We are pleased to announce our next Ethics discussion on Chike Jeffers's new article, "The Cultural Theory of Race: Yet Another Look at Du Bois's 'The Conservation of Races." Jeffers is an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. The article is available open access here. Tommie Shelby, professor of African and African American Studies and of Philosophy at Harvard, is kicking off the discussion with a critical precis of Jeffers's article. Here now is Tommie Shelby:
Chike Jeffers’s article is rich, subtle, provocative, and carefully argued. It makes contributions to a number of related debates within what has come to be called the philosophy of race. Jeffers offers a fresh interpretation of Du Bois’s influential essay “The Conservation of Races” (1897) and helpfully situates his reading within the context of leading commentaries on that piece. Extracting insights from Du Bois, he defends a cultural theory of the meaning of “race” that highlights the cultural dimensions of racism. And he stakes out a position on the ethics of resistance to racism, calling for the conservation of racial identities now and in the imagined postracist future.
In recent philosophical writings about Du Bois’s famous essay, one frequently encounters the claim that Du Bois was here defending a social constructionist theory of racial difference, which is typically contrasted with a scientific/naturalist theory of race that emphasizes inherited biological differences. On the social constructionist view, races are entirely the creation of social forces and institutional conventions, which are structured by group-based domination. Jeffers persuasively argues that this interpretation of the early Du Bois gets two things wrong. First, it fails to see that Du Bois did not completely reject the scientific theory of race. Du Bois acknowledged that there were biological differences between the races but insisted that these physical traits, which he held to be largely superficial, could not explain the “deeper” differences between the groups we call “races.” Second, the social constructionist reading mistakenly takes Du Bois to be reducing race to political dynamics when, in fact, Du Bois thought of races as primarily cultural groups that have intrinsic value.
Jeffers does not deny that Du Bois was engaged in a political project in advancing his race theory. This was not some purely academic philosophical analysis of the concept of race. Du Bois was trying to justify the need for race-based solidarity and group organization to fight against the forms of oppression that blacks and others suffered under. But, says Jeffers, his race theory cannot be reduced to this antiracist project. Races, for the early Du Bois, would be worth preserving even in a world without racism, because races embody and sustain valuable cultural traditions and ideals.
Now Du Bois defended the claim that races should be preserved—which we might call the racial conservation thesis—by invoking a racial origins narrative and a philosophy of history. He believed that races, not individuals or classes, were the primary agents of historical progress. Each race had its own distinctive contribution to make to civilization and human progress, and these racial ideals could not be fully realized unless races maintained their cultural integrity.
Jeffers defends the racial conservation thesis drawing on insights from Du Bois's “Conservation” essay. However, he doesn't want to defend it in the way that Du Bois does, namely, by relying on a dubious anthropology and a speculative philosophy of history. Instead, he agrees with the political theory of race that races are not primordial natural groupings operating according to laws of historical development but rather socially constructed groups. Yet he insists that these socially constructed races have created their own distinctive cultures in the crucible of racial domination and, through this culture, have become relatively cohesive ethnoracial peoples. Race is, Jeffers argues, a social construction but this construction has political and cultural dimensions. The political side demands that we eradicate racial hierarchy and exclusion; the cultural side demands that we preserve the integrity of races.
There are weak and strong forms of the racial conservation thesis. The weak version says that we should not allow cultural diversity to be suppressed in favor of cultural homogeneity. Individuals should be permitted to maintain the cultural aspects of their racial identities without this negatively affecting their rights or life chances. The strong version says that members of racial groups have a duty to actively preserve their group’s cultural integrity. Jeffers maintains that the weak version may be appropriate in the postracist utopia but the strong one is valid until then, at least for members of subordinate races. His argument for the strong version is based on the claim that resistance to the cultural dimensions of racism requires that those subject to this form of domination refuse to assimilate.
I find Jeffers’s interpretation of Du Bois compelling and agree with his criticisms of Du Bois’s version of the cultural theory. I also think he properly registers two key worries about his own version of the theory: its paradoxical implications for thinking about “white identity” and its seeming conflation of race with ethnicity (or nationality). I do however have some further doubts and questions about Jeffers’s defense of the weak and strong versions of the racial conservation thesis.
I think the weak version of the conservation thesis is basically correct, and in its defense I would simply say that unreasonable pressures to assimilate or to abandon one’s people’s traditional ways wrongly interference with individual liberty. And cultural intolerance born of racial hostility is certainly unreasonable, to say the least. I take it Jeffers would not disagree. But he also wants to explain why it would be valuable (though not a duty) for the members of historically oppressed racial groups to maintain their racial culture even after racism (political and cultural) has been defeated.
Jeffers says, “There is, in fact, reason to think that the historical memory of creating beauty in the midst of struggling to survive oppression can and should persist as a thing of value in black culture long after that oppression has truly and finally been relegated to the past” (20). I’m not entirely sure what this claim means, for there are two ambiguities in this and similar statements. I would distinguish valuing something because it is beautiful or useful from valuing something because our ancestors created it under oppressive circumstances, as these are different modes of value. I would also distinguish appreciating what our ancestors’ cultural traditions meant to them from appreciating these traditions as things valuable in themselves.
If something is a beautiful or otherwise worthwhile cultural product or practice, then we should admire it and seek to preserve it regardless of its racial pedigree or the circumstances of its origin (though admittedly its origins might taint it in some way). We don’t need a cultural theory of race to explain why we should preserve beautiful or useful things. What is at issue is whether the fact that one’s oppressed ancestors created a set of traditions under trying conditions provides one with an independent reason to carry on these traditions, and if so, what kind of reason this is.
Suppose a politically constructed racial group, in the process of their long and successful historical struggle against racial domination, developed a set of distinctive cultural practices, some of which were indispensible for their survival and sanity under unjust conditions or were essential weapons in their protracted fight against injustice. Their descendants, now free from racial domination, should take great pride in their ancestors’ resilience and triumph over oppression. They should also feel gratitude for the sacrifices their ancestors made to set them free. Accordingly, they might rightly celebrate and commemorate the cultural traditions that played such a crucial role in their ancestors’ lives. This would serve as remembrance of their ancestors’ ordeal and as tribute to their accomplishments. But, first, this would be a way of honoring one’s ancestors by celebrating something that meant something to them. We value it because it was valuable to them and we value them. And, second, there are other ways to express gratitude or pay tribute to one’s racially subordinate ancestors—e.g., constructing and visiting memorials or museums, learning and teaching the history of their struggle, and building on their legacy by fighting against other injustices.
Apart from finding beauty and utility in these traditions or honoring their heroic creators, I don’t see that a member of a historically oppressed racial group would, in the imagined postracist future, have a reason to practice and further develop these traditions. I’m not certain whether Jeffers would agree with my interpretation of the meaning and implications of the weak racial conservation thesis. I suspect that what I say here doesn’t quite capture everything he had mind. But perhaps he will tell us.
My concerns about the strong version of the conservation thesis are more serious. Jeffers wants to embrace Du Bois’s conclusion that races should be preserved but to reject the philosophy of history that Du Bois used to defend it. The trouble is that Du Bois’s perfectionist philosophy of history (or something similar) would appear to be needed to justify the claim that members of subordinate races have a duty to conserve their race’s culture. Du Bois argues that each race has a unique contribution to make to human progress that only it can make and so its members must maintain their cultural identity until that mission is complete. The resistance argument that Jeffers endorses is parallel only if we assume that preserving the denigrated culture of one’s race is the only appropriate way to resist the cultural dimensions of racism. What is missing from Jeffers’s argument, as far as I can tell, is a good reason to believe that the only appropriate response on the part of oppressed racial groups to Eurocentrism and racialized cultural intolerance is for these groups to maintain their (alleged) cultural distinctiveness in symbolic defiance. I’m skeptical that this reason can be supplied.
I agree that blacks, for example, should not seek to assimilate to European-derived cultural norms out of a sense of inferiority or to gain the esteem of whites who look upon us with contempt. This would be an undignified capitulation to white supremacy and a blameworthy accommodation to injustice. Indeed, one defensible mode of resistance to the cultural dimensions of racism is to draw attention to or to exaggerate even our minor cultural differences from the dominant group. This is one way that we affirm our self-respect in the face of injustice and express our solidarity with those similarly oppressed. We should also resist racially motived social pressure to abandon the cultural ways that we find valuable and meaningful. What I seriously doubt, though, is that a black person has a duty to not assimilate if he or she finds more value in cultural ways of European origin. Such a person should of course do their part to ensure that those who favor the cultural ways of their racial ancestors are free to embrace these traditions without unfair repercussions. But I don’t see how the person’s assimilation or love for European culture would be a betrayal of the black freedom struggle.
Moreover, cultural racism sometimes expresses itself by suggesting that members of subordinate races are incapable of fully assimilating European-derived culture. Such racist ideologies have functioned as a rationalizations for denying some groups important opportunities. Could an appropriate mode of resistance to this kind of cultural racism be to demonstrate that one can, in fact, embody these cultural characteristics? I think it could. And if so, wouldn’t this show that there couldn’t be a duty to maintain the integrity of one’s race-based cultural identity?