On December 24, our valued colleague George Yancy published a piece in the New York Times Stone column. Its title was “Dear White America”. It was the culmination of 19 interviews with distinguished thinkers on the subject of race. The interview series brought philosophers into discourse with real time political events, as a new social movement took form bringing international attention to the racial injustice of the US criminal justice system.
Yancy’s column resulted in a storm of hate mail and calls directed his way. The emails he received included violent threats, such as “Someone needs to put a boot up your ass and knock your fucking head off your shoulders,” and included threats to his family. These messages were filled with racial invective, and meant to frighten and intimidate him into silence.
Social movements by their nature raise controversies that go to the heart of a society, whether they are social movements for women’s suffrage, or against abortion. They seek, by their nature, fundamental normative change. Discussing them therefore elicits strong emotions. But we will have no way to digest either their merits or their excesses if we do not have spaces to discuss social movements in a reasoned and respectful way,. George Yancy’s interviews provided a way for philosophers to do this. His culminating column is a call for white America to face the structural facts of injustice, and to recognize the ways individual attitudes are shaped by and contribute to the racism in our society.
In the media, scientific “experts” are regularly brought to bear on public debate. But scientific experts do not play the role of philosophers; the role of scientific expertise is often to put an end to debate, rather than incite it. Since its inception, the Stone has not shied away from fundamental moral and political controversy. Its participants do not pretend to be experts who resolve questions once and for all, but rather to incite debate and challenge. By bringing philosophers into public engagement, the Stone attempts to add something novel to American media engagement with events.
Yancy’s interview series embodies the Stone’s founding ideal: open philosophical discourse and debate about the challenging moral and political struggles of our day. Yancy’s “Dear White America” piece was his own personal message, lessons learned during the process of navigating almost two dozen philosophers through an engagement with what may very well turn out to be an iconic and historically important social movement.
Radical social movements in their time are always viewed as disturbances of the moral order. It is only retrospectively that social movements are viewed as speaking truth to power in ways that make moral sense. In the United States, for example, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is universally celebrated, including by citizens who share the ideology of those who despised him in his lifetime. This may be used as evidence of their success. But given persisting failures of equality in the United States, a more plausible explanation is that they have been assimilated into a rhetoric that views the polity as ever more just, the society progressively more fair and decent. The fact that social movements make retrospective moral sense does not mean that the practices that accompany them change in materially significant ways.
We can see in the example of the response to Yancy, that the Black Lives Matter too is viewed by some as a disturbance of the fundamental moral order, in much the same way as the Civil Rights Movement was. That the reaction to Yancy’s challenge has taken the form of vicious personal racism is, one may think, good evidence of the need for the message and the movement.
But one need not endorse the aims and goals of the Black Lives Matter movement in order to deplore the reaction to Yancy’s piece. We hold that whatever side one takes on this or other debates, free philosophical discussions on matters of profound social and political importance is a central function of the Stone. We authors of the Stone believe that discussions of the sort we have in its pages are a vital component of a healthy democracy. We stand together in support of our colleague George Yancy, and strongly repudiate these attempts to silence him.