My piece in the New York Times Stone series on February 10 received an unusally large volume of responses, both in the comments section there as well as in the form of e-mails to me and posts on a number of blogs. Many commenters were generally supportive of my line of analysis, and many also raised legitimate points of criticism. Many others still raised illegitimate points of criticism. Let's get to those first.
Roughly 10% of the comments I received came from bona fide racists. Perhaps I should pause at this point to define my terms. By 'racist' I mean someone who (i) believes that racial categories map onto real, biologically significant subdivisions of the human species; and (ii) that these various subdivisions are characterized by greater and lesser physical and cognitive abilities, and/or by different temperamental or emotional profiles. Many of the racists who wrote to me cited genetic studies (e.g., this) that show, in one way or another, that traits do indeed cluster in populations. By a curious coincidence, within just a few days of my piece, Nicholas Wade --who has also appeared recently with a sympathetic appraisal of Napoleon Chagnon's Hobbesian éloge to the Yanomamö-- published an article in the Times trumpeting the great antiquity of the mutations that led to what are held to be typically East Asian traits. This article was in turn cited by many commenters as the scientific proof that 'race deniers' do not know what they are talking about.
But I never denied that traits cluster in populations. There is a very simple, logical point that always seems to get shot to hell by the people who are poised and ready to fire back against 'race deniers' like me with the supposedly heavy artillery of genetic research. That simple point is that people who use such scientific research as a way of strengthening their case for the reality of race are begging the question. And I mean this not in the incorrect sense in which we now often hear this phrase from Republican politicians and from know-nothing advertising campaigns. I mean it in the sense of petitioning the principle: they are assuming at the outset the reality of the very thing they're supposed to be trying to prove. Yes, traits cluster in populations, but it is only if you have already presupposed that the human species breaks down into real subdivisions that you will subsume new information about such clustering into a racial schema. Otherwise, what you will notice are all the salient respects in which the population that is the locus of such clustering does not amount to a discrete kind. For one thing, it is entirely permeable at its boundaries, and thus has nothing in common with the isolated reproductive communities that constitute biological species on analogy to which races are, consciously or unconsciously, modeled. For another, trait clusters tend to be noticed in populations that were already of interest to us as purported races for initially non-scientific reasons. Take the example of the new discoveries about 'East Asians'. We assumed at the outset that there were such people, constituting a real subdivision of the human species, and then we went in search of their distinctive features. Lo, we found some in the sweat glands, hair follicles, and breast size of females. But would we find the same traits clustering in, say, Tungusic peoples, or the Chukchi? They are East Asian too, after all, Eastern Siberian, to be precise, and it is a contingent fact about human history that they are outnumbered by, say, Han Chinese. If we sample all of the peoples of the world, rather than the ones that are salient to us on pre-scientific cultural and historical grounds, we will notice that our conception of where the racial boundaries lie is rooted in our pre-scientific interests, and only subsequently filled out, as best it can be, by new genetic research.
This is particularly evident in the local US context, in which genetic and medical information about African-Americans becomes naturalized and universalized in such a way as to purportedly tell us something about a significanct subdivision of the entire human species, one that was formerly called 'Negroid'. But of course such information tells us nothing of the sort: it is useful for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes for doctors in the US to know that someone is 'black', but this in no way implies that the same information about a person in the Kalahari, Ethiopia, or even (depending on the culture and period of history you inhabit) New Guinea or Australia could be used in the same way. The information is of strictly local interest, and yet it calls upon a global system for subdividing the human species, one that places Khoi-San, Ethiopians, and African-Americans, at least, in the same quasi-natural kind.
And this point needs to be emphasized in order for non-racists to have at their disposal the simple and obvious, but too-often neglected, response to the racists who invoke supposedly scientific evidence concerning the superior performance of black athletes in track events, or the inferior performance of black students on standardized tests. It is seriously unlikely that a mass-scale standardized test of everyone who is placed for historical and non-scientific reasons in the folk category 'black' could ever be carried out in a sufficiently rigorous way to warrant a conclusion of the sort: "'Blacks' perform worse on standardized tests than 'whites'." Again, what this would involve is devising a test that could be given to Namibians, Ethiopians, Haitians, etc., and whose results could then be compared with those of the same test as given to Norwegians, Circassians, Scotch-Irish West Virginians (who counts as 'white' in a given era, and why, is no less perplexing than who counts as 'black'). This will never happen, but that doesn't matter to the racists, because anyway what they really mean when they invoke such tests to ground claims of racial difference is that here, in our local context, there is such a difference. But race is supposed to be global, natural, a result of evolution, etc., while local differences are obviously only the result of civil history and culture. And this is the great inconsistency of the pseudo-scientific concept of race: that it is reaching too far too fast, invoking a global natural order to which claims about local 'racial' difference never accurately apply, and failing to notice that the local differences admit of a much more parsimonious explanation than the one that has to move all the way down to the level of biology.
There is a connected point to be made about evidence from history. Many racist commenters echoed David Hume in their suspicion that the accomplishments of non-white people have been exaggerated for the sake of 'political corectness'. Thus the racist Joel Eidsath sends, for example, this sarcastic dismissal of the legacy of Anton Wilhelm Amo:
Your contribution to the rather burgeoning field of "race does not exist" articles is much appreciated. The "there was once an African of decent intelligence" sub-category of these sorts of tracts can always use another entry! [Sub-sub-category, reference to the "black" St. Augustine.]
Nevermind, now, that my point was not principally to trumpet Amo's contribution to philosophy, so much as to observe the way his work was received by his contemporaries. Eidsath's main concern here is that anti-racists are looking a bit too frantically for historical evidence of the sort that would refute Hume's comment. But if you are skeptical of the Black Athena thesis in its particulars, there is still no avoiding a general corollary of it, that in order for a group to be perceived as substandard or as high-performing relative to another group, it must already be conceptualized as a group, and there is no good historical evidence that in the ancient world there were any categories that even loosely mapped onto our own 'black' and 'white' (and even these differ from region to region when taken synchronically). And if you wish to dispute that, then it might be helpful to move away from our own local concern about black and white, where our emotions are perhaps clouding our judgment, and consider a case of perceived racial differences that lies entirely off of our own historical and geographical radar (and by 'our' I mean 'most readers'). Anyone who has an intimate experience of the treatment of the Dalits in India can affirm that they are in a position very similar in structural respects to that of African-Americans. There are plenty of non-Dalit Indians who will tell you that, as history and statistics and good common-sense show, Dalits are plainly temperamentally different, more prone to criminal behavior, etc. In other words, Dalits are being conceptualized racially by the people who are discriminating against them, even if from a distance, for people who don't know anything about India, there is no perception of any racial difference at all.
One commenter wrote to tell me that my mention of the case of the Tutsi and Hutu weakened my argument, since in the Rwandan context these two groups perceive one another in racial terms. But what supposedly weakened my argument in fact did the opposite, since one of my principal points was precisely that race is the naturalization, or projection into the biological sphere, of what is in fact only a matter of local history: a history that might involve two groups in which genetic traits cluster differently, but can also involve two groups in which the supposedly essential or 'racial' differences are entirely invisible. So, to get back to Amo and Augustine, even if it were to turn out that no one we would consider 'black' ever made a significant contribution to the human endeavors that have historically been valued in Europe, this would still not enable the racist to get around the problem that who is considered racially distinct from whom --who is considered Dalit or non-Dalit for example, or who is considered black or white-- is always a local, contingent, and unstable affair.
While many racist commenters wrote to express their disapproval of my insufficiently racist position, another significant portion of commenters judged that my position is in fact racist. Most of these commenters judged that I misunderstand the American situation, and some supposed that this is because I am not myself American-- I am, though I have lived outside of the country for a decade. Sometimes it seems to me that being an American looking at my country from a distance frees me up to think and express views that are rather harder to arrive at from within the belly of the beast. It also becomes easier, I think, to examine American history comparatively, to resist the belief that that country has a Sonderweg that sets it apart, and to look at things like the history of race relations in a way that places this history alongside comparable --while, obviously, non-identical-- histories elsewhere in the world.
I believe that slavery and its aftermath constitute the defining legacy in the formation of the American identity, and I also believe that much of the difficulty of talking about and understanding 'race' in the US is a side-effect of a largely praiseworthy attempt to heal this trauma. To some extent since the end of the Civil War, but more importantly since the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, there has been an effort to overcome ethnic divisions in the US by construing all Americans as Americans simpliciter, and to some extent denying that descendants of slaves on the one hand and immigrant European beneficiaries of white privilege on the other constitute distinct cultural groups at all. (The denial is not as severe as, say, the denial of cultural distinctness in the modern Turkish republic, which has lead to the denial of the very existence of Kurds, now conveniently redescribed as 'Mountain Turks'; in the US case, a certain amount of cultural difference is allowed to flourish in traditions of cuisine, music, etc., as long as it flourishes way below the threshold at which it might threaten the unity of the nation-state). But social reality forces us to acknowledge cultural difference in some way or other, even if the political legacy of integration forbids us from talking about it as cultural difference. And so we are left in a peculiar situation, in which it can easily appear more racist to speak of two cultures and no races, than to speak of one culture in which any lingering perception of difference is to be explained by appeal to the supposed fact that this one culture is made up out of two races. In other words, we've chased difference out of the political and cultural dimension, and it didn't have anywhere else to go but down to the biological dimension. Where, I repeat, it plainly does not belong.
In this respect, at least, the US really does have a Sonderweg. I cannot think of any other multicultural society that has dealt with its internal differences in a similar way. This imperfect response to the legacy of slavery is, I would also add, itself a part of the legacy of slavery: the fact that 'race' suggests itself as a category for the interpretation of cultural difference is a result of the fact that we inherited this category from a system that found it useful for the preservation and enforcement of structural racism.
One final note about cultural difference: Americans are to some extent justified in disputing the claim that there are 'two cultures' constituting their society, since obviously there are very many more than that. African slaves came from many cultures, and so did European immigrants (and, later, immigrants from elsewhere). But by force or by elective affinity, everyone who arrived was filtered into the one or the other (or became stalled as a problem case, a tertium quid, as, for a time, the Irish, Jews, and, more recently, Latinos). As many scholars have noted, ethnogenesis is almost always a matter of an initial political union. For example, in his monumental History of the Goths, Herwig Wolfram shows convincingly that the ancient Germanic people originally came into being as a result of elective tribal confederation. In other words, Germans are creoles too. All cultures, in their origins, are creole, and it is in no way to deny the distinctness of pre-modern African cultures to concede that, once brought here by force and compelled to adapt to new circumstances, over the centuries a distinctive African-American culture emerged. There is such a thing, like all cultures a loose, permeable cluster of family resemblances, and we don't need to drop down to the level of 'race' in order to make sense of it. History will do just fine.
The most interesting and formidable criticism of my article (particularly as formulated by Kenan Malik, drawing on his own earlier work on the subject) had to do with what was initially a throw-away claim in the article, about the contrast between Johann Gottfried Herder and the majority of his contemporaries. This claim then came to frame the entire article when the editors chose a title for the piece that made reference to the Enlightenment. (Why don't authors get to choose their own titles in the newspaper business? Where did this practice originate? Why don't more authors protest against it?) But my principal aim had never been to defend the counter-Enlightenment against the Enlightenment, and I am certainly aware, as was pointed out by a number of critics, that at the center of the Enlightenment there were many thinkers, notably Condorcet, who mounted laudable defenses of racial equality, fought for abolition, and so on. What's more, it is certainly fair to see the Haitian Revolution of 1802 as an inevitable extension of the revolutionary spirit that had first been sparked in Europe largely by Enlightenment thinkers' promotion of liberty, equality, and so on. Many, not just Toussaint-L'Ouverture but also a number of European sympathizers, did in fact suppose that the only legitimate place for the boundaries of equality to be drawn were around the entirety of the human race, rather than around a mere part of the human race deemed in advance to be, as the saying goes, more equal than others.
But still, but still, if we are to attempt to spell out some precise commitments that we may properly identify with that nebulous notion of 'the Enlightenment', it seems to me that at the core of this movement, or Zeitgeist, or whatever you might wish to call it, is the idea that history is progressive, and that Europe is, as of the middle of the 18th century, further along in the course of progress than the rest of the world. For their own good, Enlightenment thinkers supposed with near unanimity, non-European peoples must be brought into the fold of European history in order to be able to ride the wave, so to speak, of historical progress. This is abundantly clear in Kant, who supposed that the lives of South Sea islanders, to the extent that they are spent outside of the fold of history, are literally not worth living. And it continues to echo loudly in Marx, who maintained that the British installation of industrial looms in Bengal might have increased the misery of Bengali weavers, for the time being, but at least it did them the service of moving them into a historical position from which their lives could begin to improve.
On this understanding, there simply is no room for indigenous voices at all, and I do not know of a single thinker centrally associated with the Enlightenment, including even Condorcet, who is able or willing to make room for such voices, to acknowledge that a life entirely outside of the grand unfolding of historical progress initiated by European civilization might nonetheless be worth living. I see the readiness to notice the intrinsic interest and value of sub-historical or extra-historical folk-ways as characteristic of a form of thinking that was from the outset self-consciously poised against the Enlightenement. I see Herder as one of the exemplary figures in this history (though I see interesting anticipations of it already in Leibniz), and I see it as echoing through the much later work of Franz Boas, Zora Neale Hurston, and many, many others. This is in no way to deny the laudable strains of progressivism in the Enlightenment, but it is to question whether progressivism, or the belief that the human good always consists in progress, is the exclusively laudable approach to the problems human diversity poses.