Blackness and Blood: Interpreting African American Identity

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2015-05-25 01:52Z by Steven

Blackness and Blood: Interpreting African American Identity

Philosophy & Public Affairs
Volume 32, Issue 2 (April 2004)
pages 171-192
DOI: 10.1111/j.1088-4963.2004.00010.x

Lionel K. McPherson, Associate Professor of Philosophy
Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts

Tommie Shelby, Caldwell Titcomb Professor of African and African American Studies and of Philosophy
Harvard University

In his Tanner Lectures, “The State and the Shaping of Identity,” Kwame Anthony Appiah defends a version of liberalism that would give the state a substantial role in deliberately sustaining, reshaping, and even creating the social identities of its citizens—our identities as African American, women, Hispanic, gay, Jewish, and the like. He calls this role “soul-making,” which is “the political project of intervening in the process of interpretation through which each citizen develops an identity with the aim of increasing her chances of living an ethically successful life.”

Appiah believes that an ethically successful life is integral to an objectively good life. “A life has gone well,” he tells us, “if a person has mostly done for others what she owed them (and thus is morally successful) and has succeeded in creating things of significance and in fulfilling her ambitions (and is thus ethically successful).” He supports a liberal democratic, soul-making state that not only would seek to protect persons from harming themselves but also would seek to promote for citizens the kinds of lives that are good or valuable, perhaps even if these citizens failed to recognize how such governmental interventions would contribute to their objective well-being.

According to Appiah, our social identities can themselves be a major obstacle to our pursuit of an ethically successful life. This is likely to happen when a social identity is incoherent, when it has “a set of norms associated with it, such that, in the actual world, attempting to conform to some subset of those norms undermines one’s capacity to conform to others.” He believes that many existing social identities are incoherent in just this way. Further, he maintains that people who suffer from an incoherent social identity should want to be suitably informed about its incoherence, because social identities are among the tools with which we shape and give meaning to our lives. “The incoherence of a social identity,” he argues, “can lead to incoherence in individual identities: to someone’s having an identity that generates projects and ambitions that undermine one another.” In previous writings Appiah advocated tolerance, not state soul-making, for confused or incoherent social identities. But here he argues that, when ordinary dissemination of the relevant facts fails to reform faulty social identities, it may be legitimate for the state to intervene in order to increase the chances that citizens will attain their autonomous ethical aims…

…The case that Appiah makes to demonstrate the incoherence of African American racial identity proceeds as follows. He argues that the common-sense criteria for ascribing African American racial identity are inconsistent with the facts. This argument rests on the claim that many Americans, including most African Americans, accept the so-called one-drop rule for black racial designation: a person is black if and only if she has at least one traceable black ancestor. The rule has the peculiar consequence that some African Americans may be physically indistinguishable from whites….

…In trying to make sense of African American attitudes about their racial identity and its relation to their ethical aims, it may be more revealing to work from observed social practices to conceptual commitments, rather than the other way around. As a thought experiment, imagine a group of persons who regard themselves as belonging to the same race and who live within a larger multiracial society. Further suppose that within this racial community, call it the “black nation,” racial essentialism is both widely accepted and treated as practically important. We would expect the lives of such a people to be, in some significant respects, structured around this shared belief and joint practical concern. Within the black nation there would be sharply defined, public criteria for racial identity. Community leaders would seek to regulate carefully the criteria for proper racial ascription. Using these criteria, members of the community would closely track the racial lineage—for instance, at birth and marriage—of fellow members. There would probably be norms against both interracial marriage and interracial sex, given the latter’s propensity to produce hybrid offspring. Members of the black nation would not only contest any assertion or suggestion that blacks are naturally inferior but also would insist on the recognition of the natural, i.e., biologically based, virtues of blackness. There would be commercial enterprises whose business consisted in researching the racial ancestry of prospective political leaders, spouses, and in-laws. Terms such as “mulatto,” “quadroon,” and “octoroon” (or their functional equivalents) would be the standard nomenclature for referring to interracial progeny, rather than the more vague terms “mixed race” and “multiracial” that now have some currency; and these designations would not be understood as falling under the racial category “black,” as this would be a misnomer. Dissemination of the facts about the prevalence of passing and interracial reproduction would be cause for alarm, not merely surprise, within the black nation…

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