Review of David Boonin, Should Race Matter?: Unusual Answers to the Usual Questions (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
When I first read through this book, and even for days after, I leaned toward seeing its nuanced positions on issues such as reparations, affirmative action, hate speech laws, hate crime laws, and racial profiling as somewhat of a copout. I also had to get past the title (Whether it should or shouldn't is irrelevant. Race just matters. Come on!). Boonin didn’t take a specific stand on what kind of reparations the government should enact to pay the debt it he argued it owed because of its role in maintaining slavery. Also, he didn’t take a stand about what kind of affirmative action was appropriate, beyond arguing that affirmative action was morally permissible, although not required. Boonin advanced similarly nuanced positions on the other issues as well.
However, another voice, smaller at first but growing stronger, kept telling me that there was something very appealing in his approach, that it wasn’t a copout at all. After putting the book down for a week, I found my mind coming back to what I’d read. The initial frustration I had with Boonin’s not taking more specific stands began to fade. I started to wonder if, rather than avoiding the hard questions necessary to make progress, Boonin wasn’t in fact defusing questions that inspire debates so passionate that they cannot be resolved, and by so doing enabling us to table those questions and focus our energy on finding consensus where we are able to, in order to make incremental but real progress.
Even though Boonin is a moral philosopher rather than a political strategist, his answers to the questions he has posed, and even the way he has framed the questions themselves, turn out to be politically savvy in that they make it easier for people to deal productively with the topics under discussion. He deflects the conversation away from areas that inspire so much passion that they make it difficult to generate a majority in support of change, focusing instead on finding areas of common ground where possible while giving some moral satisfaction to various sides in a given debate. Some certainly won’t like this balancing act, but from the author's perspective, his goal is to make progress and solve problems in a democratic society.
Rather than try to summarize Boonin’s exploration of all five topics, I’ll discuss in some detail his approach to reparations, an especially good one for us to see his common-sense morality and his pragmatism on display. Boonin sets out to prove that a collective debt exists regarding slavery, one that does not disappear with time. He recognizes that it may be difficult to figure out a feasible method for determining what measures to take in order to pay this debt (whether a cash payment, or increased spending on education for the inner city, more job training for blacks, or a number of other options), but that question is beyond the purview of his discussion, the goal of which is to demonstrate the existence of a debt and the moral obligation of the United States government to pay it. The point here is that he defines “reparations” as including a far greater array of options than a simple cash payment.
The key to Boonin’s approach is his assertion that a causal connection exists between slavery and the current inequalities of outcome experienced by blacks compared to whites. These disparities can either, he contends, be a result of genetic differences, which he notes has been rejected by the “relevant scientific communities,” or of the differences in the “social environment” each group occupies. Boonin argues that the most logical explanation for these differences is that the social environment in which black Americans live has been profoundly shaped by their ancestors’ enslavement. Thus, there is a present harm from slavery that must be compensated.
The question then becomes why do today’s Americans owe a debt, even for those among us suffering today, if the debt was incurred in the past. The answer Boonin offers is that: 1) the U.S. government, in its official capacity, directly committed acts that inflicted direct harm, and for which compensation must be paid; and 2) because the U.S government still exists, the debt still exists in a moral sense and so that institution can and must pay it. Additionally, the continued inequalities make clear that, even though the U.S. has taken measures to correct the disparities and thus pay the debt, the debt hasn’t yet been paid in full. This is a powerful argument, one that is hard to deny.
As for what to do about the debt, Boonin rejects as untenable what he characterizes as the two extremes: i.e. denying that the debt exists on the one hand, and taking a hard position about what kind of reparations should be paid on the other. Instead, he calls for us to agree at least that the government should “apologize for the role it played in facilitating the wrongful harms inflicted by slavery and its aftermath, and to acknowledge that it has a special responsibility to do something” to help blacks. Boonin continued: “We could then set aside the acrimonious debate over slave reparations and get on with the difficult but necessary work of determining how best to live up to that responsibility.”
It’s tempting to read this and, as I did initially, throw up your hands and say: “that’s it?” However, take a second and imagine what the effect would be of a real, broad-based consensus forming around Boonin’s proposal. First, imagine the real healing, the emotional gratification African-Americans would take from their government saying it was sorry for what it did to their ancestors and, indeed, to them. Reconciliation and forgiveness cannot occur without an apology. The effect might well be tremendous. Second, such a consensus would allow our country to then approach the “work” of how to pay the existing debt from a more unified perspective. Asking: “How will we live up to our responsibility?” is a very different question from asking what one group will pay to compensate another. Boonin’s approach to reparations, while it is also well-argued on the basis of philosophical and moral principles, is one that can help heal deep wounds and strengthen our sense of being one people.
Boonin’s approach to the other topics he has chosen do not likely have the same kind of potential for healing, because other than affirmative action they are not as directly related to the matter of slavery and its long-term impact on our country’s history. For that reason, I found his discussion and especially his proposed solution regarding reparations to be the most compelling one of the five. Nevertheless, for each of them Boonin dissected the matter and proposed a solution that, even if it would not completely satisfy every reader, offers a way for each of us to see the issue in a different light, one that enhances the possibility of finding some level of consensus.
My sense is that, on reparations and affirmative action--the two issues that address socio-economic inequality and racism most directly--Boonin’s overarching goal is to encourage people who do not support our government taking strong action toward rectifying the deleterious effects of racism to rethink their position. As for staunch racial progressives, such as the people most likely to be reading this post, I’d say he’s trying to prepare the ground for us to accept some movement toward our side, should a consensus build around such a position, and recognize it as a partial victory worth claiming. The book's value is in its potential to move people who take a moderately conservative approach to race and move them one notch in a progressive direction. If that happens, then that's not a bad thing.
No one book can resolve a long-standing political and philosophical dispute on a particular issue, let alone five, and let alone five that relate to a matter as contentious and important as racism in America. Nevertheless, this book has the potential to have a subtle, yet nonetheless forceful impact on the way we approach these five questions and race in general. Essentially, Professor Boonin urges people of good will on all sides to see where we might agree, and to make progress in those areas, even if it means leaving aside some of our treasured ideal positions. It may be a cliché to say that half a loaf is better than none, but he makes a pretty persuasive argument that that cliché is one with quite a bit of merit in this case.