APA news letter on the black experience: How can we be so racist?

The third comment (by lk macpherson) on this important post by Jender makes two claims that create a considerable challenge for white philosophers. On the one hand, lk tells us that he has had experiences that are difficult to believe have happened, with the implication that the experiences were due to racism.(But see comment #7 below.)

At this point, it might be tempting to think, “Well, I’ve never caused any such thing. So it’s a problem in my profession, but not exactly a serious one for innocent me.” (Thinking about this has made me wonder how many people come away from reading about what it is like to be a woman in philosophy with a self-congratulatory sense that at least they do not do that sort of thing. If that’s what you are saying to yourself, stop it!   And read on.)**

lk then goes :

The philosophy profession–in composition, sensibilities, and content–is a racially hostile environment, even if that hostility typically manifests itself as benign neglect. … 

  I could try to assure you that “well qualified” blacks are not in great demand – other than for submitting job applications and responding to pointless “diversity office” surveys. I could dismiss the need for more studies of a type which basically presuppose that the gross underrepresentation of blacks in philosophy is due almost entirely to external factors…

But why are we talking about this? The philosophy profession has clearly spoken: it has no shame regarding its extraordinary whiteness; and blacks have virtually no leverage in such an environment. I cannot in good conscience encourage any black student in the U.S. (or U.K.) to enter the philosophy profession. The extraordinarily few who are determined to go should at least be aware of what awaits them.

So the problems of racism show up in lots of less overt ways, even in the frequent conjectures that the absence of blacks is due to external factors, which allows us not to see our role in it, and so  permits  the puzzlement about the lack of black presence to persist. 

Both such issues – the racism of the profession and the role of white people in it – show up in the recent APA Newsletter on Philosophy and the Black Experience.  Leonard Harris’s “Philosophy and Flagships”, which contains a lot of information about various topics, remarks on the profession:

African American philosophers have struggled to create intellectual niches in a viciously hostile academic community… The idea that philosophers are above racial prejudice is about as defensible as the idea that there could be a discipline of philosophy in a racist academic culture magically governed by racially blind virtuous intellectuals.

The second article I want to mention is John Warren’s favorable  review of Barbara Applebaum’ s Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy.  Applebaum recommends revising ways of discussing and teaching about whiteness and racism.  She thinks such discussion tend to center the problem around white people and what they can do; it restores the white subject at the cost of the black subject.  A major alternative is to look at the complicity of white people in racism.  And, because the book is actually quite expensive even on Kindle (grrrr!) I’ve only read a selection from it.  Still, one motif comes through, and that is the ignorance of white people.  As in, perhaps, we just don’t really know why there are not more blacks in philosophy.

Let me in conclusion mention two interesting and relevant comments by Alpha  here and here.

BTW, I was in fact motivated to write this post after having read only two articles in the newsletter, so my singling those out is not a comment on the others.

**The as-of-now most recent post on the What is it like blog describes a very familiar kind of passive sexism; that is, the inability to cope adequately with women at a guest speaker dinner.  Perhaps some people can congratulate themselves on not having so failed, but on the other hand, do consider what it is like to be in the middle of a social problem like this on social occasions with your colleagues for your entire career.  Perhaps we should come away from such encounters with the realization that our profession’s ability to integrate the different is pretty minimal, and most of us do not even see the need.

Are you fit for work?

Readers will probably be aware that the UK government has redesigned the capability test that determines whether or not you are fit enough to work, and so whether or not you need incapacity benefit. The aim is, of course, to reduce spending, by taking away benefits from some of those currently receiving them. There has been widespread criticism of the way in which this has been done, with some people reduced to such a state of desperation that they have taken their own lives. The following letter printed in Friday’s Guardian aptly illustrates how bad the system has now become. Read it and weep.

The government says it is committed to a “fair and accurate” work capability assessment. The distress and injustice caused by this new system needs to be publicised far and wide.

My brother died last week of kidney cancer. He was diagnosed a year ago and at Christmas was told he had about four months to live. In the spring he was summoned for a work capability assessment (by this time he had two brain tumours) and found fit for work. In addition to everything else, he became anxious about losing the small amount of money he was living on. He was asked to go in to the jobcentre for an interview but was too ill at the time. On 19 May he received a letter from Jobcentre Plus telling him he was to be treated as having limited capability for work. The medical officer overseeing his case had advised that “death within six months is unlikely to occur due to the client’s cancer” and there would be no “substantial risk to his mental or physical health if he were found capable of work-related activity”.

He died six days later, having been unable to get out of bed for four weeks. What work were they suggesting he was capable of? He asked: “What have I paid national insurance for if not help to pay the bills and feed me at a time like this?”

Claire Debenham


You can read more about the disastrous new system here.

An even more elitist higher education model

Just what we need

While no one should be surprised at the announcement that there is to be such a thing as the New College of the Humanities, which will offer degrees in Philosophy, Literature, Economics, History and Law, taught in an Oxbridge style at a cost of £18,000 a year, it is imperative that we recognise what this College represents, and what it tells us about the direction that HE is heading in.


….Subjects such as Philosophy are highly desired and in strong demand from students. The New College of the Humanities bears this insight out – AC Grayling, Simon Blackburn, Peter Singer are all part of the ‘Professoriate’ while Ken Gemes and Naomi Goulder turn up in ‘other teaching staff’ (by the way, I suggest an immediate boycott of all members of staff involved in the college, who have clearly abandoned any sense of working for the common good in favour of money). Prospective students of the college are assured that they ‘won’t be just a number’ and that they’ll get weekly one-on-one tutorials. Students of the new college will apparently ‘use many of the resources of the University of London: the exceptional library in Senate House, the University of London Union with its many societies and sports activities’ – how is this even remotely allowed? If you’re going to set up a private college, at least have the decency to buy your own fucking resources. I suggest that current students at the University of London find a way of protesting in the strongest sense against the private use of their resources. And where will the college itself be based? Parasitic-like on the existing buildings of the UoL, paying top dollar for room rental, perhaps?

I’m pretty shocked at the high-profile philosophers involved with this.