Russell was kind enough to quote my posts on government and teleology in his own musings on the election in Britain. It’s funny how, even though we are basically agreeing with each other here, whenever I read him on the subject I get the feeling we’re talking about different things. I think this may be because he’s an academic who’s been thinking about all this at an advanced level for many years, whereas I’m still working on the basics, like “What is government for?” Lately, I’ve been thinking about a slightly different question: what is ethnic identity for?
I’ve been thinking about this partly because yet another kerfuffle recently broke out on the Internet over race and IQ, and partly because of Kelefa Sanneh’s recent review of “whiteness studies.” Sanneh mentions David Roediger’s advocacy of the “abolition of whiteness,” which I remember hearing Roediger discuss on the radio some years back. In one sense, abolishing whiteness sounds ridiculous. We tend to think of race and ethnicity as things thrust upon us from the past, embedded in our genes, like family. And of course, people tend to think of ethnicity as being family writ large: we’re descended from common ancestors, we look alike, we act alike, and so on. That’s true enough, but the family analogy also shows the limitations of defining groups by traits. Everyone in my immediate family, for instance, is quite tall. Still, there are short people in my extended family, my sister married a short guy, and if they have children they might too be short. So while tallness is certainly an inborn, heritable trait that runs in my family, it doesn’t define my family. What defines my family, like most families, is the fact that we are related.
To some extent, of course, all white people are related; but our common ancestor was back in the Stone Age sometime, whereas many white and nonwhite Americans share common ancestors who were a lot more recent. The renewed interest among African-Americans in genealogy is showing just how related black and white Americans are. So that raises a natural question: why are we still identifying with this long-forgotten Paleolithic ancestor when there are much more immediate connections to think about?
There are several possible answers to that question, but one that Sanneh doesn’t bring up is that you can’t abolish whiteness without abolishing blackness. At least, I don’t see how. If every nonwhite race keeps its identity, then whites kind of have to be a race by default. Either that or we break up into sub-races, like was once the case in Europe, but I don’t see how that could happen in America.
And in fact, the question of why blackness goes on existing is just as legitimate. Blackness was not an African idea; it came about mainly to define an occupational role, a slave class. That occupation no longer exists in the West, so blackness is now essentially defined by the past: these are the descendants of people who used to be slaves. That identification has helped preserve discrimination, but I suspect that most black people would also be alarmed at the idea of black identity disappearing. For that matter, so would a lot of white people. In a lot of ways, the story of black Americans is the modern Exodus, a stunning testimonial inspiring — and warning — people far beyond its original ethnic group. But does the new version of Exodus, like the old one, require the continued existence of the relevant group? And is it worth all the trouble? In one sense, it’s strange to keep a whole multigenerational identity alive just to tell a story, but sometimes I wonder if there’s anything to nationhood but stories.
There are other possible answers to the question, but I will get into that in a future post.