Tuesday 8 December 2009

Reggae as ethics: Rastafari theology from Garvey to Marley

I've been on a Bob Marley kick lately, so this book caught my eye: Noel Leo Erskine, From Garvey to Marley: Rastafari Theology (University Press of Florida 2005). It's a fascinating and colourful exploration of the history and theology of the Rastas. In Erskine's analysis, the whole Rastafarian theology boils down to this: "God is an African" (p. 158) – so that "the central question the Rastas pose for us is where we stand in relation to Africa" (p. 5).

Erskine is himself a Jamaican-born theologian; he grew up in the village where Rastafari originated, and he later pastored a Baptist church in Jamaica. In the 1960s, he developed a close personal connection with a Rastafarian community. They discussed their views with him and allowed him to participate in their "reasonings" (informal theological discussions, accompanied by cannabis smoking) – so this book is written out of rich experience and a deep personal sympathy with the Rastafarian movement.

The Rastas see a direct relation between the Old Testament narratives and the history of the Jamaican people. "The Bible was written by black people about black people" (p. 67). Black Jamaicans are the true Israelites; "the exodus will be a return to Ethiopia, the Promised Land" (p. 38).

At the heart of this exodus-theology is the concept of Babylon. Babylon is the ultimate evil. It is that enslaving, anti-God system – the world-system that produces colonialism, capitalism, social oppression, and all manner of injustice. "Babylon" is no mere metaphor: it is experienced as a daily reality, bearing down on the Jamaican people. For the Rastas, its clearest personification is in the police: the police "were the living proof that Babylon was alive, active and waiting for any opportunity" to oppress (p. 74). Rastas also tend to avoid the church on account of its complicity with Babylon: "one steps out of the church into the state and out of the state into the church without knowing the difference" (p. 85).

This understanding of Babylon also helps to make sense of the theological significance of ganja (cannabis) smoking among Rastas. Smoking frees the mind from the "trickery" of Babylon, peeling back the veil to expose the sinister guile of the Babylonian world-system. As one Rasta puts it: "Before I start to smoke herb, the world was just good and pleasant to me.... But from I start to herb now, I start to read between the lines. Is like wool was removed from before my eyes.... The government knows from a man start smoke herb he be aware of some things. That is when he start come off the brainwash, when he start to smoke the herb. That's why them is against the herb so much" (p. 99).

Similarly, wearing dreadlocks – the single most important and dramatic identity-marker of the Rastas – signifies a rejection of the Babylonian system, a refusal to accede to the demands of Babylon. For the Rastas (p. 108), "not those who grow their hair long but those who trim it off are required to explain their actions"! In the same way, their commitment to vegetarianism and organic living finds its theological basis in this rejection of Babylon, the refusal to be assimilated into the world's oppressive system.

The power of Babylon is not, however, resisted by any Rastafarian ethic. Rather, the Rastas' whole emphasis is on escape from Babylon, sheer exodus. In the mean time, they direct "invective against the forces of oppression" (p. 81). "Babylon is evil, and the task of the Rasta is not to attempt to transform Babylon but to flee Babylon for Ethiopia" (p. 39). Indeed, for the Rastas, ethics is strictly unnecessary – they have reggae music instead!

Erskine is gently critical of the Rastas on this score, since they seem to have missed the opportunity of developing their own liberative praxis. They are stuck with "an imbalance between word and activity" (p. 43), so that they fail to seek widespread social transformation. From the perspective of liberation theology, I suppose this is a fair critique – but it fails to take seriously enough the more profound lesson of the Rastas (which is also a lesson of the Old Testament), namely, that language itself is already "action". Language is work, praxis, liberation. There is no transformation more radical than a transformation of discourse. For the people of Israel, God's very being is revealed as a liberating event of language – the divine Word-event.

Erskine rightly perceives the significance of the Rastas' linguistic innovation, their "dread talk". He observes: "With the creation of their own language, Rastas have not only protested against the education offered them through the schools ... but also have seized the power of definition" (p. 167). If we follow through on this insight, we might also ask whether Rastafari – with its tremendous attentiveness to the work of discourse – poses some critical questions to liberation theology, and indeed to any theology that allows for an easy division between the categories of theoria and praxis.

If speech is a fundamental mode of human action, then – surprisingly – it makes a good deal of sense for the Rastas to cultivate reggae in place of ethics. The more seriously we appreciate the Rastas' preoccupation with language, the more we might wonder if their project is even more ambitious than any liberation theology: they are turning the world upside down, one syllable at a time. As Erskine very aptly notes: "It may seem simplistic for Rastas to believe that the simple act of singing will threaten the system of Babylon sufficiently to effect transformation, but they observe that it was simply walking around the walls of Jericho and chanting that brought the wall down" (p. 175). It's in the song itself that Jah is alive, active, and on the move.


Mike Russell said...

I am a conservative Christian, but I was not always one. In my early 20s, before Christ laid hold of me, I stayed stoned all day, every day for about five years. I understand the power of marijuana (my drug of choice) and understand the "mind changes" that can accompany it. Especially with regards to culture.

It has been 35 years since my last toke or brownie but the things I realized about the world system back then still stick with me. Christ has graciously transformed my arrogant rejection of the world into a more humble rejection thereof. But rejection it remains.

Could Christ have accomplished the same without pot? Of course, but not many people are really preaching against worldliness. Who would have convinced me of the worldly waters in which we all swim? Do fish see water? Some Christian leaders may preach against a certain form of worldliness, but the insidious philosophy remains largely untouched.

We would do well to chew on some of the meat of the Rastas, being very careful to spit out the numerous bones imbedded in their thoughts. Theirs is clearly a false religion but, still being image bearers, they have some grasp on truth. We just need the discernment to listen carefully.

Adam Kotsko said...

the more we might wonder if their project is even more ambitious than any liberation theology -- why do people continually feel drawn to say things like this?

Alex said...

Ben, the saying that the pen is mightier than the sword was spoken for good reason: it really is. You've hit on something here that I learned this week in a very practical, and even silly way. Quick anecdote: I was on an elevator drinking a Mountain Dew and a complete stranger was on with me. He said he used to drink those every day. As he got off on his floor and the doors closed, his parting words were simply, "It's got vegetable oil in it." I haven't had Mtn. Dew since. It didn't take a preacher. It didn't take legislative action banning the use of brominated vegetable oil in Mtn. Dew. Just a spoken word and me following the trail out of curiosity. Silly story, but an example of how sometimes the prick of the conscience is all that is needed to effect change in a meaningful and sustainable way. In other words, Rasta theology represents a good challenge/reminder/critique to liberation theology.

Adam Kotsko said...

Right, because liberation theologians never use language.

Unknown said...

I knew within reading three sentences that I would find you here, Adam. Thanks for being a point of consistency in my life.

Adam Kotsko said...

I can't help but come to threads like this, because I get such profound insights -- like the idea that sometimes when you give people advice and information, they change their behavior.

Anonymous said...

So, anyone up for organizing some "rich experiences" through a few sessions of, ahem, "Christian reasoning"? Ben, perhaps you would be willing to propose this new group for the next AAR conference?

Until now, I never understood the draw of the "scriptural reasoning" project and meetings!

PS - Kotsko, mon, you clearly be needin' to do some reasonin'.

Adam Kotsko said...

You'll all probably be surprised to learn that pot just makes me paranoid.

Brad Johnson said...

This seems incredibly problematic to me, given Jamaica's ongoing problems with violence directed at homosexuals--there are even cases of homosexuals wanting to come to the US as asylum seekers--and the complicity of reggae music in spreading the hate. Not to say I have a problem w/ reggae. Just saying, an allergy to ethics might actually be a virus worth getting checked out.

Anonymous said...

"...that language itself is already "action". Language is work, praxis, liberation. There is no transformation more radical than a transformation of discourse."

Doesn't this run the danger of cheapening the idea of discourse by equivocating it with instances of language (talk and text)? If discourse is (to use a hella cliched phrase) 'always already' there, permeating the worlds that we inhabit, then yes language is praxis, but conversely praxis is also language insofar as the liberation theologians understood it not merely to be 'doing stuff', but undertaking significant action 'in faith'.

Clodovis Boff and Juan Luis Segundo are good expositors of this view.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm.... I think South Park his this one covered.

"Stan: Uh, excuse me. Excuse me; can I have your attention please? What are we doing? It's been nine days! Doesn't it seem like we should accomplish something?
Hippie: We're using the power of rock and roll to change the world! Woo!
Stan: Maybe instead of complaining about corporations being selfish, we should look at ourselves. I mean, is there anything more selfish than doing nothing but getting high and listening to music all day long?
Singer: He's right. It's time for all of us to focus our energy and get this hippie jam into full swing. [edit]

Shane said...

Hey, a theology based around racism. That's awful, just really awful and nobody should believe it. Oh, wait a tick, it's racist *in favor of black people*, oh never mind then. As you were.

Ben Myers said...

Brad, the book also raises similar ethical concerns — particularly about attitudes towards women in Rastafari. And (picking up on Shane's comment) Erskine also notes the problematic side of this theology of race — namely, you can't become a Rasta unless you're black.

I'm taking it for granted that there are big problems here, and I'm not trying to suggest that the Rastas are exemplary in every way. My point is just that there is something exemplary about their commitment to the transformation of language. Personally, I'm just not convinced that we need to strike the right "balance" between word and praxis, or that praxis is some kind of supplement that needs to be added to language. If your community mistreats women and homosexuals, then one of the things you need is a better theology of women and homosexuals — you don't simply need to tack on a bit of praxis to your existing theology.

Anonymous said...

This is Jo

Is this the pot calling the kettle black?

Anonymous said...

There's also a video where Erskine discusses the value of ganja in Jamaican culture (and he confesses that he still enjoys a cup of ganja tea now and then).

Anonymous said...

on shane's point: "Oh, wait a tick, it's racist *in favor of black people*"

this assumes that 'racism' is an abstract idea that works both ways, as an eternal wrong without history or context. is Rasta 'racism' equivalent to the racism of trans-atlantic slave trade or colonialism? Or is it seeking to redress a few hundred years of slavery and brutality (as Marx would say "the sigh of the oppressed creature")?

I'm not justifying exclusion of others, but merely suggesting that every form of collective solidarity requires at least a temporary form of exclusion. For example, the Black Power movement and the various anti-colonial struggles (including Aboriginal peoples here in Aust).

To simply label complex religious and social movements as 'racist' would be like saying that affirmative action is racist or sexist 'in principle', conveniently forgetting the few hundred years of history that preceded it.

Shane said...


I accept the consequent--I think that affirmative action *is* racist and sexist in principle.

The corollary here is that I don't think all forms of discrimination are necessarily vicious (although most are--which is why words like 'racist' etc. have such pejorative connotations).

So, I don't think it is necessarily vicious that a country club does not allow non-members to golf at their club, even though that policy constitutes a sort of discrimination (economic discrimination against the poor who can't afford membership). The trick is to figure out what separates culpable from non-culpable forms of discrimination.

I take it that believing God is a member of your race and that all members of other races is obviously a culpable form of discrimination. Not to mention heresy.

Barth Barth grumble natural theology idolatry barth barth grumble.

Tyler Wittman said...

Ben, fascinating post!

If you are white, have dreads, smoke it up, and have a padded trust fund, can you be an unnatural branch grafted onto the Rasta tree? I believe such a doctrine is widespread here in the US....

Anonymous said...

Hi again Shane!

I think i would agree with you on God as exclusively the member of one race, and yet I find it hard to so quickly write off a theology that arose, not because one fine day a couple of black folk decided to fashion a god in their own image, but as a reponse to a few hundred years of an oppression-legitimating 'white Christ' (which is also a heresy). If 'black' signifies the lowly and brutalised, then James Cone's claim that God in Jesus is black isn't so nutty.

In addition, while I hold to, long for and pray for a unified membership of the body (contra the rasta mob), this is not to say on the other hand that all 'gods/christs' that are uttered mean the same thing. As liberation theologian Hugo Assmann (unfortunate name i know) points out not long after the bloody coup of 1973 in Chile, few different 'Christs' were floating around:

"They come down to two basic images of Christ. One is the Christ of conciliatory 'third-way' approaches. For him there is no irreconcilable conflict, no victors and vanquished; there is only one happy, fraternal family living above and beyond all social conflict. The other is the Christ of the coup. It is he who underlies the thinking of those who try to legitimate the coup by appealing to the need to defend 'Christian' values...

Their Christology must be shown to be illegitimate and unmasked in a stance of opposition and conflict... Christ's power is necessarily operative in a certain well-defined direction. It is on the side of the oppressed and against their oppressors."

so, maybe God IS black/HIV positive/sex slave, and in certain historical junctures, also a little bit discriminatory no?

Anonymous said...

Here's two of my favorite quotes from James Cone's A Black Theology of Liberation.

"The focus on blackness does not mean that only black suffer as victims in a racist society, but that blackness is an ontological symbol and a visible reality which best describes what oppression means in America." (7)

"Blacks need to see some correlation between divine salvation and black culture. For too long Christ has been pictured as a blue-eyed honky. Black theologians are right: we need to dehonkify and thus make him relevant to the black condition." (28)

Sally D said...

To this lay person, it seems as though Rastafarians have done for theology what one of their followers did for our National Anthem a few weeks ago at the match between South Africa and France. Check it out here.

Tyler Wittman said...


the point you're making reminds me of the following article:


Shane said...

"[German] theologians are right: we need to [dejewify] Jesus and thus make him relevant to the [german] condition."

Fixed that for you.

"so, maybe God IS black/HIV positive/sex slave, and in certain historical junctures, also a little bit discriminatory no?"

No. In the first place I don't think there is any such thing as 'being black'. Second, even if there were, God couldn't be black (or HIV positive or a sex slave) because he hasn't got a body.

Suppose you took one of the theologians who said things like this and locked him in a small box out in the sun until he could think of something intelligible to defend these claims. He would say, "Well, these are really just metaphors by which we mean to say that God favors members of such-and-such an oppressed group in certain respects."

Well, that's just the good old preferential option for the poor, that's all fine and dandy. God is a protector of the weak and defenseless, we're all on board with that. But that's rather a different claim than saying God is black and hates white people and that judgment is going to come when black Jesus comes back to chases the white devils all to hell.

Luke said...

You seem to be quite free with comments like "God is not [of a certain race]" and "God does not have a body." Such comments are untenable, because God is an embodied man of the house of Israel.

Luke said...

You also seem to think that your definition of "racism" as "racial prejudice" is the only possible rational definition. It is not.

I recommend the fascinating "Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?" by Beverly Daniel Tatum (available on Google Books). For instance on page 7: "Many people use the terms 'prejudice' and 'racism' interchangeably. I do not, and I think it is important to make a distinction" because "limiting our understanding of racism to prejudice does not offer a sufficient explanation for the persistence of racism." Tatum argues for this definition: a "system of advantage based on race," in which "Whites defend their racial advantage - access to better schools, housing, jobs - even when they do not embrace overtly prejudicial thinking.... This definition of racism is useful because it allows us to see that racism, like other forms of oppression, is not only a personal ideology based on racial prejudice, but a 'system' involving cultural messages and institutional policies and practices, as well as the beliefs and actions of individuals."

Finally, only someone who is the beneficiary of this systemic racism could be so blasé in claiming that "there is no such thing as 'being black'" when everyday people are denied jobs, housing and even their next breath because they are black.


Shane said...


Here's a fallacious line of thinking:

Jesus is God.
Jesus has a body.
Ergo, God has a body.

The mistake here is what I think the fathers of Chalcedon would have called "confusing the natures."

Cf. the Chalcedonian definition: "We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation (in duabus naturis inconfuse, immutabiliter, indivise, inseparabiliter). The distinction between natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis." So Jesus has a body, occupies space, reflects wavelengths of light and all of that insofar as he has a human nature, but taking on a human nature does not alter the divine nature, which is incorporeal (and hence, invisible, omnipresent, simple, etc.)

Further, I think that there is no such thing as 'being black' because racial divisions do not express genuine distinctions between different classes or kinds of human beings.

Suppose you are a race-realist, that is to say you believe there really are races: that race-terms "black" "white" etc. map on to real distinctions between different kinds of people. So what are those distinctions? What is a property that all "black" people have and that "white" people do not? What does being "black" as opposed to "white" consist in?

I am not a race-realist because I think there are no such properties. Differences in height are usually explicable in terms of diet. Differences in aptitude at school, criminal behavior are caused by social factors. Even differences in skin, hair and eye color do not break down cleanly into categories. Are the Dominicans black or hispanic? Are Spaniards "white"? What about their mestizo descendents?

Because there is no non-arbitrary way to answer these questions, there's no such thing as race.

I do not deny that stupid people may believe there is such a thing as race. Nor do I deny that the beliefs some people harbor about members of other "races" are harmful or bad. My point is that the racist is wrong about black people because there are not really any such things. There are no races; only individuals.

My claim against the black liberation theologian then is that the way forward is to question the assumption of race realism, not to bolster it by adopting reverse racism. (Note Cone's use of a racial slur in the text cited above.)

And if you'd like to quibble with my definition of 'racism', I recommend the fantastic Webster's Dictionary of the English Language.

Adam Kotsko said...

I don't think that Shane is right about much that he's saying.

Shane said...

Would you like to offer some reasons for why you think so Adam?

Shane said...

So here's a clarificatory comment:

I think the constructivist claim about race that I've been advancing here is completely compatible with these two further claims:

1. One's heritage and culture may be strongly shaped by historical force that included an erroneous belief in race realism.

2. Equality is an important goal for our society that we can promote by trying to create opportunities for those individuals who are members of communities historically oppressed by other on the basis of erroneous beliefs about race.

I, in fact, agree with both those claims. I'm in favor of affirmative action, even though I don't think there's any such thing as "black people," because I recognize that there are a lot of folks who wouldn't have had opportunities to succeed in society because they would have been regarded as such.

But this is not to embrace some mystical, reified thing such as "being black."

Adam Kotsko said...

My main complaint is your assumption of the symmetry of racism. Blacks distrusting and even denouncing whites and prefering to stick with members of their own race is not "racist," because racism is white supremacy. (The term "reverse racism" contains a grain of truth insofar as it unconsciously admits that the racism of whites is the standard or "natural" form of racism.)

Similarly, I find it disturbing that you changed Cone's claim that we need to "dehonkify" Jesus into the claim that we need to "dejewify" him and swapped out the Germans for blacks -- not only is that a horrifying and deeply wrong parallel, but Jesus actually was Jewish (and Cone says elsewhere in that same book that "Jesus is black because he was a Jew"). Cone is saying we need to get rid of the identification of Christ with whiteness (i.e., with the oppressors) and replace it with the identification of Christ with blacks (i.e., the oppressed par excellence in American society). If anything, the parallel in the German situation would be to de-Germanify Jesus and make him a Jew again.

The mainstream of black liberation theology does buy into the constructivist line, especially more contemporary figures. Rastafarianism appears to have a more essentialist account from this perspective, and I agree that that's problematic -- but it's still not "racist," not symmetrical with white supremacy.

Ben Myers said...

And let's face it: if I instinctively cringe at the statement that "God is an African", isn't it because, deep down, I imagine God to be white (like me)?

Shane said...


I usually cringe at ridiculous statements. Your mileage may vary.


"racism is white supremacy"

If racism were white supremacy, the rwandan genocide could not, in principle, be motivated by racism because it was one group of africans killing another. That's preposterous.

Racism is just the belief that one race is better than another. That's not *my* definition of it--that's what the word means.

My point is that any sort of realism about race is bad, because it leads us towards racist thinking. That's why I'm trying to carve out this kind of careful position: in terms of the metaphysics, I'm an eliminativist about race because I think there's no such thing. But, of course, these racist thinking has a historical, socially-constructed dimension that we have to take account of when we're making social policy and so forth, but we have to be very vigilant against falling back into racialized thinking.

I think this is basically the position of Kwame Anthony Appiah I'm trying to put forward. For more on it, see his "The Uncompleted Argument: Dubois and the Illusion of Race" in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 12, No. 1, "Race," Writing, and Difference (Autumn, 1985), pp. 21-37

Luke said...

Yes, we ought to be careful about reifying race in the sense of dividing humanity into ontologically separate groups. You are right, everyone is of African descent!

Seriously, though, your so-called racial "realism" seems more akin to idealism and I cannot agree with your definition of "racism". Appealing to a dictionary to refute my proposed definition simply doesn't cut the mustard - especially in light of the systemic character of racism that I mentioned (besides, do you really think language works that way?). Just as that Webster definition is a social construct, our society has been socially constructed to favor Whites. Keep equating racism with prejudice if you like, but that will only make it more difficult to address the systemic privilege that perpetuates racism - which you claim to desire to do.

Finally, the Word (the divine Logos) became flesh. Chalcedon may help clarify John 1:14, but it can't make it say something less than "God became flesh".


Shane said...

racial 'realism' is not a form of idealism--it's a claim about the real, mind-independent world. Just like it is a fact about the world that lithium is different from sodium, so too, it is a fact about the world that blacks are different from whites.

That's not any kind of idealism.

My point about the meaning of the word 'racism' is not to deny that there are racist social structures in society. Certainly there are. It is to deny something like what Adam is trying to say, namely that by definition black people can't be racist against whites because racism is only white people oppressing blacks.

And yes I do think that language works that way: individuals don't get to decide what words mean. the meaning of the word 'racism' is going to defined by the linguistic community of english-speakers and if you want to know what the linguistic community of english-speakers means by some term, then the first place to go to find out is a dictionary.

At any rate, I simply can't see any sense in your saying that racism isn't about prejudices. Obviously it's about prejudices. Social structures can have prejudices just as much as individuals can, right? So what are you trying to get at?

Regarding your claims about Chalcedon, I'm not sure exactly what you're trying to say. Do you think God has a body or not?

Nobody in church history is going to say that God is a body. I think this is good evidence Chalcedon is meant to be read the way I read it, rather than the way you do.

Anonymous said...

Hey Shane. Again, i basically agree with you that 'black' is (to use another cliche) a "floating signifier". I follow Stuart Hall's point on this one. but i also agree with Gayatri Spivak's point on 'strategic essentialism', i.e. that blackness is not essential doesn't mean that there is not a history and shared experience of oppression (that is also, of course, humanly caused) that is often mobilised for emancipatory purposes (e.g. rasta, black power).

White colonialism created its other, which is 'black'. it's just like saying there is no such thing as aboriginality in Australia (which is what all the neoliberal, right-wing politicians say, preferring 'individual choice'). but the common history of massacres and exclusion effectively created an 'aboriginality' that while not essential, is nonetheless extremely important.

In the context of this history then, i would argue that we who live in Australia cannot do theology without seeing it through the eyes of 'nigger hunts', mass rapes and the Stolen generation. would we not consider Jesus to be the aboriginal in Australia?

Shane said...


I understand the strategy and sympathize. The point is that the goal ought to be transcending exactly these sorts of racist distinctions between people. The goal is to reach the point where there is not "jew or gentile, but all are one in Christ." And obviously you can't get to a post-racial transformation by reinstating the very sorts of racist distinctions that were the root of the problem in the first place.

So Jesus isn't an aborigine, and he isn't a jolly swagman or whatever else you people have down under either. He's sui generis; he transcends all of these things.

That's how I read it.

Anonymous said...


We are "all one in Christ" but our problem can be, as the cliche goes, we see Christ as we are not as Christ is. Good comments remylow.

Anonymous said...

Chant down babylon, even if dont hafti dreads (according to Morgan Heritage). cool blog, Ben

some ganjah would do good about now

cheers, jh

Anna Blanch said...

wow...i feel like i just walked into a very heated discussion! You know that uncomfortable feeling you get walking into a room where everyone is stridently making their point...:)

Ben, this post is really interesting. I'll be linking back. Thanks for making me think.


Adam Kotsko said...

Shane, Whatever the dictionary says, historically it is the case that white supremacy is the normative form of racism. White supremacy is the origin of race-based thinking and still determines it. Other forms of race-based antagonism, insofar as they are really race-based rather than culture-based, take place within the space opened up by white racism -- blacks using the identity imposed on them by whites as a rallying point to fight against whites, for instance. "Reverse racism" can never be symmetrical with white racism because white racism invented the very concept of race. No other group can be guilty of that sin, because the concept of race can't be invented again. And yes, of course the goal is to get past notions of race -- but if you try to jump too quickly to that, you just wind up with whiteness as the normative non-raced position.

What's the way out? I'm not sure. I do know that as a white person, I'm probably at a major disadvantage in terms of figuring it out, since the system of white supremacy gives me so many advantages, more than I'm even conscious of. But I'm pretty sure the way out isn't a "pox on all your houses" false equivalancy attitude, drawing on such nuanced analytical techniques as looking up a word in the dictionary, such as Shane is displaying.

Anonymous said...

Briefly, dictionaries can be ideological texts. Definitions aren't "out there," "neutrally" even if it's impossible for me/us to force a meaning upon a word arbitrarily. The really intersting thing about language is that it is both fixed and fluid.

That said, definitions of racism are not politically neutral---even, and perhaps especially when they are defined in a purely formal (i.e. content-less) manner.

Anonymous said...

Adam, I've been thinking on this statement:

"And yes, of course the goal is to get past notions of race -- but if you try to jump too quickly to that, you just wind up with whiteness as the normative non-raced position."

I understand your concern here, but how does one determine the length of time before jumping? Couldn't prolonging such a move work counterproductively against "whites?" I know you said that you are not sure of how to get out of this conundrum, but what is your best guess?

Michael Harris said...

I've been reading through the Book of Revelation recently, as well as reading Richard Bauckham's The Theology of the Book of Revelation. This book offers us so much in the way of a language of resistance, of new creation and holy subversion. I suggest we all start smattering our dialogue with "beast", "Babylon", and "Whore", one side of it; and peppering our language with allusions to some of the many majestic Throne Room scenes. Can I get a witness?

Shane said...

By adam's line of thinking we could say:

Rape is a crime against women; hence it is impossible for a woman to rape a man or one man to rape another.

Indeed, I imagine that Adam would respond to anyone who objected to his definition of rape by pointing to a dictionary in just the same way he's responded to me.

examples could be multiplied, but i doubt it would do any good. Reductio ad absurdum only works on people who think that a view's being ridiculous is a good reason not to believe it.

Adam Kotsko said...

brainofdtrain, It's not a time issue, it's an "engaging with others" issue. And if people aren't willing to engage -- as most whites are not willing to engage in a serious way with racism (viz. Shane) -- then maybe attacking whites is the only thing to do, because they're so accustomed to being in charge that they can either be incorporated into a liberation movement in a subordinated role or else inevitably try to take over. Actually reading people like James Cone would be a good start here.

Shane, Agree to disagree?

Shane said...


Agreeing to disagree is agreeing that there are more than one valid position to hold on some question.

You don't have a valid position, hence I won't agree to disagree about it. But I've said everything I have to say on the matter.

Shane said...

I also take extreme umbrage with your suggestion that my position is staked out as a kind of white ressentement that refuses to acknowledge the reality of racism.

My position is that there's no such thing as race; not that there's no such thing as racism, which is what your snide assertion above insinuates.

My position, is, I think the same as Anthony Appiah's. Are you saying he is just a privileged white guy unwilling to think about the realities of racism?

Anonymous said...

shane pwning this thread imo

Anonymous said...

Again shane I find myself agreeing with you on many things, and disagreeing on some.

Appiah is not a privileged white guy. He does at times, however, get rather zealous with the idea of 'cosmopolitanism' (explains his aversion to the notion of 'race' as essence, which I as a semi-privileged semi-non-white guy am quite sympathetic with)

however, his disavowal of race and the history of how it has been used can mask an aggressive liberal universalism lurking not far beneath (and i don't think Appiah would disagree with me too much given his positive appraisals of liberal capitalism in his work).

I think it is this 'forgetting' and rendering of some people (marked for many centuries as 'coloured' inferiors) as free-floating liberal subjects who can now pick and choose multiple identities that seems a rather trite. it presumes an 'ideal person' (e.g. one who doesn't identify too much with their race), from which we can then measure say rasta or black theology as insufficiently developed/sophisticated. i probably wouldn't go to the Holocaust museum and argue that there is no such thing as a 'Jew' (even though, yes, it is a floating signifier, not essential, socially constructed, etc) It is this sort of painful experience of collective suffering that ppl like James Cone try to do theology through.

Any universalism (like the cosmopolitan ideal) and transcendence ("Christ") is well and good until one has to articulate the content of what these mean. and it is here that race, racism and particularism return with the facade of neutrality. (like bombing people to make them free)

Anonymous said...

"If racism were white supremacy, the rwandan genocide could not, in principle, be motivated by racism because it was one group of africans killing another. That's preposterous"

It seems that it would be instructive to look at the role of white supremacy in the shaping of the Rwandan genocide.

Anonymous said...

And let's face it: if I instinctively cringe at the statement that "God is an African", isn't it because, deep down, I imagine God to be white (like me)?

No. It could be that you cringe at this claim because it's nonsense. Just like saying that God is white like me.

Adam Kotsko said...

The Rwandan genocide might actually be a case in point for my claim that white supremacy is the ultimate racism that creates all other "racisms," since the rivalry between the two groups was actually created by whites.

It seems possible that objecting to statements such as "God is black" repeats the heresy of iconoclasm (whereas critiquing statements like "God is white" is just the critique of idolatry).

james said...

The conversation could be clarified tremendously if everyone could admit that races are indeed real. They are extended biological families. This is simply a historical fact. (Now someone will undoubtedly bring up the 'black Irish', but that was simply inaccurate racial thinking.) Skin color is a rough proxy for race which we all intuitively understand.

Medical research understands this as different medications are more or less effective on certain racial populations. Lactose tolerance is distributed by race. Certain genetic brain features are distributed by race. IQ breakdowns are consistent across races. A crime suspects race can be identified with a high degree of certainty from their DNA. One could go on, but this is not social construction. Percentage ancestry may make some racial(historic extended family) determinations fuzzy but they are nevertheless real.
You will learn this when you have to steer your son away from dedicating his life to be in the Olympic 100m dash someday or why the Asians at school disproportionately excel at the SAT, or Jews disproportionately dominate creative, intellectual life.

When one admits that races exist, it becomes clear that disparate outcomes are likely in health, wealth, education, strength, height etc. This is not racism and labeling it cleverly as 'institutional' racism is inaccurate and just perpetuates guilt and ignorance when true vicious racism is almost completely in the past. But Shane's position of naive egalitarian treatment will lead to disparate outcomes as graduate(educated, intelligent students!) admission programs know full well. But is this racism, or just the facts. This is the dispute you are having.

Understanding this issue accurately would take away the need to opine about the race of God. The whole argument is so confused at the human level that accuracy in speaking about God is not even a concern anymore, but rather appearing to be on the side of the 'good guys' (the orthodox or the non-racists take your pick).

Anonymous said...


you said that the issue is one of engaging with others. I completely agree that people need to dialogue with other perspectives (& groups of people) on all issues, including race. That said, what if such genuine engagement occurs & nobody's mind is changed? Do you believe that honest dialogue with necessarily lead to healthy change?

Anonymous said...

Also, my name is Derek by the way.

Anonymous said...

IQ breakdowns are consistent across races.

Really? This difference has been steadily declining over the years ever since the Bell Curve was published.

Anonymous said...

Also, this, "true vicious racism is almost completely in the past". Are you fucking serious?

Anonymous said...

I think it's safe to say that those 2 comments are by far more ignorant than equating the dehonkifying of Jesus by black theologians with the dejewifying of Jesus by Nazis.

James said...


I'm sure you equate disparate outcomes with vicious racism so of course you see it everywhere. So name three examples of vicious racism, that is, something affecting the lives of the victims not just the opinions of racists. I mean, some of my best friends are racists, but they have almost no way of enacting any of their evil beliefs on minorities.

There has been no rearrangement of the IQ gap in regard to the Jewish/Asian gap, Asian/white gap, White/hispanic gap, Hispanic/black gap, Black/African gap. It remains a stubborn fact. When Affirmative Actions are taken away this pattern emerges. UC Berkeley is 40% Asian and its not because of a evil Asian conspiracy.

Adam Kotsko said...

Anonymous at 4:50 AM -- if so, it's only by a hair. Shane is saying some good stuff ("race is a construct, it doesn't really exist") and also some really bad stuff ("therefore everyone mobilizing race categories in a divisive way is equally racist"). The dejewification comment was firmly in the latter category.

Adam Kotsko said...

Derek, I didn't say dialogue, I said engagement -- joining in a common cause and doing stuff together. White involvement in the civil rights movement was (largely) exemplary here -- whites joined in and deployed their advantages in a way that was guided by black leaders. This is what Cone means by being "ontologically black" -- joining into the black cause under black leadership.

He also says, and I think here he's just being realistic, that very few whites are willing to tolerate that. It might be because they think it's "just as unfair" for the leaders of the movement to be black as it is for all of society to be dominated by whites, but such an objection doesn't make sense: if a movement is founded on gaining full human dignity and agency for blacks, how can it succeed unless blacks themselves are in charge of the movement? Whites fighting for black dignity and agency while still remaning in charge is contradictory. There is no other way, logically speaking, to make up for the fact that blacks have been deprived of dignity and agency than to allow them the space for self-determination -- above all in the very movement that seeks to liberate them! This is an absolutely crystal-clear example of the idea that you can't just jump straight to "everyone's equal."

[It's probably easier for everyone to follow if you fill in your user ID to be how you want to be addressed.]

Anonymous said...

amen to Adam's comment.

re: James' comment "The conversation could be clarified tremendously if everyone could admit that races are indeed real"

no, no and no to the eugenic/racial realist arguments. yes, it would make things a lot easier and give us the simple certainties of graphs and spreadsheets, measuring evolutionary advancement by means of cranium rulers, but this is an epic fail for three reasons: 1. it's not true! (cf: 99% of respectable scientific work on genetics); 2. it cannot sufficiently account for the complexity and diversity not only of differences between 'race', but also within; and 3. that there is a persistent gap between life expectancy for Congolese and Australians does not therefore mean that this gap is biologically determined. I humbly suggest there might be other reasons for this gap.

Some elementary socratic reasoning wouldn't go astray on arguments for so-called "racial realism".

and here i stand with shane.

JeremyR said...

Hey Adam,

I posted those messages at anonymous at 4:50 along with the initial Cone quotes just to get the conversation rolling. As I looked back, I'm convinced what both are saying are probably equally absurd. Although, to Shane (unbeknownst to him) with his dejewify quote, does actually describe quite well how German historians understood the historical Jesus for years before Schweitzer dropped a bombshell.


As a psychologist, I'm having a hard time understanding what you think differences in IQ suggest? Do you know how to measure an IQ? Do you know the tests that they use to assess? Do you think IQ is an inherent measure of one's cognitive ability? Would it surprise you if I told you one of the subtest on the IQ test merely assesses for crystallized information, e.g. who was Catherine the Great? If anything, the skills being assessed by a standard IQ test like the WAIS-IV are not the skills we might generally associate with intelligence. There are tests for processing speed, working memory, and verbal information, which is almost entirely explained by level of education.

Also the fact that Berkeley has a student body that is 40% Asian does not prove that Asians are smarter. College admission is a byproduct of grades and performance on standardized tests. Standardized tests predict how you will perform on other standardized tests in the future, not intelligence. I suppose cultural motivation and expectation would have nothing to do with college admission. I also suspect that score on one's verbal test is completely determined by intelligence, not say environment.

Adam Kotsko said...

My call would be that James isn't worth talking to. Doing so only provides him with a pretext for spouting more of his bullshit.

JeremyR said...

But Adam, don't you understand? If more black people run in the Olympics that means race exists? He who has ears let him hear!

bluetooth kopfhörer said...

Well, Olympics is a different thing. Keep it away from this. They all are representing their country. And its about ability and professionalism of them not about color.

Shane said...

James is the only one other than myself who actually has an argument here.

Here's my reply to it:

I take "race" to be a culturally constructed concept that has tons of behavioral and cultural baggage associated with it. Usually there is association with obvious morphological differences as well, but maybe not necessarily. I think some Japanese can quite fairly said to be racist against the Koreans, even though morphologically (and genetically) they are quite similar.

Somebody who is a race-realist like Robin Andreasen, for instance, thinks that races are real, but she defines "race" in importantly different ways. She says that a "race" is a historically reproductively isolated breeding population. The different races, on Andreasen's view, have different morphological properties, different medical needs and so forth because of the accumulation of different genes in the historically isolated breeding populations. Now that's all right as far as it goes.

But I don't think what Andreasen's calling "race" is really what most people mean by "race". For instance, there are people in the hills of eastern kentucky who were reproductively isolated and accumulated genetic deficiencies that dramatically increase the incidence of Tay-Sach's disease there. But 'hillbilly' isn't a "race".

On my view being a race-eliminativist, is compatible with saying that there are real morphological differences between different people whose ancestors belonged to different people-groups, because what I'm rejecting is not some basic biological facts, but the way those facts are put together in certain folk-conception of race.

Maybe this analogy will help: I think 'historically reproductively isolated breeding populations' are to 'race' as biological sex is to gender. The former are basic biological facts; the latter are socially constructed.

Again, my $0.02.

*P.S. I would flag that I don't agree with all of the claims James has made about the extent of differences between "races".

Shane said...

Also, I laughed audibly at the word "unbeknownst" in Jeremy's post above.

J said...

Rastaman vibration.........ah yeah

Apart from Kotzko's impious byatch-yaps, this thread was nearly interesting.

Anonymous said...

Shane: "James is the only one other than myself who actually has an argument here."

hehehe... that's cute

Anonymous said...

I've just been reading the Weekend Australian feature on promotor Kevin Jacobsen which contains the following:
"This is the promotor who, after all, once telephoned the Fraser government's minister for immigration to ask whether he could import several kilos of top-grade Colombian marijuana to meet the religious needs of visiting reggae star Bob Marley. (The answer was no.)"
I remember hearing at the time that Marley apologized to Oz fans for substandard performances due to the low grade of local marijuana but I don't know if that actually happened.


JD said...

Re: Shane's last post (actually, second to last),

Over the summer I listened to a lecture given by a psychological researcher about "stereotype threat," which astounded me, and which might interest you. If you go on the iTunes store and search for the title, you can download it for free: "the nature and nurture of human intelligence"

Adam Kotsko said...

It's amazing to me that Shane thinks that the straightforwardly racist position is the one most worthy of being taken seriously. It's a pretty typical liberal thing -- they love to dialogue with right-wingers, but anyone to their left is considered insane. (See Brad DeLong's occasional posts on Marxism, for example.)

Shane said...

Wait, I'm a 'liberal'?

Adam Kotsko said...

On this issue, you are.

Luke said...

Your pomposity is repulsive.

I'll stand by my *argument* for a better definition of "racism" than the one you and Webster offer. Strangely enough, the argument I put forward is formally similar to your argument that the definition of "race" should be redefined so as to protect it against reification. Just because people commonly use the term "race" in a reified way does not make it so. In the same way, just because people commonly use the term "racism" to mean "prejudice based on race" does not mean that such usage captures the reality of the situation. You argue that "race" needs to mean less than many take it to mean if it is to comport with reality, I argue that "racism" needs to mean more than many take it to mean if it is to comport the reality of the situation.

Anonymous said...

Stumbled upon this post accidentally. Really enjoyed this, Ben. Well I don't comment much, mainly because I am without authority to do so, but I think your blog is sweet. I've never been more intrigued by Rastafarian theology.

The comments on this particular post, however, are atrocious. Shane (or dare I say, Dinesh D'Souza?), besides obviously being a pompous ass-clown (but hey, it was almost two years ago, maybe I should give him a break?), somehow managed to uphold an antiracialist/racial skepticist/eliminativist position without being put in his place.

The presentation of his position could not have been more despicable, and some of his statements were clearly offensive. That aside, and knowing this post is long since dead, a brief response to that:

The position Shane articulates, which he admits is K. Anthony Appiah's from the mid 80s, goes something like this:
Race is not an essential anthropological category. That is, race is not an ontological reality. Indeed there is an "ontological consensus" spanning many fields as to what race is. Thus, if race lacks a metaphysical reality then race-talk (also called racialism) should be eliminated. There is no referent for race, to employ racial categories is to perpetuate racial categories, and inevitably racism (however you feel like defining racism).

So a metaphysical claim-i.e. race is non-essential- is used to guide a conceptual linguistic practice-we need to get rid of race talk.

Now this is all good, except if you, like, care about people and justice and stuff. The problem is that metaphysics is guiding normative discursive habits. Following Ron Mallon, in a recent article outlining different positions in current Race Theory, "what is normative is not what is in the world, but how, when, and where we decide to talk about what is in the world."

Yes it is good to recognize race as non-essential. But to remove the terms by which race is recognized within a racialized world (that is, one where race determines life opportunities and trajectories), is to change language without praxis. To do this, even unintentionally, serves as a powerful agent of the reproduction of racial structures.

It is also to remove the vocabulary necessary for remembering and retelling history. Antiracialism threatens a loss of memory and identity by removing the language by which they are upheld.

Now, none of these last two issues might matter to Shane the metaphysically minded. But ultimately (and this is following David Theo Goldberg), any theory about racism needs to be judged in terms of its ability to resist racism.

Any of Goldberg's work over the last 20 years thoroughly problematizes antiracialist positions. Or recent work by Duke theologians, J. Kameron Carter and Willie James Jennings, dispel facile attempts, like Shane's, to drop racial categories immediately.

Typing this reminds me of a recent lecture I attended. Stanley Hauerwas was doing a lecture and was briefly answering questions about race and the church. In the middle of the Q&A a philosophy professor at the Uni I attend asked him, "Why did we ever come up with the idea that there are such things as a black church or a white church?" Hauerwas retorts, "Because there are!"...Hauerwas went on to clarify what he meant, but his initial response is illustrative of the 'non-reality reality' of race.

Again, probably falling on deaf ears (or rather, unseeing eyes), but it was just so hideous...

Ben, if you do ever read this, I apologize that my contribution to the life of your blog was jumbled, relatively incoherent and angry. Still, all the best from the states.

Anonymous said...

It be makin ya paranoid cuz ya be seein da world as it truly is mi bredda

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