PRINT December 2013

Kwame Anthony Appiah

Aníbal López, Testimonio, 2012, video, color, sound, 43 minutes 39 seconds.

THIS YEAR WAS A YEAR OF WAITING. The case of Trayvon Martin, in particular, reminded us that we still have miles to go before we sleep, beginning with the way we think about race. In a way, you cannot read too much into Martin’s death—that is, into the killing itself. That was the result of a horrible series of misjudgments. But you can read something into the response: There was a reflex on the part of many to say, “Why drag race into this? This has nothing to do with race.” And I think that is simply a reflection of the fact that many people really don’t understand that we have not yet completed the work of racial equality. There were too many people who thought it was ridiculous when black parents said, “You see? This is what we’re worried about with our children.” Yet this is a genuine worry. It’s not just one case; there is hard data backing it up.

And that gap between belief and evidence is directly related to the issue of “stop-and-frisk.” Suppose you grant that some of the statistical decline in crime is a consequence of stop-and-frisk. Here’s a way we could get even better crime statistics: Stop everybody regularly, all the time. Have high-quality surveillance cameras everywhere. So the question “Does it work?” strikes me as the wrong thing to ask. The real question is whether it’s worth going about this in a way that is plainly alienating to and contemptuous of so many young black people. Suppose it does work: At the very least, some explanation is needed of why the burden of taking such measures should be placed on the vast proportion of black people who are stopped and then let go because they haven’t done anything.

There is, of course, a long history of waving around statistics that don’t in themselves support the conclusion they’re supposed to (“Lies, damn lies, and statistics!” as Mark Twain put it). People often turn this type of issue into a question about what’s achieved and don’t think about whether the means are appropriate or justifiable. Nobody, least of all the black community, which is heavily victimized by all kinds of crime, should be against reducing the level of crime of every sort. And the black community isn’t. But they do want to know whether this is the right way or the only way to do it.

We haven’t yet had that conversation. And that absence of discourse allows people to claim that something like the death of Trayvon Martin is not about race, whereas obviously it very much is. There is strong psychological evidence that black men are seen by most people—including cops, but also Ivy League undergraduates—as more threatening than otherwise identical whites. And it’s equally clear that people categorize strangers by race quickly and automatically all the time.1 So when people say that society is post-racial, I don’t think they actually mean that. What they mean is that it’s post-racist, because they know that it would be preposterous to claim that people in the US no longer notice what race anyone is. What they must mean is that, yes, people notice race, but they don’t discriminate. And there are two rebuttals to that. One is, not all racial harms are the result of intentional discrimination. And the second is, there’s a great deal of intentional racial discrimination left. Again, there’s plenty of evidence of this.2

What’s more, the paradigm of the problem as brutal violence—Bull Connor and a dog—misses the point: There are many other, smaller, subtler effects, which are cumulative. The ultimate result is a vast spectrum of difference in opportunities and experiences. You’re more likely to be stopped on the street if you’re a black person. You’re also more likely to be held. You’re more likely to be charged. And you’re more likely to be found guilty. These are facts that have to be taken into account in deciding how post-racist we really are. “Post-racial” also suggests that what we’re aiming for is a society in which people are genuinely post-racial. That is, we wouldn’t assign people racial identities at all. But it’s not obvious to me that that’s desirable or good. The whole discourse, in other words, has set off on the wrong foot. It starts with an assumption that the problem is racial identity rather than racial discrimination and racial hostility and racial contempt.

All the same, I’m an optimist in the long term, and the long-term story is important: Obviously, things are not as bad as they were. As Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Still, I think you have to be realistic about where we are in the curve. We have a ways to go, and saying we don’t is not going to help us get there.

Take, for example, another, more insidious event this year: the Supreme Court effectively overturning the Voting Rights Act of 1965. On one level, that decision was simply motivated by ordinary power politics. And that’s bad. But it’s not specifically racial.3 If the right wing could reduce the number of women voting, they’d do that, too; they just haven’t figured out how. But there is also the fact that when these types of cases concerning discrimination and bias arrive in the courts, what the courts say is, “Well, we’re not a racist society anymore.” That’s a claim, in turn, that the government isn’t actively racist anymore. And that just isn’t true. The rules may no longer actively discriminate. But some officials still do. And I am convinced that laws that disadvantage black people—like the drug laws that have led to a massive increase in black incarceration—are more likely to be passed just because the negative consequences of them fall largely on blacks, and the system discounts black suffering. Still, it’s all subtler now and less direct. Even the people who are most implicated in trying to hold black people back probably wouldn’t say that that’s what they’re trying to do, and some might not even think they are.

Today, the image of the other is not so much repressed as it is appropriated or even lauded. But visibility itself doesn’t automatically mean a moral or ethical corrective for institutional racism. Many things can happen with increased visibility. There can be an elision of the distinction between changes in representation and changes in the world outside of representation. There can be backlash, because of the alienation of those who don’t share the identity of the represented. (Hence the endlessly repeated mantra of “reverse racism.”)

But some of this is inevitable just because we have social identities, period. When I went to Documenta in Kassel last year, I was struck by how incredibly political the art world still is, and yet how fraught its refractions of cultural identity and difference still are. There has been in recent exhibitions such a marked, renewed interest in outsider art and in ethnographic or anthropological methods. And it is incredible to see a lot of work that you’ve never seen before, much of it created by people who have only recently been “discovered,” or who worked in isolation. But at a certain point you have to question whether or not this sheer visibility, this coming to light, simply flattens distinctions in a very problematic way. How far have we really come since the moment of, say, “Magiciens de la Terre” and the 1990s?

The weirdest moment for me in Kassel happened right before I was going to give a talk. In the same room, just beforehand, the artist Aníbal López was staging a performance. López had flown in a Guatemalan man who was an assassin by profession. He was seated behind a white sheet, in silhouette. I asked the organizers how on earth they got a visa for him, and they said, “Well, it was hard, but the authorities said, ‘It’s art, isn’t it?’”

As the man sat there behind the curtain, he was filmed answering questions like “Who was the first person you killed?”; “Would you kill your children for money?”; and so on. This was very, very, shall we say, strange, from an ethical point of view. But most people seemed quite relaxed about it. It was as if everyone was used to encountering outsiders of all stripes and attending to them for thirty minutes, then moving on to the next one. (That was me!)

We have had a very long period of attention to race and gender and sexuality and disability and difference of various kinds in the art world, and I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t continue to think about these things. But at the same time, I wonder what all that has come to. How can we arrive at greater and more complex reflection across identities, overlapping and interacting subjects that actually speak to each other in various ways? How genuinely cosmopolitan are we willing to be?

—As told to Michelle Kuo

Kwame Anthony Appiah is Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of philosophy at Princeton.


1. Joshua Correll, Bernd Wittenbrink, Bernadette Park, Charles M. Judd, and Arina Goyle, “Dangerous Enough: Moderating Racial Bias with Contextual Threat Cues,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47, no. 1 (January 2011): 184–89,

2. Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination,” American Economic Review 94 (September 2004): 991–1013,

3. Race is correlated with political party, just as gender is. Frank Newport, “Women More Likely to Be Democrats, Regardless of Age,” Gallup (June 12, 2009):