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Ethnicity, Race, and a

Possible Humanity

A CERTAIN delight of recognition forces

me to smile every time I am reminded
of the mother whom I saw on television not
appear. It would be a world somewhat analo-
gous to one in which humans had not dis-
covered that there are ³sh in the ocean. The
so long ago. She was recounting how her ³sh would still be there.
daughter—one of her several adopted Or would they? Is this bit of our world’s
children of various colors and complex- common sense right? Is race something like
ions—had expressed her bewilderment at a ³sh, something that exists out there for
the sight before her. “Mum, look at that the discovering? Precisely this bit of our
weird family,” she had exclaimed. “Their world’s common sense is what the girl helps
kids all look the same!” The child’s puzzle- us to call into question. Perhaps race is not
ment is delightful because it punctures the a ³sh. It is worth subjecting to critical
taken-for-granted facade of naturalness that scrutiny the two related notions of “eth-
many of us, relying on experiences vastly nicity” and “race” and asking whether a
di²erent from hers, have built around our world beyond race is possible.
culturally particular ways of organizing
family and kinship. The world she inhab- Ethnic Ambiguities
ited was a world without race—though no LET US begin with the facts. I am six feet
doubt she has since been confronted with, tall, have dark olive skin, round brown eyes,
and perhaps even forced to join, our “raced” and wavy black hair and facial hair to match.
social world. But the facts of my appearance have never
Of course, ours is a world from whose been enough to ensure uniform guesses
taken-for-granted, commonsensical perspec- about my “ethnicity.” I have been asked by
tive the nonexistence of race seems patently a friend’s Indian parents from which part
nonsensical. After all, to deny the existence of India I come. In Morocco, walking around
of race is, it seems, to deny the existence with a blonde friend, I was asked how long
of a biological fact. We could imagine a ago my family had emigrated. But when I
world—like the girl’s—in which we were walked through the Moroccan ‘súq’ with
unaware of the biological realities, but the my Andalucian friend, with her olive skin
biological realities would not thereby dis- and black hair, pedlars barraged me, trying
to make a sale to “Juan! Juan! Juan!” in
Spanish. In Nice, near France’s border with
Italy, my e²orts to speak to the locals in my
Copyright © 2002 by Arash Abizadeh. accented French were greeted with obliging

responses in a language of which I knew later? The answer to this question is, in
only enough to be able to tell that I was part, arbitrary.
being taken for a visitor from across the Let us return to the facts. One is that
border. In Berlin I would not infrequently I live in the United States. Surely this fact
be accosted by lost but overly optimistic does not help the inquirer after my ethnicity.
old ladies hoping that I could give them Another fact is that I am from Canada. If
directions in Turkish. My own inquiries for I were ever to become a United States citi-
directions in Israel I prefaced with the hope- zen, I would become an American of Can-
ful “Do you speak English?”; the usually adian background. But presumably this still
puzzled look I would receive was best put does not answer the ethnicity question.
into words by the fellow who responded, Canadians are descended from common
“Yes, and congratulations, apparently you ancestors only in the sense in which all
do too!” The others, too surprised to make humans are descended from the ³rst Homo
a joke, simply queried, “But are you not sapiens. Yet another fact is that I am born
Israeli?” In Vienna my German proved to of Iranian parents. Surely this is the rel-
be so fumbling at the cash register that the evant fact. I am descended from Iranians,
hurried cashier risked the potentially help- and so we might con³dently conclude that
ful “Shumá Írání hastín?” [“Are you Ira- my ethnic background is Iranian. The
nian?”]. In Bolivia the locals’ guesses about problem with this answer is that Iranians
the fellow who stood head and shoulders themselves do not seem to think that they
above the ³ve-foot crowd coalesced around all share common ancestors. My parents are
Brazil. Iranian, to be sure; but they are of Jewish
But what are the facts? You want to descent—not Kurdish, not Baluchi, not
know, presumably, not what ethnicity Qashqai, not Persian, not Turkmen, not Ar-
people guess when they see me but the ge- menian. Is, then, my ethnic background
nealogical facts. From whom am I de- Jewish-Iranian? Perhaps we should simply
scended? After all, like race, the concept of say that my ethnicity is Jewish, or Hebrew,
ethnicity is wrapped up with the notion of a descendant of the twelve tribes of Israel?
descent or genealogy. Whereas the guesses But if we have gone back that far, why not
people might hazard based on physical push a little further? Is my ethnic back-
appearance may be colored by my clothing, ground simply Semitic, in common with
gait, accent, companions, location, or other Jews but also with Arabs? Why not push
contextual circumstances and ³ltered by even further, to the ³rst Homo sapiens?
the sociocultural categories through which The choice of “how far back” begins to
the observer sees the world, the fact of ge- verge on the arbitrary.
nealogy can be, at least in principle, objec- It is not just the “how-far-back” ques-
tively established. tion that introduces arbitrariness. One could
Or can it? If people are of the same also ask questions about which genealogical
ethnicity, if and only if they are descended line is to be considered decisive. One gen-
from common ancestors—that is, have a eration back, we have two choices—mother
common genealogy—humanity must be a and father. Two generations back, we have
single ethnic group. That, of course, is not four. Three generations back, we have eight,
how the term “ethnicity” is used. Presum- and soon the numbers become unimagin-
ably the ancestors in question must be ones able. Perhaps I do, indeed, have an ancestor
who lived sometime later than the ³rst among the twelve tribes. But of the thou-
Homo sapiens. The question is, How much sands of my ancestors who lived that far

back, many of them also are, in fact, through can often be based on historically inaccu-
some genealogical line or another, ancestors rate beliefs. This, of course, does not mean
of thousands, if not millions, of humans that ethnicity itself does not exist. Rather,
alive today who do not think of themselves it simply means that when it exists, it exists
as being of my “blood.” But why this line as a socially constructed category contin-
rather than that? gent on beliefs.2 The “facts” of genealogy
It is in part for these reasons that many are themselves an insu¹cient basis for di-
scholars have begun to de³ne ethnicity as viding humanity up ethnically. Unlike a
constituted by myths of common descent. ³sh, ethnicity’s very existence is dependent
A people share a common ethnicity insofar on beliefs about its existence.
as they share a myth of common descent—
that is, insofar as they believe themselves to Racy Looks
be descended from common ancestors. 1 PERHAPS the concept of “race” enjoys an
Ethnicity is based on mythical beliefs about advantage over ethnicity. For “race” can be
the genealogical facts, not the genealogical thought of as a concept that combines two
facts themselves. It is the myths that an- ideas. It supplements the notion of gene-
swer the “how-far-back” and the “which- alogy with the notion of some innate traits
line” questions—but the myths themselves that are genealogically transmitted. Thus,
for example, members of the same race
could be de³ned as humans who share
common ancestors from whom they have
1. See Donald L. Horowitz, Ethnic Groups in Con- inherited some innate traits, such as phe-
·ict (Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1985) and An- notype (physical appearance). The “how-
thony D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations (Oxford, far-back” question can then be answered
UK: Blackwell, 1986). “objectively” by referring to the relevant
2. The term “socially constructed” refers to phe-
nomena the existence and character of which depend traits—for example, the point in time when
on there being certain ways of doing and thinking a certain set of phenotypic traits, such as
about things that are speci³c to certain societies or pale skin, straight hair, and so on, came to
historical periods. Usually the contrast is with things distinguish one group of humans physi-
that have a purely “natural,” “innate,” or “biological”
basis. For example, for most scholars sex is a biological
cally from others groups. The “which-line”
category that distinguishes “males” and “females” purely question can also be similarly answered.
in terms of X and Y chromosomes, while gender is a One traces race along the line that deter-
socially constructed category that distinguishes “men” mines the inheritance of the relevant in-
from “women” in terms of the roles, characteristics, nate racially marked qualities. By supple-
and identities that they take on in particular societies.
In other words, the de³ning characteristics of a “man” menting the ethnic criterion of genealogy,
and “woman” vary according to the particular society. A the second criterion—the inherited innate
simpli³cation illustrates the point. In one society a traits—is supposed to provide “race” with
woman is a person who is a mother who rears children an objective (and in the case of phenotype,
in a domestic sphere, who is obedient to men, who
a biological) ground. Race, like a ³sh, could
speaks only when spoken to, who is deemed to be
irrational and emotional, and so on, while in another then be said to exist independently of any
society the pursuit of a career, assertiveness, political beliefs about it.
o¹ce, and so on are perfectly compatible with woman- The assumption embedded in such a
hood. (The Bábí heroine øáhirih, for example, chal- conception of race is, of course, that its
lenged the very idea of what it meant to be a woman in
nineteenth-century Persia.) Both the de³ning features two constitutive criteria—genealogy and
and the very existence of a socially constructed cat- inherited innate traits such as phenotype—
egory depend on the context. are compatible. In other words, the assump-

tion is that, when attempting to determine the case of Susie Phipps. Along with her
someone’s race, examining his or her phe- siblings, some of whom were blue-eyed
notype provides answers that supplement blondes, she had lived socially as “white”
rather than undermine answers to ques- in Louisiana by virtue of her phenotype.
tions about genealogy. 3 The ostensible When she checked white on her applica-
advantage of “race” over ethnicity is that tion, however, Phipps was denied a pass-
the additional question about distinctive port because the state considered her “col-
innate traits passed on through descent would ored” by virtue of her genealogy. She then
serve to wrestle the concept away from myth sued to be o¹cially classi³ed as white.4 She
and deliver it to the objectivity of sciences lost, but the lawsuit was made possible by
such as biology. the fact that the two categories—pheno-
The problem is that, in fact, the two type and genealogy—of race need not coin-
questions about genealogy and innate traits cide.
such as phenotype often provide contradic- But, perhaps, it will be objected, the
tory answers. The commonly accepted advan- problem is not with the category of race
tage turns out to be a liability. Consider per se but with the peculiar way that Amer-
the American context. In the United States icans answer the “which-line” question.
a person of “black” race is understood to Instead of monolithic racial categories that
be someone of sub-Saharan African ances- are preserved by always tracing race along
try who, as a result of that ancestry, has the “black” line, one might argue for allow-
inherited certain phenotypic traits (dark ing for “racial mixture.” Having ostensibly
skin, kinky hair, and so on). Hence there established the existence of di²erent races
are two ways to determine if someone is by reference to genealogy and phenotype,
“black”: to ask about the person’s ancestry one could then speak of people of “mixed
and to see what he or she “looks” like. (Both race.” But here again the two questions can
questions are supposed to yield the same pull in di²erent directions. Consider Phipps
answer.) With respect to the “which-line” again. The genealogical answer is that she
question, the United States answers with its is of “mixed race,” while the phenotypic
infamous “one-drop” rule. If one has but answer is that she is “white.” The discrep-
a single black African ancestor, in the ancy has not been erased by this re³nement.
American context one has traditionally been What happens if one allows the pheno-
deemed to be of “black” race. But consider typic answer to trump the genealogical one?
(“For all intents and purposes,” it might be
said, “the woman is biologically white.”)
This would mean that phenotype is also
decisively answering the genealogy ques-
tions, such as “which line” or “how far
3. Phenotype is one of the most typical inherited back.” But then phenotype seems to be
innate qualities associated with race, but other traits
doing all the work, whereas the discussion
are also possible, such as genotype (that is, genetic
makeup) and some supposed “essence” (compare, for of ethnicity attempted to show why phe-
example, the Afrocentric view of race) or natural dispo- notype could not be su¹cient grounds for
sitions of character. For simplicity, I will focus on an objective “biological” distinction.
phenotype, in accordance with everyday American so- How does the insu¹ciency problem
cial practice.
4. In Jane Doe v. State of Louisiana. See F. Janes
work in the context of race? The attempt
Davis, Who Is Black? One Nation’s De³nition (University to determine race biologically by reference
Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1980) 9–11. to some phenotypic qualities faces at least

two problems.5 First, phenotypic di²erences pletely independent of the biologic al

are matters of degree. Exactly where one “facts”? Of course, there is a kernel of truth
should draw the racial boundary cannot be to this bit of common sense. Race may be
determined on purely biological grounds. socially constructed, but it is socially con-
As a result, a person deemed to be pheno- structed by reference to biological facts
typically “black” in the United States may that provide it with raw materials. The
be deemed phenotypically “white” in Ja- point is that race may be used to categorize
maica. Second, humans vary in a multitude people socially according to some pheno-
of ways—from hair color to hand size to typic traits, but which traits are used as
nail shape. Which of these traits is deemed markers of di²erence and how those traits
to be a relevant marker of distinction will are perceived depends on the social context.
be contingent upon the particular society Hence, on the one hand, race’s relation to
in which the distinction is made. biology is not wholly arbitrary. Its con-
For these reasons, among others, it has struction does make reference to some
now become a commonplace among aca- biological facts. That is why, for example,
demic scholars that “race” is a social con- I have never been taken for Japanese. Race
struct—that it is not determined by biol- is not just “made up” independent of any
ogy.6 The implication is that “race” in U.S. reference to biological traits. On the other
society may be entirely di²erent from “race” hand, race is not wholly determined by
in Brazilian or Moroccan society. Another biology. Its social construction is depen-
implication is that “race” does not exist in- dent upon arbitrarily selecting some traits,
dependent of social beliefs about race. rather than others, for special treatment.
The no-nonsense commonsense response For example, while skin color is often thought
to the academy’s (majority) view would be, of as a racial marker, di²erent humans may
no doubt, to point to some obvious bio- have also inherited blonde, brown, red, or
logical facts. I may have been variously black hair, without their hair color being
taken for Indian, Italian, Latino, Arab, Israeli, thought of as a racial marker. Humans vary
and so on, but I have never been mistaken not just in skin color but also in height,
for Japanese. Surely race cannot be com- hirsuteness, left-handedness, ³nger-nail
shape, foot size, and so on. These are all
inherited biological traits. Whether they
are socially thought of as relevant for cat-
egorizing human groups depends on the
5. So, too, for that matter, would an attempt to do context. (A society that viewed its small-
so by reference to genotype.
6. For a discussion of some of the literature on the footed individuals as an inferior breed of
social construction of race, see “Race: Neither Biologi- some sort is no less absurd than South
cal Fact nor Social Fiction” by Algernon Austin in this African apartheid.) A society in which
issue of World Order, 33.1 (Fall 2001): 9–20. For a phenotypic traits such as skin color were
discussion of the lack of a genetic basis for the category
deemed to be just as irrelevant to grouping
of race, see K. Anthony Appiah, “The Uncompleted
Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race,” in “Race,” humans as left-handedness is in our world
Writing, and Di²erence, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. would be a society without “race” as we
(Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986) 21–37. Appiah also understand it. Race—like ethnicity—is
notes that, while not all contemporary biologists agree rather unlike a ³sh.
that there are no distinct human “races,” those biolo-
gists who believe that there is a genetic basis for race
The insight that race is socially con-
mean something quite di²erent by “race” than its deno- structed is what lies behind contemporary
tation in popular usage. race theory’s reversal of the assumptions

that were used to justify the American race is not dependent upon subjective be-
practice of slavery. Whereas for generations liefs (that is, beliefs held by an individual).
racial di²erence was cited in America as the Rather, it depends on intersubjective beliefs
basis and justi³cation for slavery, contem- and meanings embedded within social
porary theory suggests that it was rather the practices that continually reproduce race
practice of slavery itself that created race (that is, beliefs and meanings embodied
in America as we know it. The result is and re·ected in shared social practices, just
this: Despite race’s dependence upon be- as the belief in certain kinds of rights are
liefs, a person cannot simply “think” it embedded in American practices).8
away.7 The reason is that the existence of The result is that race is a social fact. A
de-racialized world would require not just
a transformation of people’s beliefs but also
a transformation of the social practices that
7. One of the most striking example of this comes sustain those beliefs—practices implicated
from Nazi Germany. Before Hitler’s rise, there were in a web of material and symbolic relations
many fully assimilated Germans with Jewish ancestors of power.
who did not subjectively identify themselves as Jews at
all; some were not even aware of their Jewish ancestry.
But then the sociopolitical context changed, and the Reproducing Race
Nazis brutally imposed a Jewish identity on these indi- TO IMAGINE a world beyond racial oppres-
viduals. Even though Jewishness had not been a part of sion and injustice is not, de³nitionally, to
their identity, after surviving the Holocaust, many of
these individuals then saw Jewishness as a central com-
imagine a world beyond race. But it is
ponent of their identity. The point is that even our di¹cult to see how racial di²erentiation
subjective identi³cations are dependent on the social could in practice be sustained without the
context. attending oppressions and injustices. This
8. As the political philosopher Charles Taylor has is in part because, for race to exist, it must
put it with respect to intersubjective meanings: “It is
not just that people in our society all or mostly have a be sustained by social practices that po-
given set of ideas in their heads and subscribe to a given lice—and enforce—its collective bound-
set of goals. The meanings and norms implicit in these aries that distinguish “us” from “them.”
practices are not just in the minds of the actors but are Since biology is itself an insu¹cient basis
there in the practices themselves” (“Interpretation and
the Sciences of Man,” in Philosophy and the Human
for racial categorization and identity, race
Sciences: Philosophical Papers 2 [Cambridge, UK: Cam- and racial identity depend upon social
bridge UP, 1985] 36). practices that supplement biology by con-
9. A person’s individual identity answers to the ques- tingently choosing some traits, such as skin
tion, “Who am I?” A collective identity answers to the color or forehead size, as distinguishing
question, “Who are we?” Whereas a person’s individual
identity distinguishes that person from others, a collec- marks of racial di²erence. As a result, we
tive identity is an identity shared in common with other need to shift our focus from the conceptual
individuals. realm of de³ning race to analyzing the social
10. Speaking of collective identity more generally, realm in which race is institutionalized in
Appiah notes that “The large collective identities that
social practices. It then becomes evident
call for recognition come with notions of how a proper
person of that kind behaves. . . .” “Collective identi- that reproducing race as the basis for col-
ties,” he concludes, “provide what we might call scripts: lective identities9 depends on the (often
narratives that people use in shaping their life plans” coercive) enforcement of racial boundaries
(K. Anthony Appiah, “Identity, Authenticity, Survival: that distinguish one group from another,
Multicultural Societies and Social Reproduction,” in
Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, along with the racialized modes of behavior
ed. Amy Gutmann [Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1994] associated with each group.10
149–63, 159–60). It may be helpful to distinguish three

levels of analysis relevant to reproducing vidual (which encompasses the psychologi-

racial identity.11 First, there is the politico- cal processes of personality- and ego- for-
legal sphere of the state, which the sociolo- mation). It should be emphasized that the
gist Max Weber de³ned as the set of insti- public sphere operates through cultural and
tutions “that (successfully) claims the social structures—including secondary as-
monopoly of the legitimate use of physical sociations, such as professional associations,
force within a given territory.”12 Second, sports teams, religious communities, uni-
there is the sphere of society, including (a) versities, and so on, that as a whole make
the economic sphere of the production, ex- up civil society. All three spheres help repro-
change, and distribution of goods and ser- duce race, but in this exploration I focus
vices, (b) the public sphere, in which indi- on the ³rst two—the state and society.13
viduals who do not personally know one One of the most obvious underpinnings
another interact on a communicative basis, of the social practices that help sustain and
and (c) the intimate or private sphere of the reproduce a “raced” world is the legal
family and interpersonal relations. Finally, apparatus of the state. When race is insti-
there is the subjective sphere of the indi- tutionalized at the level of the state—as it
overtly and oppressively was in apartheid
and in the pre-civil rights era in the United
States—the state itself becomes a key player
in the (re)production of race and racial
11. The categories are adapted in part from Jürgen
Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 2
identities.14 In the face of overt state-sanc-
(Boston: Beacon P, 1987) and Nancy Fraser, “What’s tioned racial oppression, an obvious politi-
Critical about Critical Theory? The Case of Habermas cal strategy for achieving racial justice is to
and Gender,” in Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and attempt to transform the political and legal
Gender in Contemporary Social Theory (Minneapolis: U system so that the state treats all individu-
of Minnesota P, 1989), 113–43.
12. Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociol- als as equal before the law irrespective of
ogy, trans. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New racial categorization—in other words, to
York: Oxford UP, 1946) 78, emphasis removed. After render it “color-blind.” The limit to this
noting that “There is a great deal of agreement amongst approach is, of course, that the state is not
social scientists as to how the state should be de³ned,”
John A. Hall and G. John Ikenberry (in The State
the only source of race and racial oppres-
[Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989] 1–2) specify sion. However color-blind the state may be,
three de³ning elements: (1) “the state is a set of institu- discriminatory and oppressive practices may
tions . . . manned by the state’s own personnel” whose continue to emanate from society.
“most important institution is that of the means of Hence we must consider not just the
violence and coercion,” (2) “these institutions are at the
centre of a geographically-bounded territory,” and (3) state’s role in the production of race but
“the state monopolizes rule making within its terri- also the oppressive structures within soci-
tory.” ety itself. Here again there is a partial
13. For an analysis of the individual psychological political remedy. The legal apparatus of
dimension of the race question, see “Children and
the state may be deployed to sanction
Racism: The Complexities of Culture and Cognition”
by David Diehl and Elizabeth Ansel Kirsch in this issue discriminatory social practices—for example,
of World Order, 33.1 (Fall 2001): 37–48. through the enforcement of a set of anti-
14. Rogers Brubaker’s theoretical analysis of the discrimination rights. The limit to this
role of the state in the production of ethnic and approach stems from the fact that the overt
national identities is also germane for analyses of racial
identity. See Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the
racial discrimination that is susceptible to
National Question in the New Europe (Cambridge, UK: state action through the protection of in-
Cambridge UP, 1996) ch. 1. dividual rights is not the only social source

of racial oppression and inequality. For interventions in society are mediated

society also has a material economic aspect, through a bureaucracy that must make use
and even if individual rights were protected, of, and thus mobilize and institutionalize,
once class and race have become intertwined, the very category it seeks to undercut. The
unequal class structures may serve to per- result is that once it has already been in-
petuate racial inequalities as well (and vice stitutionalized in society, the problem of
versa). The point is that class con·icts and race calls for a more fundamental assess-
inequalities are often an important source ment than the solely political or economic.
for the social (re)production of race, and We must consider not just the oppressive
state protection of classic liberal rights can political and material sources of the pro-
often do little to alleviate them. There may duction of race but also the nature of the
be, for example, laws against racial dis- spiritual aspiration to human dignity that
crimination in university admissions, but modern society itself cultivates among its
if some individuals cannot a²ord to pay members, even as its oppressive social struc-
high tuition rates, or if their impoverished tures continue to o²end it.15
background has interfered with academic It might be objected that a distinction
excellence in secondary school, these indi- needs to be made between the oppressive
viduals may still be e²ectively barred from reproduction of race and the reproduction
the sort of higher education necessary to of race as such. However, as noted earlier,
enter certain professions. the two may be inextricably linked in
Again, there is a potential political rem- practice. We can see how the production
edy. The state may be called upon to undo of race is linked to oppression rather clearly
the correlation between class and race, for when outsiders, whether the state or other
example through a¹rmative–action poli- social actors, impose a racial identity on
cies and economic redistribution. But how- their victims through racial discrimination
ever e²ective or necessary such policies may and exclusion. But the link to oppression
be, they have their own inevitable pathol- is no less important for racial identities sus-
ogy. In the state’s attempt to undo the tained by practices of social control within
correlation between class and race—and the group itself. These two modes of re-
thus to undercut the economic reproduc- producing identity—internal and external—
tion of race—the state paradoxically ends often reinforce each other. Since our indi-
up reproducing race politically. For the state’s vidual and collective identities are always
shaped through our interactions with other
human beings,16 and since societies have
often denied equal dignity to some human
15. This insight stems from one that lies at the heart beings on the basis of racially marked
of one of the foundational works of modern social characteristics, it is no surprise that these
theory, in the form of Hegel’s analysis of how, under human beings have found such character-
conditions of modernity, civil society systematically
istics central, even if negatively so, to their
denies to the “rabble” the very bases for “personality”
that modern society itself cultivates in human beings. identities.17 With much compassion, the
See Shlomo Avineri, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State philosopher K. Anthony Appiah notes how
(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1972) 149–50. this external imposition is often comple-
16. See Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recogni- mented by the second, internal mode of
tion,” in Multiculturalism 25–73 and Habermas, Theory
of Communicative Action vol. 2.
reproduction. One way to a¹rm one’s equal
17. See Appiah, “Identity, Authenticity, Survival,” in dignity as a human being is to revalue
Multiculturalism 149–63, 161. socially enforced collective identities, not

as sources of humiliation and insult, but that being Black counts naturally or to
as valuable sources central to one’s iden- some degree against one’s dignity. And
tity—indeed, the very source of one’s so one will end up asking to be respected
dignity: as a Black.18
In order to construct a life with dignity, But now the victims of oppression them-
it seems natural to take the collective selves appear caught in a dilemma that
identity and construct positive life-scripts parallels the state’s attempts at interven-
instead. . . . In this context, . . . [it] will tion. The state’s attempts to combat racial
not even be enough to require being inequality paradoxically end up reifying
treated with equal dignity despite being the category of race—in other words, they
Black, for that will require a concession end up treating a socially constructed cat-
egory as if it were simply natural—and
imposing upon individual human beings a
bureaucratically de³ned racial identity.19
18. Appiah, “Identity, Authenticity, Survival” in Similarly, the victims’ attempt to take
Multiculturalism 161. Bahá’ís may recall ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s collective control of the racial identity and
subversion of twentieth-century American racism
through a revaluation of blackness as a source of pride appropriate it for their own collective
rather than shame. Howard Colby Ives recounts the empowerment ends up having to reify the
story of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to the Bowery Mission area very category (that is, race) originally used
in New York in 1912. Among a number of poor boys as the tool of oppression. To reify race in
who had come to see ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was a single black
boy, who was probably expecting to be unwelcome
this way—to treat it as natural or essen-
because of his race. “‘When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá saw him,’” tial—is simply to ³ddle with the straight-
Ives reports, jacket, loosening it at best. As Appiah notes,
His face lighted up with a heavenly smile. He raised on the one hand, it may be historically and
His hand with a gesture of princely welcome and strategically necessary for collective identi-
exclaimed in a loud voice so that none could fail to
hear; that here was a black rose. ties to develop in this manner; on the other
The room fell into instant silence. The black hand, it is necessary to move on to the next
face became illumined with a happiness and love step. The problem is that demanding re-
hardly of this world. The other boys looked at him spect for people “as blacks” requires that
with new eyes. I venture to say that he had been
called a black—many things, but never before a
there be “scripts” that identify the proper
black rose (Howard Colby Ives, Portals to Freedom, ways of being black: “there will be expec-
rev. ed. [London: George Ronald, 1976] 65). tations to be met, demands will be made.
See also Richard W. Thomas’s discussion of this inci- It is at this point that someone who takes
dent and of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s approach in general in Racial autonomy seriously will ask whether we
Unity: An Imperative for Social Progress (Ottawa: Asso-
ciation for Bahá’í Studies, 1993) 123–24, Ch. 8. have not replaced one kind of tyranny with
19. The concept of rei³cation ³nds its sources in another.”20 The dilemma is exacerbated by
Marx and Georg Lukács, an Hungarian Marxist phi- the circumstance that race links biology to
losopher. Rei³cation refers to a process by which indi- social practices. The demand for dignity
viduals think of and treat something as if it were
and recognition as a member of a particular
natural, even though, in fact, it is socially constructed
and thus a contingent feature of the individual’s soci- race ends up requiring one to identify the
ety. To return to the example in footnote 2: While the “biological” object of recognition with a
roles that de³ne gender in various societies are socially sociocultural “way of being.” This super-
constructed, most societies have thought of those roles imposition of a set of contingent sociocul-
as natural and grounded in biology. In other words,
gender has usually been rei³ed.
tural practices on an ostensibly biological
20. Appiah, “Identity, Authenticity, Survival,” in category ends up reifying race and the
Multiculturalism 162. sociocultural practices that reproduce and

depend on it. The reproduction of the tices and institutions. Fourth, this positive,
social fact of race, lacking as it does bio- spiritually grounded undertaking requires
logical foundations, depends upon social the fostering of social practices and insti-
practices that police and enforce its con- tutions the animating anticipatory vision
structed boundaries—boundaries that de- of which is that of the oneness of humanity.
termine which individuals belong to which I understand these four theses to represent
race. a theoretical articulation of the premises
underlying contemporary Bahá’í practice,
The Race Beyond inspired by principles found in the Bahá’í
I HAVE so far advanced three broad claims. writings, in relation to the question of race.21
First, race is a social construct, not a bio- While I cannot fully defend these theses
logical fact. Second, the social reproduc- here, I hope at least to explain them and
tion of race is e²ected by social practices suggest their plausibility, in however pre-
dependent on relations of power sustained liminary a fashion.
by economics and politics. Third, this repro- The ³rst thesis—about the necessity of
duction is made possible only by oppres- a positive visionary undertaking—is in part
sive social practices that are an o²ense to supported by the predicament noted ear-
human dignity. To conclude, I would like lier: that is, the pathologies that accom-
to outline, in however preliminary a fash- pany e²orts to combat reactively the evils
ion, an approach I see as integral to the of racial inequality and oppression. By
attempt to transcend the social reproduc- directly focusing on and using (and thus
tion of race. presupposing) the category of race, such
The approach can be encapsulated in e²orts invariably end up reifying their object.
four theses. First, the transformation of the This is not to deny that such e²orts are
social practices that reproduce race requires necessary—they are. But they are also insuf-
a positive anticipatory–visionary undertak- ³cient. Transcending the social reproduc-
ing that goes beyond simply ³ghting the tion of oppressive racial structures requires
evils of racial inequality and oppression in the social articulation of an alternative
a reactive fashion. Second, such a visionary positive vision of human relations. To put
undertaking must tackle not only the po- the matter in this way is already to suggest
litical and economic aspects of the ques- why (as the second thesis claims) a focus
tion but also the spiritual aspect. Third, on economics and politics must be supple-
attention to the spiritual dimension cannot mented by a focus on the spiritual aspect
be con³ned to the level of individual beliefs of the question: For the social articulation
and action but must also address the inter- of an alternative vision of human relations
subjective level of shared norms and prin- presupposes a vision of human possibilities
ciples embedded in social and state prac- and the principles that might underlie them.
The emphasis of the third thesis on collec-
tive social practices stems from the fact that
race—like social phenomena in general—
is not simply a matter of subjective beliefs
21. My sensibilities about the question of social but is itself reproduced by intersubjective
transformation continue to be in·uenced by a work I social practices and institutions. Thus the
read a number of years ago. See Farzam Arbab, “The
Process of Social Transformation,” in The Bahá’í Faith
alternative vision must be socially articu-
and Marxism, ed. Association for Bahá’í Studies (Ot- lated as well—that is, it must be embodied
tawa: Association for Bahá’í Studies, 1987) 9–20. in social practices and institutions.

Several consequences follow from focus- within the context of what unites each hu-
ing on the oneness of humanity as a posi- man being with his or her fellows. A spiri-
tive, anticipatory, spiritual vision that must be tual understanding of the oneness of hu-
articulated socially. To say that the anticipa- manity does not stop, for example, with
tory vision must be socially articulated is to the formal recognition of human rights
say that those committed to transcending due to each individual (backed by the
a “raced” world must be prepared to cul- exercise of force by the institutionalized
tivate alternative social practices that oper- apparatus of the state); it supplements the
ate on the basis of “de–raced” categories. defense of rights with a commitment to
One cannot simply decide to think race cultivating virtues such as detachment, love,
away in one’s daily life when that life is and sacri³ce that must also ³nd a place in
conducted in a social context where race human relations. Such virtues are not sus-
clearly does exist; falsely supposing that ceptible to formal codi³cation and institu-
race is a subjective phenomenon, one might tionalization (as a set of laws, for example);
very well leave the racial status quo intact. they must ³nd their way into social prac-
Rather, one must develop and participate tices in a di²erent way, more dependent
in new social practices that operate on an upon the conscious exercise of individual
alternative “de–raced” basis. An ethic of choice and will. In this respect, the actors
the oneness of humanity must be put into of civil society, such as religious commu-
practice structurally. This is not solely the nities, universities, community groups, and
realm of the individual but also the realm so on, are supremely relevant. But the state
of society. The principle of the oneness of itself may play a positive role as well. For
humanity must be institutionalized at this other than its direct use of its legal appa-
level. If organized religion is to be a posi- ratus and its regulatory economic functions,
tive force in society, at the very least it must the state typically also regulates the public
provide a social setting in which alternative education system, which is, together with
social possibilities can be practiced and the family structure, one of the most
institutionalized. important settings for the formative pro-
To say—as the fourth thesis does—that cesses of socialization. Thus the state can
alternative social practices must be animated indirectly play an important role in the
by an anticipatory vision of the oneness of cultivation of the individual virtues neces-
humanity is, in part, to say that these social sary to sustain social practices expressive of
practices must recognize and respect the the principle of the oneness of humanity.22
dignity owed to each individual by virtue On the one hand, the fact that the vision
of his or her humanity as such. But the of the oneness of humanity must be so-
principle of the oneness of humanity is not cially articulated and institutionalized means
solely a matter of the recognition of the that the concept of “humanity,” which
dignity of the individual as a human being. serves to organize our thoughts and actions,
It is also a matter of situating that dignity may require being mediated by the more
particularistic identities that are current
within our social world as it is. One might
³nd oneself committed to “humanity” as
an African-American, or as an American, or
22. For an argument about the importance of higher
education in this respect, see Martha C. Nussbaum,
as a Bahá’í. This was the argument of
Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in philosopher Alaine Locke for whom the
Liberal Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997). oneness of humanity does not imply same-

ness.23 On the other hand, as Locke him- horizon that is always within sight but that
self acknowledged, the appeal to particu- recedes with each advancing step, it is si-
laristic identities must always remain par- multaneously a standard that is articulated,
tial. While struggles to establish a world applied, and embodied (and so limited) by
beyond race in the United States can make our current social practices and moral
strategic use of, for example, a common imagination and that serves to expose the
American identity and American traditions limitations of these practices and our imagi-
that provide alternatives to racist structures, nation. As philosopher and literary theorist
ultimately such struggles must reach be- Judith Butler has put it:
yond American identity and tradition. For To claim that the universal has not yet
American traditions include not just the been articulated is to insist that the “not
civil-rights movement and the declaration yet” is proper to an understanding of
that “all men are created equal” but also the the universal itself: that which remains
KKK and the Japanese internment. To pick “unrealized” by the universal constitutes
some elements but not others as represent- it essentially. The universal begins to
ing the tradition at its best requires implic- become articulated precisely through
itly referring to some criterion beyond the challenges to its existing formulations
tradition itself, since mining the tradition and this challenge emerges from those
itself for such a criterion begs the question. who are not covered by it. . . . the
The anticipatory aspect of the oneness of universal, far from being commensurate
humanity suggests that the concept of with its conventional formulation,
“humanity” points to a forever-unattain- emerges as a postulated and open-ended
able critical universal principle that guides ideal that has not been adequately en-
our actions. Any particular social articula- coded by any given set of legal conven-
tion of the universal principle remains tions. . . . A universality that is yet to
partial, limited, and contingent and, thus, be articulated might well defy or con-
subject to critique and revision. What the found the existing conventions that
universal is can never be fully articulated govern our anticipatory imaginings.24
or realized. Rather, like an unattainable The universalist aspirations of the prin-
ciple of the oneness of humanity imply
that such a vision can never be de³ned and
socially articulated once and for all. Its
universalist aspirations also point to its own
23. See Alain Locke, “Unity through Diversity: A moral limitations as an approximation of
Bahá’í Principle,” in The Philosophy of Alain Locke: the universal, prompting us to see the oneness
Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, ed. Leonard Harris of humanity as but one more ³nite step
(Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1989) 134–38.
24. Judith Butler, “Universality in Culture,” in For
along a moral journey whose uncharted road
Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism, ed. ahead is built and rebuilt with each at-
Joshua Cohen (Boston: Beacon P, 1996) 44–52, 48–49. tempt to go forward.