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.

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

  1. Hi JJ. Thanks for this important post.

    Also, the What it is like link was broken – I’ve fixed it, I hope. But better check as I wasn’t sure if you wanted to link to a particular post.

  2. Monkey, I do appreciate your supportive comment; I’m waiting for less supportive ones, I fear.

    I think I fixed the link.

  3. For just how deep this problem is, I recommend Cornel West’s “A Genealogy of Modern Racism.” It’s from his book _Prophesy Deliverance_.

  4. Sophia, thanks so much for the reference; Harris points out that he [West] is not a member of a philosophy department, despite the fact that he is a philosopher.

    I’ve had a quick look at the essay on Amazon.com and see that it’s locating racism in the way the subject matter of philosophy is for many construed. That is important to think about; it would be wonderful to have a discussion of it.

    Just to clarify, I was not trying to say anything general about racism and philosophy as much as draw our attention to the fact that we – those members of the philosophy profession – have a profound problem that we seem not to be facing or really even be aware exists. It may well be that fully facing the problem would involve thinking through some of West’s theses, but I’m concerned that we’re at a much earlier stage. It’s also the case that I’m hoping we don’t have to maintain that you can’t do philosophy without being a racist.

    Such generalizations are of course unfair to some, but it is a portrait of ourselves that we might at least try to bring into focus.

    Let me confess that I started by trying to explain to myself LK’s really bad experiences. Are they a product of older faculty, I was thinking? But once you have that thought, you see it almost certainly isn’t the reason why the profession is almost entirely white. Students are capable of distinguishing between tired old racists and a racist profession, and we look like the latter, it seems.

    One thing that stands out when we try to explain either the absence of blacks or the significantly low numbers of women is that there is very wide-spread ignorance of even how to think about such problems. And that starts to look like complicity.

  5. And to clarify some more: there certainly has been some recent attention to the whiteness of philosophy on Leiter’s blog ansd New APPS. What we’re less good at facing, I fear, is our role in it. Where the ‘we’ are the unusual suspects, the well-intentioned, and soo on.

  6. Leonard Harris has had some very interesting similar papers, both in the APA newsletter and elsewhere, that are certainly worth reading. (JJ- just for clarification, in your comment 4, do you mean West, or Harris? Although Harris is involved in several interdisciplinary centers and programs, he certainly seems to be a professor of philosophy at Purdue, and before that several other colleges and universities. West, I believe, has not been appointed in a philosophy department, after taking his first job out of Princeton at the Union Theological Seminar in NY City, though of course his appointments [Union, Princeton, Harvard, Princeton] are pretty enviable.)

    More generally, I think the APA newsletter on Philosophy and the Black Experience is usually quite good and worth a wider readership that I expect that it has.

  7. To be clear: I didn’t charge and wasn’t implying “racism,” unless the institutional type is meant. I would be far more comfortable claiming that many individuals have “race issues,” which the philosophy profession enables and exacerbates.

    I appreciate the spirit of the post, nonetheless.

  8. Matt, sometimes I despair. I don’t know how I could have missed the problem with the original #4. Thanks so much for pointing it out; I’ve made the ref to West explicit.

  9. No problem, JJ- as the old saying goes, if I had a dime for every time I’d writing a mildly ambiguous sentence, I’d be rich.

  10. Matt, o that old saying!

    LK, thanks for clarifying the situation. I took the most important part of your comment as a challenge: philosophy is, as you say, a racially hostile environment. Many would feel innocent of the specific incidents you alluded to. But, if we white philosophers really are the fairly moral people we think we are, we should look at the environment and consider our complicity in it.

    Everything beyond the 2nd sentence in the paragraph above is more from people like Applebaum. It’s about how to respond to your characterization of philosophy’s environment, as affirmed by West, Harris and many others.

    We’ve discussed here before how to locate charges of racism, and sexism, and perhaps I should have been much more careful here. I’ve been working through some descrptions of the core difference that would provide an understanding of your term ‘institutional’. Applebaum, following many others, points to the difference between Nazis involved in persecuting jews and the perhaps ordinary citizen who in fact may not have fully known. That might be a beginning point for trying to work some of this out, though that analogy is also problematic in some ways.

  11. I would be interested in more discussions about *how* to talk about race in ordinary undergrad (lower-level) philosophy classrooms. I’m not a specialist in race or in political philosophy but I teach some political philosophy in Intro and links to race in America can come up in discussions of epistemology, etc. too.

    To be honest, my inclination until recently has been to tiptoe around conversations about race because undergrads are unpredictable and because talking about race courts two possible classroom disasters: allowing bigots a voice and unintentionally reinforcing racist thoughts by describing racist phenomena. Plus, I’m white, so there is the danger of speaker hypocrisy.

    Last summer FP posted a link to a good article about talking to young kids about race. If it’s valuable for young kids to talk about race, surely it’s also valuable for students to talk about race. But many of them have learned that in discussions about race, the thing to do is to be silent.

  12. Evelyn, I think that’s what Applebaum is trying to do. Her writing is also exceptionally clear, at least what I’ve read of it.

    I can expect a fair number of persons of color in my Intro classes, and I am very uncomfortable talking about race. It seems to me that having a white professor teach people of color “about” race is too close to repeating the colonizing experience. In addtion, when white guys try to inform us about sexism, I end up thinking that in some large ways they just don’t get it. I assume I have the same problem with race.

    I think one recommendation is to try to create a dialogue, but one still has the problems you mention, such as the bigoted comments.

    A number of people here have liked using Charles Mills “The Racial Contract.”

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