Dethroning the Monarchs of Racism


The Other Side of Racism: A Philosophical Study of Black Race Consciousness, by Anne Wortham, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1981, 353 pp., $12.50.

The Other Side of Racism is a book that had to be written, much as Harriet Stowe said of her Uncle Tom's Cabin. It is also a book that is likely to be as much misunderstood as was Stowe's classic.

Uncle Tom's Cabin was subject to an ironic fate. While it succeeded marvelously in contributing to the abolition of slavery, the argument upon which it relied did not survive its fame. Stowe's fundamental intent was to prove that there is no basis for judgments founded in racial stereotypes. Her book, however, has provided the most notable stereotype of our era, the Uncle Tom. How has this come to be? The answer to this question probably poses the principal hurdle that Anne Wortham's important work must surmount.

Stowe's view on the question of race is implied in Uncle Tom's Cabin by means of heuristic devices. The novel contains 81 plausibly categorical references to "race." And the single emphatic element of these references, taken as a whole, is the variability of the human substance that provides the grounds for judgments of racial affinity. By far the greater number of references are rooted in signs of character, with the attendant result that the hero, Uncle Tom, ends up belonging to some eight explicit races by the time the novel ends. By this means Stowe eventually shows that the chance of human excellence or virtue stems from individual capacities of soul rather than from the race or political circumstances. Stowe's argument led her to reveal her project as an attempt to define the purpose of politics as the protection of human nature.

One would think that such a view would lead people away from facile racial judgments and toward a genuinely cosmopolitan perspective. What occurred, however, is that people found the opportunity to express their hopes as individuals by means of racial affinities. Thus, they could not suffer to admit infinite variabilities that would allow for an expression of views contrary to political objectives based on racial identity. Individual character, as a resource, was abandoned for the sake of a stereotype. And nonassimilable individual characters were subjected to taboos. The reaction to the many choices of race that Stowe offered was to amalgamate them in a generalized view of unworthy blacks.

Anne Wortham's intention is no less lofty than Stowe's. She sets forth the view that the "social significance of racial identity is not derived from laws of nature, but from the conventional judgments of men. Racial identity is given to us by nature, but the natural laws of existence give it no significance in so far as human survival is concerned." Accordingly, her study of race consciousness is the study of options that men have taken and do take, with the intent to reveal how they operate with equal force among stigmatizers and the so-called stigmatized.

Yet, she is a sociologist. And in good form she relies upon "typologies" to set forth the manner in which individuals experience and exercise the options they confront in matters of race. Consequently, one discovers in The Other Side of Racism characterizations of (primarily racist) perspectives that have all the force of class designations. One finds the "conventional integrationist," the "power-seeking nationalist," the "spiritual separatist," the "independent militant," and the "ambivalent appeaser," as well as distinctions of lesser note. In Wortham's model, these modes of interaction are primarily reflections of "dilemmas of self-esteem." That is, while these terms suggest classes, we mean to deal with individuals.

The reader notes, however, that the characterizations are not simply reducible to expressions of individual character. For, unlike the model of the rational individual (the Aristotelian model) upon which she relies, these characterizations serve to distinguish individuals in groups rather than to distinguish individuals simply. Aristotle speaks of the virtuous and the vicious in a way that manifestly cuts across all possible conventional distinctions. The typologies of sociology lack that power.

In this sense, Wortham's study is exposed to the very perils it seeks to elude, those perils that got the better of Uncle Tom. Such a fate, in my opinion, would be unworthy in the one case as it was in the other. Accordingly, I wish to canvas the implications of The Other Side of Racism, which serves so well to dethrone the proprietary monarchs of racism.

The counter model, the antiracist, the human himself, for Wortham, is "the person of authentic self-esteem,"

The man who was not incapacitated by slavery; who was not impeded by segregation; and who is not impaired by prejudice. He is neither impressed nor incited by racist testimony in his behalf; he is not made indistinct by the assertions of others that his is a collective identity; and he is not irresolute in his convictions that he is the captain of his fate—not the genes of his ancestors nor the socioeconomic statistics of his social location. He is no all-seeing, all-knowing, error-free paragon of perfection, but an ordinary human being willing to think and discover the truth on which his life depends. He is an unbiased individual—a person whose identity is based on self-interested self-consciousness, not ethnicity or race consciousness.

The strength of this affirmation of the ordinary man is necessitated by the fact that he is constantly under assault by self-appointed spokesmen who use him as the means to secure their own control of and profit from public policy.

The lines are clearly drawn in The Other Side of Racism: racism is greatly perpetuated by the unscrupulous who are willing to sacrifice not only their own dignity but the very freedom of others to their ambition for power. Abraham Lincoln described these lovers of distinction as men who would sate their lust "whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen."

The implication is that a people's liberation from racism hinges much upon the moral harshness (yes, that's just the word) with which they deal with the racists. Uncoupling public policy from racist quotas and limitations is the necessary condition for directing men's judgments toward intrinsic human concerns. But the sufficient condition is a people's willingness to defy implied identifications. Wortham's great contribution to this project is a careful demonstration of the grounds upon which the so-called renaissance of ethnic consciousness may be reduced to its proper proportions; that is, in American society, ethnic identifications are mere aesthetic baubles, interesting, to be sure, but providing nothing more than relaxing diversions from life's serious pursuits.

The age of multiculturalism is an age of deceit, seeking to raise to the level of fundamental social bases principles inherently destructive of a free social order. It may suit the terms of Marxist analysis and ambition to treat ethnic groups as the principal social units. But this perspective directly conflicts with the American goal of liberating the individual's fate from the thrall of the uncertain and illiberal fluxes of group sentiments.

In this vein, I must take exception to Anne Wortham's conclusion that the issue of race consciousness is rather moral and psychological than political. This seems more a state to be aimed for than an accurate reading of the state in which we live. From the beginning, the Founders conceived their enterprise to be to liberate men from the theretofore common absorption of race consciousness (intolerance) by political consciousness. They offered the world the first genuine example of social policy for the individual—a scheme intended to be wholly independent of the need for special protections (and exclusions) and laws for minorities. The historical and present case of the United States demonstrates that this is an ongoing project, inasmuch as Old World tendencies are continually resurgent.

The problem of the ex-slaves is germane. The whole question of blackness is defined in relation to America; self-perception is grounded in the need to come to terms with America. The "turn to race" as an escape from the perceived attitudes of whites merely affirms the point. Africa for the American black is not a terminus ad quem but a via media. In fact, the identity of the ex-slave is finally and irrevocably divorced from the mere genealogical connection. But this only gives genealogy as a means of voluntary self-expression greater force. In this light, even fanciful genealogy is legitimate. It is presumably but a short step from the making of baubles to preserving them in strong vaults, to be taken out for display only on very special if frivolous occasions. That, it seems to me, is truly the other side of racism!

William Allen teaches political thought at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California.