Kwame Anthony Appiah Debates the Reality of Race with Adolph Reed, Jr.

Professor of Philosophy Nishiten Shah moderated a conversation between Kwame Anthony Appiah and Adolph Reed Jr. in Johnson Chapel on Oct. 29. They discussed the extent to which reckoning with racial history is necessary for progress and whether the concept of race is a myth.

On Oct. 29, first-year students and faculty gathered in the wooden pews of Johnson Chapel to hear a conversation between Presidential Scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah and Adolph Reed Jr. Moderated by Professor of Philosophy Nishiten Shah, the two discussed whether reckoning with racial history is necessary for progress, and contemplated if race is a myth. The event kicked off the college’s Fall 2021 Point/Counterpoint Series.

Appiah is a renowned ethicist and professor of law at New York University. He is known for his work in cultural differences and political philosophy. His most recent book is titled “The Lies that Bind.” Reed is a professor emeritus of political science at University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of the acclaimed book, “Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene.”

Shah opened the event with an introduction of the speakers. In his opening remarks, Shah outlined how President Biddy Martin created a comprehensive plan to create a campus “in which all of us can learn, work, and live free from the indignities of racial discrimination and the threat of racial violence.”  Shah also said that the conversation was part of the First Year Seminar curriculum and had the goal of introducing “perspectives not well represented within our own academic community.”

After their introductions, Appiah and Reed took turns speaking about their work, and told anecdotes about their experiences as first-year students in college.

During their conversation, the speakers brought up several points for discussion. First, they discussed their renowned arguments regarding the myth of race, and how they have come to this conclusion. Appiah, on the one hand, spoke about the issue through the lens of his brief education in the field of medical sciences. “[The] thought that these social divisions by race were grounded in some kind of objective set of biological differences … was terrible science,” he posited. “The myth was that these [social categories] were grounded in objective reality.”

Reed, on the other hand, spoke in the context of political science and anthropology. “I confirmed pretty early on that there are no subspecies level differences among human populations,” he stated. “The social work, or any logical work that race does as a category is masking [other social issues].”

Next, Shah asked why human beings have yet to “throw out” racial categories altogether. Drawing on a parallel example, he proposed that maybe in the same way that individuals have abandoned the concept of calling people witches, they should stop using racial identifiers. In response, Appiah stressed that racial categories are more socially produced than the concept of the witch.

Appiah went on to acknowledge the importance of racial identifiers in some situations, calling upon an example of the creation of camps for Ghanian women who are accused of being witches. “In that context, it would be profoundly unhelpful not to recognize that there's a category of people to protect,” he said.

Appiah also pointed out that conversations about racial language can deter from other more significant discussions. For example, he proposed that focusing on whether “so-and-so is really Black or really white [instead of] how they think of themselves [and] who they are in solidarity with [is] one of the besetting sins of intellectuals in actual political circles.” He added that discussion of race often “fiddles around with the practicalities of getting stuff right, rather than facing the big issues.”

Reed echoed, “It’s very important for us to make a distinction [between categories of race in practice] … The trouble with confusing them is, well, is loss of analytical clarity.” The speakers continued their conversation, exploring various examples to further reinforce their points.

Shah then led the discussion to the speakers’ writings. First, he questioned Reed on his paradoxical thesis, which Shah paraphrased as, “if you really care about racial justice and getting rid of [racial disparities], you should stop focusing on race.”

Reed responded by referencing the liberal focus on racial disparities during Covid, saying that “most public health research [uses] race as a proxy for class … Blacks and Hispanics are more susceptible and have worse outcomes because they work jobs that engage them in public.” Another example he used was the displacement that occurred after Hurricane Katrina. “Right after the storm hit the nation rediscover[ed] racial inequality and injustice on the Gulf Coast … I don't know what you thought [about] that woman who turned down the bed cover [in a] hotel … what kind of money she makes.”

Further, he continued to support his point with a discussion of the racial wealth gap, explaining that the disparities are mainly between the rich and poor of each racial group rather than the racial groups themselves. “The racial wealth gap is the wealth gap between the wealth that rich black people hold and the wealth of rich white people,” said Reed.

The last question turned the conversation to Appiah, regarding a claim he made in his book, “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.” Shah paraphrased the claim: “When you look at the history of moral revolutions … everyone knew the moral arguments [against different events, but] you didn’t get changed. You needed some extra ingredient, either a sense of personal honor or national honor.” He then asked the speakers to explain the argument, whether they thought civil rights would come as a revolution and whether they believe if we’re experiencing a moral revolution currently.

Appiah brought up the concept of footbinding in early Chinese societies and slavery. “What would be in favor of a practice that involves causing intense pain to three year old girls?” he asked. “It's not that people didn't know [of the pain caused to young girls] … In each of these cases you get abolitionism, in which people come to identify very deeply with [the cause]. They don't say ‘I'm in favor of abolition;’ they say, ‘I'm an abolitionist,’ … that evolution is about expressing your own sense of the value of people of your own kind.”

To conclude this portion of the talk, Appiah explained the cause for economic disparity and encouraged activism. “If you're doing something for working people in this country, you're doing something for Black working people and brown working people, but you're also doing something for white working people … and that’s, among other things, strategic … If you get the people who have been screwed together [then] you … make life better for all people,” he maintained.

Afterward, the floor was opened to students to ask the speakers questions. There were a total of two questions asked.

The first question came from Jaden Richards ’25. “Do you believe in the notion that only groups affected by slurs and other types of racialized language should be the only ones using them?” asked Richards.

Reed replied, “It's kind of a minefield … moral panic is always ugly and frightening and potentially dangerous, whether it starts from the left side of the bench or right side.” Appiah expressed the harmfulness of such language and his support for reclaiming language. “Decent and sensible people don't do that, don't use insults of that sort against other people … It can be okay [for people in a group to reclaim language that has been used against them]; that’s how queer got from being an insult to an affirmative thing taken up by large numbers of people,” he said.

The second question referred back to Shah’s reference to witches for clarification. “People are racialized, they are treated in ways through these [racial] categories. We should, especially [in] the academy, demystify the categories,” answered Appiah.

Many students appreciated the speaker’s unorthodox perspectives, but wished that they had taken the opportunity to discuss those perspectives more. “I really liked how Amherst decided to bring in controversial speakers,” said Ethan Gilman ’23. “I wish they actually leaned into the controversy a little bit more … It seemed like they were trying to tame some of their beliefs [and] beating around the bush for a couple questions.”

Others disagreed and said that the speakers expressed their controversial perspectives well, but the lack of disagreement from the audience made it seem as though their ideas were not as radical as they were. “I think they leaned in in some areas,” commented Jonathan Curlin ’23. “It may not seem that way just because there wasn't as much pushback as they might have anticipated from some of that. But it was nice to see an unorthodox approach to the issues of racism in the country.”

Some students were left wanting more clarification and expansion of ideas from the speakers. ”[The conversation] went well, but I felt that there were certain areas they should have explained more,” expressed Muhammad Sabally ’23. “What [do they] mean when they say race is not grounded in objective reality?”

Overall, the conversation challenged some of students’ and faculty’s preconceived notions, encouraging many to explore the ideas for themselves. “It was refreshing to hear [them] remind all of us that race is something that we just made up,” said Richards. “While it does correspond to things in the real world, that doesn't necessarily mean race is real as well.”

He contested, however, the speakers’ opinion about the existence of race as a concept. “I think [race] exists because people believe it exists,” he said. “We have all decided to buy into it, we all identify with it, [and] therefore it is real. There are parts of racism that are social, emotional, and psychological, that simply don't go away by becoming more wealthy.”