Blackness, Hypodescent, and Essentialism: Commentary on McPherson and Shelby’s “Blackness and Blood”

Posted in Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2010-07-02 16:18Z by Steven

Blackness, Hypodescent, and Essentialism: Commentary on McPherson and Shelby’s “Blackness and Blood”

Symposia on Gender, Race and Philosophy
Volume 1, Number 1, May 2005

Gregory Velazco y Trianosky, Professor of Philosopy
California State University, Northridge

In their fascinating and thoughtful paper, McPherson and Shelby seek to defend everyday African American understandings of their own identity against the critique launched by Anthony Appiah in his Tanner lectures. I have no deep disagreements with their defense. Instead I will propose what I hope are useful clarifications of some of the key claims in that defense, and perhaps some further contribution to the discussion they have begun.

1. Roughly speaking, Appiah argues as follows: (1) African Americans typically adhere to the rule of hypodescent, understood as a criterion for membership in the group of black people. However, says Appiah, in conjunction with (2) the nationalist belief that black people owe special obligations of support or group solidarity to other black people, this adherence is problematic. For the truth is that (3) many phenotypically white people in the United States in fact have black ancestors and thus, by a strict application of the rule of hypodescent, are black rather than white, regardless of appearance. Given this fact, (4) adherence to the rule of hypodescent requires black people (insofar as they are nationalists) to extend to many phenotypically white people the same kind of support they believe they owe to all black people. But this means (5) that the actions of black nationalists will, insofar as they are based on the facts, undermine the very project of black nationalism. Appiah goes on to argue that in cases where a group’s beliefs about its identity undermine its own political and social projects, the liberal state should intervene to “soul-make,” that is, to reshape the understanding that group has of itself…

Read the entire commentary here.

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