The Trouble With Race and Its Many Shades of Deceit

How education programs intended to foster diversity, equality and inclusion do harm, and why it’s time for a radical shift

The Trouble With Race and Its Many Shades of Deceit
Demonstrators march down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on June 6, 2020, protesting the killing of George Floyd. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

During the summer of 2020, George Floyd’s murder ignited an outcry across America, shaking many awake to the wrongs of racism. In the days and months that followed, colleges and universities, keen to show that they were in tune with the times, began introducing programs addressing DEI — diversity, equity and inclusion — in their institutions. They created positions for developing anti-racist policies, established anti-racist courses and training, and encouraged faculty to “decolonize” syllabuses.

Many have applauded this turn of events. Others, predominantly on the political right, warn that the awakening is a Trojan horse for social justice, smuggling progressive ideology into the classroom and infecting vulnerable young minds with false and divisive beliefs. Conservative activists have turned school board meetings into shouting matches about the place of race in the education of children in America and have gotten books deemed to be “offensive” banished from the curriculum. Lawmakers have passed legislation that restricts how educators may address issues of race in nine states (at last count) and have introduced such legislation in at least 20 more. Most recently, Florida’s legislature has approved the “Stop WOKE Act,” stating that “In Florida we are taking a stand against the state-sanctioned racism that is critical race theory.” This has made teaching uncomfortable facts about the history of race in the United States illegal, with the support of many right-leaning parents.

We are professors of philosophy who teach, write and speak about race, so the controversy swirling around anti-racist education strikes close to home. Like many other educators, we are haunted by the worry that one day a student, offended by facts, will mobilize to harass us and call for our dismissal, or worse. The academy and its place in the wider social arena have become so embroiled in conflict that we no longer take academic freedom as a given. In an age of shrinking enrollments, ballooning tuition costs and aggressive right-wing activism, coupled with donors ready to flex financial muscle to influence the curriculum, few of us can be certain that our employers will have our backs.

It is also personal. We are a so-called mixed-race couple. One of us, Subrena, is a brown-skinned woman descended from West Africans brought in chains to labor on the sugar plantations of Jamaica. The other, David, is a beige-skinned man of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, a descendant of refugees who fled the racist pogroms of Eastern Europe for the safe haven of the U.S. and who grew up in the Deep South at the tail end of the Jim Crow era. As such, we both have skin in this game.

We want to make it clear that we fully endorse the aims of DEI programs. But we object to how they are carried out, for, as noble as these aims are, there is a fatal contradiction at the heart of much of what goes on in them, a contradiction that threatens to undermine the entire enterprise. Although the purpose of anti-racist training is to vanquish racism, most of these initiatives are simultaneously committed to upholding and celebrating race. One can see this quite clearly in the work of Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, well-known voices in the anti-racist movement. Both of them presume that we can oppose racism while leaving the concept of race intact.

But in the real world, can we have race without racism coming along for the ride? Trying to extinguish racism while shoring up race is like trying to put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it. It can only make matters worse. To get rid of racism we have to get rid of race.

But what are we talking about when we talk about race? We frequently ask our students this question, and their responses follow a well-trodden path. At first, they are flummoxed, unable to put into words something that seems perfectly obvious. Then, after a little Socratic nudging, they nearly always settle on the claim that a person’s race is the color of their skin.

It is not difficult to show them why this is only part of the equation. We explain to them that race was at the core of Nazi ideology and the race that the Nazis were most obsessed with was the so-called Jewish race. Nevertheless, many Jews looked just like their Aryan overlords; their skin was just as pale, their hair was just as blond, their eyes were just as blue. It is not for nothing that they needed a yellow star to set them apart from the “Herrenvolk” (master race).

Next, moving closer to home, we explain that an untold number of fair-skinned African Americans escaped oppression by presenting themselves as white and melding into white society. When Homer Plessy was charged with violating Louisiana’s segregation laws, sparking the infamous “separate but equal” 1896 decision by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson — a decision that upheld state-imposed Jim Crow laws — it was not because of his skin color. Plessy was visually indistinguishable from a white man, but he was counted as Black because of his paternal grandmother’s African descent. Even the prosecuting attorney, John H. Ferguson, admitted that he could not see that Plessy was Black (though he claimed that he could smell his race). A more recent example of race and appearance coming apart as a definition is the case of Rachel Dolezal, an activist who presented herself as Black but who was “outed” in a 2015 magazine article as “really” being white.

After a little back-and-forth, our students agree that the concept of race is not just about how people look but must be based on something deeper. But what is this deeper something? We do not have to search far for an answer. In the Jim Crow South, the “one-drop rule” stated that anyone with even a single Black ancestor was Black, irrespective of the color of their skin. In Germany, the 1935 Nuremberg laws stipulated that anyone with at least three Jewish grandparents was Jewish (those with fewer were “Mischlinge” or “mongrels”). Although often tied to people’s appearance — skin color, hair texture, eye shape and the like — race is a matter of beliefs about biological pedigree.

Recognizing the connection between racial identity and ancestry raises another key question. Why should descent matter for race? Some scholars who study race refer to this as “racial essentialism.” The idea is that race is somehow carried and passed on by means of a biological substance — the racial essence. In the past, blood was thought to play this role, which is why during World War II the American Red Cross segregated blood supplies along racial lines. Today, race is more often imagined to be located in one’s DNA.

Such essentialist beliefs are common. When pressed, some might say that a person’s appearance expresses their race, but mere appearance is not what makes them a member of that race. Ask a random American about the race of a Black person who has undergone a procedure that makes them physically indistinguishable from whites (the theme of George Schuyler’s novel “Black No More”), and you are likely to be told that the person seems white but is really Black. These essentialist assumptions, which so often lurk unnoticed in the background of conversations about race, explain why saying that someone looks white has starkly different implications from saying that they are white.

Some people reject this analysis in favor of the idea that race is nothing more than different patterns of human biological variation. Humans are varied on many dimensions (roughly twice as varied as our relatives, the chimpanzees), including those that are conventionally associated with race. The idea that the human family is partitioned into a small number of distinct races is actually a folk theory purporting to explain human variation.

Meanwhile, the scientific study of human variation shows that race is not meaningfully understood as a biological grouping, and there are no such things as racial essences. There is now near-consensus among scholars that race is an ideological construction rather than a biological fact.

Race was fashioned for nothing that was good. History has shown us how groups of people “racialize” other groups of people to justify their exploitation, oppression and annihilation. This pattern of thinking goes back to ancient times and has been reproduced again and again to justify colonialism, slavery and genocide. As the historian Noel Ignatiev recounts in his book “How the Irish Became White,” the English once cast the Irish as a primitive and bestial race, only for this to change with time. Other historians, such as David Roediger and Matthew Frye Jacobson, detail how various European “races” — Jews, Italians, Poles and others — were at first excluded from and then later incorporated into the dominant white race. No book has been written bearing the title “How Africans Became Black,” but one could easily be, because there is no reason to think that the diverse peoples of West Africa — people who identified as Akan, Igbo, Wolof, Fulani, Hausa or Yoruba — thought of themselves as belonging to a homogeneous Black race before the arrival of the Arab and European slavers who shackled them to it.

Writing an essay like this is not easy, because it challenges the status quo of both conservatives and progressives. Many on the left will balk at our claim that the very idea of race is destructive and should be abandoned, while many on the right will object to our emphasis on improving education on our nation’s racial history. But such education is sorely needed.

Most Americans get their ideas about race from the toned-down versions dished out in high school classes and the media. Most have no idea that when African American men were lynched they were often tortured for hours, castrated, mutilated and then burned alive and that these atrocities, often attended by hundreds or thousands of eager spectators, continued well into the 20th century. They were not taught that Adolf Hitler — the man whose name is synonymous with evil — hugely admired American racism and applauded our genocide of Native Americans, or that the Nazis modeled their Nuremberg race laws — the first steps on the road to Auschwitz — on our own Jim Crow legislation. Unaware of the sheer weight of history, it does not occur to them that Black Americans were legally enslaved for 244 years and have been free for only 157, and they are ignorant of the fact that slavery persisted in other forms such as peonage, sharecropping and violent coercion that persisted into living memory.

These are mainstream historical facts that are excluded from public consciousness in a nation that refuses to seriously examine itself. Little wonder, then, that the backlash against anti-racist initiatives is often so vehement, and the efforts to curb what we educators may teach our pupils are so impassioned. The truth about race seems too dangerous to be let off a very short leash, but imagining away its reality cannot address, much less solve, the urgent problems of our deeply divided and unequal nation. In spite of persistent efforts to bury it, our racial history keeps coming back from the dead.

Race is and has always been an ideological weapon. It was shaped and honed to give advantage to one group of people by oppressing others. It has birthed genocide and chattel slavery, underpinned lynching and mass incarceration, and has been used to excuse exploitation, degradation and poverty. This sordid history shows how racism has not been added to the fabric of race, but rather is woven into it. Affirmations of race, however well-intentioned, perpetuate the white supremacist project, making anti-racism a house divided against itself, doomed to fail. Audre Lorde’s oft-quoted comment that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, although differently intended, illuminates the contradiction at the heart of this anti-racist discourse. We cannot hope to dismantle the apparatus of racism while clinging to the master’s ideology of race. We must relinquish it.

Our position may seem controversial, but it is not unprecedented. Other racial “eliminativists” — people who believe that race should be consigned to the rubbish heap of history — include philosophers Kwame Anthony Appiah, Naomi Zack, Adam Hochman and Joshua Glasgow; cultural critic Thomas Chatterton Williams; literary scholar Sheena Mason and race scholar Paul Gilroy. Gilroy’s view is close to our own. He sees the idea of race as an impediment to human solidarity and freedom from race as part of a larger liberatory project. “The pursuit of the liberation from ‘race,’” he writes in “Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line,” “is an especially urgent matter for those peoples who … were assigned an inferior position in the enduring hierarchies raciology creates.” He continues:

However, this opportunity is not theirs alone. There are very good reasons why it should be enthusiastically embraced by others whose antipathy to race-thinking can be defined not so much by the way it has subordinated them, but because in endowing them with the alchemical magic of racial mastery, it has distorted and delimited their experiences and consciousness in other ways. … Black and white are bonded together by the mechanisms of “race” that estrange them from one another and amputate their common humanity.

As professors, we are frequently in a position to give presentations on race and racism to the general public and often discuss these topics with our academic colleagues. Inevitably, someone objects that getting rid of race makes it impossible to address racial injustice, echoing a popular argument in anti-racist literature. As Ibram X. Kendi writes in “How To Be an Anti-Racist”:

Assimilationists … fail to realize that if we stop using racial categories, then we will not be able to identify racial inequity. If we cannot identify racial inequity, then we will not be able to identify racist policies. If we cannot identify racist policies, then we cannot challenge racist policies. If we cannot challenge racist policies, then racist power’s final solution will be achieved: a world of inequity none of us can see, let alone resist.

This is an extraordinary claim. It harkens to the period from the 15th to 17th centuries, when tens of thousands of people — mostly but not exclusively women — were accused of being witches and summarily tortured and executed. Witches were supposed to be people who possessed supernatural powers, casting spells, transforming themselves into animals and commanding demons to do their bidding. Many believed that they flew through the air at night to a secret place and consorted with the devil.

Witches did not exist. It would be preposterous to suggest that recognizing the cruelty and injustice of the witch hunts requires believing that the victims really were witches. The victims of witch hunts were not singled out because they were witches but because people believed that they were witches. This would be true even if those who were persecuted as witches also believed themselves to be witches.

Racially oppressed people are not oppressed because of their race. They are oppressed because of false beliefs about their race. We can acknowledge and remedy racist practices without also upholding race.

For those who wish to retain race, the question is whether it can also be redeemed by being cleansed of its racist past. The philosopher Michael Hardimon argues that, although we have inherited a “pernicious, traditional, essentialist concept of race” from colonialism and slavery, we can replace it by advancing the theory that different races are nothing more than groups of people distinguished by patterns of visible physical features and linked by a common ancestry from a distinctive geographical region. While Hardimon brings up interesting points about how the ordinary conception of race is pervasive, false and malignant, his proposition to reform race is questionable. We can certainly imagine a world in which describing someone as Black or white would be as innocuous as describing them as tall or short but, sadly, that world is not our world. Instead, we live in a world where, as Marx once said, “the traditions of past generations weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” We are burdened and bound by our history of racism and colonialism, both individually and collectively — a history that lives on in the words and ideas that are sedimented into the world outside the tiny, privileged spaces of academic journals and seminar rooms.

A further objection against abandoning racial identities is that they can be politically useful for galvanizing solidarity among oppressed people. For example, when Kwame Ture (then Stokely Carmichael) proclaimed “Black power!” he united African Americans under the banner of racial pride. Nevertheless, we have observed the ways that racial solidarity extracts a price. An appeal to race may unite people within a group, but it also segregates them from others. And however emotionally compelling and politically expedient, racial solidarity is built upon a lie, since there are no races.

Getting rid of the delusion of race will not be easy. In addition to the cognitive objections that we have discussed, there is powerful emotional resistance to the prospect. As Gilroy notes:

The first task is to suggest that the demise of “race” is not something to be feared. Even this may be a hard argument to win. On the one hand, the beneficiaries of racial hierarchy do not want to give up their privileges. On the other hand, people who have been subordinated by race-thinking and its distinctive social structures … have for centuries employed the concepts and categories of their rulers, owners and persecutors to resist the destiny that “race” has allocated to them and to dissent from the lowly value it placed upon their lives. … When ideas of racial particularity are inverted in this defensive manner so that they provide sources of pride rather than shame and humiliation, they become difficult to relinquish.

Tragically, many of those who are most harmed by race — those who are the primary victims of the white supremacist project — are also often those who cling to it most tenaciously. This happens because, in highly racialized societies like the U.S., racial ideology shapes the ways that people think of themselves. Growing up in countries where racial beliefs are pervasive means growing up with a deep sense of oneself as a racialized person. Race becomes a part, often a cherished part, of one’s personal identity. Asking people to give up their racial identity can feel to them like an attempt to destroy something that is precious. As one African American friend confided to us, “For the first time in my life, I’m seriously considering letting go of the image of myself as a Black woman, and it is terrifying.”

Race cannot be undone in a flash. But we can start unraveling it by pushing back against those who expect us to endorse and embrace racial identity, regardless of whether they are white supremacist bigots or comrades in the quest for truth and justice. We have argued that DEI initiatives preserve and entrench racial categories, and thereby work against their stated goals. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Diversity, equity and inclusion programs can play an important role in unmaking race if, instead of upholding racial categories, they were to focus on destabilizing them.

To resist the tyranny of race is to swim against the social tide. If you are a “person of color,” you might be accused of being a race traitor who does not stand up for their people. If you are “white” or appear to be “white,” you may be accused of color-blind racism that denies your white privilege. But these are very small costs to pay in a historic struggle where the stakes are high.

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