It’s Not Really About Race

The legacy of enslavement—more than the concept of race—is at the root of our entrenched, caste-like social hierarchy, philosophy professor Lionel McPherson argues in a new book

There’s a lot of talk about race in America, but the concept of race is distracting and unhelpful if we want to understand and address colored inequalities in our society, says Lionel McPherson in his new book, The Afterlife of Race: An Informed Philosophical Search. Instead, we should be talking about legacies of inherited slavery, says McPherson, an associate professor of philosophy. 

His focus is not only the nearly 250 years of enslavement of Africans forcibly brought to the lands that became the United States, as well as their descendants. He also examines the 100 years of legally enforced Jim Crow subjugation and segregation that followed emancipation. That has led to a caste-like system that keeps Americans descended from enslaved people generally at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy in this country, he says.

“The result has been unending legal obstruction of the possibility of social equality for descendants of American slavery as a national people,” he writes. 

We need to understand that “race,” whatever it may be defined as, is not the point, McPherson says. Instead, we need to recognize that most Black Americans are heirs to the consequences of American slavery, and corrective justice is a matter of “moral urgency and priority in the United States.” 

Tufts Now recently spoke with McPherson about why people still talk in terms of “race,” why the term “caste” is more accurate to describe social divisions by color in the U.S., and what can be done.

The title of the book is The Afterlife of Race, and signifies that race very much lives on as a way of thinking about these issues. Was it always that way?

This whole idea that “race is so ever-present and dominant”—that’s not really how things were understood or framed in the United States. This idea that people were preoccupied with some biological race concept is not true.

Book cover of “The Afterlife of Race”

There wasn’t much investment in the idea of race until quite late, after the end of slavery. Just look at the U.S. census. The word “race” doesn’t appear on the U.S. census form until 1900. And even then, it was part of a “color or race” category. The census prior to that made it clear that “black” was the color of the slave caste. Before 1865, they were called “slaves” on the census.

You write about the role of caste in America—can you talk about what caste is and what kind of role it plays?

Caste here is an entrenched, inherited, color-coded social status hierarchy. India has the Hindu system’s varna, which means color in Sanskrit, but not in some literal sense—it’s figurative. Our color labels in the United States are figurative, too—there are very few people you come across who literally look white or black. 

There is a striking resemblance between the Hindu caste system and the American color caste system. The Hindu caste system is obviously about a Hindu social hierarchy. And the American caste system is foundationally about an Africa-identified slaves group in subordinate relation to free “white”/European people. 

The American system is stable—“color or race” is socially heritable, especially when we’re talking about members of the former slave caste, visible descendants of American slavery. That easy understanding changes with the rise in Africa-identified, what I call lowercase “black,” immigration that begins in earnest in the 1980s. Then blackness gets a bit more complicated. 

Talking about caste compels us to think in a more fine-grained, historical way. Uppercase “Black” is not merely a color designation: it’s a color designation plus social-political lineage in American slavery.

One of the things you note is the difference between Black Americans who are descendants of enslaved people in America and other people of African descent living here. Why do you emphasize that?

I think Black Americans had a strong tendency to assume that Africa-identified people who come to the United States have roughly the same “black” experience as us. Not until fairly recently did we appreciate that Africa-identified folks who are not descendants of American slavery are often having a very different experience when they’re dealing with white Americans. 

“The point of calling for reparations is to make clear that Black Americans, as descendants of American slavery, are a distinctive national people with special justice claims. Those claims are a matter of moral urgency and priority in the United States.”

Lionel McPherson

Immigrant “blacks” are greatly overrepresented at high-establishment institutions—Ivy League schools, for example. Many people populating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) offices are not descendants of American slavery.

I’m not saying that, for example, Nigerian immigrants are not susceptible to forms of anti-black bias, prejudice, or discrimination—but it’s a very different kind of circumstance they’re in. National specificity matters, especially in the case of Black Americans. 

Does that play out in other spheres? 

The same can be true when relatively privileged Black Americans travel to Europe, as was my experience in Amsterdam. Many “black” people there were Surinamese—the Dutch had colonized Suriname and imported enslaved African people to work plantations, and some of their descendants now live in the Netherlands.

I had a good time. People seemed to like me. But when I was thought to look Surinamese by some white Dutch people, the reception wasn’t so friendly. All I had to do, though, was speak, and then my American blackness became a very different situation. 

It’s hard to make sense of that difference using a race paradigm, but it’s not hard to make sense of it using a caste analysis, because caste is already more contextual. You’re going to have to know about local history and politics that led to these color-conscious social formations in the U.S. as compared to the Netherlands. Race analysis does not do that very well.

You write that “the contemporary liberal variant ‘people of color’ for certain non-Anglo groups ignores the foundational caste division, free white versus slaves.” Why does that terminology matter? 

Originally the color label for Africa-identified slaves and former slaves was “black.” There was no mystery—and no serious appeal to any racial theory. The label “black” was just the color of being of American slave descent, because the slaves were originally from Africa and soon became a “mixed” Afro-European people through forced “white” paternity.

But the social circumstances have changed significantly now. Roughly 20% of “blacks” in the U.S. are not descendants of American slavery. So we need a new terminology. 

There is a growing reparations movement called American Descendants of Slavery. They introduced the social identity acronym “ADOS,” which has gained traction, especially among younger Africa-identified Americans of that lineage. 

It’s not a racial thing—it’s a slavery thing, an enforced segregation thing. It’s about pogroms targeting the former slave caste, like the Tulsa Black Wall Street massacre, along with systemic nonrepair. 

You and others talk about reparations for Black Americans, which seem unlikely to happen, but one reason to talk about them might be because they frame a critical issue.

I don’t shy away from reparations talk, though usually I talk about corrective justice, which doesn’t necessarily involve cash transfers. There could be other measures, like no federal income tax, for example. 

I am a philosopher—I’m not a policy person. But the facts are that the typical Black American family in the U.S. has just one-tenth the wealth of a typical white family. In 1865, Black Americans owned one half of 1% of the national wealth; now it’s around 1.5% for roughly the same percentage—12%—of the population.

The point of calling for reparations is to make clear that Black Americans, as descendants of American slavery, are a distinctive national people with special justice claims. Those claims are a matter of moral urgency and priority in the United States. 

It’s hard for people to talk about the intergenerational atrocity that was American slavery. The economic and political stakes have always been high. Commitment to anti-caste repair could seem overwhelming, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to say, Oh, well that’s not feasible because white America still won’t support actual social equality for Black Americans. 

You’ve raised criticism of how philosophers talk about what they call “racial justice.” Can you explain that?

People might think I’m just being provocative or difficult, but what is meant by racial injustice? Color consciousness in America was about human ownership and its aftermath, by tribal Anglo design. There was never some independent race issue of great consequence.

We need to speak more directly and honestly, if the goal is to make substantial progress in our time. 

Obviously, the United States has a serious problem addressing its history of inherited slavery, apartheid, and settler colonialism. I want to have those discussions, but a lot of philosophers want to talk more vaguely about “structures” of oppression or global “white supremacy.” 

I argue that we need to understand the relation between profound corrective justice claims and recognition of “Black” social identity as a national identity—for descendants of American slavery—not some kind of racial identity.

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