Cultural Deflation and the Question of Racial Conservation [1]

David E. McClean

New School University

March 2002 SAAP Conference



The sickness of a time is cured by an alteration in the mode of life of human beings, and it was possible for the sickness of philosophical problems to get cured only through a changed mode of thought and of life, not through a medicine invented by an individual. Think of the use of the motor‑car producing or encouraging certain sicknesses, and mankind being plagued by such sickness until, from some cause or other, as the result of some development or other, it abandons the habit of driving. [2]


IN WHAT FOLLOWS, I argue against the "conservation" of race from the perspective of both a pragmatist and cultural deflationist. On my account, a cultural deflationist is roughly the same as what Richard Rorty calls an "ironist" – one who is more or less comfortable embracing the idea that one’s own "final vocabulary" (politics, metaphysics, cultural beliefs) is and should always be subject to possible revision or rejection. Unlike Rorty, who holds that ironism cannot be the sort of philosophical attitude that we teach citizens to inculcate as a regulator of their own commitments, I hold that ironism/deflationism contains critical ethical principles that should be cultivated by citizens of democratic states, principles that prime the pumps of human social intercourse, dialogue and democratic participation by lessening the self-certainty that forestalls compromise and the ability to respectfully acknowledge the nature of others’ loyalties to their own final vocabularies. Ironism/deflationism rests upon the pillars of fallibilism, humility and contingency that I take to be the hallmarks of emotionally, philosophically, psychologically and politically mature democratic citizens, but does not and should not preclude the eros that accompanies cultural and political solidarity.

            When the deflationist directs his attention to race, what happens? My argument with racial conservationists does not rest upon the denial that races do in fact exist as social constructs (if not as natural kinds), but rather proceeds from my doubts that race should exist as part of the final vocabulary of advanced and truly cosmopolitan and democratic civilizations. After examining the very idea of race, I argue that race and race consciousness contribute nothing salutary – even as a social construct – to the aims of such civilizations, but are divisive, corrosive anachronisms that join with other cultural poisons that mitigate against our civilization’s highest aspirations. In line with the quote from Wittgenstein in the epigraph, I argue in effect that race is a sickness of our time, and should be dispensed with by a considered and methodological change of personal and institutional habits that will require the participation of at least most of us for a long time to come.


GENETICISTS HAVE TOLD US that race does not exist, that it has no "reality." I do not agree that race has no "reality" because I see no reason to over-privilege the scientific account of race’s status – no more reason to limit the discussion of race to the scientist’s vocabulary than to limit the question of whether we should make more bombs or grow more corn to that vocabulary (because the answer to the question has more to do with what is relevant to who we are than what we are). Race, while a proper subject for scientific study, has taken on a life far greater than the mere scientific pronouncement of its death can do much about. It is a far more entrenched cultural, social and political matter than a scientific one. On the other hand, it makes little sense to ignore the scientific pronouncement, and almost no one versed in the literature does. It makes no more sense to ignore the scientific pronouncements regarding race than to ignore the scientific conclusion that disease is caused by germs, genetic anomalies and poisons in the environment, rather than by evil spirits.

            I do not believe that the concept "race" should be scorned (it is not completely analogous to evil spirits), but in the face of the scientific evidence the questions that attend the notion of race should probably be, and at the hands of some scholars have been, rephrased at the very least. The consequent answers will have far more to do with culture and politics than with natural science. The questions and answers will  rest on a kind of critical relativistic telos rather than on whether the scientific facts of the matter demand our assent – will rest on  a consideration of what axiological commitments race helps to secure. Those questions and answers can only be posed contextually. So, given the geneticist’s conclusion, it seems reasonable to frame the question of the conservation of race (i.e., Should we conserve the notion of race?) in terms of "our" particular axiological aspirations as evidenced by our public rhetoric and the instruments and narratives that we agree establish our important social and political institutions, and regulate and frame our communal ones. This accords with certain pragmatist preferences. The pragmatist prefers to ask questions about who we think we are and about whether a concept, ideology, practice or even myth (i) contributes to that self-conception, (ii) detracts from it, or (iii) is not very relevant to it. [3]   Put differently, the pragmatist wants to plumb the contextual "cash value" of social ideas. Given these criteria, I want to argue that the idea of race is no longer very useful, no longer very salutary for our axiological project, notwithstanding the modern racial conservationists’ belief that it is.

            I am, of course, aware of the possible charge of petitio here, that I am not permitting the "we" or "our" to be construed as or limited to a racial community (or other type of community constructed around different specific and narrow predicates, such as profession, ethnicity or affinity) and already imply at the outset that it can’t be, that the axiology to which I refer is based on a much larger social and political framework. I have no unassailable and non-circular answer to this charge and in fact such "we-s" and "ours" may very well be built around all sorts of predicates. I am taking certain things for granted here, namely that pluralism and democratic practices are first order social goods, and I will have to leave it to another essay to underscore this position (I do not believe that even such a position as this should be embraced dogmatically). My "we" is larger than any racial or other narrow predicate because I do not believe that communities that are based upon such narrow predicates rest within an axiological framework that lends itself to pluralism and the deepening of democratic practices. So the contextual "we" to which I refer is the political community that provides the general normative and political framework of our (racialized, sexualized, classified, etc.) lives, a framework that we strive to perfect and more or less protect, one that provides enough overlapping consensus to evoke solidarity among diverse agents. On this account, it is the particular nation-state in which we live, i.e. America as well as other similarly situated, liberal democratic states. I, however, acknowledge that there can be different axiological "we-s" that can form such a framework (tribes, theocracies, monarchies). I also acknowledge, and in fact presuppose herein, that no such large "we" is devoid of small communities, each having its own idiom, and each taking stances of assent and dissent within that larger "we."

Race:  Definiendum or dogma?

            All racial typologies have had mischievous careers, [4] whether Kant’s, Blumenbach’s, Linnaeus’s, Coon’s, Agassiz’s or Du Bois’s, to name but several. To one degree or another, they have all fizzled-out in the presence of the modern genetic pronouncement that there is no scientifically valid concept of race, no genetically tenable basis for racial distinctions. What there are, we find, are clines –  gradual changes, across space, in certain characteristics exhibited by members of populations – and collections of phenotypic characteristics that have been in-bread within a geographically more or less segregated population (and which can be and have been just as easily bred out). While there are clearly differences in appearance between certain geographically separated populations whose members evolved in relative conjugal isolation, the phenotypic expressions by which these are and have been divided into races are arbitrary. Nevertheless, for reasons both malicious (Nazi eugenics) and not (Du Bois’s "vindication" anthropology), some people have wondered whether there may nevertheless be resulting differences that make a difference. That is, they have wondered about such questions as "Is group X smarter than group Y?" or "Is group X more prone to incivility?" What we have found is that intellectual heft is nicely and randomly distributed around the globe, right along with incivility. We have found that the fact that the refrigerator wasn’t invented in Nubia and that paper wasn’t invented in Britannia are contingent facts and not genetic manifestations simpliciter of the people of Nubia and Britannia – that the inventions of the refrigerator and paper are based on cultural values and choices given existing technological advancements that have nothing to do with a race to the top of some pre-ordained, universally valorizable cultural summit (because there is no such summit).

            Without providing a long discussion regarding the incoherence of racial typologies, I will simply utilize one exemplar, taken from the previous list, who wrestled with these confusions: WEB Du Bois’s. Du Bois gave us a composite concept of race in his famous address/essay The Conservation of Races. Race for Du Bois had several and disparately weighted features that provide its definition. In that essay he understood race as both a collection of contingent but somewhat stable and replicated social practices, originating roughly within a specified geographical area in conjunction with what we today call certain recurring phenotypic expressions. On his account, to be a member of a particular race meant a mixture of these components in a way that will reliably identify a person as such a member. To put it another way, the defining elements of a race are (i) a common blood, (ii) language, (iii) history,  (iv) traditions and (v) striving together toward the fulfillment of shared ideals of life, so much so that human history is more properly described as the history of races. Further, for Du Bois, each race has its own special genius and its own gifts to contribute to human kind that only it can contribute (this is Du Bois’s racial teleology).

            I agree with those who argue that Du Bois did not intend to limit race to "common blood." Tommy Lott, for example, provides an interesting and useful analysis of Du Bois’s use of racial types and common blood that goes well beyond The Conservation of Races and makes this point. [5] Yet I do not see a tenable way to fully unlink common blood from, say, a common language or common traditions in Du Bois’s account, in part because Du Bois could not drop the idea of common blood (expressed as morphological characteristics) as part and parcel of the definition of race within his vindication project, i.e. he used physical characteristics as "an essential feature of his project to correct the systematic erasure of black people from history." [6] Should one assent to the idea that race begins with or must be understood in terms of a  Real [7] or scientific definiendum, one would be able to follow Du Bois to his conclusion that while this is so, the important features of race are sociocultural and not biological. But as there is no such Real scientific definiendum called race there is nothing for socialcultural practices to hook on to. So, with the benefit of hindsight and modern genetics, we can say that in terms of Du Bois’s vindication project, while necessarily referring to physical characteristics, he could have argued not that the Negro race, in its various shades and forms, has done and will do great things, but rather that "people who looked like us, whom whites call Negroes and denigrate as barbarians, established great civilizations in Egypt," etc. This would have done the trick. No racial categories required.

            As Du Bois assumed the contextual framework and categories of race talk, of talking about races as though they were Real, he was stuck laboring inside the belief that there are in fact essential biological categories into which sociocultural practices can be parsed, a notion that of course begs for the labeling of those categories. To put it another way, race was a kind of "substance" to which sociocultural "predicates" were supposed to have attached. But notwithstanding Du Bois’s own objections to emphasizing biology over those sociocultural predicates, it is hard to see what that substance was supposed to be in Du Bois’s account if not  essential morphological types. I can’t see how those predicates hook up to biology and, in the final analysis, it seems that Du Bois quite understandably couldn’t either. [8]   Clearly, Du Bois got stuck speaking the language of race even though it was conceptually possible for him to have made his case without it, without inter-positioning a category called race in front of human in his serious anthropology or his vindication project. As we look back at his work it is easy for us to see that he could have done without it just like we think philosophers could have done without the notion of forms, clear and distinct ideas, epistemological "givens" and the synthetic/analytic distinction. Race as Real  was simply a dogma of anthropological and sociological reasoning, a spoke in the hub of a certain kind of scientific and political discourse. So while Du Bois may have ultimately wanted to "define" race away from biology and toward sociocultural practices and achievements, it was in a way an attempt to define a non-definiendum – an inter-positioned category that, violating the basic warning of Ockham’s razor, caused more trouble than it was worth. Of course, Du Bois is no more to be faulted for falling into this dogmatic trap than Kant for accepting the synthetic/analytic distinction. The dogma was simply not exposed as such, and it is difficult to see how it could have been given the political and social climate in which Du Bois was laboring, and given the scientific knowledge and tools available (notwithstanding Franz Boas’s contributions [9] ). Or as Peirce might have put it apropos Du Bois, race was among the "things which it does not occur to us can be questioned." [10]

            We now turn to another aspect of Du Bois’s account of race. Given Du Bois’s vindication project, when I raise the hood on Du Bois’s conception of race the salient motor that seems to drive it is racial teleology, that each race has something special (spiritual) to offer humanity. The pragmatist has trouble with this notion. That is to say, we think that it is notoriously difficult to understand the ideals of any more or less coherent population – for example, a nation-state – as though the ideals are essential features of the members of the population. Rather, its ideals will be shaped, over time, by its intercourse with other  populations with different contingent ideals and practices. No population may be said to have immutable or fixed ideals, although it will certainly have ideals. Further, the idea that a coherent population – what Du Bois would call a race, for example (even if "defined" non-biologically) – has a particular spiritual or metaphysical gift to bestow upon civilization is one that, if not understood metaphorically or propagandistically, smacks of bad metaphysics, a weird cousin to Hegel’s already weird notion of Spirit. Is a recounting of the anthropological facts about a culturally distinguishable people to tell a story of that people that is to be understood as a chapter in a larger book that tells the greater teleological story of human kind in general? While this may constitute useful rhetoric to be employed to foment a needed sense of purpose in a people, on many important levels it may also be described as a kind of "jingoism lite"  that would be sharply ridiculed today. To argue that a race (or a nation, or nation-state or tribe) is destined to (supposed to, predisposed to) contribute a "missing"component to human culture is to argue something quite fantastic. It would be at the very least the hypostatization of goals and practices. There can in fact be no missing components since there is in fact nothing that humans are destined to be. [11]

            There are no elements that make-up Du Bois’s concept of race that are not contingent. Obviously, phenotypic expressions are contingent upon the selection of sex partners, and while the selection of sex partners from within one’s own cultural community has proven to be more probable than the selection of sex partners from outside, there is no reason that the odds will long remain in the favor of in-group mating, not in an era of globalization, but Du Bois himself was aware of this within the context of America. In addition, the geographical locations of groups are contingent upon political maps, which are themselves fluid, as well as upon patterns of migration. 

            It is true, however, that belief that each of these defining elements, (i) through (v), are far less contingent (or are in fact culturally necessary or culturally critical) than an insouciant  pragmatist might be able to accept is a powerfully conservative device – a device that might so slow the rate of change as to cast the illusion of permanence around cultural practices or self-conceptions. Even an insouciant pragmatist is forced to acknowledge the retarding power of cultural conservatism, as well as some of its "benefits" (such as resoluteness of moral purpose among the members of the population (important in times of crisis), a feeling of belonging in a seemingly nihilistic universe, etc.).  But whether or not such conservatism leads to salutary or harmful states of affairs, no pragmatist is likely to accept that the cultural status quo should escape critique, regardless of what conservatives may believe about the status of their cultures or about the world. Yet, as we shall see, this is in some way what modern race conservationists assert in their efforts to maintain the legitimacy of socially constructed racial types in spite of the incoherence and unsavory history of the idea of race.

Racial realities

            The preceding and cursory analysis of Du Bois’s view of race was intended only to begin to demonstrate the problems presented when the notion of race is conserved, even when an attempt is made to define race non-essentially. I selected Du Bois because, in my view, Du Bois was extremely sensitive to the critical importance of properly interpreting the data compiled during various anthropological inquiries into race and culture that were going on during his career, as well as to the dangers that quick and erroneous conclusions regarding those data would present in the realm of politics and social intercourse between so-called racial groups. There were some who did attempt to use the "science" of race as justification to perpetuate various myths of racial hierarchy that were, needless to say, unfavorable as regards people of African origin (as "African origin" was generally understood at the time, i.e. as merely the birth place of black people rather than the entire species).

            But even if Du Bois’s conclusions regarding race are not tenable today it does not mean that the notion of race can be so easily dismissed, since to believe in race and to inject racial thinking into the construction of important institutions and communal social practices is to make race real even though it does not correspond to a natural kind, i.e. is not Real. This is done easily, when race is thought of as socially constructed. As I have also said, I am not one to suppose that what is real need be adjudicated as such by the methods or standards of the natural sciences alone. When we attempt to do that, to allow such adjudication, we wind up throwing out the baby with the bath water – we wind up chucking much of culture. Anything that tends to govern behavior – class, professional categories etc.  – and  that may serve as an organizing or a unifying principle is real. [12] Even though I think Du Bois’s, for example, account of race is untenable the idea of race nevertheless does some taxonomic work, just like believing in an afterlife or natural law does some psychological or ethical work. But one thing seems clear: that something "does some work" is an insufficient reason to move it beyond the pale of scrutiny, revision or rejection. Whether a cultural notion should be embraced or rejected should, on my account, depend upon whether it contributes to, detracts from or is relevant to the achievement of larger axiological aspirations as well as, I would here add, jibes with the moral beliefs that we have, by a consensus reflectively and democratically formed, come to hold as central to the kind of people we wish to become.

            Given the tests I find it most useful to apply, the tests of how race (or any other social construct) contributes or detracts from who we want to be, and given how I understand "we," I am in the camp that thinks that whatever work race does it has compiled more minuses than pluses on its score card. It has served as the basis for invidious social strife and murder; it has divided families, poisoned the flowering of possible and actual friendships and love relationships; and imbued certain cultures with a false sense of absolute superiority and others with the bitter taste of imputed absolute inferiority. It divides neighborhoods and cities down facticious lines of demarcation. It has deferred dreams and stultified plans, hopes and prospects. It has been used to limit the life opportunities of countless millions of children by distorting their self images.

            So I think that looking at race as a social construct says very little about whether it should stay one as a matter of practice, and I find arguments along social constructivist lines to be, at times, merely descriptive and leaving us, as Du Bois was, stuck within a problematic discourse. I think that the following observations, by Linda Martín Alcoff, will help me to make this point:

Anti-essentialisms have corroded the sense of visible difference as the "sign" of a deeper, more fundamental difference . . . . However, at the same time, and in a striking parallel to the earlier modernist contradictions regarding the significance of race, in the very midst of our contemporary skepticism toward race as a natural kind stands the compelling social reality that race, or racialized identities have as much political, sociological, and economic salience as they ever had. As [David Theo] Goldberg puts it, liberal Western societies maintain the paradoxical position whereby "Race is irrelevant, but all is race."[n] The legitimacy and moral relevance of racial concepts is officially denied even while race continues to determine job prospects, career possibilities, available places to live [etc.] . . . . [13]

Alcoff then goes on to state that:

            Race is socially constructed, historically malleable, culturally contextual, and produced through learned perceptual practice. Whether or not it is valid to use racial concepts, and whether or not their use will have positive or negative political effects, depends on the context. . . . [This position] – what I will call a contextualism about race – is clearly the best option both politically and as a metaphysical description. . . . One can hold without contradiction that racialized identities are produced, sustained, and sometimes transformed through social beliefs and practices and yet that race is real, as real as anything else, in lived experience, with operative effects in the social world. [14]

These observations boil down to the following: (i) The idea of race as Real is pretty much dead, but (ii) the damage race  has done still remains, although notwithstanding that damage (iii) race, as a social construct, could be something we might choose to keep around.

            While I can no more fashion a  logically unassailable, non-contextual argument that the concept of race should go than I can fashion one to raze the distinctions between musical idioms, classes, or standards of artistic excellence,  I can, as a participant in the context in which racial discourse is extant, try to persuade others to take a look at why the concept of race should go given precisely that context. I can try to persuade them why race should go as feminists tried to persuade male chauvinists that people are not precluded from running for the Senate or becoming military generals simply because they have vaginas. It may be the case that the work race is supposed to do remains of value to some people, people who prefer to emphasize the pluses rather than the minuses of racial typologies, whatever they might be, but given its historical uses I believe it is quite reasonable to suggest that it should be relegated to, at best,  the realm of quirky private beliefs. Its "cash value," the ingredient that it is supposed to add to our salutary democratic projects and intimate relationships, is hard to discern.  But there isn’t much one can do, by dint of logical rigor, to force someone to stop taking complexion and hair type, for example, as important conditioners of their own identities and/or how they will be recognized. I can only recommend to those people who believe that race is important to the construction of their self-conceptions to try to rethink why they need it. I can only try to persuade them to do away with them by showing them how life might be without it (dialogically of course, as I must remain open to persuasion to the contrary).

            If they get the point of David Theo Goldberg’s observation, as I think we all do, I would try to persuade them to nevertheless understand the layers of racialized reality that operate in their lives so that they might better see the difference between those levels upon which racialization is inescapable –  for now –  and those that they can peel back and discard. I would ask them to try to see that to make racial identity a part of their so-called "core selves" is to apply a mostly troublesome socio-historic category to their self-conceptions, that that category leads to strange behaviors by foisting implications of difference that we can probably or at least arguably do without. It is kind of like thinking that the thing that is most true of oneself is that one is thin or stout or an accountant. I can only point out why going to weddings or funerals with your ledgers will get in your way but, ultimately, I would acknowledge that you are free to tote them anywhere you wish. But you will probably pay a price, unless the reception is overrun by other accountants.

            Some might argue that stripping our "core selves" of cultural furniture like race is to ask that we give-up the features of ourselves that are most important, that make us interesting individuals and, as groups, unique subsets of humanity, and that add flavor to human social intercourse. They might further argue that whether or not one’s being racialized – or a zealous accountant – causes others discomfort or "gets in the way" is not the problem of the racialized subject, but is the respondent’s problem. These seem like fair points, but in some ways they dodge the issue. I am critiquing this choice to be racialized in view of what we now know about (i.e., the present discourse concerning) race. I am asking how and why it is, in a world where the foundations of racialized thinking are under assault, one might still choose to be taken seriously as a racialized subject. I am wondering how racialization can long remain outside of the bag of personal eccentricities – how racialized people can long remain off the list of social eccentrics (just as male chauvinists have become, more or less, eccentrics). We are clearly not there yet (the reception is, indeed, overrun by accountants), but I think that’s probably where we are headed, and should be.

            Goldberg’s observation, as quoted by Alcoff, that "Race is irrelevant, yet all is race" presupposes that we continue to see problems of social justice that have a racial prehistory as "racial problems" or problems of "racism," rather than as simply  "stupid, unpardonable bias unacceptable to a civilization like ours." Shifting our descriptions of these sorts of injustices away from racial language, to in a sense change the subject, is I think critical to deflating race itself, to removing the cloud of race from around our social intercourse and politics. In my view, this is an experiment that we have yet to attempt. Because we have not attempted it, the pedestrian view that is still rife with notions of racial essentialism is not likely to go any time soon. And it is at the level of the daily social actors, these pedestrians that make up Alcoff’s "context," that race thinking continues to do the most damage. To harken back to Wittgenstein, if we all indeed do live in a house of language it is hard to see why we should not take the language game of race more seriously as one begging for therapeutic critique.

Racial idealism, racial pragmatics and racial life worlds

            There are some who might argue that to shift from talking about "racism" to "stupid, unpardonable bias unacceptable to a civilization like ours" is to make a potent response to past or present race-based injustices impossible, or at least more difficult (take the American context as an example). I do not agree. I think that racism can easily be re-described as the practice of "illegitimate morphological parsing" (or a phrase that might sound better in statutes). This is consistent with my previously stated views regarding Du Bois’s vindication project. I see no reason why, for example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 could not be rewritten to remove the word "racism" (and so "race") every place it appears and replace it with something like "morphological parsing" or "the practice of morphological parsing." "Race" itself would become "morphology." This, in my view, does not take very much imagination. I cannot see why every moral critique of racism is not best re-conceived and re-described as a moral critique of illegitimate parsing. In doing so, we drop "race" without dropping the redress of past or present injustices. (Bear in mind that Title VII captures nearly all the other human predicates on the basis of which discrimination and bigotry have hounded people in America (so far) - color, religion, sex, and national origin. As Title VII already addresses color, it already explicitly acknowledges morphology if conceived in its broadest sense.) This is perhaps fodder for a rather sweeping legal and public policy discussion with significant statutory implications and centered around the deflation of race. Unfortunately, that discussion cannot be developed here.

            Further, there are those that would argue that to completely exorcize race as part of one’s identity is sort of akin to inflicting a social handicap upon oneself, particularly where racialized thinking and racism have been serious historical problems. It is to replace Realpolitik with naivete. On this account, to not be aware that one lives in a racialized society with a racialized history will ultimately prove problematic since it will create certain expectations that cannot be realized (such as fair treatment in a variety of contexts). One had better acknowledge one’s ascribed racial identity, one’s blackness or whiteness (etc.), since one is racialized from the outside in, whether or not one finds one’s racial assignment agreeable, and this has certain concrete implications. Further, it is often argued that to bristle at one’s racial assignment is to attempt to step outside of the history of race and racism or is an attempt to scorn or deride race-based institutions, or even race-based remedies to past race-based injustice, as mentioned. I often hear this from other Americans of African descent.  I think that some of these criticisms have merit. But it is often the case that in the heated public discourse concerning race certain distinctions are lost that would allow for greater understanding of both the nature of the rejection of racial assignments by many of those who do the rejecting as well as the understandable suspicion on the part of some who see that rejection as, possibly, bad faith and a lack of historical sensibility.

            I want to go back to my suggestion that there are certain layers of racial ascription that can be peeled back and discarded. Usually, the rejection of racial assignments is a rejection of those assignments at only one moral level, or one layer, and is not intended to be a total rejection of racial assignments on all (e.g., socio-political) levels. An American of Chinese descent, for example, may take a cosmopolitan view of race as something that says very little about who she is in view of her private life choices, projects, interests, personal yearnings and actual choice of associates. While her "tinted" skin and almond-shaped eyes may be acknowledged as an aspect of her social identity or taxonomy that may conjure notions of possible national or geographic origins, on a more personal level she may in fact merely see her morphology (and certain cultural practices) as having only a personal aesthetic significance, as one might view being a red-head or naturally muscular, and not significant because it marks her as a kind of human being. On the other hand, she may at the same time possess a level-headedness to match her cosmopolitanism. She may recognize that people who look like her share a history of struggle in the United States that has created certain bonds, social conditions, and cultural habits and practices, and that to consciously turn her back on that history may be problematic as it may, inter alia, lead her to exist in a  psychologically deluded and socio-politically dangerous state of mind (as long as the types of slights and oppression that shaped that history remain extant or as long as there is a probability of their return). Therefore, her acceptance of that history and of her "Asianness" as more than aesthetic features is a way to embrace and revalorize the features of herself that have been most denigrated by Euro-American society.

            I can see no reason why approaching racialization in this way should prove problematic. But note, given what I have argued, that the revalorization discussed can be accomplished without any reference to a "yellow race." Yet there are those who do not think that revalorization can take place without such references. The philosopher Lucius Outlaw argues that race informs and shapes the life worlds of many people accustomed to seeing themselves in important ways as members of racial groups. [15]   I view Outlaw’s analysis regarding race as part and parcel of the general postmodernist move toward contextualization and certain robust communitarian preferences. [16]   This postmodernist move, while I think doing some important cultural and philosophical work, has also led to what I like to call context fetishization, to disparate groups hyper-valorizing the specific and peculiar markers of their identities over and against those of others, to a defense of one’s context (community, religious perspective, political ideology, race) "weapon in hand," as Stanley Fish’s version of communitarianism seems to trumpet. [17]

            While  Outlaw does not believe that racial identities should be invidiously hyper-valorized in this way, and he believes that such hyper-valorization is avoidable, he would probably disagree with my conclusion that racial identities should be deflated (or should be abandoned), since he would probably argue, inter alia, that my deflation of race is too much of a nod to the intellectual and cultural privileging of the Enlightenment project, is part and parcel of a world view that valorizes totalizing rationalistic axiologies that leave little room for "non-rational" bases of communal solidarity and communally derived sources of meaning. To the contrary, my quarrel is not with cultural and ethnic participation, which I think both useful and emotionally fulfilling, but specifically with the notion that race should be one of the important fixtures of that participation. What I think Outlaw needs to address is why he thinks the charge of harboring a vulgar modernist sensibility (particularly stinging to people, like me, schooled to understand Enlightenment excesses) should stick concerning those that challenge race in the various ways it is being challenged today.

            I would like to explore more directly Outlaw’s reasons for this and his general championing of the conservation of races, and offer some criticisms of his position. In his On Race and Philosophy, Outlaw makes the following statements (pages 10 and 11):

I Why, then, endow raciality and ethnicity with highly honorific philosophical significance? The answer, simply put: because we must . . . 

II But it has not come to pass that physical and cultural differences among groups of peoples in terms of which they continue to be identified, and to identify themselves, as races and ethnies have either ceased to exist or ceased to be taken as highly important in the organization of society . . .

III Of course, some protest that such identities are inappropriate, in part because the notions of the racial or ethnic group involved in them lack science-certified empirical confirmation or philosophically certified logical precision. However, it strikes me that these protesters, while well-intentioned, are nonetheless misguided, for they have forgotten a very important injunction from Aristotle that for any given science or systematic attempt to achieve certified knowledge one should seek no more precision than the subject matter allows. . .

            IV On the basis of a revised philosophical anthropology that draws on an enhanced social ontology mindful of social collectivities, then, perhaps those who philosophize would not mislead themselves in thinking that the elimination of antagonisms tied to invidious valorizations of raciality and ethnicity can be facilitated by ‘lexical surgery’ that removes ‘race’ from usage and replaces it, instead, with references to, say, ‘communities of meaning’ as offered by Kwame Anthony Appiah . . . or as he has proposed more recently, to ‘ethnic identities,’ since he claims there is no such thing as race. . . . I worry that efforts of this kind may well come to have unintended effects that are too much of a kind with racial and ethnic cleansing in terms of their impacts on raciality and ethnicity as important means through which we construct and validate ourselves . . .

I think these four excerpts fairly portray some of Outlaw’s principal concerns regarding the deflation of race.

            As regards (I), Outlaw is referring to some of the problems that attend a Eurocentric flattening or homogenizing of cultural difference in the name of universal reason (which was itself – i.e., universal reason –  given a "highly honorific" status) – the kind of homogenization that attends  positivism and scientism, for example. He argues for the legitimizing of consultations of communal (racial/ethnic) sensibilities, rationalities and perspectives in the course of  philosophical inquiry. He goes on to make this point over and again in On Race and Philosophy. Indeed, as Outlaw points out, this coupling of  the valorization of universal reason with Eurocentric chauvinism was a weapon used to deride the cultural and intellectual productions of non-European peoples and to serve as a justification for their subjugation wherever such subjugation was possible. Outlaw, rightly, seeks to unmask. He shifts the attention from universal reason, the mask worn by Eurocentric chauvinists who offered themselves as the cultural standard for the whole world, toward and in favor of culturally-based and culturally-informed philosophical and intellectual approaches not necessarily based on or privileging the laws of logic and Western scientific methods. The masked removed, it is easy to see that chauvinism for what it is. Outlaw’s unmasking is an attempt to push back European culture, and in particular some of the more robust, science-mad and Eurocentric metanarrative  productions of the Enlightenment and modernity, in an effort to make space for and revalorize the cultural and intellectual productions of non-European peoples as important to the existential life-worlds that give them meaning. He is attempting to privilege first and foremost and to hold in regard the internal consensuses of non-European cultures as to what is relevant to those cultures, regardless of and in some sense in spite of the gravitational pull of modernity.

            I have little quarrel with these goals, for the intellectual paths that a culture takes will depend on what is relevant to that culture, not what universal reason dictates, and what is relevant to a culture, or to use Outlaw’s word, to ethnies, need not be determined or vetted entirely by the dictates of so-called pure reason, although  my concerns about the effects of the Enlightenment project are, I believe, somewhat less than Outlaw’s. Where I do not follow Outlaw is in his claim that raciality/ethnicity "must" be given "highly honorific philosophical significance." It seems enough that we have learned, with the help of people like Wittgenstein, Nietzsche and James, that one can only philosophize from where one is, that one begins thinking about the world with a bag full of biases, values and preconditions– that one, to recall Hegel’s more lucid historicism, is a son of  his times. Why these biases, values and preconditions should be "highly honorific" is not only curious, but it may also be dangerous if one’s philosophizing is arbitrarily prevented from overcoming or deconstructing at least some of these biases, values and preconditions. A proper response to the Enlightenment’s excesses and totalizations cannot be to lock ourselves, more or less, into the monological intellectual and cultural productions of a Volk. I take one of the primary goals, and serious obligations, of the intellectual life to be such attempts to overcome the bounds of metaphorically "static" contexts to the extent possible as situated beings. I cannot conceive of a philosophical life chained (and I use that word quite deliberately) by such robust racial or Volkish loyalties that philosophy and  inquiry turn into arbitrarily truncated activities or discourses.

            In any event, "Enlightenment-style" reason need not be totalizing and is unlikely to be put away as an important tool, among other tools, in figuring out our world and negotiating ourselves through it. "Reason" is not and never was the problem, and if it is we are all in trouble since I have no idea how we can proceed without it. Reason is just that creative and problem solving capacity that all sane human beings possess, Hegel’s Idea notwithstanding. Rather, the problem has always been the privileging of logical and scientific approaches in all types of inquiry, the creation of a totalizing rationalism, as though meaning and value are or can be limited to the determinations and products of such approaches. Pragmatism’s holism, from Dewey on, has had a response to this that seems to have worked pretty well in addressing the cult of Reason, and without a call for "highly honorific" philosophical significance attached to race and ethnicity, but rather with a call to understand that the nature of scientific and philosophical inquiry is, in general, of a piece with other types of social practices and of a society’s aspirations.

            Critical or philosophical inquiry should avoid placing, to the fullest extent practicable, any cultural practice (and race-seeing is one such practice) in the category of "highly honorific" (which is precisely where the Enlightenment, ironically, placed science and rationalism) inasmuch as such inquiry must often destabilize cultural practices by asking the culture rude questions so that it may look at and critique itself, perhaps leading to new and "better"cultural practices ("better" in view of its own axiological and moral commitments and of its own experiences with trying to achieve and sometimes change them). This does not mean that cultural critique must itself be totalizing, eviscerating core values and beliefs in one large critical sweep. The process of inquiry, of critiquing cultural practices, is usually best done piecemeal, akin to the way Neurath describes the manner in which philosophical conceptual schemes are changed. [18]

            It is untenable for a philosopher to, at the same time,  (i) assent to the demise of race as Real, (ii) profess that race nevertheless has sociocultural reality, and argue that (iii) as a sociocultural reality race is beyond serious rational critique. While (i) and (ii) are together coherent (if arguable), the conjunction of  (iii) is not. It defeats the whole point of serious cultural critique and social criticism. While sociocultural practices are protected from merely logical or scientific analysis, they are not unassailable from the axiological rationality that drives the culture itself or from simple critical inquiry. That Outlaw, as a philosopher, either does not see merit in this distinction or seems to want to claim otherwise leaves me baffled. Are all critical assessments of cultural productions, race included, manifestations of the Enlightenment disease? Have the Enlightenment and reason become  bogeymen, or might it not be best to simply avoid its excesses and to bracket and discard some of the more idiotic, pseudoscientific claims of some of its heros?

            In (II), Outlaw asserts that racial/ethnic bonds continue to hold communities together, and that physical features are caught-up in the formation of those bonds. In (III) Outlaw asserts to those who would do away with racial/ethnic groups by dint of logical reasoning that they are violating the Aristotelian principle that we must determine whether the subject of an inquiry is a  techne or an  episteme –  that race/ethnies are more appropriately analyzed as morals and politics are examined, i.e. with appropriate reference to the needs, character, and purposes of individuals and communities. [19] These, of course, cannot be divined by recourse to bare epistemic (read, scientific) reasoning. In (IV), Outlaw accuses those who are attempting an eliminitivist attack on race of something of a kind with mass murder. Although I take Outlaw’s remarks as figurative, the sharp rhetorical flourish of "ethnic cleansing" is noted –  it registers and it speaks volumes. For the invocation of "ethnic cleansing" tips-off the reader to just how much Outlaw is committed to robust racially and ethnically based identities – so much so that, as I  have suggested, he seems to view them as almost inviolable, as having almost inalienable rights to exist as they are and to be protected from eroding assaults from the outside, and especially by those who use Eurocentered notions of reason and scientific method.

            The answer to some of my perplexity in reading Outlaw’s arguments for the conservation

of race may be found in this: One may note that in (I) through (IV) Outlaw always pairs race with ethnicity (which is why I have explained Outlaw’s account with reference to "racial/ethnic" imperatives, above). I think this problematic and an important but useful flaw in his argument, one which allows him to rhetorically conserve the moral legitimacy of race by frequently pairing race and culture in an effort to suggest that one cannot do without the other. On his account, to criticize the idea of race seems akin to criticizing ethnies or cultures themselves. It isn’t.

            We recall that for many years race was understood to be precisely Real. It’s demise as Real is based precisely upon the advancements made in scientific inquiry and it is precisely what can be inferred by the logic of that inquiry (which we all generally accept) that leads to the conclusion that one of the two legs of racial thinking (races as natural kinds) has been lopped off (leaving behind only, perhaps, race as a social construction). Anthony Appiah’s (and others’ –  Naomi Zack, for example) critiques of race as a social construct, the only remaining leg, generally begin here. It is a beginning that accepts but does not over-privilege good, solid scientific arguments, and allows for the formulation of cultural critiques on the basis of reasonable inferences and possible implications drawn from those arguments. Appiah and others do not offer scientific arguments for the elimination of the social construct leg upon which race stands. They simply begin with the question, in view of those arguments, Why should one keep racial thinking around? Their arguments take for granted that race is at best a violable construct, just like any other.

            Unquestionably, racial thinking has led to certain cultural productions, certain memes, certain literatures, and has been tied up, seemingly inextricably, with ethnic identities. These can be thought of as the output of a certain metaphysical view of the world, as certain artifacts of that view, i.e. the view that races are Real. It has its cognates. At one time, we believed that sickness was indeed caused by evil spirits, as mentioned earlier, and the treatment for disease was delivered by incantations and prayers by shamans. But in a society that holds to the rudiments of germ pathology –  the fruit of epistemic thought and solid, scientific arguments –  it is hard to argue that shamans and medicine men should continue to be given the same stature that they once had, even if they have contributions to make in holistic healing. To ignore germ theory itself, to hold onto the artifacts of outdated metaphysical views as though no change had occurred would be more than puzzling. It would be ridiculous. So, too, is a view that any cultural or social construct, even when enshrouded in the  embrace of  a particular culture or ethnie, is beyond critique. If critiques of cultures or ethnies are to be taken as forms of intellectual imperialism, I am not quite sure where that leaves philosophers and intellectuals, or any other thinking person in the modern world. Outlaw I know does not generally view culture critique to be intellectual imperialism (he engages in it himself, and well). This is why I remain perplexed by his line of reasoning as regards the conservation of race.

            Clearly, race need not be thought of, even as a construct, as critical to the survival of a culture or an ethnic group. Many persons around the globe value their cultural practices and productions with hardly any thought to something called race. Outlaw is right in suggesting that it is inappropriate to charge collections of cultural behaviors and values as collections of "errors" according to epistemic standards. One cannot say that French or Italian cultures are "erroneous," since to do so is to commit a category mistake. And one certainly cannot call into question, all at once, the totality of one’s cultural practices and values. Yet one can call some of them into question when the evidence suggests it is time to do so. To not do so may well be a mark of reactionism. What Outlaw has to account for, in my view, is why race, as a construct, as part and parcel of cultural practice, "must" remain a category and a value within a culture or ethnie. This is precisely what he does not do. Few people puzzle about the existence of culture, of ethnic groups and of the attachments people feel to them. But many people who understand the status of race in the sciences and the history of race as a social construct do wonder what race actually adds to identity, and in that regard Appiah is quite right in his general critique of race. Appiah is not engaged in lexical excision, as Outlaw argues, when he questions the concept of race and the continued use of the word. He is quite aware that belligerent cultural conflicts, even those that concern morphology, will not disappear by removing race from the lexicon. But he does labor under the belief that by continuing to announce the death of race as a Real basis for human segregation and division, as well as demonstrating the truly enormous complexities that attend ethnic and cultural identity, people may be persuaded to rethink some of their biases and bigotries – some of the objects of their "highly honorific" commitments. This seems entirely reasonable.


            Culture is ubiquitous, a sine qua non of the human condition. Race is not or need not be. It is simply not true that racial identity is and has always been "taken as highly important in the organization of society," particularly when what has been meant by race has been proven to be so mistaken and given the fact that color and morphology were not generally given much consideration, other than as curiosities, before the emergence of European cultural chauvinism and imperialism. What have people taken as highly important, then? What is indeed true in (II) is that ethnic identification has been important in such organization, and still is. But again, Outlaw’s hitching race to ethnicity is a  move that preserves or enhances the moral  legitimacy of racial identification. What works in the favor of his argument is that such hitching forces images of ethnic groups into our heads and in such images we picture a people’s physicality (as in my example of the Asian woman, above), and we may believe that physicality so essential to forms of life that it seems inconceivable that the two can be separated. When we think of Chinese or Bajan culture and when we view Chinese or Bajan individuals as members of ethnic groups we move to picture thinking. Indeed, Outlaw would be right in noting that physicality is often integral to Chinese and Bajan ethnic identities. He wants to argue that it should remain so. He views nosy questions about why physicality should matter at all as rude, the first salvo in a philosophical war of "ethnic cleansing."

            But I can’t for the life of me figure out why sincere intellectuals should shrink from asking these rude questions – even the Chinese and Bajan intellectuals that exist within Chinese and Bajan cultures. I can’t figure this out like I can’t figure out why intellectuals should shrink from asking rude questions about religious fundamentalist dogma, Western materialism, patriarchy, untouchables, wife burning, the sacrifice of virgins, temple prostitution, fossil fuel consumption, vivisection, female circumcision,  foot binding,  the infallibility of the Pope or any other "valued" bit of cultural practice or metaphysics. I can’t figure out why such critique should incite the use of terms like "ethnic cleansing."

            The fact that racial identities actually continue to shape the life worlds of people is precisely because  of the mythologies and dogmas that have surrounded race for the past two hundred-plus years. We have been stuck with race, whether we wanted to be or not. Race was a lens by which we came to view ourselves as determined beings. But the geneticist’s pronouncement of the metaphysically fictitious status of race, for many, meant the bursting of the constraints of an illusion. Many viewed the demise of race-as-Real to be potentially liberating. For us, race is a  non-salutary incumbrance, an incoherent socio-cultural idea. Yet if one were to be persuaded by Outlaw’s arguments, one would conclude  that it is precisely the constraints and determinations of race that should be preferred, so long as we can avoid the risks of bringing some of its nasty baggage along. Is this some kind of stalemate? Does the debate simply hinge on a choice? Do we simply say that one person’s chains are another’s wings? If that be so, then it may simply be that no line of reasoning will serve to undo racial commitments; one would only choose to be determined by  race, or choose not to be.

            Regarding Outlaws belief (against the facts of the history of the race concept) that race can be preserved without invidious result, I have serious doubts about whether it makes sense to take the chance to see if he is right or wrong, especially when racial valorization is increasingly thought to be untenable and we are so close to finding ways to educate "pedestrians" (and especially our children) to do away with it altogether. Since, in my view, the question of whether we should keep or get rid of race presents the rare opportunity to dispose of a troublesome basis for social division and strife, I am not willing to place much confidence in that assertion. I have no doubt that Outlaw himself could pull it off. But what gets done with race on the street is out of Outlaw’s (or anyone else’s) hands. Given my fears here, while race may remain a potent social category for the foreseeable future, the cost-benefit analysis that has been performed on race leads me to seriously question why anyone would want to hold onto it, especially given that it is difficult to see any real psychological or social harms that attend its deflation. I don’t see how one would be cut adrift existentially, how one would cease loving one’s dialect and language, the foods and music and values and tales and spirituality of one’s ethnic group, the fact that one is still a son or daughter of Scotland or India if, in the very next instant, racial thinking and raciation, in every form and manifestation, would disappear forever. [20]

            Since we are, after all, talking about a social construct, something that we may keep or get rid of given the reaching of a certain consensus, we need to ask some hard questions about  what the mystery ingredient is – call it ‘R’ – that race is supposed to bring to the table in establishing the kind of cosmopolitan-democratic order that we claim to want. Is ‘R’ a sense of physical pride? If it is, why should one take pride in phenotypic or physical expressions? Is ‘R’ a sense of shared history? What’s wrong with just shared history? Is shared history enough to constitute a race? If so, then is not, as critics have pointed out, being an American or a Spaniard to belong to a race of people? Does ‘R’ serve as a rampart that protects diversity and pluralism? But again, there are all kinds of pluralisms that will always exist as long as individuals and communities exist. Is there a fear of a monochromatic "beige" society? Whatever rush we get out of a broad morphological spectrum within the human species  (green eyes, rosy nipples, wooly or flaxen hair) is certainly replaceable (if it ever comes to that) by new ways of expressing our salutary or other morally inert differences even if the ends of the spectrum were bred away through blithe procreative disregard.

            If I am right, then in fact there is no ‘R’ and race adds nothing worth preserving, with the possible exception of weak taxonomic distinctions no different than the size of feet or the frequency of overbite. It does nothing, in a civilization  like ours, to help us achieve the kinds of social goals we wish, but it may serve a great purpose in a society unlike ours, with different social and cultural aspirations. So if it is held onto as a social construct (and, as Outlaw prefers, it may be) rather than as a fact of natural science, which it is not, the greatest burden of justification should rest upon those who refuse to let it go rather than those who would see it deflated or exorcized – whether they are inside or outside of the academy.



             There is no doubt but that the move away from racial thinking beyond what is necessary to survive in a racialist culture will take a sustained and conscious moral effort, perhaps even a national or international commitment – what I would call "methodological color blindness," a kind of anti-race voluntarism, along with the meting out of soft social rewards for switching our thoughts from the tracks that see race onto the tracks that don’t. But there are at least two problems with this. The first is a political one, for it seems reminiscent of the  jejune, neo-conservative "color blindness" talk that we know is untenable given the history of race in America. The second problem is intrinsic to it and attends the husk of racialism that still remains. It is the problem connected with the very taxonomy of race, to which I referred earlier –  the primitive habit of parsing human beings according to appearance, so that deflating or exorcizing race will prove psychologically difficult.

            For example, it is a conceptually difficult thing for a "black" person in America to dissociate his morphology from what has been deemed to be "black culture." How can there be "black culture" without "black" people? Morphology has then become a sort of proxy, a sign that a certain sensibility exists beneath black skin (and white skin, and yellow skin, etc.). Frankly and unfortunately, it is often a safe bet that our prejudices concerning such sensibilities are often true, but largely because we allow cultural practices and memes to be owned by specific groups of people. And so this is one of the obstacles associated with letting race go. It is probably an unwise bet that another African American I pass on the street in New York is a Republican, does not like any jazz, rap or soul music, is comfortable with cultural and political conservatives, and never uses various forms of speech that have arisen in African-American communities. For many, there is something nice about that since it is nice to know that among a definable and immediately identifiable racial group there are some things that can be more or less safely assumed, where one can prejudge that at least a superficial kinship exists on the basis of race, though certainly not always. This is the kind of taxonomic distinction that, I suppose,  makes for comfortable racial life worlds. And yet, this is precisely the comfort I wish to undermine. My preference would be that we strive diligently and creatively for a time when nothing morally fundamental or individually important should be assumed of a person given her so-called racial morphology, just as in our emergence from misogyny and paternalism men and women both have made strides toward learning not to assume that either sex has certain essential preferences or sensibilities. This does not mean that  "comfortable" cultural communities should not exist – they inevitably will exist. That same African American I pass on the street might still be able to connect with me on the basis of a shared history, but even that may not be so since what are in fact in play are histories.

            Regardless of the comfort (or discomfort) it may bring, the assumption that a so-called racial group should be assumed to lack or to display certain cultural characteristics or political sensibilities merely on the basis that it is that so-called racial group is a notion that must go by the boards, and may  if we want it to. Being for or against affirmative action, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a Palastinian state, or school vouchers are positions that are probably better off forged upon the anvils of good, uncoerced public debates and personal reflection, rather than pre-programmed racial sensibilities or shibboleths. While it is hard to argue that African Americans or, for that matter, Irish, Mexican or Japanese Americans, should not bring their various histories to the public square when debating policy, it is equally untenable to argue that there are racially pre-programmed conclusions that must be reached. To argue that there are is to argue toward kinds of racial authenticity (sets of core racial values and sensibilities) that must not be offended, that one must not stray too far from the house of one’s race. Quite to the contrary, I hold that we should all become traitors to our so-called races and to our comfortable monological identities as we forge loyalties to larger axiological communities of meaning that can accommodate multifarious selves. Why should  we? To use Outlaw’s language: Because we must. We must if would construct a future with as few reasons as possible to kill or humiliate one another –  if we would bring about a type of democratic order in which knowing a fellow citizen entails engaging him or her in a series of conversations rather than the vulgar ticking-off of boxes on a list of morphological, class, sexual or geographical predicates, even where such fellow citizen enjoys the emotional benefits that come with participation in specific communities of meaning.


Copyright © 2002 by David E. McClean. All rights reserved.

[1] This is a version of a paper expected to be published in an upcoming anthology on Race and Pragmatism.

[2] Ludwig Wittegenstein, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, II. §23

[3] Here a critic could argue that the "who" we wish to be could just as easily be despotic as democratic. It could be. I assent to the Habermasian conclusion that such "whos" as these (i.e., despots) will be less likely to emerge as we approach an ideal condition wherein open, honest discourse is permitted by whatever regime is in power. But my agreement with Habermas here has less to do with obedience to the call of reason than with what seems to be a universal tendency in creatures like us to watch out for our own necks, however long it may take us to fashion better ways to do so (monarchies were once thought to be a good way, but our acquaintance with a spate of Caligulas and George IIIs over the ages has made us rethink that notion). We have learned that having despots around makes preserving our necks difficult. (Of course, there is no guaranty that we will not forget our lessons, that we will not one day welcome them back under the guise of some new ideological moniker.)

[4] For a foundational understanding of racial typologies as developing out of the eighteenth century, see Milford Wolpoff and Rachel Caspari, Race and Human Evolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997)

[5] See Lott’s essay, Du Bois’s Anthropological Notion of Race in Race, ed. Robert Bernasconi (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2001).

[6] Ibid., 71

[7] I use "Real" vs. "real" here to mean something that the natural sciences would consider to be a proper subject of study. For example, a natural kind.

[8] In Dusk of Dawn, Du Bois tells us regarding Africa and Africans: "The mark of their heritage is upon me in color and hair. These are obvious things, but of little meaning in themselves; only important as they stand for real and more subtle differences from other men. Whether they do or not, I do not know nor does science know today." (Emphasis mine.) Kwame Anthony Appiah, in his book In My Father’s House – Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (Oxford, 1992), page 46, says that ". . . Du Bois takes race for granted and seeks to revalue one pole of the opposition of white to black. The received concept is a hierarchy, a vertical structure, and Du Bois wishes to rotate the axis, to give race a ‘horizontal’ reading. Challenge the assumption that there can be an axis, however oriented in the space of values, and the project fails for loss of presuppositions. In his later writings, Du Bois– whose life’s work was, in a sense, an attempt at just this impossible project– was unable to escape the notion of race he explicitly rejected."

[9] Boas, an anthropologist working at the turn of the last century, concluded after significant study that  there are no pure races and that no race is innately superior to another.

[10] Charles S. Peirce, Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.

[11] Lott points out (pg. 73) that Du Bois, for some interesting reasons having to do with a shifting view of the course and status of modernity itself, later attempted to distance himself from the notion of racial teleology.

[12] I am reminded of Foucault’s preface to The Order of Things: "This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought – our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography – breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification . . . .  In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.

[13] See Linda Martín Alcoff’s essay, Toward a Phenomenology of Racial Embodiment in Bernasconi’s Race.

[14] Ibid., 270

[15] See Outlaw’s On Race and Philosophy, (New York: Routledge, 1996).

[16] Outlaw’s communitarianism is clear when he quotes Du Bois with apparent agreement concerning the need for "combined race action" (page 155) and when he tells us that what is critically important concerning the conservation of race is that such conservation is about (page 156) "the end in view, . . . in this case the historical development and well-being of a relatively distinct group of people who suffer oppression at the hands of persons of another group." He then ends the discussion in the chapter with:  "Thus must the race be mobilized and organized . . . . Thus must the race of African peoples – all races – be ‘conserved.’ For many persons – and I place myself in this group – the continued existence of discernable race- and ethnie-based communities of meaning is highly desirable even if, in the very next instant, racism and perverted, invidious ethnocentrism in every form and manifestation would disappear forever." It is terribly unclear why race is provided as a sine qua non for communities of meaning. One of the other odd things here is that Outlaw seems to take racial communities as a kind of natural, organic given, yet he argues for their conservation with fervor, as though they are things that must be vigorously defended. As a deflationist, whenever I hear such vigor my suspicions get aroused – my antennae go up. What seems at stake for Outlaw, as for Du Bois, is the "unfinished project" of the advancement and vindication of a particular race. That vindication cannot take place in his view, it seems, if the notion of race is razed.  Although he references "all races," it is difficult for me to imagine that after reading Outlaw’s essays that he, an African American, was motivated to write On Race and Philosophy with primary regard for the need for Asians and Caucasians to lock arms racially and show the world their stuff.

[17] Stanley Fish, The Trouble with Principle (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999), pg. 14

[18] I Quote Quine here, from his essay Identity, Ostension, and Hypostasis: "Yet we must not leap to the fatalistic conclusion that we are stuck with the conceptual scheme that we grew up in. We can change it bit by bit, plank by plank, though meanwhile there is nothing to carry us along but the evolving conceptual scheme itself. The philosopher’s task was well compared by Neurath to that of a mariner who must rebuild his ship on the open sea." I think this helps, as well, to understand how cultural practices in general should be approached and critiqued. A critical assessment of a cultural practice ought not to be interpreted as an inimical stance toward the culture itself en toto.

[19] I assume that the reference is to Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics: "For a well-schooled man is one who searches for that degree of precision in each kind of study which the nature of the subject at hand admits: it is obviously just as foolish to accept arguments of probability from a mathematician as to demand strict demonstrations from an orator." I do not think that the critics of race as social construct are guilty of an error with any family resemblance to this admonition.

[20] See note 13.