A conversation on race

I recently had an email exchange with a black man who’s generally sympathetic with what I say but has some concerns. Here’s the exchange, which I’ve edited somewhat in the interests of coherence, concision, and clarity.

Black Trad: I have been reading many of your articles online and tend to agree with you about most everything.

I wonder, however, in light of your insightful reflections on ethnicity, how people like myself should view their position. I am a well-educated black man who moves easily among elite liberal sophisticates. Most of my closest friends, the people who best understand me and whom I best understand, are white. I can’t rejoice at the thought that, were this world less liberal, they would probably be reluctant to interact with me and, when looking at me, see first (and perhaps only) lower than average intelligence, predisposition to violence and unrestrained sexuality, etc. What do you say to those of us who are “stranded” outside a traditional ethnic community? Should we feign cultural affinities and ethnic pride we simply do not have, or simply regret the fact that we were raised as cosmopolitans, curse God and die?

Jim Kalb: Thanks for the note and the questions. Here are some thoughts:

So far as I can see the best situation would be a mostly libertarian setup in which people form and cultivate and build on connections when those connections seem worth it to all involved. I think that would result in a great deal of ethnic separation since ethnic culture is among other things a scheme of social cooperation so those brought up in the same scheme will probably cooperate most productively. It’s also a matter of common memories, loyalties and connections, and people with memories, loyalties and connections in common tend to hang out together and get more out of it.

The present situation, which results from a contrary approach, isn’t great for American blacks. The 80% illegitimacy rate and 12% (or so) incarceration rate for young black men should tell us that. The constant siphoning off of talented blacks through affirmative action and the general supposition that black problems are primarily the responsibility of the larger society so blacks shouldn’t have to depend on and be answerable to each other can’t help.

At the upper levels—among the black elite—I can’t think it’s that wonderful either. As things are now, when an elite white person sees an elite black person he’s likely to see an issue or a situation in which role playing is required. At some level and in some situations he’s likely to be reminded of the extremely unpleasant things you mention.

Under such circumstances, how many black people really feel at home in a white elite institution? Various black writers have commented on the difficulty, sometimes very bitterly. For my own part when I try to imagine what it would be like to be a black man in America with all the issues and sensitivities I think I would hate it. It would drive me up the wall. I’d have to turn myself into a saint or a fraud or an absolute stoic. I don’t know what I’d do.

Saying I don’t know what I’d do doesn’t help you much in your concrete situation. So I will try to get more to the point.

One possibility is that if the world were different we’d all be different. If black culture were in better shape you’d likely see more of yourself in it and find in it more of a satisfactory and open-ended way to connect with reality. So maybe you’d have less reason to connect with whites. And it seems to me that affirmative action and so on has been disastrous for black culture. If something is disastrous for black culture it probably doesn’t do much for how black people look to others. So I’m not sure the current approach is the best way to improve mutual respect.

“We’d all be different if things were different” may seem irrelevant to you personally, but changes take time. How about your son or grandson? As things are going now, what will the position of black people be in their time otherwise?

Also, to say ethnicity is legitimately relevant to how people live is not to say it has to determine everything. Not everything changes all at once, since the past carries forward even when the direction of events changes. So to the extent there are black people today who connect mostly to white people and European culture I’d expect that to continue even if people thought it was OK to think that various groups of white people and European culture in its various specific forms mostly go together and the whole complex assemblage has some legitimacy and is worth carrying forward.

The world has many levels, niches, dimensions, and smaller worlds within it. People can get to know each other and may hit it off. They form networks based on common interests and qualities that cross the boundaries of other communities to which they belong. I don’t see why that couldn’t continue to happen between blacks and whites if the common qualities and interests are there to support it and valuable enough to be worth pursuing. Arthur Waley could be respected by the Chinese and Japanese as a literary scholar even though both peoples are ethnocentric. Why couldn’t the same sort of thing happen in other settings and connections?

In thinking about these things it’s important to remember that few aspects of identity are altogether categorical. Take Catholic identity, Western identity and American identity for example:

  • Unlike Islam, Catholicism does not replace nation. Unlike socialism it does not replace family. So “Catholic” is not the whole of what one is.
  • The West is what it is because it’s an assemblage of particular nations, regions, and classes within a common civilization. Enduring diversity within often fractured unity has been its greatness. (As was the case with classical Greece, Renaissance Italy, and Warring States China.)
  • The political essence of America is federalism and limited government. I think that for America the alternative to localism and limited government is a sort of messianic globalism. That means though that America is a structure made up of people who don’t think of themselves as simply Americans. It can include a variety of Americans, including black Americans.

A lot of the concern with racism has to do with the idea that if historical community and particular culture are allowed to matter at all then they will become absolutes and we’ll end up with something like Nazism. I don’t think that’s right.

BT: Is there never a moral obligation to try to see beyond stereotypes?

JK: Sure. There often is. We should try to see things as they are. And also to be just.

BT: Is it really fair that a man should feel he need not exert himself to ensure that he does not evaluate my words under the influence of presuppositions about the intelligence of blacks?

JK: We should always ask ourselves if we’re getting the other guy right. On the other hand, getting somebody right necessarily involves some reliance on what this or that feature of the situation has meant in the past. I don’t know how else you go about it. Naturally as you find out more about the particular situation conclusions from past experience become less decisive. Sometimes that can happen very quickly. And it’s obvious that a black man can be as intelligent, cultured and so on as anyone else. It normally takes more than an initial glance though to find out what’s going on in the particular case.

BT: Is ethnic discrimination ever simply irrational, or should I respect the judgment of a man who would not have me marry his daughter because my phenotype is that of “one of them”?

JK: It’s sometimes simply irrational, mostly I think in somewhat formal situations and when taken too far. The idea that I belong to one group and someone else to another obviously can’t justify actual bad treatment. And even if group membership can be a legitimate consideration in deciding what to do it can be as irrational as any other particular way of deciding things when misapplied. A doctor who wasn’t as conscientious treating patients if they had one background rather than another would be acting badly. In many situations it wouldn’t make much sense to give ethnic or racial considerations prominence. I suppose I’d run more risks to pull a friend or close relative out of the water if he was drowning, but in general it shouldn’t make much difference who the guy is.

Marriage though is complicated. How can I be categorical? It’s personal and social and all-embracing and brings in everything. It’s always marriage into a whole web of connections. For that reason it makes sense for a parent to be concerned with what that web is and whether it’s likely to work out well. Usually it works out better if the marital web of connections is reasonably coherent with other social connections. So ceteris paribus mixed marriages are more problematic.

Suppose though (someone might ask) a black baby is adopted by a white couple in Montana, so that he grows up with no black connections at all and the “mixed marriage” aspect is purely a matter of phenotype?

Even in that case I wonder how often the racial aspects would stay purely physical. While Barack Obama was growing up he had about as much connection with black life as I did, but judging by reports from those who’ve read his autobiography and the career and personal choices he’s made his identity as an African American is a big deal for him. He apparently has a half-brother, also half white and half black, who identifies with European culture, has a physics Ph.D. from Stanford, and could hardly care less about his black phenotypic roots. He moved to China, I suppose to opt out of all the weirdness. So it seems it’s hard to keep race from being an issue just by considering it a non-issue. And in any event the reactions of other people, who make sense of things as best they can and so often go by what they can see and what those things usually mean, make some difference.

None of this proves anything, and how it all sorts out depends on circumstances and what those involved make of it. If social attitudes, standards and connections are the issue they don’t all point one way today. Also, marriage is very personal as well as very social. So if the girl’s father disapproved you wouldn’t have to think he was right. He could be dead wrong, and the marriage could really be made in heaven. All that can be said on the other side is that he’s probably not being simply irrational.

BT: Liberals fear that, without anti-racism campaigns, it will again become acceptable to say with Kant that a the advice of a black man must be stupid, or with Hume that an allegedly learned black man must be like a parrot praised for speaking a few words plainly. Or that “reckless eyeballing” may again be punished by death in small rural towns. I am not a liberal, but I fear the same. Does this fear seem reasonable to you?

JK: Kant and Hume may have had extremely negative and categorical views on blacks but those views would have changed if they had lived to meet Alexander Pushkin or Alexandre Dumas pere, both of whom would count as black in America, or many others since.

As to “reckless eyeballing” I think that the ease of communication and travel and general fluidity of relationships make extreme local situations much less likely today. I think we should ask ourselves what the big threat is under current conditions. I don’t think it’s too much localism. Also, if the tendency toward extreme racism is as strong as the fear suggests there are probably lots of other bad tendencies. Why shouldn’t there also be a tendency toward Communist-style ideological tyranny? Either way, it seems doubtful that giving the government the right and power radically to reconstruct social attitudes is a good idea. If people routinely go deeply wrong when left to themselves, giving some of them unbounded power over the others isn’t likely to be a solution. Gleichschaltung—bringing all social arrangements in line with a centrally-determined concept—was a Nazi invention.

BT: You mention black culture. It’s unclear what remains (if there ever was anything) that is both distinctive and valuable in black culture as such. Tom Sowell, for example is an extremely well-educated middle-class American, period. There did not seem any non-European “mode” of excellence available to him or to other successful blacks whose success was not tied to the same racial activism we both think so destructive.

As I see it, blacks have always been at their best in this country when they have assimilated. That strategy is no more fraudulent (though in some cases more drastic) than young George Washington’s setting before him the image of the perfect gentleman and leader and working towards it. Given the homogeneity of modern middle-class life, there seems no reason to expect a reconsolidation of specifically ethnic communities. I guess that, while I agree with your libertarian solution, I think that under modern (and not necessarily liberal) conditions, regaining a thick sense of ethnicity would be like trying to put the genie back in the bottle for no good reason.

JK: I’m a bit of an existentialist on black culture: its existence, which is real due to the fact that black people in America generally view themselves and are viewed by others as a particular people over against other people, precedes its essence. So it’s simply whatever assemblage of personal connections, historical memories, habits, attitudes, loyalties, etc. actually connects black people and shapes their way of cooperation. In effect it’s a way of talking about the immediate social setting in which black people generally grow up and with respect to which they orient themselves.

I think that black people are going to continue to see themselves and be seen by others as a particular distinct people. If that’s so then there’s going to be something that functions as black culture simply because a group of people living together has to live together in some particular manner. The condition of black culture is therefore important. The idea of cultural authenticity doesn’t have a lot to do with it. If Shakespeare, Aquinas, or for that matter Confucius help black people lead better lives, and they catch on among black leaders, then they could be part of black culture. Black culture could be, and in America I suppose mostly is, a particular variant of European and Christian culture with some African and locally-developed elements. A culture is a web rather than a single thing, so the mix would undoubtedly be somewhat different for different black people.

As to the future of ethnicity: I agree that present conditions tend to dissolve it. They tend to dissolve everything humanly valuable and reduce social life to a value-free technological system. All that is solid melts into air. I don’t think that’s going to work and at some point we’re going to have a reversion to a system based on more particular ties. What form that will take I don’t know. The specific role ethnicity plays will depend on future conditions which aren’t foreseeable now. The reversion may be quite horrible, worse than the reversion from communism to private property, which in Russia has taken the form of kleptocracy and mafia rule. I think it’s likely to be less horrible though if there’s a less determined effort to extirpate nontechnocratic forms of social organization like particular culture and historical community—which taken together tend to be equivalent to ethnicity.

P.S. Have you ever made contact with Elizabeth Wright at Issues and Views? She’d probably have something intelligent to say on these issues although I have no idea how much she’d agree with anything I’ve said.

2 thoughts on “A conversation on race”

  1. A conversation on race
    An honest and for me at times poignant exchange. Raises much to think over. Thanks to both you and your correspondent for this.

  2. Interesting discourse.
    While I different greatly from Black Trad(despite both of us identifying as Traditionalist, I imagine) in that I am rather racial, anti- assimilation and am decidedly not “cosmopolitan”.I found this to be one of the best discourses on race I’ve come across.

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