Since his creation, James Bond has been a white man. Much to the delight of some and to the horror of others, there are serious plans to have a black actor play the next James Bond. There has even been some talk about having a female James Bond. While racist and sexist reasons abound to condemn having Bond be anything other than a white man, there is the question of whether there are good reasons for James Bond to always be a white man. Before getting into this discussion, I will first look at the matter of the 007.
While James Bond has been known as 007, this is his agent designation and there are other 00 agents. This can thus be seen as analogous to the number used by an athlete on a team. As such, while James Bond has been 007, another person could replace him and get that number—just as a guy who was 23 on a baseball team could retire and a new person could get that number (although teams sometimes retire numbers). Within the James Bond universe, it would thus make sense for someone else to get the 007 designation and this person need not be white or male. As far as why this could occur in universe, James Bond is not immortal and hence would eventually be too old or dead to remain 007. From an aesthetic standpoint, it would be interesting to see a Bond timeline in which time mattered; that is, a Bond world in which Bond grew old and a new agent took his place. This would have the benefit of keeping Bond relevant to today while also maintaining (in universe) the old Bond. There is, of course, the obvious financial risk: having a new 007 who is not James Bond can be seen as analogous to replacing a star athlete with a new person who just gets the same number. There is the risk of losing the drawing power of that person. But my main concern is with the more interesting matter of whether James Bond must be a white man, so I will leave the money worries to the branding gurus.
One obvious fact about the Bond of the movies is that different actors have played that character. While there are strong opinions about the best Bond, there was little debate about whether a new white man should take the role when the previous Bond aged out of the role or left for other reasons. The actors who played Bond were (in general) accepted as at least adequate for the role and there was no real debate about whether the character was still James Bond despite the change in actors. That is, there is no general issue with a new actor playing the role. There were also, obviously enough, no effort to explain in the Bond universe the change in Bond’s appearance. I mention this because of another famous character from United Kingdom fiction, Dr. Who. When Dr. Who began, the actor playing the doctor was quite old and they ran into the rather practical problem of age. They hit on a brilliant solution: Dr. Who regenerates and radically changes appearance, though remaining the same person. This gives the show an interesting feature: continuity of character through changes of actors with an in-universe explanation.
While Bond movies do feature gadgets and plots that border or even cross into science fiction (consider Moonraker), it seems unlikely that the Bond cinematic universe would allow for such science fiction devices as alternative realities, such as brilliantly done in Marvel’s What If…? As such, the various Bonds are not explained in terms of being alternative or variant Bonds; they are all the James Bond. Now, if Bond can remain Bond despite the changes of actors, then it would seem that he would remain Bond even if he were played by a non-white actor. After all, if switching from Sean Connery did not entail that Bond was no longer Bond, then changing his race should not do that either. After all, the actors that played Bond are different people, with significant differences in appearance, mannerisms, and voice. Having a black actor, for example, would just be another change of appearance. It would also seem to follow that having a female actor play Bond would also make as much sense; it would just be another change in appearance. But one could attempt to argue that it is essential to Bond that he be a white man. This, of course, gets us into the notion of essential properties.
In philosophy, an essential property (to steal from Aristotle) is a property that it must have. In contrast an accidental property is one that it does have but could lack. To use a simple example, it is essential to a triangle that it be three-sided. It must have three sides to be a triangle. But the size and color of a triangle are accidental properties; they can change, and it will still remain a triangle. So, the relevant issue here is whether being a white man is essential to being James Bond or merely accidental. Given all the changes in actors over the years, there are clearly many properties that Bond has accidentally—they can change with the actors while the character is still Bond. One advantage of a fictional character is, of course, that the author can simply decide on the essential properties when they create the metaphysics for their fictional world. But, of course, the creator of Bond did not do that-so we would need to speculate using various metaphysical theories about our world. That is, would a person changing their race or gender result in the person ceasing to be, just as changing the sides of a triangle would make it cease to be a triangle? On the face of it, while such changes would clearly alter the person, they would seem to retain their personal identity. If this is true, then James Bond need not be a white man.