by Michael Robillard
Recently, Ibram X. Kendi was chosen as a recipient for the 2021 MacArthur Genius Fellowship. This event has been met with resounding applause on the Left as it is presumed to be both a well-justified instance of reparative justice and a logical continuation of the 1960s Civil Rights movement. In truth, this event constitutes neither of these things.
In recent years, we have seen increasing instances of anti-white rhetoric within America, exemplified in the rise of critical race theory, Black Lives Matter, and the writings of folks like Kendi. For example, Kendi writes,
The opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist.’ What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’
Such sentiment is a manifestation of a now unquestionable a priori assumption; that the descendants of “colonial” nations in particular are imbued with special original sin not applicable to any other nation of similar metaphysical origins, and that such original sin generates a special moral duty for so-called “reparative justice.”
Put simply, because of the past events of conquest and slavery, Kendi argues that descendants of conquered/enslaved people have been harmed and therefore are owed compensation from the descendants of said conquerors/enslavers. This presumed duty of reparative justice also oddly only ever seems to apply to countries founded by Europeans.
The argument for reparative justice obligations for Europeans exclusively, suffers from several philosophical problems; chief among them is the “non-identity” problem.
In, “Morally Should We Prefer to Have Never Existed,” Saul Smilansky describes this problem as one’s own existence and the injustices of the past as being a metaphysical “package deal.” He writes,
Either we must regret that we and our loved ones exist (and also that nearly everyone who ever lived existed); or we do not regret (and are indeed arguably forbidden to regret) most of the calamities of history, such as slavery and the Holocaust.
If benefit and harm are fundamentally comparative, and existing is better than not existing, then we cannot, it seems, see the event of slavery as either harmful or beneficial to presently-existing descendants, since had slavery not happened, a different set persons would have been born altogether. Such an insight radically overturns our thinking about colonialism.
One counter-argument might be to grant that such considerations complicates reparative justice debates, but that present institutions within America nonetheless privilege whites and therefore require reform or dissolution. It is here we see the blatant double standard with respect to European countries versus other countries. With such reasoning are we not similarly morally obligated to undo all presently existing nation-states and to return the land and its resources to the indigenous people who lived there prior?
Indeed, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
Either reparative justice applies equally to all nations that came into existence as a result of conquest or reparative justice applies to no nations whatsoever. To do otherwise is to imbue the historical time-slice of “colonialism” with special metaphysical and moral properties that are completely cherry-picked and without justification.
While the justification for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s project centered around unjust Jim Crow laws that violated citizens’ rights of free association and equal access to shared public goods, Kendi’s project seeks to undo a presumed set of past karmic injustices that aren’t really there. Furthermore, in the former case, duties to remove unjust laws could, in principle, be discharged and recognized as having been discharged. In the latter case, there is no criteria to say if one has successfully been “anti-racist” or not. In this way, Kendi’s project is substantively different from the Christian underpinnings of King’s vision and from the animating spirit of the original Civil Rights movement.
If everything is racist, then nothing is racist, and the meaning and moral significance of that term effectively becomes meaningless. This is fast becoming the case with respect to discourse on race relations in America. Furthermore, if “ought implies can,” and reparative justice claims now place those of European heritage into a set of intractable double binds and impossible duties incapable of being discharged, then it logically cannot be the case that such duties actually obtain. Rather, such impossible demandingness, on account of being impossible, actually amounts to a set of severe rights violations against White Americans. This is so precisely because the presumed original sin of “colonialism” and of Western civilization’s success more generally, has no sound moral justification whatsoever.
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Dr. Michael Robillard is an independent scholar, philosopher, and US Army veteran. He has held prior academic posts at the University of Notre Dame, the University of Oxford, and the US Naval Academy. His other writings can be found at www.michaelrobillard.com and on Twitter @RobillardD.
Photo “Ibram X. Kendi” by Montclair Film. CC BY 2.0.