we evaluate this way of speaking morally.
I have no problem talking about these phenomena, but please don't do so by calling it whiteness or blackness unless you want to perpetuate the racial disparities and stigmatized associations that we already have, indeed unless you want to reinforce those and make them stronger and to foster pointless division over a mere disagreement in language. There are philosophers who define races as groups that are put into a hierarchy, so that they wouldn't be races at all without the hierarchy. They do this to address the fact that hierarchies do exist in how we see and treat each other. But it's counterproductive to define races in such a way. We need to go the other way, which is why the minimalist view of race is so important. It moves us in the direction of allowing us to refer to races and say that racial groups are in fact treated in a hierarchical way while also not building it into the notion of races that the are hierarchical. So we can move toward the revision, which you can't do if whiteness (or blackness) is evil. But we can name the evils that are present by having racial terms that we preserve and can use to state such problems.
I was going to finish up the series with this post, but it got too long, so I will be continuing in one more post. So the ninth post will look at some much more practical matters of how to live in a way that keeps in mind both short-term retentionist and long-term revisionist goals.
One of the philosophy Facebook groups I'm in was talking about Ayn Rand, and several people expressed consternation that some philosophers treat her seriously as a philosopher. I think that's a big mistake. I think seeing her as a non-philosopher undermines the effort to convince students that we are all philosophers, and some of us just choose it as a profession by publishing and teaching philosophy, but philosophy is for everyone, and it's good for us all to engage in it. I always point out when I teach her that she was not a professional philosopher in the sense that most of the recent philosophers we are reading are, but that's also true of most of the earlier philosophers we read. Socrates, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, Gottfried Leibniz and many others who are part of the canon of Western philosophy had their main sources of income doing things other than philosophy.
A few things that I see as a reason for including Rand in the canon:
(1) She is a woman, and I think it's good for students to see women doing philosophy. If philosophy is for everyone, then only giving them readings by men undermines that.
(2) She is an outsider to the discipline who has offered a theory that contributes to the philosophical discussion in a way that is unique.
(3) Her particular contribution is worth having on the table among the views students are presented with. She is an egoist but not an entirely consequentialist egoist, and that's interesting. It's a deontological/virtue egoism, and we don't quite see that in Epicurus (who has a consequentialist/virtue egoism) or the Sophists (who seem purely consequentialist egoists), whereas she thinks we have deontological obligations to ourselves to seek our own good and to other people to allow them to do so. That's a unique view in the history of philosophy and shows creative theoretical philosophical reasoning.
(4) It's a way of exploring what a moderated Glaucon-style egoism can look like in modern times. I cover Book II of Plato's Republic and have them read Antiphon the Sophist, and her view allows some fleshing out of what that can look like in the 20th century.
(5) Her examples of bad character, the beggar and the sucker, while way overblown in her actual application to real-life categories, still represent actual vices, and everyone knows examples of people who are like those, so it illustrates both Aristotle's doctrine of the mean and how that can be misapplied if you misrepresent what's going on in terms of the facts of a case.
(6) Her critiques of altruism, while they don't actually show altruism to be bad, offer some good criticisms of ways that it is sometimes done, without any concern for the desires of the people intended to be helped or what's actually in their best interests rather than the projected interests of those doing the helping.
Now I do think teaching her can be done in a responsible way or an irresponsible way, and teaching her without exposing them to some opportunity to hear critiques of her ways of thinking would be irresponsible. But that's true of every philosopher I teach. I haven't found one that I think got everything right. I either get to critiques when I cover later philosophers' arguments against them, or I look at objections while covering them, because we won't get to those with later philosophers. Some of her arguments rely on several overstatements or misrepresentations of those she disagrees with, and it's irresponsible to teach her sympathetically (as I try to do, at least at the outset), without also confronting some objections to those arguments.
I think it's good for them to be exposed to her approach, her creative and unique way of putting together various approaches that we have already covered in the class, and the glaring problems her overall pictures faces when you look at it more carefully. That's precisely what a philosophy class should be doing, and presenting her as not a philosopher gets it so very wrong that I resist that kind of attitude pretty strongly. She was certainly doing philosophy, and some aspects of her approach to doing philosophy are actually a good model for doing it creatively and thoughtfully. Some were not, and they serve as a good model for how not to do it. In that light, why wouldn't I teach her?
I just read a thoughtful post on the Pop Culture and Philosophy blog about the concept of balance in the Force in Star Wars. I’ve been struggling to understand that concept myself as I’ve been reading through a lot of the Star Wars comics, both Legends canon and new canon, and thinking them through in light of the movies, Clone Wars show, and Rebels show. I don’t think the post I linked to has it right, but I’m linking to it as a thoughtful piece trying to come to grips with this issue. A quick Google search revealed quite a number of other views on this, again none of it seeming to me to get things quite right. So I wanted to put some of my own thoughts on this into writing, however, so here are some rough musings attempting to put many months of thought on this into something somewhat digestible.
Here are several things that didn’t make a lot of sense to me, when put together:
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.