Favorite Books of 2019: The First two

It’s not December yet, but I don’t think it’s too early to start making end-of-year lists. Since I’d like to write little blurbs about each, I figured I’d describe two books at a time through the end of the year. While I don’t agree with every book that will appear in these posts, I found each one challenging or educational in some way. These are in no particular order.

Self Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race – Thomas Chatterton Williams

Williams explores identity and race through a well-written, self-reflective, memoir. He rejects racial essentialism and urges his audience to move beyond what he claims is the modern racist social-construction of race. Before your eyes roll at the appearance of another book espousing a simplistic color-blind ideology, this book comes from a different place and is argued with considerable nuance. He utilizes insights from Karen and Barbara Fields’ Racecraft in ways that recognize and explore the historical and social constructions of race while acknowledging the brutal realities of racism. He then moves to ask the question of, how should we act now?

He ultimately does not want to perpetuate the use of a construct born out of racism, as it seems to almost further institutionalize the concept. By using racism’s terms, it can make it more challenging to actually move beyond it. To clarify one point of contention, his argument against race is not against African-American history nor contributions to society. He is not out to erase the beauty of historical culture but to shed what he views as a harmful dehumanizing construct. Nor is his charge simply to those with a skin tone of a darker hue. More important and key, “whiteness – the disastrous illusion undergirding all aspects of race – will have to be overcome.” One claiming that they, “don’t see race” in others and/or themselves, will have required introspection coming away from Self-Portrait.

One key insight comes in anticipation of an objection, that society may not recognize one’s personal decision to “retire” or move beyond race. For example, a dark-skinned man who “retires” from race, will still be viewed as a black man to a police officer. Here, Williams asks how much we should let outside perceptions define our identity. If one indeed is racially profiled and abused, Williams asserts, “horrific as that would be, it still would not be reason for him to revise his fundamental understanding of himself in order to better conform to the damaging prejudices of the racist who targeted him.” Additionally, he describes his experience living in France, where he has been identified as an Arab based on his skin-tone. That public identification does not mean that he does, nor should adopt an Arab identity. In that case, his identity as someone with a dark-skinned father and light-skinned mother results in a shifting racial identity dependent on his location. He quips, “Like the adage about politics, all race is local.” Identity can emerge from a dialectic from both societal perception and individual creation (I sense a bit of Hegel’s concept of recognition in his argument). To quote Williams, “…our identities really are a constant negotiation between the story we tell about ourselves and the narrative our societies like to recite, between the face we see in the mirror and the image recognized by the people and institutions that happen to surround us.” Williams challenges his readers to create an identity based on where they want society to go, while remaining honest about the current environment.

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in discussions around race and identity, especially if you already find yourself a fan of writers on either end of the spectrum from Coates or Sowell. Williams provides an important, and interesting contribution to the overall conversation.

P.S. Aesthetically, Self-Portrait manages to beautifully utilize language without being pedantic.


In Defense of Globalism – Dalibor Rohac

Rohac makes a conservative argument in favor of international institutions, targeting his “friends on the political right – conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians” who have been skeptical of international institutions and/or have adopted what he refers to as a crude realism.

Rohac argues that international institutions “have been extraordinarily successful at making the world free, peaceful, and economically dynamic”. He develops an almost Burkean argument for international institutions by encouraging us to build on the successes of the international system while expunging the deficiencies. He instructs, “…the task at hand is not to build a new international system from scratch but rather to slowly rebuild and update the structures that already exist…” additionally claiming some “agencies, treaties, and norms” may have “outlived their purposes”.

The emphasis is to build on what works through a system of trial and error. The system of trial and error requires intense deliberation to understand the “trade-offs that existing cooperation entails.” However, this deliberation does not come from a top-down source, but rather bottom-up through “independent nodes of decision making.” Rohac envisions these independent nodes as part of polycentric governance, a term from Michael Polanyi, but developed analytically by the Ostroms. Polycentricity involves multiple autonomous decision-making entities that are “constantly adjusting to each other’s actions within a system of shared rules” (Rohac quoting Ostrom, Tiebout, and Warren). His focus on polycentricity acknowledges the challenges of transnational issues and recognizes the fact that sub-national levels of government may have important roles to play in solving some regional, and even global challenges.

His additional and necessary explorations of the concept of sovereignty, the World Trade Organization, and historical forms of international cooperation form a solid and challenging argument that should interest the international skeptic and those approaching international order from a different lens. Additionally, while filling only 125 pages of text, this work on international relations and the economy is considerably more approachable than much in the genre.


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