Two years ago, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, where I teach, examined the “racial climate” on campus, and students were encouraged to air their concerns. Karen and some other African American students concluded that their department did not feel hospitable to them. They reported their findings to members of the department and Joe, a white professor, was fairly representative of his colleagues in reacting defensively. He felt he had been charged with being a racist, and found it difficult to hear what the black students had to say. Further investigation revealed that virtually all students, not just blacks, found the department generally unfriendly. Joe was relieved: “At least it isn’t racial.” The issue seemed to lose some of its urgency. Karen and her fellow students felt their concerns had been swept under the rug.
Joe and his colleagues missed a chance for constructive dialogue with the black students, as well as an opportunity to address a problem facing all their students. On both counts they were blinded by a concern, widely shared in the contemporary United States, especially among whites, not to be seen as “racist.” Perhaps the cause of the problem in Joe’s department was not racism. But it may still have been racial; the black students like Karen may be more sensitive to messages of unwelcome, as they struggle for an acceptance at the university that white students generally take for granted. At the same time, the black students had tuned into a problem of unfriendliness facing all the students in the department.
The terms “racist” and “racism” are undoubtedly conversation stoppers. Yet how many of us have asked ourselves exactly what they mean? If we agree that racism is so important, don’t we need to know what it is? How can we talk intelligently, especially across racial lines, unless we do? Furthermore, in the past several decades, “racism” has come to be used so expansively as to refer to virtually anything regarded as wrong in the area of race. This “conceptual inflation,” in Robert Miles’s felicitous phrase, has prompted a conservative backlash. “Racism” is said to have become virtually meaningless, and those accused of it are thus encouraged not to take the charge to heart.
I suggest in these pages that moral philosophy can help us out. We need to clarify what racism is, to find a basis in history and current use for fixing a definition, one that will reveal why racism is rightly regarded as a grievous moral wrong. At the same time we need to recognize the manifold ways things can go racially wrong, without being racist. Joe and his colleagues may have been racially insensitive, failing to appreciate the concerns of their black students, without being racist. A racial anxiety not rooted in actual racial prejudice can prevent people of any racial group from reaching out to those of other groups. A morally based approach can help us retrieve a more nuanced value-laden vocabulary than “racism” and “racist” for characterizing racial wrongs and missteps.
Racism seems to presuppose that there are things called “races,” and in recent years the idea of race has come to seem increasingly problematic. Again, a moral perspective helps us make sense of this confused state of things. I question whether races exist, but as long as people think there are races, there can be racism. “Race,” as it has structured our thinking and our world, is a morally infused idea, and a destructive one at that. It has a reality that is partly distinct from “racism,” and demands an account informed by morality.
I am indebted to the support and assistance of many friends and colleagues. For their valuable and insightful feedback, I thank Anita Allen, K. Anthony Appiah, Rene Arcilla, Benjamin Blum-Smith, John Broughton, Harry Chotiner, George Frederickson, Marilyn Friedman, Jorge L. A. Garcia, Lani Guinier, Marcia Homiak, Jennifer Hochschild, Martha Minow, Melissa Nobles, Nel Noddings, Diane Paul, Audrey Smedley, Laurence Thomas, Cally Waite, David Wilkins, and Alan Zaslavsky. I am especially grateful to Sharon Lamb, Sally Haslanger, and David Wong, who have been particularly generous with their personal and intellectual support at many crucial moments in the course of this project. This book was an outgrowth of an earlier project focused on education, and I am grateful to Laura Black, Margaret Cronin, Angela Harris, Ronald Elson, Sharon Lamb, Eleanor Lee, and Frances Maher for their responses to that manuscript. I benefit in an ongoing way from two longstanding discussion groups—the Pentimento group and the Moral Psychology group. I thank the National Endowment for the Humanities, that vital yet underfunded source of support for those of us working in the humanities, for a fellowship in 1995–96 that allowed me to begin work in earnest on this project.
Thanks to Cornell University Press for permission to use a previously published article, “Moral Asymmetries in Racism,” in Racism and Philosophy, ed. Susan Babbitt and Sue Campbell, as a basis for chapter 2. Writing on race and racism is a daunting task, especially from a strict disciplinary perspective. Virtually every discipline bears on the subject. Philosophers, I believe, owe a particular debt to those mostly African American philosophers—Bernard Boxill, Laurence Thomas, Adrian Piper, Lucius Outlaw, Anita Allen, Leonard Harris, Howard McGary, Albert Mosley, Tommy Lott, Bill Lawson, and others—who wrote on racial topics in the 1980s. Long before the profession could see its way clear to making sessions on race and racism a staple of American Philosophical Association meetings, they demonstrated that race is philosophically significant and showed how philosophy can make a distinctive contribution. I want to acknowledge my debt to these pioneers.
My greatest personal debt, which I happily acknowledge, is to Judith Smith. Jude has always been available to read chapter drafts and to discuss ideas with which I was struggling. Her historical and cultural-studies perspectives on race in American history have been an invaluable source of insight and wisdom. I am fortunate that my own intellectual interests have drifted close enough to hers to benefit from her expertise. For her love, friendship, everyday partnership, and intellectual comradeship I am deeply grateful.
I hope for this work to contribute to fruitful conversation about race and racism especially among persons of different racial groups. During the writing of this book, I have had the good fortune to teach at educational institutions that are a good deal more racially and ethnically mixed than the average, and thereby to explore the challenges of learning, and teaching students to learn, to listen and respond across racial boundaries. I am especially grateful to my students at the University of Massachusetts at Boston for their honest, grounded, and open-minded engagement with racial issues. I have learned much from them. UMass/Boston is a particularly hospitable environment for this sort of work, and I am grateful to my supportive and stimulating colleagues, especially those in the philosophy department and in a long-standing interracial and international faculty discussion group. I also learned a great deal from the students I taught in courses relating to race and multiculturalism at Teachers College in 1997, and especially from the engaged and open-hearted high school students (and my teaching assistants, Myriam Guerrier and Nakia Keizer) in a course on race and racism at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin public school in 1999 and 2000. Finally, I have profited from my association over the years with Facing History and Ourselves, an exemplary antiracist and civic education professional development organization for educators in grades 7–12.
I thank Ishani Maitra and Barbara Martin for utilizing internet skills far surpassing my own to track down representative uses, and frequency, of “racist” and “racism” in the news media in the 1990s; Barbara also located essential resources in the final stages of the manuscript. Sarah Blum-Smith’s exceptional organizational abilities helped keep my accumulated materials from burying me alive, and Johanna Black and Laura Black helped with a similar task at earlier stages. Catherine Rice of Cornell University Press has been as supportive and constructive an editor as an academic author could hope to have. My copy editor, Joel Ray, has miraculously reworked my philosopher’s prose for consumption by non-philosophers. I am grateful to both of them.
I would like to dedicate this book to my children Laura, Sarah, and Benjamin Blum-Smith. My initial interest in the intersection of racial, moral, and educational matters was prompted by reflecting on the racially mixed world of their schools and friends—so different from my own at their age. I see my children, each in her and his own way, reaching for a world more equal, more diverse, and more harmonious than the one they have inherited. I am deeply proud of them, and hope this books sheds a bit of light on their path.