Whose Nuremberg Laws?

Jeremy Waldron

  • Seeing a Colour-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race by Patricia Williams
    Virago, 72 pp, £5.99, April 1997, ISBN 1 86049 365 3
  • Colour Conscious: The Political Morality of Race by Anthony Appiah and Amy Gutmann
    Princeton, 200 pp, £11.95, May 1998, ISBN 0 691 05909 8
  • Race: The History of an Idea in the West by Ivan Hannaford
    Johns Hopkins, 464 pp, £49.50, June 1996, ISBN 0 8018 5222 6

Race is something which shouldn’t matter, but which has mattered and therefore has to matter. In a world uncontaminated by injustice, we could regard heritable differences in skin pigmentation, physiognomy, hair texture and body morphology as superficial traits. We could be, as they say, ‘colour blind’, treating those traits, as we treat the green in someone’s eyes, as features that point to nothing beyond themselves, above all nothing that would warrant different treatment or differences in respect. It is hard, however, to imagine such a world without seeming naive or disingenuous, for it would be a world in which it never occurs to anyone to discriminate on the basis of what we call ‘racial differences’, a world where that would be as unintelligible as one person discriminating against another because he was born on a Tuesday.

It is certainly not enough to think of a world in which there has been discrimination, but in which now – thank God! – we have seen the error of our ways and resolved to put it all behind us. Injustice on the scale that racism has involved – genocide, expropriation, imperial brutality, chattel slavery, apartheid and segregation – is not something that evaporates in the light of our good intentions. Such evils inflict terrible harm on their immediate victims. But they can also lay a curse on a country: a curse that is never easily or unambiguously lifted, but lingers on in memory, culture and the million and one ways in which what has happened to a people in the past infects the capillaries that nourish their future. The Biblical prophets understood that curse as God’s judgment on injustice. Part of what’s wrong with one generation’s wickedness is that it blights the future for later generations: ‘Woe betide those who enact unjust laws, depriving the poor of justice, plundering the widow and despoiling the fatherless! What will you do when called to account? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your children?’ (Isaiah 10:1-3).

We don’t have to see our predicament in a Biblical light, though in the past this has lent a certain grandeur to such occasions as Edmund Burke’s denunciation of the British administration in India, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. We don’t need theology or metaphysics to understand the enduring legacy of slavery or colonial brutality. We know the social dynamics.

In the United States, for example, slavery and segregation were, for a whole people, forms of legislated hopelessness. These arrangements (and the violence and terror that supported them) were designed to keep blacks ‘in their place’, to defeat any attempt by slaves or their descendants to make something of themselves. What does this do to a people over six or seven generations in a competitive society like the US, where hope and opportunity are transmitted through families, and where the normal mechanism of social mobility is for people to work, save and generate hope out of nothing, not for their own prosperity but for the imagined future of their children and grand-children? When the legal barriers are lifted and the violence suppressed, some sort of hope may return, opportunities may open up, and after a generation or two there may be some success stories. But the situation is not as it was before the injustice or as it would have been had the injustice never been perpetrated. It is fatuous to think that hope, and the inter-generational connections that nourish hope, can survive such injustice unscathed and reappear magically to vindicate the good intentions of those whose ancestors did their best to destroy it.

In 1997, Patricia Williams, a colleague of mine at Columbia Law School, was invited to deliver the Reith Lectures. Before she gave them, she was targeted by sections of the British media as ‘a militant black feminist who thinks all whites are racist’ (Daily Mail). It was said that her selection as Reith lecturer was an obeisance to political correctness and that the style of her writing embodied all that was bad about the narcissistic confessional culture of the United States.

Patricia Williams does write in a narrative mode, in part first-person reflections, in part recollections of the impact of race on her own experience and on the lives of her friends and children. And one or two of the stories she tells seem laboured – like the story of her son having to be taken to an ophthalmologist because when asked what colour grass was, he kept saying (true to the assurances he had received from his scrupulous kindergarten teachers): ‘It doesn’t matter. It makes no difference.’ Many of the stories, however, are much more subtle, like the best parables, leaving the reader to ponder their significance.

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