In the United States, race has been forged into a matter of great concern—at least for some people. One of the not uncommonly expressed concerns is whether or not someone is black. In the past, this was often a concern that a black person might be attempting to pass as white. As might be imagined, this was mostly a matter of concern to certain white people. In more recent years a twist has been added to the matter of discerning a person’s blackness. To be specific, one matter that concerns some people is whether or not a person is authentically black as opposed, presumably, to being inauthentically black. In such cases, the racial classification of the person is generally not in dispute. That is, s/he is identified as being black. The concern is, rather, over whether or not the person is properly black. As such, this adds another normative level to the judgment being made.
One recent incident that raised this matter occurred on the ESPN program “First Take.” While this is a sports program, the conversation turned to race when Rob Parker asked if Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is “a brother or is he a cornball brother?” This, on the face of it, seems to be in inquiry into whether or not Griffin is “properly black” or not. When asked what he meant, Parker replied “well, he’s black, he kind of does his thing. But he’s not really down with the cause, he’s not one of us. He’s kind of black. But he’s not really the guy you’d really want to hang out with because he’s off to do something else.”
While Parker does not clearly lay out detailed standards for being authentically black, he did expand on his remarks in a way that suggested what he meant by “being down with the cause.” Parker noted that Griffin has a white fiancée and that there are rumors that he is a Republican.
Parker’s concern over Griffin having a white fiancée is not uncommon. While whites have often been dismayed by attempts to “mix the races” (and it was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court ruled against laws restricting marriage based on race), blacks sometimes criticize other blacks for having relationships with non-blacks. Interestingly and disturbingly, the reasons advanced against “race mixing” often mirror those advanced by racist whites (such as preserving the race). As such, this sort of criticism of Griffin seems to be racist. Naturally, there have been attempts to defend opposition to “race mixing” as being non-racist, but that seems to be a rather challenging (but perhaps not impossible) goal.
Of course, even if being suspicious of “race mixing” is at least a bit racist, it could still be argued that being authentically black requires that a person only have relationships with other black people. That is, that being involved with a non-black would somehow make a person less properly black. Presumably this could apply to other races, so that a white person who dates outside of her race is not properly white and so on for the other races. That is, to be a proper member of the race, one must only be involved with one’s own race. This, of course, requires working out an account of race so that people can date properly if they wish to be authentic. After all, if having a relationship with a person of another race causes one to be inauthentic, then presumably it would follow that dating someone of mixed race could lead to a partial inauthenticity. There is also the obvious problem that “race mixing” has already occurred on a rather large scale and hence those concerned with racial authenticity will need to sort out the matter of mixed-race people, such as President Obama and myself (I’m a colonial blend of English, French, Mohawk and “other”).
Parker’s second main point seems to be in regards to the rumor that Griffin is a Republican. While the Republicans were once popular with African-Americans, that certainly changed (and did so well before Obama ran for president in 2008). The modern Republican Party is often regarded as being tainted with racism and, at the very least, is regarded primarily as a white male party. Not surprisingly, known black Republicans, such as Colin Powell and Herman Cain, are sometimes accused of selling out or even of being “Uncle Toms.” The underlying assumption seems to be that the Republican Party is simply not the place for an authentic black American, presumably because of the values endorsed (or attributed to) the Republican Party.
This does, of course, raise the obvious question as to whether or not being properly black entails that one is obligated to hold to a specific set of political views (namely those not held by the Republican Party). This would seem to suggest that part of the definition of being authentically black involves not merely appearance (having black skin) but also ideology. This would indicate that authentic blackness is not merely a matter of race but also of mind. On the face of it, it does seem odd that being an authentic black would be incompatible with being Republican. After all, while the Republican Party is often presented as the white party, a white person who is a Democrat (or independent) is not regarded as being an inauthentic white. But perhaps things are different for whites.
As a final point, Parker does seem to regard physical appearance as an important part of being an authentic black. When speaking of Griffin’s braids he said, “To me, that’s very urban…. You’re a brother if you have braids on.”
While Parker might be presenting a sufficient condition for being “a brother” (presumably being authentically black), it seems reasonable to assume that it is not a necessary condition. It is not, however, clear to what degree the braids offset the other suspicious qualities of Griffin or others. However, combining this remark with the other claims made by Parker, it would seem that racial authenticity involves behavior (specifically relationships), ideology (specifically politics) and appearance (specifically hairstyle). This would seem to provide the basis for a theorist to work out an account of authenticity.
Given what Parker has said, one might wonder what Griffin thinks about the matter of color. Interestingly, Griffin echoes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said, “For me, you don’t ever want to be defined by the color of your skin. You want to be defined by your work ethic, the person that you are, your character, your personality. That’s what I’ve tried to go out and do.” Griffin, then, seems more concerned with being authentically himself than with meeting a Parker style standard of being authentically black. Not surprisingly, I agree with Griffin in this matter.
One way to get on the TSA watch list is to be a suspected terrorist. Another way is to be critical of the TSA. For example, Drew Griffin (a CNN reporter) ended up on the TSA watch list shortly after he did a piece critical of the TSA. Physicist Thomas B. Cochran was also put on the watch list. In 2002 he helped ABC news expose the fact that the nuclear material screening system in use in American ports could easily be defeated. Congressman John Lewis is also on the watch list, but it is unclear why. There are also other people on the list who no doubt should not be on it. Interestingly, Nelson Mandela was recently removed from a terrorist watch list.
Watch lists of this sort do have a legitimate function. After all, it is the duty of a government to protect its citizens and such lists provide a minor tool in achieving this end. While I do recognize their usefulness, I tend to dislike the keeping of such lists. They seem to smell a bit of tyranny.
Naturally enough, a list intended to aid in the defense against terrorists should only contain the names of people who are terrorists or are likely to play a role in terrorism. Obviously, people like Griffin, Lewis and Cochran are not terrorists and should not be on that list.
The reason why Griffin and Cochran made the list seems rather obvious: they were critical of the TSA and revealed truths unpleasant to those in charge of the list. This sort of treatment of critics has been standard practice throughout history. For example, Socrates was placed on trial partially because he exposed the failings of the powerful. However, as Socrates argued, the state should be grateful for such critics because they perform a valuable service. If the goal of the TSA is to protect Americans, they should be grateful when someone assists them in exposing weaknesses and thus enables them to make America safer. Of course, if their main concern is not for the safety of the people but for something else, then such actions would be regarded with hostility.
it might be replied that people such as Cochran and Griffin are actually a threat to America. After all, the exposure of weaknesses in America’s security could be viewed as rendering possible aid to the enemies of America. Such information could be used by terrorists in planning and implementing an attack. For example, the weakness exposed by Cochran and ABC could be used to smuggle in material to make a radioactive weapon of some sort.
This reply does have some appeal. After all, revealing a vulnerability can be seen as a betrayal. For example, the Persians were able to outflank the Spartans by learning of the location of a secret pass. Perhaps what Cochran and Griffin did could be seen as analogous to revealing a pass to America’s enemies.
However, the analogy does break down. Griffin and Cochran were not acting to betray America to her enemies. Rather, they seemed to be acting with the intent of exposing a vulnerability so that it could be corrected. In the case of Cochran, his intent has been made quite clear in a recent article in Scientific American. In this article he argues that the United States should adopt methods that will actual help protect America from nuclear smuggling. This is hardly the sort of thing an enemy of America would do.
Putting such critics on the watch list is clearly morally wrong. First, they are being punished for attempting to expose flaws in security that need to be corrected. If these defects remained unknown, then they would probably remain until a terrorist or other wrongdoer found them and used them to do real harm. Second, taking such action against people who are critical goes against the basic principles of an open democracy. Third, such action can serve to deter the criticism that is so essential to exposing and correcting problems. This could have serious and unfortunate consequences. Fourth, the use of this method to try to punish critics is, as Locke would argue, an act of tyranny. Fifth, putting such people on the list can waste time and resources that could be better spent on people who really should be on such a list.
In light of the misuse of the list, there needs to be greater oversight in regards to who is on the list and why. Failure to do so would be to further a moral wrong and also put America at greater risk.