To many, Obama's election meant the dawn of a new "post-racial" era for America. But, say many leading black American thinkers, the reality is much more complicatedby Jonathan Derbyshire / December 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
For his article “Post-racial kitsch?” (Prospect, December), Jonathan Derbyshire interviewed a number of leading African-American thinkers, both before and after the US election, about how an Obama presidency would affect America’s fraught racial politics. His conversations with Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Ghanian-American philosopher and theorist of identity, John McWhorter, an African-American linguist who has attacked “black victimology,” and Tommie Shelby, a historian of the black solidarity movement, are recorded in full here.
3rd November 2008 Conversation between Jonathan Derbyshire and Kwame Anthony Appiah
Kwame Anthony Appiah is a philosopher, cultural theorist and novelist. He is the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University
Jonathan Derbyshire (JD): In your epilogue to Color Conscious (1996), you write the following: “There is a great deal of angry polemic about race in this country today…In this respect, discussions of race are perhaps typical, since…public debate on many questions has developed an uncivil inflection.” It does seem as if you’ve been waiting for someone like Barack Obama these past twelve years.
Kwame Anthony Appiah (KAA): I have felt all along that our public debate has been unhelpfully lacking in courtesy. A lot of shouting, not much listening; more posturing than real candour. These are legacies of the so-called “culture wars.”? And so it’s true that one of the many things that interests and attracts me in Senator Obama is his well-developed sense not just of what has been wrong with our public policies, but also of what is wrong with our political processes. He is deeply committed, so far as I can tell, to the idea that it’s important to listen and converse with those with whom you disagree; and to try to remain civil even on topics about which one feels passionately…It’s the idea that underlies my defence (in the book on cosmopolitanism) of what I call “conversation across differences.” Coming to understanding is often all we can achieve, rather than coming to agreement. But if we can come to an understanding, living with disagreement will often be easier.
JD: In the opening paragraph of that epilogue, you say that discussions about race are typical of a wider rancour infecting public discussion. If we credit Obama, as you do, with a certain degree of theoretical sophistication, then could we say that he is attempting to answer “yes” to a question posed in the title of Ronald Dworkin’s…