Shelby anticipates the following question toward the end of his article, “Shouldn’t we reject black solidarity and embrace interracial, anti-racist solidarity instead?”
(a) Explain what this question means (e.g., explain what ‘black solidarity’ as well as ‘interracial solidarity’ mean in this context).

(b) How does Shelby respond to this rhetorical question/challenge? Are his arguments here persuasive? Offer some critical discussion (e.g., Which is the strongest consideration? What does his discussion establish? Can his arguments be strengthened?)

(c) Briefly consider how this exchange between Shelby and his imagined interlocutor would be different (if at all) if the question posed had been, “Shouldn’t we reject black solidarity and embrace an interracial solidarity movement against anti-black racism?”


Your paper should be no longer than 4 pages (and not under 3 pages).
Your paper should be spell-checked and proofread for grammatical correctness.
Use 12pt font, Times New Roman, and double-spacing.
Do not cite any sources outside of the material assigned.

Ethics 112 (January 2002): 231–266
! 2002 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0014-1704/2002/11202-
Foundations of Black Solidarity: Collective
Identity or Common Oppression?*
Tommie Shelby
We are one with you under the ban of prejudice and proscription—
one with you under the slander of inferiority—one with you
in social and political disfranchisement. What you suffer, we suffer;
what you endure, we endure. We are indissolubly united, and must
fall or flourish together. [Frederick Douglass]1
In an effort to liberate blacks from the burden of racial oppression,
black leaders have frequently called on black Americans to become a
more unified collective agent for social change.2 And while there are
* Sincere and warm thanks go to my friends and colleagues who commented on
previous drafts of this essay, including Linda Alcoff, Anthony Appiah, Lawrie Balfour, Sylvia
Berryman, Martha Biondi, Bernard Boxill, Derrick Darby, Dan Farrell, Dena Gilby, Robert
Gooding-Williams, Jennifer Hochschild, Bill Lawson, Sarah Loper, Ron Mallon, Howard
McGary, Charles Mills, Lucius Outlaw, Naomi Pabst, John Pittman, Diana Raffman, Kathleen
Schmidt, and Laurence Thomas. I would also like to thank an anonymous reviewer
for Ethics, as well as the editors of the journal. Earlier versions of the essay were presented
at Howard University, Harvard University, the Du Bois Scholars Institute in New Jersey,
the Collegium for African American Research Biannual Conference, and a special session
of the APA Pacific sponsored by the Committee on Blacks in Philosophy. I am grateful to
the audiences at these venues.
1. Frederick Douglass, “To Our Oppressed Countrymen,” in Black Nationalism in America,
ed. John H. Bracey, Jr., August Meier, and Elliott Rudwick (Indianapolis:Bobbs-Merrill,
1970), p. 58, originally published as an editorial in the North Star (December 3, 1847).
2. In everyday life, use of the term ‘black’ when referring to individuals or groups
rarely causes much confusion; context is usually enough to make the speaker’s meaning
relatively clear. But the concept “black” is quite vague and thus is not easily accommodated
to theoretical discourse where one would like to be fairly precise. Moreover, the meaning
of ‘black’ as a “racial” designator varies with social context, for there are various systems
of racial classification around the world; and even within a given locale, who is “black”
may shift with political contingencies. My concern in this essay is primarily with blacks
living in the United States today, including recent African, Caribbean, European, and
Latin American immigrants, though some of what I say here can also be extended to
blacks living in other places as well. For the moment, I will rely on context to set the
232 Ethics January 2001
some who think such solidarity irrational, impractical, or perhaps even
morally objectionable,3 I take it that many people (both black and nonblack)
believe it to be essential for black people to achieve the full
freedom and social equality that American ideals promise. However,
even among those who agree that black solidarity is important for bringing
about racial justice, there is substantial disagreement over the precise
meaning of this solidaristic commitment. Such disagreement can be
quite fundamental, as can be seen by comparing the following two views
on the scope and significance of black political solidarity:
Common oppression theory: Blacks should unite and work together
because they suffer a common oppression; and they can
overcome or ameliorate their shared condition only through black
Collective self-determination theory: Blacks should unite and work
together because they are an oppressed people, a people with their
own distinctive racial, ethnic, cultural, and/or national identity;
and as a people, blacks have interests that are best served by their
becoming a self-determining group.
Though they are somewhat similar in underlying motivation, the
two political theories are importantly different. The common oppression
theory, the least radical of the two, simply acknowledges the existence
of antiblack racism in America and calls on those who suffer under it
to act collectively to end that oppression or at least to reduce its impact
on their lives. The goal of this political program, then, is to free blacks
from antiblack racism, and it sees black solidarity as a necessary means
to that end. The collective self-determination theory, on the other hand,
is a form of black nationalism, and it maintains that blacks need to work
together to bring about their collective self-realization as a people. Generally
more pessimistic about the prospects for ending antiblack racism,
this program seeks relief for black people through collective autonomy
(political, economic, social, and/or cultural) and calls for black solidarity
to bring this about.
My concern in this essay is primarily with the status of the common
oppression theory, for while it is sometimes misunderstood or outright
rejected, it is a position that I believe blacks should embrace (and of
meaning of the term ‘black’, but in the section titled “Varieties of ‘Black’ Social Identity,”
I will urge a more precise conception of “blackness.” My reasons for choosing ‘black’
rather than, say, ‘African-American’, ‘Afro-American’, or ‘person of color’ will also become
clearer in that section.
3. See, e.g., Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Racisms,” in Anatomy of Racism, ed. David Theo
Goldberg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990); Randall Kennedy, “My Race
Problem—and Ours,” Atlantic Monthly (May 1997): 55–66; and Paul Gilroy, Against Race:
Imagining Political Culture beyond the Color Line (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
Shelby Foundations of Black Solidarity 233
course some already do). Though the collective self-determination theory,
with its goal of black collective self-realization, certainly has its adherents,
and it too is worthy of extended critical discussion, I will not
be concerned to take it up here, at least not directly. However, in an
effort to defend and clarify the common oppression theory, and to
further distinguish it from black nationalism, I want to scrutinize a
doctrine that is often thought to be a component of both conceptions
of black solidarity:
Collective identity theory: A collective black identity is essential
for an effective black solidarity whose aim is liberation from racial
oppression; therefore, blacks who are committed to emancipatory
group solidarity must embrace and preserve their distinctive black
It is perhaps obvious why the advocate of black collective self-determination
would embrace this view, since it is the distinctive social
identity of blacks that, on this account, constitutes them as a “people.”
Without such an identity, the goal of black collective self-realization loses
its rationale and much of its appeal. But even for those who accept the
more modest common oppression theory, collective identity theory may
seem to have much going for it, as it would appear to help with overcoming
two serious obstacles to black collective action against antiblack
racism. First, there is the familiar free-rider problem. While some blacks
are willing to make the relevant sacrifices to bring about racial equality,
others are much more complacent and narrowly self-interested. The
inaction of the latter weakens the collective effort, and it breeds resentment
and suspicion among blacks, as some are seen as benefiting
from the sacrifices of others without contributing anything of substance
to the collective struggle. Collective identity theory suggests a (partial)
solution: by cultivating a common conception of who they are as black
people, blacks can strengthen the bonds of sympathy and loyalty that
will enable them to overcome these barriers to collective action. Such
an identity could also give blacks a firmer basis for mutual identification
across class lines, something that is thought to be sorely needed in this
time of increasing intraracial economic stratification. Second, there is
the general problem that the mere acceptance of abstract principles of
justice is often insufficient to motivate people to contribute the time
and resources necessary for effecting meaningful social change. This
difficulty affects the collective will of blacks as well, despite the fact that
they, perhaps more than any other racialized group in America, desperately
want to see an end to racial oppression. Again, the collective
identity theory seems to help: viewing each other as “black brothers and
sisters” with a shared social identity may, like the familiar motivating
234 Ethics January 2001
force of kinship relations, make blacks more inclined to help each other
in a movement to end racial subordination and inequality.
Many influential theorists in the history of black political thought
have defended or relied upon the collective identity theory. The tendency
to tie emancipatory black solidarity to the need for a collective
black identity can be found in the writings and speeches of such diverse
thinkers as Edward Blyden, Alexander Crummell, W. E. B. Du Bois,
Marcus Garvey, Alain Locke, Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka, Harold Cruse,
Stokely Carmichael, Maulana Karenga, Molefi Asante, and Lucius Outlaw.
4 For purposes of illustrating this tendency, I will focus on Du Bois
and his well-known essay, “The Conservation of Races.” In that essay,
Du Bois explicitly advocates a particularly strong form of emancipatory
black solidarity: “It is our [the American Negroes’] duty to conserve our
physical powers, our intellectual endowments, our spiritual ideals; as a
race we must strive by race organization, by race solidarity, by race unity
to the realization of that broader humanity which freely recognizes differences in
men, but sternly deprecates inequality in their opportunities of development.”5
Du Bois believed that black solidarity is necessary for both overcoming
racial oppression and ensuring that blacks make their unique cultural
contribution to humanity. He also insisted that blacks should “conserve”
their racial identity, rather than be absorbed into Anglo-American culture;
for, as he saw it, the goals of emancipatory black solidarity cannot
4. Though not all of these thinkers explicitly defend the collective identity theory,
each at least implicitly relies upon it. Moreover, it is arguable that some of them came to
deemphasize the importance of a collective black identity to black solidarity—e.g., Du
Bois and Malcolm X—which is why I say that the view can be found in their “writings and
speeches.” See Edward W. Blyden, “The Call of Providence to the Descendants of Africa
in America,” in Negro Social and Political Thought, ed.Howard Brotz (NewYork:Basic,1966);
Alexander Crummell, “The Relations and Duties of Free Colored Men in America to
Africa” and “The Race Problem in America,” both in Brotz, ed.; W. E. B. Du Bois, “The
Conservation of Races,” in The Seventh Son: The Thought and Writings of W. E. B. Du Bois,
vol. 1, ed. Julius Lester (New York: Vintage, 1971); Marcus Garvey, “Aims and Objects of
Movement for Solution of Negro Problems,” in Brotz, ed.; Alain Locke, “The New Negro,”
in The New Negro, ed. Alain Locke (New York: Atheneum, 1969);MalcolmX, “BlackMan’s
History,” in The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches by Malcolm X, ed. ImamBenjamin
Karim (New York: Arcade, 1971); LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), “The Legacy of Malcolm
X, and the Coming of the Black Nation,” in his Home: Social Essays (New York: William
Morrow, 1966); Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (New York: William Morrow,
1967); Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation
in America (New York: Vintage, 1967); Maulana Karenga, “Society, Culture, and the Problem
of Self-Consciousness: A Kawaida Analysis,” in Philosophy Born of Struggle: Anthology of Afro-
American Philosophy from 1917, ed. Leonard Harris (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1983);
Molefi Kete Asante, The Afrocentric Idea (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998); and
Lucius T. Outlaw, Jr., “Against the Grain of Modernity: The Politics of Difference and the
Conservation of ‘Race,’” in his On Race and Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 1996).
5. Du Bois, “The Conservation of Races,” p. 183; emphasis added.
Shelby Foundations of Black Solidarity 235
be achieved without the preservation of a distinctive black identity: “We
believe it the duty of the Americans of Negro descent, as a body, to
maintain their race identity until this mission of the Negro people is
accomplished, and the ideal of human brotherhood has become a practical
possibility.”6 While it is clear that Du Bois would like to see black
identity preserved even beyond that time when (if ever) social equality
becomes a reality, here he emphasizes the “duty” of blacks to maintain
their identity “until” such equality is realized.
Even in his reconstruction of the concept of “race,” Du Bois emphasized
the link between racial identity and race solidarity: “[A race]
is a vast family of human beings, generally of common blood and language,
always of common history, traditions and impulses, who are both
voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain
more or less vividly conceived ideals of life.” 7 Recently, there has been a lively
philosophical debate over the exact meaning of Du Bois’s conception
of race as defined in his “Conservation” essay.8 Much of this debate has
focused on the metaphysics of race, that is, on what “races” are, whether
any really exist, and if so, in what sense. Du Bois was no doubt concerned
with such questions, but his interest in the reality of “races” was in part
based on his desire to lay a firm foundation for black solidarity. Du Bois
was convinced that a collective black identity—based primarily on a
shared history and culture, and only secondarily on a common biology—
is a necessary component of an emancipatory black solidarity.
Much of black social thought has followed him in this. Indeed, among
advocates of black solidarity, collective identity theory is often treated
as a truism.
However, I will argue that we should reject this view of black emancipation,
not because black solidarity has no contribution to make to
black liberation, but rather because cultivating a collective black identity
is unnecessary for forging effective bonds among blacks, would create
(or exacerbate an already) undue constraint on individual freedom,
and is likely, in any case, to be self-defeating. I would urge that we
6. Ibid., p. 186; emphasis added.
7. Ibid., p. 178; emphasis added.
8. See, e.g., Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of
Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 28–46; Lucius Outlaw, “On W. E. B.
Du Bois’s ‘The Conservation of Races,’” in Overcoming Racism and Sexism, ed. Linda A. Bell
and David Blumenfeld (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995); Robert Gooding-
Williams, “Outlaw, Appiah, and Du Bois’s ‘The Conservation of Races,’” in W. E. B. Du
Bois on Race and Culture, ed. Bernard W. Bell, Emily R. Grosholz, and James B. Stewert
(New York: Routledge, 1996); Tommy L. Lott, The Invention of Race: Black Culture and the
Politics of Representation (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999), pp. 47–66; and Paul C. Taylor,
“Appiah’s Uncompleted Argument: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Reality of Race,” Social Theory
and Practice 26 (2000): 103–28.
236 Ethics January 2001
disentangle the call for an emancipatory black solidarity from the call
for a collective black identity. A black solidarity that is based on the
common experience of antiblack racism and the joint commitment to
bringing it to an end can and should play an important role in the fight
against racial injustice. But an emancipatory black solidarity that emphasizes
the need to affirm a racial, ethnic, cultural, and/or national
identity is a legacy of black political thought that must now be abandoned
for the sake of the struggle against racial oppression. Toward the
end of this essay, I will sketch and defend a version of the common
oppression theory that eschews the requirement of a collective black
Before proceeding further, however, two caveats are in order. First,
my concern in this essay is with that form of group solidarity that has
as its primary goal the liberation of black people from the burdens of
racial inequality and antiblack racism. Thus, for the remainder of this
essay, ‘black solidarity’ will refer to this type of emancipatory solidarity.
But of course not everything that could rightly be called a form of “black
solidarity” is bound up with antiracist politics, since there are other
collective goals or values that could serve as a basis for building black
unity. For instance, there is a form of black solidarity that has as its end
the nurturing of communal relations among blacks, a solidarity that is
not treated as a means to some other external objective: some may seek
solidarity with other blacks simply because they see intrinsic value in
the social interaction and the feelings of community that it brings. Nothing
I say here should be taken to preclude or disparage this type of
solidarity; the form of emancipatory black solidarity that I would defend
is perfectly compatible with it. Indeed, under certain conditions, the
former may, even without conscious effort, foster the latter and vice
versa. Second, like Du Bois, some blacks might want to work together
to cultivate and preserve “black culture,” because they believe it to be
distinctive, intrinsically valuable, and in danger of being lost or underappreciated;
and, again, they may see this collective project as important
quite apart from its relationship to the struggle against racism. Provided
such a project is not treated as a necessary component of emancipatory
black solidarity, it is not threatened by the rejection of the collective
identity theory. However, if blacks are thought to have an obligation to
commit themselves to this goal of cultural conservation, then the project
will be vulnerable to some of the criticisms I will raise against collective
identity theory below.
Before submitting it to critical scrutiny, it will be useful to specify the
collective identity theory in a bit more detail. This will involve two tasks:
explaining the meaning of “blackness” and describing the requirements
Shelby Foundations of Black Solidarity 237
of “solidarity.” I will take up the latter task first. I want to suggest that
there are four core characteristics that are jointly sufficient for a robust
form of group solidarity. By “robust” here I mean a solidarity that is
strong enough to move people to collective action, and not just a mutual
sympathy born of the recognition of commonality or a feel-good sense
of group belonging.9
Identification between group members.—One of the more salient characteristics
of group solidarity is the tendency of group members to identify
with each other or with the group as a whole. The basis of mutual
identification can vary greatly. It can, for example, be based on a shared
ethnic or cultural heritage (whether real or imagined). But its basis may
also be the fact that group members believe themselves to share a similar
plight or some significant, perhaps life-shaping, experience. Such commonality
often engenders mutual empathetic understanding. This kind
of understanding is not, however, merely a matter of sympathy, which
may be nothing more than an involuntary reaction to the plight of
others. Rather, members of a solidarity group come to view themselves,
because of what they have in common, as sharing a special bond; and
because of this bond, sometimes fellow group members are treated as
if they were an extension of the self, so that one may feel pride when
a member of the group does something praiseworthy or shame when
a fellow member does something embarrassing, almost as if one had
done the deed oneself. It is mutual identification that accounts for this
familiar sense of “we-ness” that is so characteristic of solidarity groups.
Shared values or goals.—Members of a solidarity group share a set of
values and/or goals, and each knows (or at least believes) that fellow
group members are committed to these. The values or goals might take
the form of more or less vague ideals (e.g., “Africa for the Africans” or
“Black Power”), specific policies or principles (e.g., civil disobedience
or equal opportunity for all), or broad social programs (e.g., black
capitalism or the building of a unified African nation-state). Such common
values and/or goals often (at least partially) define the group,
constituting its distinctive character and self-conception.
9. The characteristics of group solidarity that I discuss below are drawn in part from
recent work in social psychology on group cohesiveness, especially from the social identity
and self-categorization approaches. I take it that these characteristics are intuitive and
relatively uncontroversial. Moreover, they are compatible with a variety of social psychological
approaches to group behavior. See, e.g., John C. Turner, Rediscovering the Social
Group: A Self-Categorization Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987); Michael A. Hogg and Dominic
Abrams, Social Identifications: A Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations and Group Processes
(London: Routledge, 1988); Michael A. Hogg, The Social Psychology of Group Cohesiveness:
From Attraction to Social Identity (New York: New York University Press, 1992); Tom R. Tyler,
Roderick M. Kramer, and Oliver P. John, eds., The Psychology of the Social Self (Mahwah,
N.J.: Erlbaum, 1999).
238 Ethics January 2001
Group loyalty.—One of the most important components of solidarity
is group loyalty. Loyalty to one’s group entails allowing the group to
figure significantly in the construction of one’s projects and life plans.
This will involve, perhaps among other things, faithfulness to the group’s
values, principles, and ideals, and a willingness to exert extra effort to
help members of the group and to advance the group’s interests. Moreover,
group loyalty is always (at least somewhat) exclusionary and is often
defined in opposition to some other group(s), that is, there is usually
an “Us” and a “Them,” or, if you like, an in-group and an out-group.
Members of a solidarity group show loyalty to in-group members as
opposed to those of the relevant out-group, whose interests, goals, or
values may differ from or conflict with those of the in-group. Though
it does require that one be willing to resist threats to one’s group created
by its enemies, the partiality that loyalty engenders need not be adversarial.
Peaceful coexistence, even coalition, between different solidarity
groups is often possible.
Mutual trust.—Group solidarity also requires that group members
trust one another, for mutual trust is the foundation of cooperation.
Because of the vulnerability to exploitation that loyalty engenders, wellfounded
trust is necessary to give group members some measure of
security. Each must have reason to believe that the others will not let
him down, betray the values of the group, or free-ride on the sacrifices
of his fellows. Mutual trust enables members of the group to act collectively
to achieve group goals, especially when success is uncertain.
There are many examples of solidarity groups: families, labor unions,
fraternities and sororities, some ethnic groups, religious organizations,
political parties, police officers, street gangs, military personnel,
and organized crime syndicates. Rather than focus on any of these quite
complicated (and, with some of these, problematic) forms of solidarity,
a simpler and more suitably paradigmatic case is the solidarity between
members of a sports team. Players on a sports team often identify with
each other. When they do, each thinks in terms of “we” rather than “I.”
When the team wins a game, all rejoice in victory, and when it loses,
everyone suffers “the agony of defeat,” no matter how much or little
each may have contributed to the victory or loss. Such sports teams will
also be jointly committed to a set of values or goals. For example, they
may be committed to fair play and sportsmanship, a particular style of
play, or a win-at-all-costs philosophy. Team solidarity also requires that
each be loyal to the group’s values and to her teammates. So, for instance,
members of the team will work hard during practice sessions,
stick to agreed-upon game plans, put aside individual goals when pursuing
them would conflict with the good of the team, and expend as
much effort as is necessary for the team to win—the sports cliche´’s “110
percent.” Finally, members of a sports team must trust one another,
Shelby Foundations of Black Solidarity 239
especially if they are to be successful at winning. Each must feel confident
that her teammates will perform their designated roles on the
team; and each must know that if she makes an honest mistake that
costs the team a game, her teammates will support her with words of
encouragement, rather than berate and blame her. Such trust is often
built by mutual displays of individual loyalty to the team or by repeatedly
struggling together against formidable opponents.
To briefly summarize: robust group solidarity exists whenever a set
of individuals identify with each other, are jointly committed to certain
values or goals, are loyal to the group and its members, and trust one
another. Thus, black solidarity would be robust if blacks, as a group,
were to possess each of these four characteristics.
According to collective identity theory, black people must embrace and
preserve their distinctive black identity if a politically progressive solidarity
is to flourish among them. To fully understand this position, then,
we also need to know what group of people ‘black’ is supposed to be
picking out here, and what the nature of this “black identity” is that
they must embrace and preserve. I want to approach these two questions
by making a distinction between “thin” and “thick” conceptions of black
identity. Relying on this distinction, we will see, among other things,
that the collective identity theorist urges the cultivation of a thick black
On a thin conception of black identity, “black” is a vague and socially
imposed category of difference that serves to distinguish groups on the
basis of their members having certain visible, inherited physical characteristics,
and/or a particular biological ancestry. The prevailing thin
conception of black identity in the United States holds that blacks are
those persons who have such inherited physical traits as dark skin, tightly
curled or “kinky” hair, a broad flat nose, and thick lips, and/or those
persons who are descendants of people that are presumed to have such
characteristics. Thus, on a thin view, blacks are persons who (more or
less) fit a certain phenotypic profile and/or who are thought to have
biological ancestors that fit the relevant profile.
For those who meet the criterion, there is little room for choice;
you cannot simply decide not to be thinly black—as the African American
saying goes, “The only thing I have to do is stay black and die.” If,
say, one were to assimilate completely to so-called white culture, one’s
thin blackness would nevertheless remain intact, for cultural conversion
provides no escape. No amount of wealth or social status can erase one’s
thin blackness—though clearly one’s class status might mitigate some
of its negative consequences. One might alter her physical appearance
so as not to “look black,” or if she does not have a “black appearance,”
240 Ethics January 2001
she might simply conceal her black ancestry—as those who “pass”
do—but in either case, she would still be black, in the thin sense, even
if never found out. It is an individual’s thin blackness that makes her
vulnerable to antiblack racism despite her nonblack physical appearance,
her law-abiding conduct and good character, her class position or
professional status, or the extent of her assimilation to the dominant
“white” culture.10
A thick conception of black identity (which usually includes a thin
criterion as a component part) always requires something more (or
something other) than a common physical appearance or shared ancestry.
11 Here, the social category “black” has a narrower social meaning,
with specific and sometimes quite demanding criteria for who qualifies
as black. Drawing on the history of black social thought, four familiar
versions of thick blackness can be distinguished.
First, relying on K. Anthony Appiah’s terminology, there is the
racialist conception of blackness.12 On this conception, black identity is
based on the supposed presence of a special genotype in the biological
make-up of all (fully) black people that does not exist among nonblacks.
On this view, an underlying cluster of genes, transmitted through reproduction,
accounts not only for the relatively superficial physical traits
that constitute thin blackness but also for more socially significant traits,
such as temperament, aesthetic sensibility, and certain innate talents;
and it is the possession of this genotype that defines membership in the
black race. There is of course a racialist conception of blackness that
is committed to the view that biological race determines native intelligence,
reproductive traits and tendencies, and moral character. However,
since this strong form of racial determinism is widely accepted as
false and racially offensive, I will assume that our collective identity
theorist does not endorse it.
Second, there is the ethnic conception of blackness. It treats black
identity as a matter of shared ancestry and common cultural heritage.13
On such an account, there is no assumption that two people of the
same ethnicity must necessarily share the same “racial essence.” To be
sure, the members of an ethnic group may share certain physical traits
10. For a similar conception of blackness, see Bernard R. Boxill, Blacks and Social
Justice, rev. ed. (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1992), p. 178.
11. Those thick conceptions that require something other, rather than just something
more, than thin criteria for blackness will entail, if only implicitly, a critique and rejection
of the thin criteria.
12. Appiah, “Racisms,” pp. 4–5.
13. An ethnic identity becomes a national identity when it is associated with a particular
geographical location that is viewed as a place of origin or “homeland.” However, I will
treat nationalist conceptions of blackness as a variant of the ethnic conception, for the
differences between ethnicity and nationality will not affect my argument.
Shelby Foundations of Black Solidarity 241
as a result of their shared biological ancestry (e.g., dark skin or the
capacity to grow an afro), and they may even value their possession of
these traits as part of their ethnic heritage. But these ethnic traits need
not be viewed as indicating an underlying racial genotype that explains
black behavioral or psychological dispositions. Indeed, the ethnic conception
of blackness is consistent with the complete rejection of
There are two dominant ethnic conceptions of black identity. One
emphasizes the fact that black people are descendants of certain sub-
Saharan African peoples, and it maintains that they share a culture that
is traceable to the culture of those ancestors. The other stresses both
the experiences of blacks with oppression in the New World and the
rich culture they have created in the context of that oppression since
being forcibly removed from Africa. On both versions, though, one does
not have a black ethnic identity unless one both has the relevant biological
ancestry and embraces the appropriate cultural traits.
Third, there is the cultural conception of blackness. It rests on the
claim that there is an identifiable ensemble of beliefs, values, behaviors,
and practices that has come to be associated with the thinly black because
of their role in creating it. Though this culture is thought to be
primarily the product of thinly black people and their experiences, its
continued reproduction does not depend solely on the activities of these
blacks, since nonblacks may participate in sustaining and developing it
as well—jazz, for example. On this model, thick black identity is tied
neither to “race,” nor to biological ancestry. Anyone could, in principle,
embrace and cultivate a black cultural identity, in much the same way
that anyone could, again in principle, become a practicing Christian.
Finally, there is the historically influential kinship conception of
blackness. This view understands black identity on the model of the
family—recall Du Bois’s conception of “race” as a “vast family” or consider
the use of “brother” and “sister” to affectionately refer to fellow
blacks. Of course blacks are not a family, not even an extended one, in
any ordinary sense.14 So what is it about familial relations that could
plausibly constitute a basis (or suggest an analogous foundation) for a
thick black identity? There seem to be three possibilities. First, one could
understand blackness in terms of biological relatedness—that is,“blood
ties.” But then, the kinship conception can be expressed in terms of
the racialist view, the ethnic view, or the thin conception of black identity.
14. For compelling critiques of the family/race metaphor and its invocation in discourses
of racial solidarity, see Paul Gilroy, “It’s a Family Affair,” in Black Popular Culture,
ed. Gina Dent (New York: New Press, 1990); Appiah, “Racisms,” pp. 13–15; and Patricia
Hill Collins, Fighting Words: African American Women and the Search for Justice (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1998), pp. 167–74.
242 Ethics January 2001
Second, one could treat black identity as not merely a matter of biology
but of the reproduction of a common way of life. But here I would
suggest the idea could be adequately captured by the ethnic conception
of blackness (perhaps with some additional racialist assumptions). Or
third, like familial relations formed through marriage or adoption,
blackness could be thought to rest on voluntary affiliation, custom, or
(legal) convention. This form of “blackness,” however, would be simply
a version of the cultural conception. Thus, the familiar kinship view is
not a distinct conception of blackness from the ones already considered,
and thus it will not receive independent critical discussion here.15
There are several things to notice about thin and thick black identities.
First, one may choose, with varying degrees of difficulty, not to
define one’s self-conception in terms of “blackness” at all; that is, one
may choose not to subjectively identify with the label “black” or to conform
to its associated behavioral norms.16 Some contend that those
blacks who do so are denying something important about themselves,
perhaps out of racially motivated self-hate. But a different, more respectable,
reason for rejecting a black identity, one that does not necessarily
involve self-deception, is that one may believe the designation
“black,” with its typical connotations, is not an apt characterization of
either who one is or who one would like to be. Or one might think that
a black identity, while perhaps perfectly appropriate for some, is too
crude or limiting in one’s own case. Yet another reason might be that
one believes it to be an inherently invidious and repressive social distinction
and, thus, should be repudiated on political grounds. It should
be clear, however, that the choice not to self-identify as black, whatever
its rationale, does not dissolve the often constraining social realities that
are created by the fact that othersmay insist on ascribing such an identity
to one and, consequently, may treat one accordingly, whether for good
or ill.
Second, given the thin/thick distinction, we can understand what
it would mean to say of someone who is clearly black according to thin
15. Of course, members of a family often share important experiences that contribute
to their feelings of connectedness and loyalty. In a similar way, black people have a common
history of racial oppression and share the experience of antiblack racism. However, as I
will argue below, these commonalities can form the basis for group solidarity without
relying on a “thick” collective black identity.
16. For illuminating discussions of the relationship between third-person racial ascription
and first-person racial self-identification, see Anna Stubblefield, “Racial Identity
and Non-Essentialism about Race,” Social Theory and Practice 21 (1995): 341–68; K. Anthony
Appiah, “Race, Culture, Identity: Misunderstood Connections,” in Color Conscious: The
Political Morality of Race, by K. Anthony Appiah and Amy Gutmann (Princeton,N.J.:Princeton
University Press, 1996), pp. 76–80; and Robert Gooding-Williams, “Race, Multiculturalism
and Democracy,” Constellations 5 (1998): 18–41.
Shelby Foundations of Black Solidarity 243
criteria, but who fails to satisfy the relevant criteria for thick blackness
(whatever that turns out to be), that he or she isn’t “really” black—a
claim that is sometimes thought to be somewhat paradoxical, if not
completely incoherent.17 Here is how we might make sense of that familiar
charge within the context of thinking about the relevance of a
collective identity for black solidarity. Though a person cannot choose
whether to be black in the thin sense, she can, as we’ve said, decide
what significance she will attach to her thin blackness. This includes
deciding whether to commit herself to emancipatory black solidarity.
But if she does so commit, then she could rightly be criticized for failing
to live up to obligations she has accepted as a member of that solidarity
group—for example, she might be criticized for not being sufficiently
loyal to other blacks fighting for racial equality.18 If we understand authenticity
not as a matter of acting in conformity to or fully realizing
one’s extravolitional essence but as a matter of being faithful to one’s
chosen principles for action, then for our purposes black inauthenticity
would be a matter of not living up to one’s solidaristic commitment
(whatever that entails). Thus, if the goals of black solidarity cannot be
achieved without a thick collective black identity, as collective identity
theory maintains, then a person who has signed on to this emancipatory
project, but fails to accept and act in accordance with the relevant thick
identity, can rightly be criticized for being “inauthentic.” By using the
thin/thick distinction, then, we can more clearly discuss the politics of
black authenticity and its role in black solidarity.
Finally, it is clear that many who satisfy the criteria for thin blackness
spontaneously embrace a thick black identity without treating this as a
conscious strategy and with little or no regard for how this affects antiracist
politics. For those who do deliberately choose to cultivate a thick
black identity, they do so for the most varied reasons, some having to
do with resisting antiblack racism, some having more to do with cultivating
self-esteem, wanting a rich and relatively stable conception of
17. For someone who doubts “the value of the distinction between being authentically
black and being inauthentically black,” see Gooding-Williams, “Race, Multiculturalism and
Democracy,” p. 25. For a useful discussion of the different claims of authenticity, seeNaomi
Zack, Thinking about Race (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1998), pp. 70–72.
18. Now I take it that we all, whether black or not, have an obligation to fight racial
injustice and resist oppression. But it could be argued that blacks have an obligation to
pursue their antiracism through black solidarity—though not necessarily to the exclusion
of other strategies. If such a position is sound, then blacks who fail to commit to black
solidarity would be justly criticized for this. And if collective identity theory is correct,
then any thinly black person who does not affirm thick blackness as part of their identity,
whether they have made a commitment to black solidarity or not, would be vulnerable
to criticism. In this essay, I won’t take a position on whether black solidarity is obligatory
but instead will focus on what is required of those who choose to fight antiblack racism
through black solidarity.
244 Ethics January 2001
who they are, or desiring a strong sense of community. Moreover, it is
probably rare that blacks consciously embrace a thick black identity for
purely political purposes; indeed, in order for such an identity to have
a positive effect on black solidarity, blacks may need to embrace it on
grounds apart from its political value. The collective identity theorist
could concede all this. But she would insist that were a sufficient number
of blacks, for whatever reason, to reject or distance themselves from
thick blackness, this would seriously hamper, if not undermine, emancipatory
black solidarity, especially given the collective action problems
that blacks currently face. Indeed, the familiar policing of social identities
that takes place among black Americans—which often annoys
those who seek more freedom in the construction of their social identities—
arguably functions to strengthen the bonds of solidarity necessary
for effective resistance against racial oppression. It is for this reason that
the advocate of collective identity theory urges blacks to accept a thick
black identity, even if many will do so for reasons having little to do
with antiracism.
Given the above distinctions and caveats, the collective identity theory
can be given a more precise formulation: there are persons who
meet the criteria for thin blackness who also have available to them a
black identity that is “deeper,” that is, thicker, than their thin blackness;
and these persons must positively affirm and preserve their thick blackness
if collectively they are to overcome their racial oppression through
group solidarity. Thus, for the remainder of this discussion, when I speak
of the alleged need for a common black identity, I will be using ‘black’
in the thick sense, and when I speak of ‘black people’ or simply ‘blacks’,
I will mean ‘black’ in the thin sense, unless otherwise indicated.
On a racialist conception of blackness, with its commitment to a morethan-
skin-deep racial essence, embracing and preserving black identity
would seem to entail, at a minimum, fostering intraracial reproduction
between blacks and, perhaps more important, discouraging interracial
reproduction between blacks and nonblacks. This practice of racial endogamy
is supposed to help keep the black essence intact and protect
blacks from the dangers of racial hybridity. However, this view has a
number of problems. For one thing, it is now generally acknowledged
that no “pure” races exist. Indeed, many biologists and anthropologists
question the existence of human races altogether.19 But, even if there
19. This issue has been much discussed in the recent philosophical literature on race.
See, e.g., Naomi Zack, Race and Mixed Race (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993);
Outlaw, “Against the Grain”; Appiah, “Race, Culture, Identity”; Charles W. Mills, “‘But
What Are You Really?’ TheMetaphysics of Race,” in his Blackness Visible (Ithaca,N.Y.:Cornell
Shelby Foundations of Black Solidarity 245
are (or once were) pure racial groups, those who are black by thin
criteria certainly would not qualify as one (or even a proper subset
thereof), since many (by some estimates as many as 80 percent) have
some European or Native American ancestry.20 Limiting black solidarity
to only “pure(er)” blacks would exclude many victims of antiblack racism,
contrary to the point of the enterprise; and it would run the risk
of creating a kind of “reverse” color prejudice—that is, a preference for
darker skin, rather than the more familiar light-skin preference—among
those who identify or are identified as black. Given the history of socalled
miscegenation in this country, a politics of black racial purity
would almost certainly undermine emancipatory black solidarity.
A racialist justification for the policy of black endogamy would be
no more plausible if the more inclusive “one-drop rule” for blackness
were adopted—that is, the rule that says that if a person has any black
ancestors, then she is black.21 Such a conception of black identity would
hardly justify prohibiting “race-mixing” in the name of black solidarity.
If anything, it suggests that blacks should make it their policy to produce
“mixed” progeny, since this would only increase their numbers and,
consequently, their collective strength.22
Given the obvious problems with its racialist version, most advocates
of the collective identity theory have adopted the more plausible position
that blacks should embrace and preserve their distinctive ethnic
or cultural identity. The main difference between these two conceptions
of blackness, recall, is that the ethnic version emphasizes black ancestry
while the cultural version does not. But since collective identity theory
calls on blacks to embrace their thick black identity, those who do so
will turn out to have the appropriate ancestry by default. Thus, for
present purposes at least, the ethnic and cultural versions of collective
identity theory come to the same thing.23 The remainder of this section,
University Press, 1998); and the essays in Leonard Harris, ed., Racism (Amherst, N.Y.:
Humanity Books, 1999).
20. Zack, Race and Mixed Race, p. 75.
21. Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy
(New York: Harper & Row, 1944), pp. 113–17; and F. James Davis, Who Is Black? One
Nation’s Definition (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991).
22. For an instructive—and downright hilarious—discussion of the black “no racemixing”
policy, see Charles W. Mills, “Do Black Men Have a Moral Duty to Marry Black
Women?” 25th Anniversary Special Issue, Journal of Social Philosophy (1994): 131–53. Also
see Anita L. Allen, “Interracial Marriage: Folk Ethics in Contemporary Philosophy,” in
Women of Color and Philosophy, ed. Naomi Zack (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).
23. But perhaps this is too quick. The ethnic version of collective identity theory may
urge blacks to affirm their black ancestry in some special way. Provided it is devoid of any
racialist assumptions, there seem to be three important ways this affirmation could be
carried out. First, one could honor the memory of one’s black ancestors by embracing
and passing on their cultural legacy. This view, however, is just a variant of the cultural
version of collective identity theory. Second, it might be thought that since one’s black
246 Ethics January 2001
therefore, will treat the ethnic and cultural versions of collective identity
theory together.24
Though they differ on its precise content and boundaries, both the
ethnic and cultural versions of collective identity theory require blacks
to identify with “black culture,” insisting that blacks view it as (at least
partly) constitutive of who they are as individuals and as a group. Note,
though, that if this cultural identity is to have a positive effect on black
solidarity—providing a basis for mutual identification, reinforcing common
values and goals, and creating stronger bonds of loyalty and
trust—then it can’t be merely a passive or subjective acknowledgment
of the value of black culture. Rather, blacks must actively perform their
thick blackness for other blacks (and perhaps nonblacks) to see: they
must demonstrate their knowledge of black culture and their appreciation
of its value by participating in it, preserving or developing it,
exposing others to it (especially their children), and in general allowing
it to be a significant influence on their lives.
There is a strong and weak version of the ethnic/cultural view. On
the strong version, a collective black ethnic/cultural identity is a necessary
component of black solidarity; that is, blacks must share a common
ethnic or cultural identity if emancipatory black solidarity is to
flourish. Failing to cultivate such a collective identity would, according
to the strong view, undermine the effort to build black unity. On the
weak version, a collective black identity is not claimed to be necessary
for black solidarity, since blacks might get by without one, but it is
thought that such an identity would nevertheless strengthen the bonds
of black unity by giving them more in common than just their history
of oppression. However, I don’t think either version is sound. Focusing
bodily appearance is the result of one’s black ancestry, one should honor one’s black
ancestors by being proud of that appearance and perhaps accentuating it. This might
seem all the more important once one considers the fact that racists have oftenmaintained
that blacks are physically unattractive, even repulsive. Being proud of “looking black” can
be expressed by, e.g., wearing one’s hair “natural” and prominently featuring one’s other
prototypical “black features”—e.g., big lips, noses, and hips. Doing so, however, would be
a matter of observing certain norms of behavior or fashion imperatives, and thus this
position, too, is a variant of the cultural version of collective identity theory. Third, one
might affirm one’s black ancestry by honoring the sacrifices that previous generations of
blacks have made for the benefit of future generations. Setting aside the option of paying
such homage through cultural identification and preservation, it would seem that the best
way to honor the heroic efforts of previous generations of blacks is to continue the struggle
for racial justice. This view, however, is consistent with the common oppression theory
with or without a thick identity component, as they both would urge blacks to work for
racial equality.
24. I will not, however, be discussing specific conceptions of black ethnic or cultural
identity (e.g., Pan-African, New Negro, Ne´gritude, Black Muslim, Black Power, or Afrocentric),
for the particular conception of black ethnicity or culture that our collective
identity theorist advocates will not affect my argument.
Shelby Foundations of Black Solidarity 247
on the strong version first, I will argue that there is little reason to
suppose that blacks must share a collective identity in order for them
to exhibit, as a group, each of the four characteristics of robust solidarity
outlined above.
At the outset, it might be thought that if blacks are to identify with
each other, they must share an ethnic or cultural identity (or at least
they must believe themselves to share such an identity). However, there
are clearly other, and more reliable, bases for identification. For example,
blacks could identify with each other because they believe themselves
to suffer the same form of racial subordination, to have experienced
the degradation and insult of antiblack racism, or to share a
common interest in ending racial inequality. The mutual recognition
of such commonality could produce—and clearly already has produced—
empathetic understanding of a deeply felt kind between blacks.
Thus, quite apart from their supposed common “racial” characteristics,
ethnicity, or culture, each could come to see and feel that a significant
part of herself or himself is to be found in the others, so that it becomes
meaningful to speak about and act on the basis of what “we” experience,
“we” believe, and “we” desire.
In fact, often members of a subordinated group suffer a common
fate because of a social identity that they only appear to share; for it is
not uncommon for a dominant group to construct an identity for those
it oppresses (and for itself) in order to justify the ill-treatment and
deplorable condition of the subordinate group.25 Such imputed social
identities are sometimes entirely fictional, maliciously fabricated by oppressor
groups (e.g., consider the view that blacks are the descendants
of Ham and, thus, are forever cursed to toil for the benefit of whites).
But even when the ascribed identity is based in something real, the
subordinate group may still find it more practical to build solidarity on
the basis of their common oppression and their desire to overcome it,
for not all of its members may value or identify with the ascription.
Black solidarity certainly requires a shared set of values and goals.
But this normative commitment need not involve embracing anything
we might want to call “black culture.” One doesn’t have to possess a
black cultural identity—indeed one doesn’t have to be black at all—in
order to appreciate the value of racial equality or to condemn racism.
Of course, values are a component of culture, and black cultural forms
are among those that sometimes express or embody principles of social
equality, which can be a legitimate source of black pride. Nevertheless,
the basis of blacks’ commitment to equality is surely that this is what
justice demands, not that such values are embedded in black cultural
traditions. If black culture did not extol the virtues of racial justice, but
25. Robert Miles, Racism (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 11–40.
248 Ethics January 2001
instead emphasized black supremacy or, worse yet, black inferiority, then
blacks would of course need to reject this component of their culture
and embrace social equality instead, whatever its cultural roots.
Loyalty, too, can exist between blacks with diverse ethnic/cultural
identities. Consider, for example, the loyalty that sometimes exists between
the diverse members of labor organizations. Despite differences
in age, race, gender, religion, ethnicity, occupation, and many other
things, some workers have, at times, been intensely loyal to one another,
especially when confronted with threatening or dire circumstances. And
they often maintain this loyalty with little more in common than their
shared vulnerability as workers and their will to improve their lot. There
is no reason why blacks cannot do the same, for they too are vulnerable
to a threatening social force—antiblack racism. Thus, black loyalty can
be based on the need for mutual support in an antiblack social environment
and a joint commitment to antiracist politics.
It also seems clear that blacks can foster mutual trust among themselves
without sharing a common black identity. Undoubtedly, a common
ethnic or cultural identity would create a type of familiarity and
ease of intercourse that could contribute to the building of mutual trust.
And, in general, it is probably easier to trust those with whom one shares
a social identity. However, trust can be facilitated in other ways as well.
For instance, one can demonstrate one’s trustworthiness by openly making
efforts to advance the cause of black liberation. Trust can also be
fostered by working together with other blacks to accomplish limited,
short-term goals—for example, boycotting a known racist establishment
or putting pressure on political leaders to heed black concerns. This
makes the participants only minimally vulnerable to one another, while
at the same time creating seeds of trust that can grow through future
collective efforts. In any case, using one’s talents and resources to promote
the goals and values of antiracism is surely a better sign of one’s
trustworthiness in the struggle against racial oppression than expressing
one’s affiliation with other blacks by displaying one’s black ethnic or
cultural identity.26
26. Laurence Thomas suggests that there can be no “genuine cooperation” among
blacks until they develop what he calls a “group narrative”—defined as “a set of stories
which defines values and entirely positive goals, which specifies a set of fixed points of
historical significance, and which defines a set of ennobling rituals to be regularly performed”—
for, according to him, such a narrative provides the basis for mutual trust.
Moreover, Thomas claims that a people cannot genuinely cooperate with each other simply
on account of their desire to defeat a common enemy, since the existence of such an
enemy cannot form the basis of mutual trust (see Laurence Mordekhai Thomas, “Group
Autonomy and Narrative Identity,” in Color, Class, Identity: The New Politics of Race, ed. John
Arthur and Amy Shapiro [Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1996], pp. 182–83). However, I disagree.
First, if the civil rights movement did not constitute genuine cooperation among
Shelby Foundations of Black Solidarity 249
So far I have argued that a collective black identity, whether based
on ethnicity or culture, is not a necessary condition for the creation
and maintenance of robust black solidarity. But, as I mentioned earlier,
some collective identity theorists endorse a slightly weaker position.
Instead of claiming that a collective black identity is necessary, they claim
that, while perhaps not necessary for black solidarity, such an identity
would create stronger bonds of black unity. However, the weak version
is also unsound, as it is much more likely, at least presently, that the
requirement of a common black identity would actually weaken black
solidarity. There are a number of reasons for thinking this to be the
For one thing, the push for a collective black identity would probably
worsen existing intragroup antagonisms, and it might even produce
new ones. The type of internal conflict among blacks that I have in
mind would be likely to show up in at least three familiar domains.
First, black people would inevitably become bogged down, as they
often have, by disagreements over what constitutes and who possesses
an “authentic” black identity. Should blacks see themselves as essentially
tied to Africa, and if so, what African culture(s) should be given privileged
status? Can this shared identity include elements from European
or Anglo-American culture and still be authentically black, or must it
remain, in some sense, “pure”? How much, if any, of the cultural legacy
of slavery—for example, southern Negro folk culture—should blacks
embrace? Should blacks from northern urban centers or those with a
southern sensibility be seen as more paradigmatically black? Should
black identity be tied to a particular religious tradition, and if so, should
this be Christianity, Islam, or some indigenous traditional African religion?
Are there distinctively black norms of etiquette or black social
values? Is there a black ethics, epistemology, or aesthetic? Are there
uniquely black styles of dress, hairstyles, or modes of speech? While
some of these are, perhaps, interesting questions, there is no reason to
believe that blacks can achieve anything like consensus on such matters.
And the endless and often acrimonious disagreements between blacks
over what constitutes authentic blackness can easily become so all-consuming
that they lose sight of the sources of their anxiety about who
blacks, then I’m not sure what would. Now Thomas may not count that movement as
genuine cooperation, since it didn’t operate on the basis of what he calls “group autonomy”
(i.e., blacks were not, and still aren’t, generally regarded by others as the foremost interpreters
of their historical-cultural traditions). But unless the goal is black collective selfrealization
as a people (which is not my concern here), then the narrative-free black
solidarity that held together the civil rightsmovement should be sufficient for our purposes
in this postsegregation era. Second, Thomas’s account of “group narrative” would seem
to suggest that blacks need something comparable to an ethnic-based religion if they are
to form bonds of mutual trust. But I see no reason to believe that, since, as I argued
above, there are less restrictive and more reliable routes to black mutual trust.
250 Ethics January 2001
they are—for example, antiblack racism, systematic social exclusion,
persistent racial inequality, economic exploitation, and cultural imperialism—
which should be the primary focus of their collective energies.
Second, class differences among blacks will complicate any attempt
to sustain a common black ethnic or cultural identity.27 First of all, it is
not clear that wealthy blacks, the black middle class, and the black
(working or nonworking) poor share cultural traits that they do not
also share with many nonblacks. Moreover, for decades now, there has
been an ongoing contest between the black middle class and poorer
blacks over who has the standing to define black identity, that is, over
who is best positioned to have the authentic black experience and to
represent “the race.” It is also clear that the growing physical separation
of the black middle class from the black urban poor—the former sometimes
living in the suburbs and the latter mainly in urban ghettoes—is
likely to exacerbate this conflict. Given the increasing intragroup stratification
of blacks and the well-known correlation between class position
and cultural identification, we can expect this internal struggle over the
meaning of blackness to continue and perhaps intensify. However, if
blacks were to drop the requirement of a common black ethnic or
cultural identity, which, as I’ve argued, is not necessary for the success
of the emancipatory project, this might actually reduce the negative
effects that class differences have on black solidarity.28
And, third, the requirement of a common black identity would
surely aggravate the antagonism between black men and women over
the meaning of blackness as it relates to gender. Historically, the content
of black identity, including gender roles and norms governing family
structure, has largely been prescribed by black men—that is, when it
wasn’t being defined by other ideological and structural forces within
the larger society—most often leading to greater sacrifice and less freedom
for black women. Moreover, the attempt to maintain a “positive”
and cohesive group identity will likely have the effect, as it often has,
of subordinating or ignoring the legitimate concerns of black women.
27. For important discussions of this issue, see E. Franklin Frazier, Black Bourgeoisie
(New York: Free Press, 1957); William Julius Wilson, The Declining Significance of Race (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1978); Manning Marable, How Capitalism Underdeveloped
Black America (Boston: South End Press, 1983), chap. 5; Michael C. Dawson, Behind the
Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press,
1994); Kevin K. Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth
Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); and Adolph Reed, Jr.,
Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1999).
28. Reduce, not eliminate, for class differences among blacks pose a real and serious
threat to emancipatory black solidarity. I cannot, however, address this rather complex
issue in this essay. My main point here is that insisting on a common black ethnic or
cultural identity can only worsen this already difficult problem.
Shelby Foundations of Black Solidarity 251
Because black women are situated at the intersection of racial and gender
oppression, they have experiences and interests that are peculiar
to their complex social condition. But many black men fail to acknowledge
or take seriously these gendered experiences and interests. When
black women voice (let alone attempt to aggressively deal with) their
political concerns—for example, rape, domestic violence and abuse,
inequality and exploitation within the domestic sphere, sexual and reproductive
freedom, gender discrimination and harassment on the job,
access to political power and to positions of leadership—this is often
seen as a divisive attempt to embarrass black men or as an imprudent
move that threatens to worsen the public image of blacks. Rather than
listening to black women and thinking of their concerns as integral to
black freedom struggles, many black men have tried to silence black
women and have remained complicit in the perpetuation of patriarchy,
often in the name of maintaining “unity.” Given the prevalence of sexist
attitudes and behavior among black men (and even some women), taken
with the continuing unequal power relations between the sexes, malecentered
conceptions of blackness are likely to predominate, though
not of course without resistance—for example, witness the mixed reception
of the Million Man March among black Americans, especially
black women. Though black feminist perspectives are growing in influence,
even among some black men, until greater strides are made against
(black) male hegemony, a shared and progressive view of what it means
to be a thick black woman or man is unlikely to develop.29
However, all blacks, given their vulnerability to antiblack racial discrimination,
have a vested interest in racial equality, regardless of their
cultural leanings, class position, or gender (though the urgency with
which one pursues racial justice will likely depend, among other things,
29. For important discussions of the relationship between black identity, gender, and
politics, see Michele Wallace, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (New York: Dial
Press, 1978); Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race, and Class (New York: Random House, 1981);
bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston: South End Press, 1981),
esp. chap. 3; Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds., All the Women Are
White, All the Men Are Black: But Some of Us Are Brave (Westbury: Feminist Press, 1982);
Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America
(New York: William Morrow, 1984); Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge,
Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1990); Cornel West,
Race Matters (New York: Vintage, 1993), chap. 2; Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous
Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1993); Kimberle´ W. Crenshaw, “Mapping theMargins: Intersectionality,
Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” in Critical Race Theory,
ed. Kimberle´ Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas (New York:New
Press, 1995); Hazel V. Carby, Race Men (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998);
and E. Frances White, Dark Continent of Our Bodies: Black Feminism and the Politics of Respectability
(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).
252 Ethics January 2001
on whether one also suffers under class exploitation, male domination,
both, or neither). Recognition of this common interest can lend motivational
strength to a morally based joint commitment to ending racism.
30 Frankly, it’s doubtful that blacks will ever agree on the meaning
of blackness, but they can and should agree to collectively resist racism,
since it negatively affects them all, albeit to varying degrees and in
different ways. Mobilizing and coordinating such collective efforts will
be difficult enough without adding the unnecessary and divisive requirement
that blacks embrace and preserve a distinctive ethnic/cultural
Another reason to doubt that insistence on a common black identity
would contribute to black solidarity, and thus to the elimination of racial
oppression, is that if blacks were to push for a thicker common black
identity, this would actually strain the—already somewhat delicate—
bonds of black unity. For while most blacks believe in the struggle
for social equality and the value of black communal relations, they also
value the freedom to choose their cultural affiliations.32 If there is group
pressure to conform to some prototype of blackness, which collective
identity theory would seem to require, this would create “core” and
“fringe” black subgroups, thus alienating those on the fringe and providing
them with an incentive to defect from the collective struggle.
Those who only marginally fit the black prototype may feel that accepting
a conventional black identity is unduly burdensome and, consequently,
may only halfheartedly participate, if at all, in the black fight
against racism, especially if acting alone they can manage, perhaps
30. Moreover, as Orlando Patterson has argued, while both blacks and whites have
an interest in overcoming racism, blacks must play a larger part in bringing this about,
not only because they stand to gain more from it but because whites have much less to
lose by doing nothing. Orlando Patterson, The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment
in America’s “Racial” Crisis (Washington, D.C.: Civitas, 1997), p. 202.
31. Though I cannot discuss them all here, there are obviously other important sites
of contestation over the meaning and scope of blackness that have to do with the intersection
of racism with other forms of oppression—e.g., interracialism (the problematics
surrounding so-called mixed-race identities and interracial relationships) and sexuality
(antihomosexual hostility and intolerance of nonheterosexual lifestyles). See Zack, Race
and Mixed Race; Lisa Jones, “Is Biracial Enough? (Or, What’s This about a Multiracial
Category on the Census?): A Conversation,” in her Bulletproof Diva: Tales of Race, Sex, and
Hair (New York: Anchor, 1994); Naomi Zack, ed., American Mixed Race: The Culture of
Microdiversity (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995); Werner Sollors, ed., Interracialism:
Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2000);West, pp. 119–31; Kobena Mercer,Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions
in Black Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 1994); and Cathy J. Cohen, The Boundaries
of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
32. For helpful discussions of the threat to individual freedom posed by racial identities,
see Stubblefield; and Appiah, “Race, Culture, Identity,” pp. 97–99.
Shelby Foundations of Black Solidarity 253
through their superior class position, to escape some of the more severe
forms of racial oppression. Thus, a prescribed black identity could actually
reduce black unity, and it might even have the unintended consequence
of inviting those who fail to identify with the prevailing conception
of blackness to form alternative alliances, to become excessively
individualistic, or to be simply complacent.
One response to these considerations is to insist that there already
exists an inclusive and widely shared black identity, so that blacks need
only to preserve and perhaps cultivate it. But this claim is implausible.
Blacks, taken in the thin sense, are clearly an ethnically and culturally
diverse group; this diversity includes differences in physical appearance,
language, customs, religion, political outlook, moral and aesthetic values,
cuisine, fashion, traditions, national origin, and many other things.33
The cultural and ethnic diversity of blacks should be especially clear
once one considers the various cultural traits embraced by recent black
immigrants from Africa, Latin America, Europe, and the Caribbean,
who are of course themselves subject to antiblack prejudice. One could
of course mean to include under “black identity” all of the cultural and
ethnic traits that are embraced by black people. However, this would
have the effect of rendering collective identity theory vacuous, since
blacks cannot help but embrace cultural traits of one sort or other, and
thus the imperative to “conserve blackness” would have no prescriptive
Alternatively, one might argue that it is possible to construct a
pluralistic and nuanced conception of black identity, rather than a monolithic
and unduly restrictive one. But no matter where one sets the
boundaries of thick blackness, if it is meaningful enough to have prescriptive
force, some blacks will be left out or forced into submission.
Now the collective identity theorist might not be troubled by this result,
since he may insist that not all blacks are needed in the struggle against
antiblack racism and some will be indifferent to the fight for racial
equality anyway. However, it can’t simply be assumed on the basis of
cultural identification alone who will or won’t be willing to make such
a solidaristic commitment, and thus it is more reasonable to be as inclusive
as possible. Indeed, it may turn out that the least “black” among
us are actually among those most dedicated to the cause of racial justice,
despite the widespread assumption to the contrary. In any case, insisting
on a specific conception of black identity, regardless of how pluralistic
it is taken to be, is still vulnerable to the criticisms raised earlier against
the politics of black authenticity: blacks will find themselves in an un-
33. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the
1960’s to the 1990’s (New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 22–23; and Appiah, “Race, Culture,
Identity,” pp. 85–90.
254 Ethics January 2001
necessary, contentious, distracting, and interminable debate over what
counts as “black” and who will decide.34
What must be recognized here is that the concept “black” is an
ideological construct; and, like many such constructs, it is extremely
malleable and capacious. Consequently, “blackness” can be, and has
been, given multiple and divergent interpretations, varying with who is
interpreting it, their motives for using the notion, and the social circumstances
under which they employ it. Thus, the most that can be
truly said is that there are a number of loosely associated and variously
interpreted black identities. The one link that often does exist between
these multiple identities, however, is that many of them have been
formed in an antiblack social environment, and each, in its own way,
will likely bear the marks of race-based ill-treatment.
I would urge blacks to identify with each other on the basis of their
common oppression and commitment to resisting it; and, from the
standpoint of black solidarity, each should be allowed, without molestation,
to interpret “blackness” however she or he sees fit (provided the
interpretation does not advocate anything immoral and is consistent
with the principles and goals of antiracism).35 In this way, I am not
34. Let us suppose for a moment that cultivating a collective black identity were a
realistic possibility. It might nevertheless be too dangerous to try to bring this about; for
it is possible to go too far in creating group cohesiveness. The attempt to forge a collective
black identity could unwittingly produce a “groupthink” mentality, a sociopsychological
phenomenon well documented by social psychologists. The symptoms of groupthink include
collective efforts to rationalize the group’s subordinate condition; social pressure
on fellow members who reject in-group or out-group stereotypes; self-censorship of deviations
from the presumed group consensus; and allegiance to ideologues who screen
the group from information that might threaten the group’s self-image. Striving to create
a shared black identity could lead to this type of uncritical and often unconscious drive
for unanimity and positive self-conception. This would have disastrous consequences for
the cause of black liberation by engendering defective decision making, such as assuming
that traditional solutions to black oppression must be correct; failing to reconsider initially
discarded strategies or programs of action; dismissing criticisms of group narratives and
ideals; and ignoring expert advice. These are pitfalls that blacks obviously need to avoid
but unfortunately have not always done so in the past. (The symptoms of “groupthink”
are summarized in Hogg, pp. 135–37. Hogg bases his summary on I. L. Janis, Groupthink:
Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, 2d ed. [Boston:HoughtonMifflin,1982].)
35. Paul Gilroy, on one reading at least, would seem to be advocating a conception
of black identity that is based on a set of related narratives which have been produced in
response to the experience of trans-Atlantic black oppression. The multiple discursive
practices that reproduce these stories can be viewed as constituting a sort of “tradition”
that blacks may identify with and participate in. Such an account would allow us to speak
intelligibly of “black identities”; however, such a conception of black identity would be of
little help to the collective identity theorist, for at least two reasons. First, as Gilroy emphasizes,
the black Atlantic tradition is not rooted in a particular culture or ethnic heritage
but is transnational, syncretic, unstable, and always mutating. Part of this lack of “purity”
has to do with the inclusion of many European and Anglo-American cultural traits and
Shelby Foundations of Black Solidarity 255
suggesting, as some have, that individual blacks should give up their
various black identities in favor of an American, cosmopolitan, or simply
“human” identity. Though there should clearly be more mindfulness of
its dangers and limitations, I see no reason to object, at least not in
principle, to blacks identifying with (what they take to be) their culture
or ethnic heritage. What I want to resist, though, is the tendency to
think that blacks must share a distinctive black identity if they are to be
a unified force against antiblack racism.
At this point, I would like to confront a well-known argument in favor
of the ethnic/cultural version of collective identity theory. This argument
takes various forms, but here is a general characterization.36 American
slaveholders prevented slaves from reproducing their African cultural
forms, and historically blacks have often been misinformed or
prevented from learning about their African heritage. Such actions have
deprived generations of blacks of knowledge of their ethnic origins.
Moreover, a racist ideology has spread which maintains that blacks have
no worthwhile culture of their own—neither past nor present—and that
therefore they should allow themselves to be assimilated into a “civilized,”
that is, “white,” culture. Thus, part of the oppression that blacks
have experienced involves the malicious deprecation of black culture.
This assault on the value of the cultural contributions of black people
has been so thoroughly damaging to the self-esteem of blacks that many
fail to identify with and take pride in their unique cultural heritage.
Instead, some accept the inherent superiority of the culture of their
oppressors and, sadly, embrace it rather than their own. Such persons
are often fraudulent, self-hating, or servile, and therefore they cannot
be trusted by other blacks with a more authentic, self-affirming, and
modes of expression. Thus, while blacks can identify with and claim the black Atlantic
tradition, so can many whites. Second, the black Atlantic tradition, as Gilroy conceives of
it, is nonessentialist; therefore, it does not determine who should identify with it or how
any individual should relate to it. A black person who fails to self-identify is not being
inauthentic, and one may appreciate its depth and value without necessarily defining one’s
social identity in terms of it. Given the abstract and inclusive nature of the black Atlantic
tradition, there is room for many black identities and no basis for insisting on any one
of them as the “real” social identity of blacks. See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity
and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993); also see bell
hooks, “Postmodern Blackness,” in her Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (Boston:
South End Press, 1990); and Linda Marti´n Alcoff, “Philosophy and Racial Identity,” Philosophy
Today 41 (1997): 67–76.
36. See, e.g., Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro (Trenton, N.J.: Africa
World Press, 1990); Haki R. Madhubuti, Enemies: The Clash of Races (Chicago: Third World
Press, 1978); Maulana Karenga, Introduction to Black Studies (Los Angeles: University of
Sankore Press, 1982); and Asante.
256 Ethics January 2001
liberated black consciousness. Thus, in order both to reclaim their selfrespect
and dignity as a people and to foster group solidarity, blacks
must participate in, celebrate, and identify with black culture. Once we
fully understand this, we will see that a collective black identity is not
only a necessary component of black solidarity, it is a constitutive part
of black liberation from the effects of white domination.
Historically, and even now, this has been a very influential argument.
And, like so many others, I too have been tempted to accept its
conclusion. But this urge must be resisted, powerful as it is, for while
much of what the argument suggests is both true and important, it simply
does not follow that our best or only response to the issues it raises is
to make a collective black identity a component of black solidarity. To
show this, I will examine what I take to be the three most important
questions for which this argument was intended as an answer.
Question 1.—How can blacks restore and maintain their dignity in
the face of white cultural hegemony and the devaluation of black
For decades now, blacks have fought the wide acceptance of white
supremacist values and the stigma attached to their cultural ways by
celebrating, both privately and publicly, black history and black cultures.
This has been done through a variety of vehicles, including Black History
Month; African American, African, Latin American, and Caribbean cultural
festivals; black periodicals, books, and documentaries; African
American museums and archives; the BET network; black religious and
political organizations; black private schools and colleges; Black Studies
programs at predominantly white universities; and, more recently, numerous
sites on the World Wide Web. These are all essential efforts to
educate blacks and nonblacks about black history and black struggles,
to instill a sense of pride in black people about what they’ve accomplished
and overcome, and to cultivate a greater appreciation for the
cultural contributions of black people to this country and the world. In
addition, the very act of cultural expression has an important role to
play in black liberation. One way to fight against the dissemination of
racist ideology is through cultural forms, such as literature, film, music,
theater, dance, humor, painting, sports, theology, modes of speech,
dress, and hairstyle. Black people have a long and remarkable history
of using cultural practices—including those traditionally considered
“white”—not only to express themselves aesthetically and spiritually but
to resist and subvert the forms of racial domination that oppress them.
Moreover, black people, in particular black intellectuals and social critics,
must continue to be defiant and vigilant in the face of the continuing,
and sometimes subtle, presence of white cultural domination,
submitting it to incisive critique and exposing its ideology for the fraud
that it is.
Shelby Foundations of Black Solidarity 257
However, in doing these important things, we do not need to follow
the collective identity theorist in the view that blacks must also embrace
a common black ethnic/cultural identity. One can acknowledge the
importance of learning about black history and understanding black
cultures without treating cultural blackness, however delimited, as defining
who one is or allowing it to set the boundaries of one’s choices.
Black people can also resist white cultural domination, even using elements
of culture itself, without establishing a common culture of resistance
that all must embrace and celebrate. There is no doubt that
blacks should be informed about black history and cultures—as should
nonblacks—for, at a minimum, this will help them to better understand
the nature of their racial subordination and the possible routes out of
it. But, I would add, in coming to this greater understanding of the
past, present, and possible future, blacks should be careful not to be
seduced by the project of black cultural redemption. Black people
should not be in the business of “proving” the greatness of their cultural
heritage, for this is to be pulled into the all too familiar discourse of
racial chauvinism, an ideology that wrongly treats cultural achievement
as a function of “race.”
Question 2.—Setting aside mass psychotherapy, what kind of remedy
is there for the problem of internalized racial oppression among
blacks—the so-called black inferiority complex?
Before discussing this question, first notice that the ideological attack
on blacks not only involves the devaluation of black cultures but
also extends to the denigration of the intelligence, physical beauty, and
moral character of black people. At various times, blacks have been
viewed as childlike, stupid, and lazy, and thus in need of white paternalism.
37 At other times, blacks are depicted as wild, vicious, and impulsive,
and therefore in need of being controlled and contained.Worse
yet, and this is the heart of the matter, these negative images have also
seeped into the consciousness of many blacks, often without their being
aware of it.
Part of the remedy for this type of self-alienation is to be found in
the strategies already mentioned: spreading accurate information about
black history and cultural forms; using various forms of cultural expression
to resist and subvert antiblack racism; and engaging in the
relentless critique of the doctrine and practice of racial domination.
37. Eugene D. Genovese examines how the ideology of paternalism served to rationalize
and reproduce the slave system of the South in his Roll Jordan, Roll: The World the
Slaves Made (New York: Vintage, 1976). Howard McGary provides a philosophical discussion
of this ideology in “Paternalism and Slavery,” in Between Slavery and Freedom: Philosophy and
American Slavery, by HowardMcGary and Bill E. Lawson (Bloomington: IndianaUniversity
Press, 1992).
258 Ethics January 2001
However, there is still more that can be done. Black people can also
bond together to collectively combat their racial oppression in a more
coordinated way. Indeed, the need to overcome the self-contempt produced
by antiblack racism is an important part of the justification for
black solidarity.38 Given the widespread internalization of antiblack race
prejudice, it becomes necessary for black people to be a significant, if
not the primary, force behind their liberation from racial subordination.
It is not enough for black people to be freed from their subordinate
position by their nonblack allies and sympathizers; theymust participate,
in a meaningful way, in freeing themselves. The collective struggle for
self-emancipation, even if unsuccessful, can itself enhance the participants’
sense of dignity and self-respect.39 Moreover, fighting together to
free themselves from racial exclusion and domination is one way, in
addition to the ones already mentioned, for blacks to strengthen their
conviction that the doctrine of white supremacy is a vicious lie.40
No doubt, blacks should have a liberated consciousness, one that
is as free as possible from the devastating effects of racist ideology.
However, in freeing their minds from the grip of such degrading and
essentialist images of themselves, they don’t need to, nor should they,
replace these representations with another essentialized group identity,
no matter how positive or group affirming some may think it to be.41
Question 3.—But what about the assimilated black who rejects his
black identity in favor of a “white” persona and cultural lifestyle; can
he really be trusted by other blacks in the collective struggle when he
shows no loyalty to black culture?
It depends on how he conducts himself in other contexts, especially
38. For a useful discussion of the ways in which supportive black communities have
aided blacks in their struggle against this type of alienation, see Howard McGary, “Alienation
and the African-American Experience,” in his Race and Social Justice (Malden, Mass.:
Blackwell, 1999), pp. 19–24.
39. This was well understood by those blacks who voluntarily fought in the Union
Army war against the slaveholding Confederate States. The same can be said of those
blacks who walked miles to work in order to boycott segregation on southern buses, and
of those who marched in protest for their civil rights, often risking severe beatings, police
dog attacks, and even being killed.
40. Bernard R. Boxill develops this and related points in his “Self-Respect and Protest,”
Philosophy & Public Affairs 6 (1976): 58–69. Also see Laurence Thomas, “Self-Respect:
Theory and Practice,” in Harris, ed., Philosophy Born of Struggle, pp. 174–89.
41. As Robert Birt cautions us, “We must resist the stultifying images of ourselves
created by the oppressor. But we must also resist the temptation to create an essentialized
black consciousness which reifies black identity while (or by) glorifying it. Maintaining
racial essentialism while only inverting the negative valuations imposed by whites may
appear liberating but ultimately leads to new reifications—and a whole framework of rigid
roles, rigid identities and contempt for freedom” (“Existence, Identity, and Liberation,”
in Existence in Black: An Anthology of Black Existential Philosophy, ed. Lewis R. Gordon [New
York: Routledge, 1997], pp. 211–12).
Shelby Foundations of Black Solidarity 259
those that bear directly on antiracist struggles. Granted, sometimes when
a black person chooses not to identify with (what he or she takes to be)
black culture, this is accompanied by a lack of identification with black
struggles against racism. But clearly we would be unjustified in assuming
that this is always the case. As was argued earlier, we cannot simply infer
a black person’s lack of loyalty and trustworthiness in the fight against
racial oppression from the fact that he does not define himself in terms
of “black culture.” Many so-called assimilated blacks have played important
roles in the struggle against racism; and it would be unreasonable
and insulting to doubt the sincerity of their commitment to black
solidarity simply because they did not embrace a black ethnic/cultural
The fact is a person can show her loyalty to the cause of black
liberation, and thus her trustworthiness as an ally in black resistance to
racism, in ways other than through cultural identification. She can, for
example, work to help ensure that the next generation of blacks has a
lighter burden of racial oppression than the present one. Such hard
work and protest against racism should be sufficient to eliminate any
suspicion that might arise due to the person’s lack of black cultural
identification. If the person were truly self-hating and servile, then she
would be unlikely to openly struggle and sacrifice to advance the interests
of the very group whose abject status is the source of her selfcontempt.
We should be careful not to reject potential allies in our
collective effort to end racism on the ground that they do not share
our ethnic/cultural identity. It is much more important, indeed critical,
that those we seek solidarity with share our antiracist values and our
commitment to eliminating racial oppression and the social problems
it causes.
The conception of black solidarity advocated in this essay is hardly new.
Though it is often conflated with similar positions (including various
forms of black nationalism) and at times wrongly thought to require a
thick black identity, it is, I believe, widely held among blacks. Indeed,
in the later part of his life, Du Bois himself comes around to something
like this view. In Dusk of Dawn, Du Bois reflects on his deeply felt tie to
Africa, which he “can feel better than [he] can explain”:
But one thing is sure and that is the fact that since the fifteenth
century these ancestors of mine and their other descendants have
had a common history; have suffered a common disaster and have
42. As Boxill wisely reminds us, “It is false and vicious to infer that every assimilated
black, or every black-skinned writer or poet who does not display ‘soul,’ is imitative and
servile” (Blacks and Social Justice, p. 181).
260 Ethics January 2001
one long memory. The actual ties of heritage between the individuals
of this group, vary with the ancestors that they have in
common and many others: Europeans and Semites, perhaps Mongolians,
certainly American Indians. But the physical bond is least
and the badge of color relatively unimportant save as a badge; the
real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery; the
discrimination and insult; and this heritage binds together not
simply the children of Africa, but extends through yellow Asia and
into the South Seas. It is this unity that draws me to Africa.43
Of course Du Bois is here describing a Pan-African vision of black solidarity,
which is beyond the scope of black solidarity defended here. But
he does root this broader conception of black solidarity, not in a thick
collective identity as he does in his “Conservation” essay, but in the
common experience of racialized oppression throughout the world.
In the space remaining, I want to briefly summarize the common
oppression conception of black solidarity that I have been defending
here and anticipate a few objections to it. As I’ve emphasized, themutual
identification between blacks, that familiar sense of “we-ness,” can be
founded on the shared experience of antiblack racism. That common
experience, made possible by our racial ascription as “black” people,
includes such things as bearing the weight of the stigma attached to
looking and acting “black”; being subject to the vicissitudes of a racially
segmented labor market; suffering discrimination on the basis of presumed
incompetence; enduring the systematic exclusion from certain
neighborhoods, schools, and social circles; recognizing that one is often
the object of unjustified hatred, contempt, suspicion, or fear; feeling
powerless to change one’s inferior racial status; functioning as the perennial
scapegoat for social problems and economic crises; and living
with the knowledge that one is vulnerable to being victimized, at almost
any time, by an antiblack attitude, action, social practice, or institutional
As an emancipatory solidarity group, blacks must be committed to
social equality and respect for group differences, which means rooting
out racism wherever it exists, even within our own ranks. For while we
identify with each other because of our common suffering under antiblack
oppression, our stance against our oppressors must be a principled
one if our indignation and resentment are to be justified. It is
important to see that an oppression-centered black solidarity is not a
matter of being antiwhite, or even problack, but of being antiracist.
Consequently, solidarity with other racially oppressed groups, and even
with committed antiracist whites, is not precluded by it. Thus, progres-
43. W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept
(New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1997), p. 117.
Shelby Foundations of Black Solidarity 261
sive individuals, regardless of their “race,” ethnicity, cultural identifications,
or national origin, have no reason to oppose black solidarity,
once its basis and point are properly understood.
Group loyalty and mutual trust can be cultivated through our individual
and collective struggles against racial domination and inequality.
Those we most seek solidarity with, then, are not necessarily
those who most exhibit a thick black identity but rather those who stand
firm against all forms of racism, regardless of their racial or cultural
identifications. Rather than being rooted in “race,” ethnicity, or culture,
the group’s self-conception is grounded in its antiracist politics and its
commitment to racial justice.
There must be room within an emancipatory black solidarity for
disagreement over the precise content of our antiracist politics. The
ideals of racial equality and respect for group difference are open to a
variety of interpretations, and reasonable people can disagree over both
the appropriate strategies for overcoming racial oppression and the
exact meaning of “black liberation.” Some of these disagreements may
run deep (say, between radicals and conservatives), and thus it is unlikely
that we can reach consensus on a comprehensive political program.
However, we know that we all want to live in a society where being
(thought to be) “black” is not a disadvantage or stigma and where all
can live with dignity and self-respect regardless of their so-called race.
These somewhat vague ideals and goals can provide black solidarity with
a roughnormative guide, which can bemademore precise and complete
through open-ended dialogue about where to go from here and how
to get there. Though there will inevitably be, perhaps intense, disagreement
among blacks over the details of our antiracist politics, we
should debate these matters with open minds and without allowing
ourselves to be sidetracked by the irresolvable controversy over what it
means to be “really” black. Should it happen that our bonds begin to
fracture because of the depth of our political disagreements—and perhaps
that time is now, again, upon us—we each should remind ourselves
and each other, as Frederick Douglass urged long ago, that the mutual
recognition of our common subordinate position and our collective will
to rise above it are the bases of our unity.
Some might wonder why black solidarity is needed at all, especially
since racism is not unique to the experience of blacks and, as was conceded
earlier, solidarity between antiracist blacks and nonblacks is both
possible and desirable. Shouldn’t we just reject black solidarity and embrace
interracial, antiracist solidarity instead?44 While I certainly would
44. Appiah raises a similar objection against the later Du Bois’s conception of “race”
(see his In My Father’s House, p. 42). While Appiah’s criticismof Du Bois’s Pan-Africanism
is quite telling, it has little force against the version of black solidarity defended here, for
262 Ethics January 2001
strongly encourage blacks to work with antiracist nonblacks against racism,
I do not see why blacks must give up their solidaristic commitment
to each other in order to do so. There is room for nested and overlapping
forms of antiracist solidarity, just as there is space for more or less
exclusive and inclusive collective struggles at other sites of oppression—
for example, class, gender, sexuality, and their intersections. However,
though broader forms of antiracist solidarity should be cultivated,
there are at least three reasons why it is prudent for blacks to hold on
to this narrower commitment as well, at least for the time being.
First, antiblack racial oppression (like anti-Semitism, anti-Asian racism,
and the oppression of Native Americans) has features that make
it unique as a formof racial subjection. The peculiar content of antiblack
racist ideology (with its images of blacks as lazy, stupid, hypersexual,
and disposed to acts of aggression), the enslavement and brutal treatment
of Africans in the New World, and the subsequent exclusion of
blacks from the mainstream of American civic and social life have combined
to give antiblack race prejudice a distinctive character among
American forms of racism. There are also severe social problems—for
example, joblessness, high rates of incarceration, concentrated poverty,
failing schools, a violent drug trade—that plague some black communities
and that are partly the result of (past and present) racial discrimination
against black people in particular.45 While a joint commitment
to fighting racial injustice in all its forms can help create interracial
solidarity, it is often the common experience of specific forms of racial
oppression that creates the strongest and most enduring bonds among
victims of racism.
Second, the black experience with racism in America makes it difficult
for many blacks to fully trust nonblacks when it comes to fighting
against racism, for they have too often been victimized by the racism
of nonblacks, even by some who are racially oppressed themselves. Add
to this the fact that other “racial” minorities have solidaristic commitments
of their own (e.g., Jews, Native Americans, and some Asian
groups), and it should be clear that many blacks justifiably feel the need
to protect themselves against the dangers that may result from competing
group loyalties and interests. A unilateral laying down of solidaristic
arms, as it were, would increase black vulnerability to
that version, in contrast to Du Bois’s, does not rely on the doctrine of racialism, it does
not presuppose a common “black culture,” and it is rooted in the specificity of black
oppression in America.
45. See William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor
(New York: Knopf, 1999); and Douglass S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid:
Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
Shelby Foundations of Black Solidarity 263
And, third, the common experience of antiblack racism has for
centuries now provided a firm and well-recognized basis for mutual
identification between blacks, and this shared experience partially accounts
for the solidarity between them that continues to exist today. As
we seek to form interracial coalitions in our fight against racism, we
should not underestimate or devalue this social bond. Historically, it
has been a great source of strength and hope for blacks, and a highly
effective means for creating greater social equality. I believe that it can,
and should, continue to do so. In saying this, however, I am not suggesting
that black collective action, founded on an oppression-centered
black solidarity, would be sufficient to eliminate racism. Indeed, it could
turn out that nothing we do, even with the help of members from other
“racial” groups, will end racism, especially antiblack racism.46 Perhaps
the most that can be hoped for, at least in the foreseeable future, is
that black solidarity will afford blacks a limited form of collective selfdefense
against some of the more burdensome forms of racial oppression.
But this, I should think, would be sufficient to make the effort
An oppression-centered black solidarity does not, however, require
a common black identity. Though black oppression may be based on,
or rationalized in terms of, an ascribed black identity, this ascription
need not be well founded in order for the oppression to be real or for
bonds of solidarity among the racially oppressed to form.
The advocate of collective identity theory might here object: surely
an oppression-centered black solidarity must at least require that blacks
identify with their thin blackness; for without such a common identity,
they will lack a stable foundation for mutual identification. This objection
fails, however. To see why, consider the following variant of the
well-worn but still instructive witch analogy.47 The trial and subsequent
punishment of alleged “witches” was ostensibly based on the claim that
the accused had communed with the forces of the underworld. Though
this accusation was most certainly unfounded, these so-called witches
nevertheless suffered a common fate. But now let’s suppose for a moment
that some of the accused really did practice witchcraft, that is,
that they engaged in “sorcery,” sought to conspire with the Devil, surreptitiously
corrupted good Christians, and so on. Suppose further that,
at various points, some of their number, for whatever reason, ceased
46. See Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (New York:
Basic, 1992).
47. While philosophers often invoke the “witch” as an example of a nonexistent entity,
I think Appiah was the first to use the witch analogy in the context of the metaphysics of
race. See, e.g., his article on “race” in Africana: The Encyclopedia of African and African-
American Experience, ed. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York:
Basic, 1999).
264 Ethics January 2001
practicing witchcraft and no longer identified themselves as “witches.”
And, finally, suppose that at least some of these practitioners of witchcraft
believed that some among them were frauds, that is, not “really”
witches, according to some commonly accepted criteria for being a witch
or according to some more controversial and strict criteria. Now despite
all this, it seems clear that all of these former, pseudo-, and would-be
witches could share bonds of solidarity with each other, not based on
their common “witch identity” (for ex hypothesi the existence of a
shared identity was in doubt), but based on their common persecution.
They simply could have put aside the question of who is and who is not
an authentic witch and focused their attention and energy on overcoming
their common plight.
Black solidarity could have, and should have, an analogous foundation.
Attachment to their thin black identity is not the basis of the
group’s solidarity, but rather the shared experience with antiblack racism
and the joint commitment to ending it. Blacks need only recognize
that part of the reason they often suffer mistreatment is that others see
them as thickly “black” (their thin blackness being merely a “sign” of a
deeper difference); and this “racialized perception” leads their oppressors
(sometimes unconsciously) to treat them as a devalued “other.”48
Identification between members of the racially oppressed group can
therefore be based on their mutual recognition of this sad and disturbing
fact. It would not undermine black solidarity if, apart from the
unjust treatment that they engender, the characteristics that constitute
their thin blackness were to have little or no significance for the members
of the united oppressed group. Once liberation is achieved, thin
blackness may in fact (though it need not) lose all social and political
But now some might suggest that even this stripped-down common
oppression theory commits itself to a version of the collective identity
view, for it nevertheless endorses the cultivation of a thick collective
black identity: it urges blacks to see themselves as racially oppressed.
This shared identity is not based on “race,” ethnicity, or culture, but on
the common experience of antiblack racism. Thus, those blacks who
are united by ties of solidarity will still have a collective identity, and
one that is not reducible to their political principles or antiracist politics.
This identity might aptly be described as “victims of antiblack racial
48. For illuminating discussions of the subtle workings of the “racial gaze,” see Adrian
M. S. Piper, “Higher-Order Discrimination,” in Identity, Character, and Morality: Essays in
Moral Psychology, ed. Owen Flanagan and Amelie Rorty (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,
1990); and Linda Marti´n Alcoff, “Towards a Phenomenology of Racial Embodiment,”
Radical Philosophy 95 (1999): 15–26.
Shelby Foundations of Black Solidarity 265
We could of course respond to this objection by simply conceding
it; that is, we could accept that the one “thick” collective black identity
that continues to be a realistic possibility is constituted by our victim
status in an antiblack world. This approach to the meaning of blackness
is not self-defeating or divisive like the other conceptions we considered,
since the vast majority of blacks rightly accept that antiblack racism
continues to exist (though of course they have no wish to preserve the
conditions under which an oppression-based identity would be advantageous
or desirable).49 Such an identity would not gratuitously add to
individual unfreedom, for it is nonracialist and perfectly consistent with
cultural/ethnic diversity. Moreover, we should not have to go to great
lengths to cultivate this identity, for there is more than enough antiblack
sentiment and discrimination still around to sustain it—though, admittedly,
it may be necessary to convince people of the depth of the
problem.50 But this view of “blackness” would not give the (typical)
collective identity theorist all that he wants, for the search for a collective
black identity has generally been a struggle to discover or construct a
positive social identity, one that could be a basis for pride, dignity, and
collective self-affirmation. A common identity based on nothing more
than our shared experience of racism cannot provide such an identity,
for this would, perversely, treat victimhood as something of which to be
proud—which is not of course to say that it is something of which we
should be ashamed.51
49. Jennifer L. Hochschild, Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul
of the Nation (Princeton. N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995).
50. According to Orlando Patterson (p. 61), “all things considered, it is reasonable
to estimate that about a quarter of the Euro-American population harbors at least mildly
racist feelings toward Afro-Americans and that one in five is a hard-core racist.…However
one may wish to quibble over the meaning of attitude surveys and other data, this is real
progress, an enormous change from the fifties and sixties, when the great majority of
Euro-Americans were openly racists, measured by whatever means. Nonetheless, when
roughly a quarter of all Euro-Americans are racists, it still remains the case that for every
two Afro-American persons there are three Euro-American racists. In spite of all the
progress among Euro-Americans, this is still an outrageous situation for any Afro-American.”
See also Howard Schuman, Charlotte Steeh, Lawrence Bobo, and Maria Krysan,
Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1997); David O. Sears, Colette van Laar, Mary Carrillo, and Rick Kosterman,
“Is It Really Racism? The Origins of White Americans’ Opposition to Race-Targeted
Policies,” Public Opinion Quarterly 61 (1997): 16–53; and David O. Sears, Jim Sidanius, and
Lawrence Bobo, eds., Racialized Politics: The Debate about Racism in America (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 2000).
51. Some might argue that a collective identity constituted by our oppressed condition
can be seen to be positive and group affirming if we view it from a black theological
perspective (whether Christian or Muslim). On this view, God embraces blacks because
they are oppressed; and He is concerned to help them liberate themselves from their evil
oppressors. (See, e.g., James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation [Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis,
266 Ethics January 2001
If the arguments presented in this article are sound, then black solidarity
can survive the now well-known critique of racial/ethnic essentialism;
it can be sustained despite the loss of “race” as a viable biological concept;
it can flourish despite the cultural and ethnic diversity of black
people; and it need not unduly constrain individuality or our freedom
to construct a pluralistic identity. However, this reconstructed black solidarity
will have to be sustained without the demand for a collective
black identity, for this requirement can only impede the collective struggle
that lies ahead.
1990]; and Elijah Muhammad, Message to the Blackman in America [Atlanta: Messenger Elijah
Muhammad Propagation Society, 1997].) However, the positive dimension of this kind of
“blackness” is surely derived, not from the oppression itself, but from the virtue associated
with the steadfast pursuit of truth and justice despite being oppressed and/or from the
promise that, through faith and collective struggle, we will ultimately be delivered from
that oppression. If God did not love what is good and hate what is evil, or if He could
help liberate us from undeserved domination but did not, then we could hardly take
much pride in being “chosen” by Him. But even if black theology could find in black
oppression something of which to be proud, it is clear that a religious narrative of this
sort is not one that will resonate with all blacks, since not all of us are religiously inclined.
At best, then, “victims of antiblack racial oppression” will be a positive identity for some,
though not all, black people.

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