Synthetic Race and Modernity (Part 2)

Can the synthetic paradigm of race deal effectively with racial injustice? At first glance, it seems like this concept has the potential to accomplish racial justice in America. However, the concept would require political decisions that run against some basic American intuitions: first of all, the idea that any group should be completely enabled to play an active and significant role in society goes against the ideal of individualized merit. Second, the idea of humanity being expressed through diversity goes against the idea that people are equal in virtue of their similarities rather than differences. Furthermore, since legal rights have already been extended to all American citizens regardless of racial identity, it seems unnecessary to adopt a view of race that would require us to compromise our basic values. However, it is undeniable that racial prejudice and injustice are still present in the United States. If legal equality hasn’t completely solved the problem, some new solutions must be implemented. I believe that the problems faced by racial minorities exist in virtue of our historical context. There are certain ideological features of the modern era which not only enable racial prejudice, but may encourage it to some degree. In order to establish this, first I will analyze the ideological attributes of modernity, and then demonstrate how racism fits into our historical context.

First of all, modernity is marked by a focus on the individual (Ahern 564, 565). Ontologically speaking, the individual is said to have a socially independent identity (Powell 56). This means that his identity is not derived from his place in the social order. People are generally seen as equal in terms of their human capacities (reason, emotions, morality etc.), and are believed to possess an equal right to pursue their own goals (Powell 31, 35, 44). In light of the former, it would therefore be unjust for the government to intervene in the private pursuits of its citizens (i.e. religious freedom, career opportunities, etc.). In order for citizens to be protected from government interference, they are given certain rights which the government may not violate. As a further safe-guard, the people have the right to govern themselves through voting and through holding public offices. Thus, any citizen is allowed to run for public office, regardless of their position in society.

Inevitably, a conflict between group interests and individual interests arises. The key to resolving the conflict is an appeal to universal reason, or the general will (Lopez 913). Given our views of the individual and his rights, the general will would seem to dictate laws that protect the rights of particular groups of citizens as much as possible without violating the rights of others. By doing so, the individual’s rights are not only protected, but the good of society overall is promoted since each person is left free to contribute to society and/or pursue their goals in whatever way they see fit. In order to make this resolution effective, the aim of social organizations becomes making people rational, such that their public interests are separated from their private interests. In doing so, they will be able to think in terms of what is good for society as a whole (i.e. all other individuals), rather than focusing on what benefits benefit one particular section of society at the cost of another.

Modernism is also linked to the rise of capitalism (Lopez 914). This economic system is marked by a kind of reasoning called instrumental reasoning. This kind of reasoning emphasizes thinking in terms of which means will obtain a particular end; the end justifies the means (Lopez 914). This kind of thinking could be tempered by the emphasis on universal reasoning discussed previously, thereby reducing the potential detrimental consequences of instrumental reason. Another significant feature of capitalism is the insistence on individual merit (Lopez 914). People do not earn their social positions through birth or natural right, but rather through their own efforts (Ahern 564). This works both ways: whether the person ends up successful or ends up failing, he is receiving what he put into the situation (Powell 188). This encourages a spirit of competition, which only further prompts the use of instrumental reason. Thus, there seems to be a tension between capitalism and individual rights.

If individualism is such a major component of modernism, how is it possible that blacks and other non-whites were denied the rights and privileges enjoyed by whites? This is easily explained by the fact that racial minorities were believed to lack the same faculties as the dominant group, and thus were considered inferior to whites. Since they lacked those qualities which were the foundations for equality, by no means could they be afforded the same rights and privileges as those who were already in charge. The conflict could thus be understood ontologically: whites were individuals, but non-whites were not. Since they lacked the relevant qualities necessary for citizenship and equal rights, there could be no injustice in exploiting them for economic gain.

The formal situation is presently different. Legally speaking, each citizen – whether they be members of a majority or a minority – is now viewed similarly: they possess the same basic human capacities, and therefore ought to be treated equally. However, the challenge that minorities face comes from the view that our basic humanity is based in our common capacities; our common humanity is based on the things that we all share. This view of the person minimizes the role that culture plays in shaping each individual (Parekh 239, 240). At best, liberals will acknowledge that “culture helps individuals develop their capacity for autonomy,” but once their individuality is developed, those cultural aspects of their existence are transcended and become irrelevant (Parekh 239). Said otherwise, once the individual’s autonomy is developed, the cultural aspects of their personality cease to play a large role in influencing how they interact with the world and others.

Viewing human identity thusly has had adverse consequences. If our moral and rational capacities are essentially socially independent, and any cultural attachments are irrelevant to our basic identity, then human beings only need to be treated “equally in those respects in which they are similar and not those in which they are different” (Parekh 242). The most obvious instance of this was the Jim Crow laws: although whites and non-whites had access to the same kinds of services, they could not access the same facilities. Since neither party was being denied any kind of service, they were still being treated equally. However, they were seen as so different that they could not be allowed to utilize the same instances of the relevant services. For example, one defense of the Jim Crow laws contained the assertion that by segregating whites from blacks, the latter would be protected from the bigoted opinions of the former (Wikipedia). In other words, the law implicitly acknowledged that the lack of uniformity was a problem, and the rationale behind the law explicitly acknowledged that diversity was an obstacle to the well-being of society.

Since racial differences are traditionally thought to be biological, and are expressed culturally, diversity of lifestyle turns out to be another obstacle to equal treatment of other racial groups. Believing that human equality reduces to similarity produces an expectation for cultural uniformity. A lack of uniformity comes to be interpreted as a serious essential difference, which either means that the other group shouldn’t be treated equally, or they need to be assimilated (Parekh 243). If the difference turns out to be persistent, it could be interpreted as potentially dangerous to society, or it could indicate that the group in question is somehow dangerous (i.e. the association of rap with gang culture) (Parekh 241).

The problem of diversity can be addressed politically through rational conformity to the general will. When each citizen transcends their personal interests and adopts “a general point of view” in order to make decisions tailored towards “the common good,” the problem of diversity is solved by laws which honor the rights of each citizen (Young 221). This method of political discourse has two consequences: first, it could lead to the explicit exclusion of groups who are supposedly unable to meet this standard. In tandem with this point, it could also lead to the suppression of diversity where certain practices are potential threats to the liberty of others. Secondly, it could lead to the implicit exclusion of groups who are not able to meet this standard because their social conditions and history deprives them of the necessary attributes for political participation.

Understood thusly, there are privileged groups that exist within a modern, liberal society. For the most part, these are white males: given their history, they are in a position to access the educational tools to make themselves rational. As such, they are socially conditioned to possess the traits that are relevant and necessary to entering public debate. They do not believe that they are advancing a particular agenda, but rather acting on the best interests of society. However, such a perspective ignores the diversity that is common to a modern democratic society. By trying to transcend particularity, political debate ignores the history of racial oppression in America. Thus, even though racial groups who once experienced oppression have the same rights as their former oppressors, active political attempts to rectify the social ramifications of their past experiences are un-guaranteed. In fact, to pass legislation “favoring” those groups would be non-liberal since they would be favoring one group over another in virtue of their differences. The correct course of action would be to pass legislation which addresses the similarities that people have, otherwise you are acting beyond what their rights merit.

The final problem that modernity poses to racial justice regards laissez faire/capitalist economics. The political obstacles just mentioned exacerbate the after effects of social oppression experienced by minorities throughout history. As such, they tend to belong to the lower rungs of society. Compounded with the individualistic ideal – that each person is ultimately responsible for their own lives – the facts about minority poverty make it more difficult for them to obtain justice. Since their histories are ignored in order to arrive at decisions which are aimed at preserving fundamental rights, and since it is already believed that they are responsible for their fate to some degree, there is no injustice to be perceived. They are not only met with indifference (“we don’t have to enact policy”), but with derision. Since it is believed that each individual is responsible for his/her destiny, and since minorities are impoverished, they are believed to be responsible for their economic status. As such, they are met with derision when they ask for policies geared towards fixing their situation.

The emphasis on using instrumental reason in business makes it permissible to use race as a competitive mark. Not only that, but it turns out to be profitable for business owners to give the lowest wage jobs to those who are not in any position to bargain for higher pay due to their lack of skill. Hence, the use of instrumental reason perpetuates situations of racial injustice. The permissibility of low-skilled exploitation could be further explained by an individualistic perspective: they have placed themselves in their position, thus I am not responsible for enabling them to work themselves out of poverty. So, not only is the use of instrumental reason a source of economic injustice, but so is the individualistic ideal.

In my next and final post for this series, I will discuss what changes the synthetic concept of race requires us to make in order to effectively resolve persistent problems of racial injustice.


Matravers, Derek. Pike, Jon. Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology. Routledge 2003. Parekh, Bhikhu. Contemporary Liberal Responses to Diversity. Print.

Matravers, Derek. Pike, Jon. Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology. Routledge 2003. Young, Iris Marion. Polity and Group Difference. Print.

“Modernity.” Encyclopedia of Case Study Research, 2nd ed. 2010. EBook.

“Modernity.” International Encyclopedia of Organizational Studies, 2008. EBook.

Powell, Thomas. The Persistence of Racism in America. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, Inc. 1992. Print.


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