Throwing Shade on the Enlightenment

Throwing Shade on the Enlightenment

Slate writer Jamelle Bouie caused quite a kerfuffle by discussing the racist elements within the Enlightenment, first with a series of tweet threads and then with a more detailed article including, as they say, receipts. Bouie contends that the Enlightenment played an outsized role in creating our modern concept of race, and that if we want to take the Enlightenment seriously we have to grapple with the ways it is intimately bound with racism.

That’s it. Bouie was inundated with gasps of incredulity, however, drawing responses from both Ben Domenech and Robert Tracinski at the Federalist, and Katie Kelaidis at Quillette. Despite Bouie’s clarity, both his Twitter and long-form critics persist in misrepresenting his arguments and assaulting strawmen. Below I stylize some of the common misrepresentations or confusions and offer my own clarifications. The italicized statements are the things Bouie did not argue!

The Enlightenment invented xenophobia, tribalism, and every other form of bigotry.

Modern racism is a very particular beast, and not simply interchangeable with fear of foreigners or even colorism. Race in the European and American context (the relevant areas covered by the “Western” Enlightenment) is a theory of biological inferiority (though there are environmental and cultural variants) of nonwhite people, especially black people. This racial hierarchy was initially used to justify slavery and colonialism, but has evolved to maintain white supremacy long after chattel slavery was ended.

Because John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and other heroes of the Enlightenment were racist or supported slavery means we should stop talking about their ideas and eject them from the curricula.

This is just a non-sequitur. Realizing someone had some bad ideas doesn’t mean they have nothing to contribute, and Bouie never said otherwise. Besides, odious views of historical figures doesn’t even necessarily mean we have to condemn them. There’s a difference between moral fault and culpability.

The Enlightenment was racist so we should ditch the Enlightenment altogether.

Again, criticizing something is not the same as condemning. At least some of the scholars Bouie cites (Charles Mills is the only one I’m very familiar with) are trying to work through the baggage of the actually implemented beliefs and practices of Enlightenment liberalism in order to more fully realize its great promise. It’s a deconstructive, rather than destructive endeavor. The best way to separate the Enlightenment (or liberal) wheat from the liberal chaff is to not give the ideology the benefit of the doubt. If early scientific racialization counts as a mark against Enlightenment principles then that’s something that a sturdier liberalism just has to overcome.

There has been no racial progress since slavery.

In the last 250 years we’ve seen incredible progress on numerous fronts. And I think this progress has indeed come from certain liberal ideas. But that doesn’t mean everything is hunky-dory. Ibram X. Kendi suggests in his invaluable Stamped from the Beginning that we shouldn’t think about racial progress as marching along a single axis, whereupon you can take the proverbial two steps forward and one backward. Instead, racist and antiracist ideas can both progress and coevolve. The election of Barack Obama is surely a testament of our racial progress, but the election of the explicitly racist Donald Trump and the plethora of rhetorical dance moves made to evade its racist implications are all the latest in racist progress.

A booby-trapped ideology

Taking seriously the idea that racism could have been baked into the Enlightenment(s) and liberalism from the beginning is not about attacking liberalism or impugning Enlightenment heroes. The purpose of talking about how Kant, for example, explicitly and implicitly divided humanity into persons and subpersons is not to declare “Aha! Kant was a racist! Therefore we should ignore Kant, burn his books, and trash the Enlightenment!” No, problematizing Kant is the beginning of the argument, not the end. The real point is to see how racism and other ugly ideas that have been with the Enlightenment from the beginning might still be surreptitiously influencing even the good Enlightenment and liberal ideas we rightly cherish.

Before I give examples I want to cover my flank by pointing out that none of this criticism (or problematization or whatever you want to call it) is unique to the liberal wing of the Enlightenment. What Adam Gurri has called the minefield of prejudice afflicts every modern ideology, for the simple reason that every such ideology has evolved from intellectual ancestors. In his piece, Gurri admirably reflects on the potential pitfalls of his own beliefs and their influences, but argues that progressives and leftists face genealogical dangers as well:

Perhaps no single individual was more influential on the 20th century left than Karl Marx. Putting aside the obvious problems that arose among Marxists specifically—although a small but growing group has begun once again to defend the indefensible—Marx’s antisemitism is well known. What is more, “On the Jewish Question” is considered so central to the development of his thought that it is standard to include it in collections of his writing. His criticism of capitalism is intertwined with his antisemitism in ways that any critic of capitalism employing frameworks on which he had influence ought to be concerned about. Again, this isn’t a matter of discrediting the left …

I’ll give two examples of how liberal ideas are still being quietly influenced by the Enlightenment’s racist origins: the evergreen discourse on race and intelligence and the cloaking of capitalist values in ideal theory. First, my understanding from reading current reputable secondary sources is that race is not a scientifically useful concept, even though certain subcategorizations based on ancestry are valid for certain purposes (like predispositions to disease, etc). In other words, had early biologists not been afflicted with racist ideas to begin with, they would never have seized upon the broad racial categorizations we’re saddled with now. And so even as human biology and population science have progressed to the point (recently!) that the real scientists aren’t pressing racial narratives, we still have a public discourse where these ideas run amok even among good faith and intelligent people who appeal to other Enlightenment ideas to keep the race discourse forever open.

Sam Harris is a good example of this. It is abundantly clear in his debate with Vox’s Ezra Klein (and the associated blog posts and articles) that he doubts whether history or the humanities can have anything useful to say about questions of race and intelligence. He is immune to understanding that centuries of racist ideology have guided and shaped scientific questions in ways that might have lingering effects even now, to say nothing of the obviously persisting effects they have had on popular discourse about these scientific questions, which continue to “just ask questions” about race and intelligence long after the relevant experts themselves have determined race isn’t a useful genetic grouping. The most salient thing for Harris in controversies over race-based science is that he sees people pushing racial narratives as being bullied and their freedom of speech threatened. Harris and Charles Murray and others like them thus harness the Enlightenment values of free speech, open dialogue, and free inquiry — all good and important in and of themselves — to serve the interests of racism.

Second example: the liberal practices of private property and free exchange are extremely important, and they’re central to the progress that we’ve seen in terms of rising living standards and expanding capabilities. But the liberal justifications for economic freedom tend to assume equality of persons in terms of rights and powers, and also that economic freedom has no important dependence on history. Individuals just happen to own property that they bought or inherited fair and square and defending freedom means defending these property claims. But of course the actual distribution of property was brought about by violence, expropriation, and exploitation. Not only this, but the expropriation and exploitation were racialized, meaning persons belonging to groups now understood to be different races systematically bore the brunt of this process. Now, modern liberals defend present holdings and wealth/income distributions based on ideal assumptions and scoff at demands for racial justice and recompense as fundamentally opposed to liberal values. Again, private property and free exchange are essential ideas, but they require subtler justification, and any such justification will fall well short of absolutist interpretations.

Both of these examples show how racialization in the early Enlightenment advantaged non-racialized groups at the expense of racialized groups, and how liberal ideology has worked to conceal the process, even as Enlightenment and liberal ideas have become less racist over time. Grappling with the sometimes implicit racist roots of Enlightenment thinkers helps us to understand how those ideas are still influencing us today.

Featured image is “A Concise History of Black-White Relations in the United States” by Barry Deutsch (Patreon), shown here with permission.