Race, Equality, and the Burdens of History

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This book philosophically addresses problems of past racial discrimination in the United States. John Arthur examines the concepts of race and racism and discusses racial equality, poverty and race, reparations and affirmative action, and merit in ways that cut across the usual political lines. A former civil-rights plaintiff and professor at an historically black college in the South, Arthur draws on both personal experience and rigorous philosophical training in this account. His nuanced conclusions about the meaning of merit, the defects of affirmative action, the importance of apology, and the need for true equality illuminate one of America’s most vexing problems and offer a way forward. His book is relevant to any society struggling with racial differences and past injustices. John Arthur died of cancer in January 2007, after completing this book. He was professor of philosophy and Director of the Program in Philosophy, Politics and Law at Binghamton University, State University of New York. He is the author of Words That Bind: Judicial Review and the Grounds of Modern Constitutional Theory, The Unfinished Constitution: Philosophy and Constitutional Practice, and Studying Philosophy: A Guide for the Perplexed. From 1979 until the time of his death, Professor Arthur was the editor of one of the most widely used ethics anthologies in the United States, Morality and Moral Controversies, soon to be published in its 8th edition .

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"...a lengthy and important discussion that can be described as informative, nuanced, complex, stimulating, and provocative...Arthur refuses to shy away from tackling the difficult and controversial."
-Gloria Cox, University of North Texas, Law and Politics Book Review

“[Arthur] challenges ‘critical race theory’ judiciously, with arguments for which those who approach racism in a more critical vein need good responses….Overall, Arthur’s book sheds light on several key conceptual issues that scholars and citizens must navigate to repair the legacy of racism in the United States, particularly the deep history of antiblack racism.”
Bruce Baum, The University of British Columbia, Perspectives on Politics

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521879378
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 9/30/2007
  • Pages: 340
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

John Arthur is professor of philosophy and Director of the Program in Philosophy, Politics and Law at Binghamton University, State University of New York. He is the author of Words That Bind: Judicial Review and the Grounds of Modern Constitutional Theory, the Unfinished Constitution: Philosophy and Constitutional Practice, and Studying Philosophy: A Guide for the Perplexed.

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-87937-8 - Race, Equality, and the Burdens of History - by John Arthur


SLAVERY, RACIAL SEGREGATION, AND RACISM LEFT A LARGE AND lasting legacy. They scarred American history, and they continue to frame our country’s self-understanding. Only in the last half of the twentieth century did Americans, awakened to the enormity of the injustices of racial oppression, undertake serious reform of their political and social institutions. At no point in that long process did changes come easily or without controversy and, more often than not, violence. There have been changes, but it is far from agreed how much change has taken place, how far we have left to go, or what policies should now be pursued.

   The organizing theme of this book is racism: its nature, consequences, and cures. But racism cannot be considered in isolation, and so each of the first four chapters addresses theoretical issues that are often in the background of discussions of racism. These include: the nature of racism and of institutional racism, the ideas of social construction and of race itself, the history and nature of slavery, and the meaning and importance of the ideal of racial equality. The last four chapters of this book focus on the problems of race and poverty together with affirmative action, reparations, and other proposals designed to promote racialjustice and to reduce the burdens of a racist history. This book concludes with discussions of the importance and the challenges of providing equality of opportunity.

   Chapter 1 examines the nature of racism. Charges of racism – individual and institutional – are familiar. Suggestions that the response (or really the lack of response) by the federal government to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, with its large African-American population, was evidence of racism were common. Racial profiling is also often thought to be racist because it relies on racial stereotypes. Some have suggested that any institutional structure that produces significant racial disparities in income, education, or incarceration rates is racist, while some think that opposition to particular policies designed to reduce racial injustice, such as affirmative action or reparations, is itself indicative of racism.

   Yet, despite this widespread usage of the term, there is little agreement in the scholarly literature or elsewhere about what racism is. Some writers have thought of it as an attitude; others claim that it includes beliefs, systems of oppression, or a combination of those. I argue that at its core racism is neither a belief nor an oppressive institutional structure (though it is often associated with both). Instead, it is an attitude of racial contempt. I then examine the connections between racism and religious bigotry, and racism and prejudice and explain what is wrong with racism and why we have particular reason to condemn racists. With that as background, we are then able to understand the meaning of institutional racism, as an interpretive concept. I conclude with a discussion of stereotyping and racial profiling, asking whether racial profiling is an instance of institutional racism, whether profiling can ever be justified, and how society should respond to those who might be harmed as a result of profiling.

   Chapter 2 focuses on the debate about the social construction of race – a subject that can also bring charges of racism in its wake. Although it is commonly assumed these days that races are not natural groups but are socially constructed, it is not clear what that means, or even why it matters. After a discussion of the idea of social construction itself, I go on to weigh the evidence on both sides of the constructivist/anticonstructivist divide with respect to race. Social constructivists, I argue, are correct to emphasize that the concept of race as it has traditionally been used is in fact a social construction rather than a biological category as was often supposed. But although that is true, there is growing evidence that there exists another respect in which race (or something close to it) is a biological category. Recent work in population genetics as well as new medical research suggests that human beings belong to distinct “continental” population groups. One question, then, is whether such biological divisions, if they prove important, provide a scientific basis for the older idea that races are real. A further question is what would follow, if anything, from the discovery that “continental races” are not social constructs but instead natural categories.

   Chapter 3 begins with a discussion of an institution that was rooted in racism and racial inequality: chattel slavery. What was slavery, precisely, and how did slavery in the United States fit in the larger world in which slavery was widely practiced? How was it linked to racism? To answer those questions, I look at the institution of slavery and at arguments offered by slavery’s defenders. Rather than claiming that slaves were not persons, as is sometimes supposed, they argued that slaves were less than equal persons. Slaves were thought to have less moral standing. That view, however, was far from universally accepted, and even slaveowners such as Thomas Jefferson understood that slavery was incompatible with slaves’ status as persons. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the different positions of Jefferson and John C. Calhoun over what equality meant and whether slaves were equal persons.

   The meaning and implications of racial equality are the subjects of Chapter 4. I explore the ways that slavery and racial segregation violated the ideal of equality, the consequences of racism, and the methods the law should use to root out institutional racism. Some have thought that racial equality is a natural fact about human beings, while others contend that it is a moral ideal. I defend the second, moralized account, arguing that equality is linked with human dignity and in particular with persons’ self-worth, self-respect, and self-esteem. Building on these ideas of racial equality and racism, I argue that courts are correct when they secure the ideal of racial equality by attacking institutional racism under the banner of the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. The chapter concludes with an assessment of the pessimistic conclusion reached by some social scientists that racism is a natural, inevitable feature of the human psyche and of what that might mean to the prospects of achieving racial justice.

   With these theoretical discussions of racism, race, slavery, and racial equality as background, the second half of this book weighs some of the more practical moral and policy issues associated with efforts to achieve racial equality and justice. One hard fact lies behind much of my discussion of racism and inequality: that African-Americans are disproportionately represented among the poorest people in the United States. How is that fact to be explained? The answers to that difficult and important question, I contend, are rooted in history. But it is not just the history of slavery and racial oppression, although that is part of the story. Efforts to fight poverty, ironically, have added to the burdens that racial oppression already placed on the shoulders of blacks.

   Chapter 5 begins with a description of economic differences that are found among many cultural, racial, and ethnic groups. The authors of the controversial book The Bell Curve famously argued that intelligence explains economic differences and that genetics plays a significant role in explaining racial differences in I.Q. tests. Rejecting such explanations of racial differences, I go on to examine the possible causes of African-American poverty in some detail. Instead of one explanation, I argue that poverty arises from a complex web of many different factors. These include unemployment, economic shifts away from manufacturing jobs, family breakdown, and crime. But gaps in educational achievement also account for an important part of the economic disparity between blacks and other groups, raising the question of how those gaps can be explained. The answer is in part the result of culture. I conclude the chapter with a discussion of the fear of competition that has been fed by public policies and pronouncements emphasizing the “racially stacked deck” and the “shackles of history.” The effect of this, against a background of rumors of inferiority, has been to encourage black pessimism, undermine self-respect, and ultimately contribute to the economic inequalities the policies had hoped to reduce.

   In view of the continuing plight of poor blacks, it is sometimes said that society owes a debt to the descendants of slaves, and that compensation for historic oppression is long past due. Yet, arguments about how to respond to the historic injustices of slavery and racism often confuse two different questions. Therefore, I begin Chapter 6 by examining two forms of compensatory justice: restitution and reparations. Restitution refers to the demand that stolen or otherwise wrongly acquired property be returned to its rightful owner or his or her descendants. Reparation, on the other hand, is modeled on tort law and the requirement that those who intentionally or negligently wrong others are responsible for eliminating the lingering effects of their wrongful past actions. The discussion ranges over the form(s) that restitution and reparations might take, who or what might owe the debt, to whom it might be owed, and why the debt might be owed. I conclude that neither restitution nor reparations (as usually understood) is justified. Although some part of the problems confronting African-Americans today is in fact a legacy of slavery and racism, reparations would tend to exacerbate the underlying causes of economic inequalities.

   The question of how to respond to historic injustices does not end there, however, since an apology may be owed even though reparations are rejected. Apologies are important, I argue, because they are public expressions of remorse. Apologies, therefore, have the potential to alter moral relationships among groups as well as individuals. But an apology demands more than simply uttering it if it is to be more than a sham.

   The remaining chapters explore possible responses to slavery and racism, from affirmative action and the ideal of equality of opportunity to programs designed to promote equality. Opponents of affirmative action sometimes claim that positions should be allocated based on “merit” rather than race. Defenders of affirmative action sometimes take the opposite tack, claiming that merit is a “myth” that is used to exclude African-Americans from positions of influence and limit their prospects. The nature of merit and its importance are therefore the focus of Chapter 7. I begin by distinguishing merit from desert and then I argue that merit and qualifications are not myths, as some have suggested, though merit and qualifications do rely on the assumption that some people have traits that will enable them to perform various roles better than others. That said, however, merit is only one of many possible reasons for placing people in roles. I then examine why race can, in certain circumstances, be a qualification for a position.

   Chapter 8 discusses affirmative action more broadly, together with related questions about equality of opportunity and how it might be secured. I first weigh a variety of arguments in support of affirmative action, including the importance of role models, the need to combat lingering racism, and the importance of diversity. While affirmative action has served important purposes in the past, I conclude that it has in important respects now outlived its usefulness. Affirmative action imposes other burdens on blacks as well, I argue. There is evidence that it adversely affects achievement levels in school, graduation rates, professional qualifications, and, ultimately, job performance. Another concern is the message it sends. Given our racially oppressive history and the rumors of inferiority it bred, affirmative action tends to undermine self-respect of blacks while eroding support among whites for other policies that would be of more benefit.

   I conclude by addressing the issues that are important as we reflect on the positive implications of my arguments in this book. The first idea, of a valuable life, is in the background of the second idea, which is equality of opportunity. The first question is crucial because without some guidance about a valuable life, we may be at a loss as we begin to think about why equality of opportunity is important and even what we might hope to equalize. After discussing the nature of a valuable life, I then explore the meaning and the importance of a genuine commitment to seeing that all Americans – but especially African-Americans – are provided with an equal opportunity to achieve a valuable life. If taken seriously, I argue, such a commitment would be more demanding and costly than continuation of current policies. I also argue, however, that nothing less is required if the history of slavery and racial oppression is ever to be acknowledged and effectively addressed. I conclude with a brief discussion of some programs and proposals that might be expected to begin to improve the opportunities available to African-Americans.

   I want to conclude this Introduction with some brief comments about the methods I rely on in this book. Some of the arguments are conceptual. Philosophers have traditionally seen the elucidation of concepts as among their tasks, and it is an important goal of this book. One source of conceptual disagreements is the fact that concepts are often normative: they carry with them an implicit political or moral judgment. If racial profiling is a form of “institutional racism,” for instance, that alone implies there is reason to condemn it. Others argue in the opposite direction. If affirmative action is a racist practice, then, for that reason, it must be rejected. Merit is another concept that is the object of sustained disagreement. If we are to understand whether hiring and admissions should be based on merit, we need first to understand what merit is.

   Although it is important to be as clear as possible about the concepts we use in discussing matters having to do with racism and race, I do not assume that concepts are unchanging realities existing outside history and human practices. Nor do I argue that the reasons given in support of particular ways of understanding concepts are politically and morally neutral. Though philosophers are not limited simply to describing how words are used by modern-day speakers of English, usage does provide a starting point in thinking about concepts and how they should be understood. But while usage is the beginning, it is not the end. Often arguments can be provided in favor of interpreting a concept one way or another where a concept is otherwise unclear. Some arguments may be based in natural or social sciences; others may be normative. In that way, accounts of concepts are not neutral. That said, however, there are still constraints on the choice between competing accounts of concepts. Some constraints are based on how the concept is used; other constraints may be of a scientific or normative nature.

   My goal, then, is to elucidate core concepts like racism, race, racial equality, and merit – among others – in ways that shed light on our social world and guide our thinking as we consider practical questions about what should be done. Other philosophical themes of this book are even more explicitly practical and normative, focusing on what policies should be adopted. Historical, economic, and sociological disagreement can lie behind these policy disputes. But these disputes can also reflect disagreement or confusion about core concepts, so that both types of philosophical problems – the conceptual and the normative – are woven together along with more empirical and sociological issues. Because reasoning about normative and policy issues requires both clarification of concepts and moral argument, this book reaches beyond philosophy to other disciplines. Questions about the legitimacy of racial profiling, affirmative action, and reparations, and even the nature of race itself, cannot be answered without engaging the disciplines of economics, history, psychology, and biology.

   What is the larger process of moral and political argument in which this book is engaged? The answer I favor is that we are seeking the correct “balance of reasons,” where “reasons” simply means considerations in favor of something. Reasons apply to people’s beliefs and to their actions. Reasons can apply to a person, whether or not they are recognized or appreciated. A person may have a reason to leave a dangerous building, for instance, whether or not the reason is appreciated. When we have decided on an answer to a moral or political question, we normally do so because we think the balance of reasons favors the course we have chosen. Yet, there is often something worthwhile to be said for the other side as well, which means we are left with having to balance competing reasons. There is nothing strange about this; we do it all the time in both our personal and public lives. While going through the deliberative process, we know that no algorithm exists that we can employ to calculate the right answer. We must simply do the best we can, identifying and weighing various reasons in light of the available arguments on all sides. Such a process is as familiar as it is difficult.

   The conclusions I reach here often cut across the familiar divisions we have come to expect in books on racism and equality. For instance, some readers may embrace my conclusion that courts should be aggressive in attacking institutional racism, my defense of the constitutionality of affirmative action, my defense of an apology for slavery and my argument that race sometimes constitutes a form of merit. Those same people may well disagree with my (qualified) defense of racial profiling, my account of race as a natural category, my criticisms of affirmative action and of reparations, and my defense of equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome. So I hope this book might help us move beyond the stale and often predictable positions that too often surround discussions of racism and racial equality.



FEW TOPICS PROVOKE MORE DISAGREEMENTS THAN ONES INVOLVING the extent and possible cures of racism, and a part of those disputes can be attributed to confusion in the concept of racism itself. William Julius Wilson, for example, writes that the word racism “has been used so indiscriminately, has so many different definitions, and is often relied on to cover up lack of information or knowledge of complex issues, that it frequently weakens rather than enhances arguments concerning race.”1 I agree with Wilson that confusion about racism (and other concepts) can be pernicious, making fruitful discussion of many issues more difficult and disagreements harder to recognize and assess. So the first step is to understand the concept of racism.

   While there is no generally accepted understanding of racism, there is at least a general agreement that racism is in some way wrong or objectionable. But beyond that lies widespread controversy and often confusion. What, precisely, is racism? Is it fundamentally different from religious bigotry and other forms of prejudice, and if so how? And what, exactly, is wrong with racism? Is it a character defect, or does its evil lie in its consequences? Or is it both?

   Some think racism refers to people’s beliefs about the inferiority of another race; others see it as a feeling or an attitude; still others emphasize the public and institutional forms it can take – slavery, segregation, and other institutions that establish and reinforce racial oppression. Some understand racism to encompass all of those: attitudes, beliefs, and institutions. Another question that is often in the background of these discussions is who and what can be racist. Some have suggested that racism is only possible in the context of domination, and that the victims of racial oppression cannot truly be racist if the objects of their racism are the oppressors. If racism is related to power and dominance, then it is not possible for those who are weak and racially oppressed to be racists themselves.

   I will argue that the best conception of racism – one that helps explain the relationships among all these different features – is that, at its core, racism is an attitude people take toward other persons in virtue of their race. This understanding of racism is not only more consistent with our understanding of the concept than its competitors, but it also enables us to clarify a range of closely related issues. These include the links between racism, beliefs, and institutional oppression; who and what are racists; the relationship between racism and prejudice; and the nature of institutional racism, racist beliefs and stereotypes, and racial profiling.

Racism as a normative concept

The term “racism” first came into wide usage with the appearance in 1938 of the English translation of a book written in 1933–1934 in German by Magnus Hirchfeld titled Racism, in which Hirchfeld stressed the idea that racism was “grounded” in the belief in a “biological hierarchy” of races.2 Others have agreed that beliefs are at the core of the concept of racism. Herbert Aptheker, for instance, writes that racism is the “belief in the inherent, immutable, and significant inferiority of an entire physically characterized people.”3 Richard Schaefer thinks that racism is inherent in the doctrine that “one racial group is superior [to another],”4 and David Theo Goldberg writes that we can identify racists “on the basis of the kinds of beliefs they hold” and in particular beliefs that “ascribe racial characteristics of others which purportedly differ from their own.…”5 Leonard Harris also thinks the “systematic denial of a population’s humanity” is the “hallmark of racism.”6

   Some have gone even further in linking racism to beliefs and ideas. Joe R. Feagin thinks those who accept racial stereotypes are racists. Feagin compares what he calls the “stereotypes of contemporary racism… [such as] myths of the dangerous black man” with the “racist fictions that underlay the Nazi Holocaust.”7 Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describes what he terms “color-blind racism.” According to Bonilla-Silva, color-blind racism is inherent in liberalism and its commitment to “equality of opportunity,” to economic liberalism understood as “choice,” to “individualism,” and to “meritocracy.”8 By “framing race-related issues in the language of liberalism” he thinks that

whites can appear “reasonable” and even “moral” while opposing almost all practical approaches to deal with de facto racial inequality.… For instance the principle of equal opportunity … is invoked by whites today to oppose affirmative action policies because they supposedly represent “preferential treatment” of certain groups.… . Another example is regarding each person as an “individual” with “choices” and using this liberal principle as a justification for whites having the right of choosing to live in segregated neighborhoods.9

On this view, racism takes other forms as well, including “naturalization” (thinking that racial differences are natural) and “minimization” (believing that discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities’ life chances or “It’s better now than in the past”) and “cultural racism” (relying on culturally based arguments such as “blacks have too many babies”).10 The point is that anyone (or at least any “white”) who thinks in those terms is evidencing “color-blind racism.” These different elements go together to form a “racial ideology.”11

   Rather than focusing on beliefs, others suggest that racism’s most salient feature is that it names what people do to each other, especially through institutions that lead to subjugation and inequalities in power. Blackwell’s Dictionary of Sociology states that the “key test” of whether something is racist “lies in the consequences: if it supports race privilege, then it is by definition racist.”12 The Dictionary’s examples of institutions of “race privilege” include “neighborhood schools” and “the right of people to sell their homes to whomever they wish.” These are “racist in effect, even if they are not racist in intent.”13 Robert Mills also thinks that racism involves “structures and institutions” with the “power to discriminate,”14 while Joseph Brandt claims that racism is “the power to enforce one’s prejudice.… Racism is prejudice plus power.”15 Michael Harrington emphasizes the economic aspects of this structural perspective: racism, he thinks, is “an occupational hierarchy rooted in history and institutionalized in the labor market.”16

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Introduction; 1. Racism; 2. Race; 3. Slavery; 4. Racial equality; 5. Poverty and race; 6. Compensatory justice: restitution, reparations, and apologies; 7. Merit and race; 8. Affirmative action and equal opportunity.

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