Nineteenth-century intellectuals saw races as biological and political facts. Their twentieth-century successors rejected both propositions—but identities rooted in the reality or fantasy of shared ancestry remain central in politics, both within and between nations. NYU's Kwame Anthony Appiah discusses his recent article "Race in the Modern World" with Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose.
This interview has been edited and condensed. A transcript is below:
ROSE: We live in a time where it seems like race saturates everything. Was it always this way?
APPIAH: I'm a philosopher, so in order to answer the question I have to ask us to think about one of its terms, because if by race you just mean, as it were, the distinction between Greeks and Persians and Egyptians and, obviously, in the ancient world they had such distinctions and Herodotus writes about them and has views about the difference among the peoples and the Hebrew Bible is full of peoples of all sorts, Midianites and Philistines and so on. But I think what we mean by race is actually a relatively new thing because it's not just about peoplehood; it's about peoplehood tied to biology. And you can't really tie anything to biology in the modern sense until you have biology, and we only had biology in the modern sense since the early 19th century.
Actually, the big break comes not so much with the invention of biology but with the idea that human beings, like other animals, can be studied in this way and that, therefore, just as animals are divided into species and subspecies, so humans might be.
And then finally, I think that the -- sort of the last element is put in place but only in the early 20th century with the rise of genetics and the idea that to say that something is biological is to say that it's transmitted in the genes.
ROSE: So by the late 19th century, you have this biological concept of races. It then mixes, and you say in your piece, with another trend in the era, which is nationalism.
APPIAH: Yes. So once you're thinking of peoplehood in these biological terms, then when you start thinking of nations as the homes of peoples, when you have the idea that a nation state should bring a people together into a political unity. Once you have that and you have the biological conception of peoplehood, then you have the, of course, as it were, by syllogism, you're going to have the idea that nations should be conceived of in a biological way. And that, as you know, as we all know, led to terrible consequences in the 20th century in Europe because once you started thinking of the distinction between, say, the gentiles and the Jews, as a biological distinction, and once you had the idea that the nation ought to be a biological unity, then of course, that leads to the thought that the Jews have to be gotten rid of.
ROSE: So if a century ago you had formed a sense that races existed, they were biological and they should find a political expression in a national state, then that starts to erode over the course of the 20st century, you argue.
APPIAH: One reason it eroded is because of the horrific results of taking that thought to its, I hesitate to say logical, but to its extremes, which we saw, obviously, in the Nazi -- in the Nazi genocide.
But I think other things happened. One was that the biological idea itself came under attack, partly for political reasons but mostly for scientific reasons because it's one thing to think of people as having inherited characteristics. It's another thing to think that what accounts for the differences between one people and another. It turned out that the -- there was way more biological overlap in the genes in the various large-scale human populations and especially in the small-scale human populations. This distinction between Hutu and Tutsi doesn't turn out to be one that shows up very much in the level of the genes.
ROSE: So are races just simply social constructions?
APPIAH: Yes, though, the fact that they're socially transmitted doesn't mean that they aren't powerfully and almost irresistibly transmitted. So I think it's helpful to think of them as socially constructed but it's not wise to draw from that the conclusion that it makes it easy for social processes to occur which will get rid of these distinctions.
In the foreseeable future, by which I probably mean literally, you know, hundreds rather than scores of years, I don't think it's very likely that we'll get rid of that feature of human -- of human beings. But I think we can learn to take advantage of other features of human beings. And the fact is that we live in a world now in which all kinds of cross-group solidarities are being generated all the time in ways that I think would've astonished some of our predecessors, especially some of the racial thinkers of the 19th century, the fact that -- well, just the fact that I exist, that my Ghanaian father and my English mother got married and the sky didn't fall would've surprised some people. And that sort of thing is commoner and commoner, and a good thing, too, I think.
ROSE: You last book was about one of the great figures in American history, W.E.B. Du Bois. What would Du Bois think if he could come back now and see Obama as president.
APPIAH: I think he'd have been surprised that we got here as fast as we did, that is in having an African-American president. I don't think he'd have been surprised and the Sturm und Drang -- indeed, he might have used the expression Strum und Drang since he was a great enthusiast for German romanticism -- about what we've gone through.
ROSE: We've come a long way and have a long way to go.
APPIAH: I think that's basically the right.