by John Arthur. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 340pp. Hardback. $80.00/£45.00. ISBN: 9780521879378. Paperback. $25.99/£15.99. ISBN: 9780521704953. eBook format. $21.00. ISBN: 9780511352980.

Reviewed by Gloria Cox, Department of Political Science, University of North Texas. Email: gcox [at] unt.edu.


John Arthur tells the reader at the outset that the organizing theme of RACE, EQUALITY, AND THE BURDENS OF HISTORY is racism. He then provides a lengthy and important discussion that can be described as informative, nuanced, complex, stimulating, and provocative. Many readers who begin the book with the sense that they understand the term “racism” will encounter a discussion that dispels them of that notion. Arthur, a longtime philosopher and professor, weaves a conversation that includes his own ideas, as well as those of many others who have weighed in on the subject. In fact, Arthur’s acknowledgement and consideration of the views of other scholars greatly strengthen this book.

Arthur explains that, while most definitions of racism revolve around some combination of attitudes, beliefs, and institutions, such understandings are inadequate and present controversies worthy of exploring in greater depth and detail. In the process, the reader recognizes the enormous difficulty of defining the term with precision. For example, Arthur includes Richard Delgado’s idea that racism may be procedural or substantive, and notes Delgado’s view that it is racism to “elevate equality of opportunity over equality of result,” a view certain to be controversial to many (p.11). Extending the argument, Arthur reminds the reader that “racism” and “racist” are normative terms with inherently negative meanings, and that no one places the badge of racist on another as a compliment.

The writer goes on to discuss the possible effects of racism, although he notes that those effects can vary widely, from none to catastrophic. Indeed, he notes, the defect of being a racist is in attitudes that are epistemologically defective, rather than in actions. In his words, “racism is always unwarranted. It is an attitude that is never justified” (p.18). Racism is therefore different from “genocide” or “terrorism,” in that those terms imply actions while racism may or may not – i.e., one can be racist but never express or act on that hatred. While racism is epistemologically defective, Arthur argues that fact does not demonstrate that the racist person is morally defective, providing in the process various illustrations to make his point. Arthur’s ideas run the gamut from widely accepted to clearly provocative, as when he notes that “oppressed persons may themselves be racists” (p.24), and that patriots and racists have in common the fact that both have settled feelings. Of special interest is Arthur’s discussion of the differences between racism and prejudice, noting [*153] that prejudice is “broader, and slightly different” (p.28).

Although Arthur concludes that racism is primarily an attitude, it is still possible for institutional racism to exist, even though institutions, unlike persons, cannot, of course, actually have attitudes. As an example, he discusses a legal system written, intentionally or not, so that many more blacks than whites are incarcerated for drug-related charges. Other examples of institutional racism include the failure of the banking system to locate as many offices in black neighborhoods as in white ones, and a health care system that seems unconcerned about lower life expectancies for blacks.

The author never hesitates to tackle complex and difficult topics, such as the link between racism and racial inferiority, which he asserts should not be assumed. When people subscribe to the idea of racial inferiority, its manifestations can take many forms. There are five major ones, however: intellectual inferiority; moral inferiority; physical inferiority; aesthetic inferiority, and emotional inferiority (p.35). Still, the link between racism and beliefs of racial inferiority may be missing, as some racists believe in the superiority of those against whom they feel hatred. The example, he explores anti-Semitism, which over its long history has been linked to anger at the success of Jews in many important fields. As with other topics, Arthur discusses the history of anti-Semitism, offering many illustrations of changing attitudes toward Jews over the centuries and, with those changes, different manifestations of anti-Semitism. Arthur acknowledges, though, that anti-Semitism may be more accurately viewed as “some form of religious, ethnic, or cultural bigotry” rather than racism (p.33), and that “[h]ostility to groups based on linguistic, cultural, or religious differences is not racism” (p.35).

When he gets to racial profiling, Arthur acknowledges that it is “a difficult and deeply controversial issue” (p.43). He notes that profiling is viewed negatively because it tends to rely on unjustified racial stereotypes and that it also places burdens, ranging from light to heavy, on many innocent persons simply because of their membership in a group that has been singled out for negative images by some authority, such as the police or the Transportation Security Administration. Profiling is, however, in common use in many situations, such as the efforts of law enforcement authorities to catch drug dealers and the Internal Revenue Service’s standards for whose tax return should be audited. He concludes that profiling is not the point at all; racial profiling is the real issue, because it is the only kind of profiling that takes place against a background of slavery and discrimination.

Arthur actually explores all of these subjects in the very important discussion of racism in the first chapter. The arguments are so plentiful and the discussion so nuanced in the first twenty percent of the book that it is unlikely that students in a graduate seminar could adequately explore it, even over the course of several class meetings. However, the contentions become even more sophisticated as Arthur moves to the question of whether “race is a social construction, a natural category, or both” (p.52). [*154]

Virtually everyone accepts the view that many ideas about race are part of complex social constructs, just as sex and gender are. But is race also a biological category? Although many people would readily respond affirmatively to this question, others would just as adamantly say no. This question is one of those issues on which dominant thinking has changed over time, and Arthur retraces the development of ideas by Herbert Spencer, who notoriously linked biology with society. Arthur makes clear the dangerous implications of such thinking, including the horror unleashed on the world when “Nazism employed racial theories in order to justify genocide, mass murder, and war” (p.68). Moreover, he warns that erroneous claims about differences among races are at the heart of much hatred and many abuses.

Over the course of several centuries, people have engaged in the exercise of coming up with lists of races, most of them containing five or six groupings. In the United States in recent decades, such efforts have been less common as we have moved toward greater understanding of our genetic complexity. At the same time, the Human Genome Project has identified “six main genetic clusters” (p.73), through which “genetic differences can be used to trace the ancestry of all living humans” (p.74). These are called population groups rather than races (p.75), in order to avoid the highly charged term of race. These discoveries have proven interesting to the scientific community, especially in the field of genetics where scientists are exploring the differing effects of diseases and medications on people of the various genetic clusters.

For the remaining three-quarters of the book, Arthur explores the application of the concepts of racism and racial inferiority to past and present institutions and policies of our society, beginning with slavery, the racist characteristics of which there is no doubt. From there, he moves on to discussions of racial equality, poverty and race, compensatory justice, merit and race, and affirmative action and equal opportunity. While most of the legal history he includes will be familiar to the reader, he delivers particularly interesting discussions of the horrors of Southern slave codes, as well as the rationalizations Southerners offered up for keeping slavery. Arthur notes correctly that the excuse-makers included not only the slaveholders themselves, but politicians, government officials, and the clergy.

Arthur refuses to shy away from tackling the difficult and controversial. From the reviewer’s perspective, no reader will make it through even a portion of this book without vigorously agreeing and disagreeing with him as points are considered. He addresses the issue of racial equality, including the question of what it requires of government and/or society. Of special note is an engrossing discussion of the difference between a person’s value and his or her worth, distinguishing, of course, between instrumental and intrinsic values. This discussion ranges far, and includes exploration of terms like dignity and autonomy. Arthur moves on to justice and equality, including types such as formal, substantive, outcome, and procedural equality. He takes on John Rawls, first explaining Rawls’ ideas, and then why they are incorrect. Finally, his argument returns to slavery and segregation, noting firmly that they [*155] “violated both equality and justice” (p.146).

As Arthur turns his attention to the matter of continuing greater poverty among blacks than whites, the controversial nature of his views and comments cannot be avoided. Arthur was known as a scholar who was not afraid to present views that he knew in advance would be contentious and controversial. It is in the discussions of this chapter that this feature of his reputation is fully borne out. While he begins well enough by criticizing the ideas put forth by Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray in THE BELL CURVE (p.165), calling it the “repugnant hypothesis” and explaining why it is erroneous, he goes on to discussions of children born out of wedlock, relative poverty, incarceration rates, and educational attainment that might be controversial to some and absolutely incendiary to others. For one thing, he strongly argues that children from one-parent homes do not achieve as well as those who grow up in the presence of two parents. He concludes that poverty is not related to past injustices against blacks, but is instead the result of economic and cultural factors. He argues that the most directly relevant cultural factors for poverty across all races and ethnicities are single-parent families, crime, and poor educational achievement, each of which is discussed.

The progression of the discussion leads Arthur to consider frequently heard proposals to make restitution or pay reparations to the descendants of those who were enslaved. Arthur notes the distinction between restitution and reparations, explaining in considerable detail the difficulties of each possible approach to these topics. His argument is that the critical point establishing “the link between the wrongful act and the harm is crucial” (p.211). His conclusion to this topic is a discussion of the importance and power of sincere apology.

Finally, Arthur moves on to a discussion of affirmative action, laying the groundwork by discussing merit, including the idea that the concept is but a myth put forth by those in power to keep themselves where they are. He notes that merit has been attacked as “white people’s affirmative action” (p.248). However, he demonstrates that diversity itself can be, and often is, viewed as merit, and that “race can sometimes be a qualification for a position” (p.256). He adds, “affirmative action is therefore often, but not always, in opposition to merit” (p.256). His comments about affirmative action are strongly negative from several aspects, including its effects on the larger society, as well as on those assisted by it.

Arthur’s bring the perspective of the philosopher, and his writing is designed to explore arguments and their weaknesses and strengths, however nuanced a discussion that may require. He aims to let the reader know the complexity of the issue rather than providing anything like a definitive answer to the question. His views are controversial, and no one should tackle this very dense and provocative book without recognizing that s/he will confront pronouncements and arguments that may be uncomfortable or perhaps even angry. In considering the type of audience for which the book might be best suited, I have to admit that I would be reluctant to assign all or even part of [*156] it to undergraduates. Perhaps more mature students would be able to find their way through the arguments presented by this obviously intellectual and thoughtful writer and come away with a deeper appreciation of the complexity of issues that are of great importance to our society.

Arthur writes not only from a scholarly background, but also as a person with experience in civil rights issues. He took a minor in Afro-American studies at Fisk University while working on his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt, and he even filed suit in federal court over what he viewed as violation of the Equal Protection Clause at Tennessee State University. On a final note, this book was completed shortly before Arthur died in January 2007 of lung cancer. He was a professor of philosophy at Binghamton University and, according to reports, was a much admired and valued teacher and colleague.

Hernstein, Richard J., and Charles Murray. 1994. THE BELL CURVE: INTELLIGENCE AND CLASS STRUCTURE IN AMERICAN LIFE. New York: Free Press.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Gloria Cox.