Friday, October 07, 2016

The Legacy of Group Thinking, IV

“Race and the Limits of the Rhetoric of Fiction“

1.      Matthew McKnight recently took up the position David Bromwich occupied facing multiculturalism, but now facing the much more politically energized and organized force of the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM is in fact the eruption of the stance that underlied ‘80s and ‘90s multiculturalism, just as multiculturalism was the diffusion of the energy that underlied ‘60s and ‘70s black nationalism. If there is an important difference with BLM, it might simply be that the accessibility and fluidity of social media has made the reality of police brutality to non-white persons inescapable. You didn’t have to tell African-Americans growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s about that reality, but too often it didn’t escape the communities where it existed. Like gossip, it was an immutable code of operation for some and an easily dismissed apparition for others.

It is the ghost of American slavery that we are still haunted by, and it is that ghost that McKnight and Bromwich—like everyone else on the left—want to exorcize. The difference between those like McKnight and Bromwich and those energized by multiculturalism is, from one perspective, a matter of means. McKnight draws a parallel between BLM’s success in using video taken of police brutality and Frederick Douglass’s use of the burgeoning technologies of photography. McKnight notes that the “national attention” BLM has focused “on police injustice is a commendable achievement. However, for all its dynamism and appeals to moral goodness, the movement shares a foundational belief with Douglass: the ideology of race as a natural fact.” [1]

McKnight sees affirmation of the existence of race, which he thinks a fiction and created by the use of concepts like “race” and “racism,” to be the wrong move when facing the destructive force of white supremacy. He follows Karen and Barbara Fields, in their Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality (2012), in thinking that racism “always takes for granted the objective reality of race,” and that the latter demands “the doctrine that nature produced humankind in distinct groups, each defined by inborn traits.” [2] This ideology of race, however, is a fiction—“No operation performed on the fiction,” the Fieldses say, “can ever make headway against the crime.” The conceptual field of race is a bear trap, and to acknowledge the reality of its grasp is to amputate part of yourself as the only response. McKnight, like Bromwich, sees individualism as the worthy end that lies beyond race, racism, and group identity. Individualism is the hope that, as McKnight puts it, “you and I might be able to define ourselves by individual and ever-expansive terms.” Group thinking reduces us. “An individual,” McKnight acknowledges, “might be compelled to contend that it’s her individual choice to identify as black, or that being black is a matter of culture, not race—but those are just different, perhaps more consoling, points of entry into the same trap. An individual who proclaims an identity based on diffuse general terms begins the work of erasing herself.”

2.      Just like Bromwich’s, this is a powerful, Emersonian argument that I have much sympathy for. But if McKnight and Bromwich represent the Emersonian left opposed to the Hegelian left of multiculturalism, then I still find myself reaching for Hegelian philosophical weapons to repair the equally Emersonian individualism I want to affirm. [3] McKnight makes the unfortunate choice of exchanging what we might call Reality Depth Charges with what he calls the ideology of race. Racism takes the “objective reality” of race for granted—but it’s just a fiction, fake, not there! McKnight’s rhetoric of fiction (as well as ideology) implies that the objective reality is, rather, not-race. It requires, at the level of theoretical hygiene at least, some sort of epistemological defense of that claim, some sort of argument for thinking you’re seeing reality objectively and the other person fictionally.

From the perspective of philosophical pragmatism, this is a tactical misstep, but it is one that obscures the real power of multiculturalism and BLM. McKnight cites Nikole Hannah-Jones as an example of falling into the trap of the ideology of race:
How do you explain the visceral and personal pain caused by the killing of a black person you did not even know to people who did not grow up with, as their legacy, the hushed stories of black bodies hung from trees by a lynching mob populated with sheriff’s deputies?
McKnight comments, “The reader, here, is assumed to share a belief in the tenets of racecraft: that race is genetic, that one can know how another might think and behave based on the presumption of race, and that the order of our society is fixed.” McKnight’s attribution far outstrips the actual work of that sentence. The only thing required by that rhetorical question is the participation in a community that exchanges those “hushed stories.” McKnight overreads Hannah-Jones at this point because he’s operating under the assumption that the concept race requires geneticism. The benefit of the Hegelian stance that community precedes concept is that one can avoid the trap of thinking that concepts come necessarily with any conceptual baggage. Rather, words are learned in communities and communities teach them for particular historical reasons to respond to particular situations. You can’t short-circuit the task of understanding a community by jumping straight to conceptual implication.

3.      I don’t mean to imply that McKnight is not the sensitive cultural critic he actually displays himself to be in “Black as We Wanna Be.” But his argument that racecraft is as illusory as witchcraft (which is the analogy the Fieldses designed) is the kind of cavalier attitude that masks an acknowledgement of the courage actually required to abandon race as cultural category. McKnight gets this, but still fudges the difference when he says: “We’ve lived with racecraft for so long that the mere thought of abdicating one’s colorness can feel like being asked, in a duel, to lower your gun first.” That’s just the problem—it feels like a duel because it is a duel. We can’t just wish the gun away when there are real consequences to not being conscious of the color of one’s skin in certain situations. Conceptual pragmatism is a kind of philosophical idealism in which we create the world in which we live—there is no reality to be seen clearly to correct our concepts, no reality that we can just get everyone to wake up to all at once. [4] McKnight cites Douglass’s own pragmatism (rather than any ideology of race as natural fact) when Douglass says, “All subjective ideas become more distinct, palpable and strong by the habit of rendering them objective.” Douglass is describing an activity of making what one thinks the reality that others have to operate in. Douglass, McKnight, Bromwich, the Fieldses, and BLM all want to replace one reality with another, but it won’t be accomplished by hoping our long, national nightmare is like the Salem Witch Trials.

McKnight is right that “in the face of what often feels like a siege against all of the people who identify and are identified as your kind, self-preservation is a powerful impulse.” [5] He’s also very right that “self-preservation alone cannot lead us to a more equal society, because self-preservation would never let you put the gun down.” This perfectly characterizes the moral courage actually required in our cultural situation, as opposed to pretending the gun doesn’t exist. While I’ve tried to identify something cavalier in McKnight’s argument, that is not how I would characterize McKnight’s stance as a whole. I think the stakes are just as he describes them, on the “intellectual and spiritual plane.” The fact that The Nation carries this conversation among leftists is a tribute to the vitality of leftist debate. Though the Emersonian left is often overshadowed because it unsettlingly echoes the right’s magic words of “individualism” and ”choice,” the still too-Marxist intellectual left in America needs to be reminded of its own implicit agreement on what the America they want to achieve looks like: a just freespace of self-definition.


[1] All quotations of McKnight are from “Black as We Wanna Be,” The Nation, Oct. 10, 2016.

[2] Quoted in McKnight.

[3] For some context for this vocabulary of discussion, see sec. 2 of “The Legacy of Group Thinking.”

[4] A clear moment of fudging the difference between having courage and being cavalier is when McKnight says, “Neither have we healed from racism’s trauma; neither have we awoken from racecraft’s spell.” It takes courage to grow from one’s trauma; it’s cavalier to think that trauma is just a hypnotic sleep we can be snapped out of. See my own use of “trauma” to talk about Bromwich’s cavalier stance in sec. 5 to the end of “Legacy.”

[5] I think one should emphasize “are identified” much more, which was the major argument I took to Bromwich’s book in "Legacy." See sec. 5’s argument about “racial wisdom,” especially with footnote 9.