Racial “Obligations” of Mixed-Race People

Co-blogger David Bernstein links to a New York Times column by Thomas Chatterton Williams which argues that “[m]ixed-race blacks have an ethical obligation to identify as black — and interracial couples share a similar moral imperative to inculcate certain ideas of black heritage and racial identity in their mixed-race children, regardless of how they look.” He justifies this by the moral imperative of overcoming the legacy of anti-black racial oppression, claiming that “the black community can and does benefit directly from the contributions and continued allegiance of its mixed-race members, and it benefits in ways that far outweigh the private joys of freer self-expression.”

Such claims are not unusual. We often hear arguments that blacks, Jews, and members of other racial and ethnic groups have special obligations to their fellow group members. But there is no good justification for such claims. No one has a special moral obligation to another person merely because they happen to share the same race or ethnicity. Do I have a special moral duty to other whites or other Russian Jews that does not extend to nonwhites or gentiles? For reasons well articulated by Randall Kennedy, I reject any such notion.

Williams’ argument in regards to blacks has superficial plausibility because blacks have been victims of major historic injustices in this country. But it is not clear why other blacks – or mixed-race individuals – have a special obligation to combat those injustices that is greater than that of other people. If anything, the duty to combat an injustice falls most heavily on those who inflicted it – who, in this case, were mostly white.

Even if we accept Williams’ notion that interracial parents should consider the benefits to the “black community” from the contributions of “mixed-race parents,” how does he know that those benefits really do “outweigh the private joys of freer self-expression?” For many people, living their lives unburdened by a sense of tribal loyalty is a very important good.

Furthermore, it is not clear why mixed-race people should necessarily choose to “contribute” to one racial “community” rather than another. It is true that the black community has a history of great injustice. But other communities can make similar claims. Asian-Americans, for example, also have a history of victimization in this country. Under Williams’ criteria, it is far from clear that the children of a black-Asian couple have a duty to identify as black rather than Asian.

Or consider my own situation. I am a Russian Jew married to a gentile. When it comes to comparative victimology, Russian Jews are formidable contenders. There is the history of severe discrimination and pogroms under the czars, official anti-Semitism under the Soviets, and of course the Holocaust. Do I therefore have an obligation to raise my future children to identify as Russian Jews? Maybe. But on the other hand, my wife is half-Ukrainian (her grandfather fled Ukraine in 1919). Ukrainians have their own history of oppression, including a massive terror famine inflicted by the Soviet government in the 1930s, and years of repression under both the czars and the communists. Does the Ukrainian claim to my children’s “contributions” outweigh that of the Jews? What criteria should my wife and I apply in judging the question?

Finally, we should recall that many of the historic injustices noted above occurred precisely because people thought they had special moral obligations to their racial and ethnic compatriots and therefore felt justified in oppressing other groups for the supposed benefit of their own. This is what makes nationalism so pernicious, and racial and ethnic loyalty often creates similar dangers. Perhaps we can all make a greater contribution to society if we teach the next generation not to define their moral obligations in terms of race or ethnicity.

That is not to say that we have to ignore racial and ethnic injustices. But addressing them does not require us to define our own moral duties in racial and ethnic terms. As Randall Kennedy puts it:

[I]f one looks at the most admirable efforts by activists to overcome racial oppression in the United States, one finds people who yearn for justice, not merely for the advancement of a particular racial group. One finds people who do not replicate the racial alienations of the larger society but instead welcome interracial intimacy of the most profound sorts. One finds people who are not content to accept the categories of communal affiliation they have inherited but instead insist upon bringing into being new and better forms of communal affiliation, ones in which love and loyalty are unbounded by race.