On Race and Racism in America
Confessions in Philosophy
Edited by Roy Martinez
On Race and Racism in America
Confessions in Philosophy
Edited by Roy Martinez“Given the racial complexity of the United States—not to mention the racism of its foundations and its persistence—why is it that the most influential white philosophers have not addressed the issue of race, its social construction and myth, and the problems it raises on a daily basis?” To answer this question, Roy Martinez, the editor of this volume, solicited contributions from eight of the most significant American philosophers working in the Continental and American pragmatist philosophical traditions. But there is no one answer: each contributor has a distinct perspective on the problem and provides an answer reflecting that perspective. Some approach the question in a personal manner by reflecting on how race has affected their own lives. Others resort to meta-analyses of features of philosophy as a discipline that account for its relative blindness to issues of race. Together they shed light on an anomaly that distinguishes philosophy from the other humanities as well as the social sciences—a relative lack of attention to race compared with class and gender—and thus help us better understand how the mental frameworks within which scholars operate can lead to differences in the subjects they take an interest in analyzing.
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Aside from the editor, the contributors are John D. Caputo, David Couzens Hoy, John Ladd, Joseph Margolis, Ladelle McWhorter, Shannon Sullivan, Georgia Warnke, and Cynthia Willett.
Roy Martinez was Professor of Philosophy at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia.
1. Virtually Invisible: On Seeing in the Dark
John D. Caputo
2. Personal Reflections on Racism in America
3. The Dangers of Confession: White Contributions to a Continental Philosophy of Race
4. Racism and Biopower
5. Social Minimalism in a Liberal Culture and the Problem of Racial Hubris
6. Theorizing Difference: Phenomenology Versus Post-structuralism
David Couzens Hoy
7. Continental Philosophy and the Concept of Race
8. Philosophy in Chains
List of Contributors
The attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, that destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center and damaged parts of the Pentagon took the nation by surprise and forever changed the way Americans perceived themselves. They were forthwith compelled to see their country in a new light: the unique position of being the sole superpower yet no longer conferred the special privilege of invulnerability. They came to the bitter realization that they were not, after all, untouchable. There is more. It is crucial to bear in mind that this historic event severely wounded the nation’s pride. Indeed, the unspoken pique that rankled and roiled the nation’s soul is the fact that the foreign enemy that violated her on her own soil, the unseemly other that dared to aggress her and succeeded in outmaneuvering the global reach of her unparalleled intelligence, was not the legitimate military power of a sovereign state, but rather a small organization of racially and religiously different men. The telling feature of this muted rancor is that an act so singular and devastating, whose ferocious indecency reverberated worldwide, was perpetrated by a group of nonwhite men from the Middle East. It is not difficult to imagine how searing and challenging this experience must be for a country as racially charged as the United States. That is why the country, stunned and saddened, found itself deeply traumatized by the sheer insolence of the assault and felt instantly coerced to engage in a mode of painful soul-searching. In fact, since the United States takes such inordinate pride in its European heritage and the corresponding sentiment of racial purity and superiority, it is safe to surmise that its supreme self-confidence was seriously impaired, if not shattered. In a word, 9/11 marked a critical moment in U.S. history. Little wonder that the reaction of practically every American was heartfelt and visceral. No one escaped the ordeal unscathed. Irrespective of one’s bent of mind—philosophical and ideological differences notwithstanding—the inhabitants of this erstwhile-inviolable land felt forced to reappraise their various attitudes toward one another and reassess their understanding of their own social reality.
The notion of social reality brings us face to face with the question that organizes this anthology: given the racial complexity of the United States—not to mention the persistent racism of its foundation—why is it that the most influential white philosophers have not addressed the issue of race, its social construction and myth, and the problems it raises on a daily basis?
It is clear from the outset that a simple and single rejoinder will not suffice. Nor is such an easy way out the aim of our inquiry. In fact, instead of parrying or otherwise burking the question with learned galimatias or gaseous disquisitions, we have attempted to treat our subject matter with intellectual honesty in the mode of confession, without, pace Saint Augustine, any religious undertone. For even if an act that considers itself a confession must be accompanied by a penitential strain, these chapters are not primarily motivated by a sense of remorse or offense. They tend, instead, to examine and analyze the problem in the dispassionate and reserved manner of philosophy. Further, the absence of a negative sentiment in this regard—if that is what it is—might merely mean that when many perpetrate an act, it is humanly difficult to assume personal blame. Or, even if culpability were in fact involved—that is, guilt was fervently felt—it nevertheless could have been so adroitly managed that repentance subtilized itself into a triumphant state of serene repose under the guise of insouciance. Given the intricate niceties of the heart, we would, in such a case, be better inspired by the observation made by Rémi Brague: “One must confront the past without letting a paralyzing guilt, which would prevent even the repair of what can be repaired, contaminate repentance.” Be that as it may, one thing is certain: a confession always attempts to come to terms with a consequential moment in a person’s life. Our authors’ participation in this project serves as an example of this claim. The question is direct and earnest, but its impulse is not, for that reason, accusatory. It intends neither to condemn nor blame. In spite of its interrogative form, its basic thrust does not mean to intimidate but to challenge and engage. Indeed, it hardly harbors the pretense that the truth lies buried beneath a murky mound of evidence that simply needs to be teased out or extracted “by any means necessary,” to borrow the current parlance of politics. Philosophy, we trust, is infinitely friendlier than that; dialogue and discussion, not intimidation and coercion, should remain its animating principle or distinguishing trait. For although the chapters in this volume purport to “confess” their response to our question, they by no means do so in the Procrustean bed of “the dark twins.” No doubt the authors are confronted with the difficulty of telling the truth about an issue that is both personally and culturally sensitive. But they have undertaken the task with the plausive determination that accompanies what, in Foucault’s lexicon, is named parrhesia or fearless speech.
Even if the question is not accusatory, however, it is still not conciliatory, nor is it irenically rhetorical. It arises, after all, out of the troubling realization that something untoward, if not sinister, has been surreptitiously taking place in the profession. Its occurrence, we maintain, is not fortuitous. The assumption is that the silence concerning the issue of race is willed. It is an evasion. Further, this reticence seems to be supported by the axiom quieta non movere. In less esoteric language, so long as the current state of affairs suits one’s purpose or sustains one’s designs—however nefarious or crass—there is no urgency or need to upset the equilibrium. So let sleeping dogs lie. But in a racialized society such as ours, the situation is always one of human degradation, so that the silence surrounding it amounts to an indifference that is in essence virulent and vile. For indifference is not, as it might at first seem, an innocent and passive attitude that demurely awaits acquiescence. On the contrary, insofar as it disregards the suffering and daily humiliation of fellow human beings, indifference eo ipso assumes the rebarbative characteristics of contempt. How? As far as we know, “contempt constitutes the other as decidedly inferior, if not as some subhuman creature unworthy of human consideration. It is an attitude of extreme superiority on one’s own part, which, as always, should make us suspect a certain defensiveness as well.”
In light of our study, the key term here is “a certain defensiveness.” For it intimates, or rather indicates, that a person who shows contempt for another furtively protects something fragile in herself, something that threatens to disintegrate at the very moment of discovery. Let’s be honest: we speak of the fear of self-discovery. What is being anxiously guarded in remaining mum about race and racism is a sense of vulnerability that refuses the risk of exploration and exposure. One reason for this defensive gesture might be that ancestral memory is at play, that the harsh, intolerable conditions that drove people from Europe in search of a decent life and a brighter future in this part of the world—conditions such as “poverty, prison, social ostracism, and not infrequently, death” —continue to exert subterranean influence on the behavior of their descendants.
Hence, by the volatile quirks of self-preservation and survival, and with the aid of a cautionary calculus of ne obliviscaris, these descendants perversely, however inadvertently, ensure that a relapse to their previous ignominious lot will not occur. More interestingly, as if the erection of such a psychic fortress were not enough, they find it therapeutically fitting, with the device of race construction, to subject others to the same abject ways of living from which they themselves have been fortunately released. It is likewise curious that by a quaint logic of self-supporting superfluity this same creature, formerly forlorn, now has the gumption and guile to construe himself, in the revealing words of Tocqueville, “as the first who attracts the eye, the first in enlightenment, in power, in happiness.” And here is the kicker: he projects himself as “man par excellence.” Serious stuff, this. Imagine popping up in your field of vision a peacockish pixilated popinjay. Behold the man indeed!
It is no matter for surprise, then, that a guarded silence reigns. After all, more than any other group of intellectuals, philosophers are conceptually attuned to the dynamics of dialectics, and are thus sensitively leery that questioning this issue may open up a Pandora’s box, that it can always induce a shift in the focus of critical attention away from the hapless victims of racism to its cunning perpetrators. In other words, a great deal has certainly been written and said about the deleterious effects of racism on its intended victims, but hardly enough about the pathology that festers in the hearts and minds of those who practice it and profit from the debasement it fosters.
After all, the question must be asked: “Will we know one day? Will more extensive excavations enable us to understand the mystery of the birth of the classes? We confess we do not see how archeological finds will enable us to understand that, starting at a certain ‘moment,’ people saw one another and acted with respect to one another not as allies to help one another, rivals to surpass, enemies to exterminate or even to eat, but as objects to possess.” The question is rife with difficulties because of the contradiction or recalcitrance inherent in the very idea that a person, eminently endowed with subjectivity, is capable of considering another person as bereft of it. More intriguing is the fact that the subject turned object is treated not exclusively as the one or the other, but as a hybrid distillate of both, but more as object than as subject.
For try as one may, it is simply impossible to disregard the human element in the person one reprehensibly tries to render into a mere thing. That is why, among other reasons, the slave—considered as property, not as a person, much less a citizen—was regarded as “divested of two-fifths of the man.” Think, for a moment, of what might be going on in a mind that busies itself with determining the worth, not the value, of a human being in quintessentially quantitative terms. Think too of the motives, not just the intentions, behind such contrivances. Note well that while our intentions usually collaborate with our will, and are for that reason transparent, our motives tend to conceal themselves from fear of recognizing the full force of our actions and, by the same token, who we really are. They therefore incline to obscure, dissemble, or disguise themselves. In this way it is easy to appease our conscience when our deeds are degenerate or morally blameworthy. We can then rationalize, for example, that:
in all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have or you would not have that other class which leads to progress, civilization, refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to the purpose of her hand. . . . We use them for our purpose and call them slaves.
So wrote Governor James Hammond of South Carolina. Baffling, how progress, civilization, and refinement are gingerly associated with human degradation. Is it not worth our while to inquire into so vitiated a bent? The good governor had no problem identifying the qualities of his slaves: physical strength, malleability, subservience, and deficiency in intellect. But we now wonder what qualities the governor would have attributed to himself had he fortitude enough to examine himself in foro conscientiae. Could he have thought that the unflattering qualities he saw in the slaves are those of which he sought to divest himself? Might that not be one reason for constructing the notion of a class, a race: to compile the qualities in oneself that one deems detestable, and attribute them instead to the class, the race, to which one putatively does not belong?
Put in slightly different terms, if the collective consciousness is imbued with the sacred tenet that all men are created equal, then the illative is unerring that the need to be superior to others—this insalubrious gesture of serpentine pride—is directly proportionate to the inferiority one painfully feels with respect to them. Again, it may very well be that the abortive effort to differentiate oneself from the ontological parity that defines human beings as a species is the sorry expression of a person desperately struggling to escape the self-induced horrors—perhaps the sense of a baleful foundation of nothingness—she confronts in the unbearable confines of her own singularity.
In a different manner, this process of rationalization is also discernible in Daniel Webster’s March 7, 1850, speech, in which he descanted on the fugitive slave laws:
But I will allude to the other complaints of the South, and especially to one which has in my opinion just foundation; and that is, that there has been found at the North, among individuals and among legislators, a disinclination to perform fully their constitutional duties in regard to the return of persons bound to service who have escaped into the free States. In that respect, the South, in my judgment, is right, and the North is wrong. Every member of every Northern legislature is bound by oath, like every other officer in the country, to support the Constitution of the United States that they shall deliver up fugitives from service is as binding in honor and conscience as any other article.
Never for a moment did Webster pause, during his mellifluent and unctuous delivery, to think that the people who were fleeing from the South were desperately pursuing the full exercise of their subjectivity, the very freedom he himself was in fact abusing by mounting an argument so specious and self-righteous, so seemingly venal, as to draw tears from animals and stones. For employing the fig leaf of legality to disguise political ambition and craftiness, personal caprice and whatever else, cannot in truth justify a Constitution whose determined end is to transform human beings into beasts of burden. “No forms,” says Emerson, “neither constitutions, nor laws, nor covenants, nor churches, nor bibles, are of any use in themselves. The Devil nestles comfortably into them all. There is no help but in the head and heart and hamstrings of a man.” There is no excuse, Emerson implies, for any human beings to empty themselves—in the manner of a vulgar kenosis, as it were—of the very principle that constitutes them as human beings, dignity, by daring to treat another as if she had none. What is more, no amount of casuistry, or sophistry, or solipsism, or any form of contrived self-deception, can ever succeed in undermining the moral substance of an individual. For to abuse one’s sovereign freedom by dishonoring the person of another—as the torturer does to his powerless and unarmed victim—eventuates only in debasing oneself: “Then they eased him down, the noose tightened gradually, and Witzleben began to strangle even as they slid his pants off once the clogs had dropped. The camera missed none of this, although it could not smell the soiled pants from the last wearers, or what began pooling under him as he twisted, unable even to gasp. Face dark as liver. Froth. Penis like the iron crotch struts that jutted out, with metal foreskin flared, from the burning stakes of the Inquisition.” Is the torturer pleased with himself? Does he think that he is now more exalted than he was before perpetrating such sepulchral, heinous acts? The answer remains elusive if for no other reason than that the mind is nimble and wily enough to tell itself, “Evil is what my enemy does; it is ‘never’ what I do myself.” We say exalted because many a time, torturers, especially when employed by a government, will execute their lugubrious task with full confidence, unwavering conviction, and good conscience since their cause, patriotism or national security, is so noble! In the scene of execution cited above (from Paul West’s historical novel The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg), the torturers were acting on behalf of der Führer and the Reich. But if it is impossible to answer whether the executioner feels exalted, is it possible that in this case there is “a dilapidation of the soul”? Let us move on. Now we come closer to home, following Ralph Ellison’s story “A Party Down at the Square”:
I was trying to back away when Jed reached down and brought up a can of gasoline and threw it in the fire on the nigger. . . . The fire had burned the ropes they had tied him with, and he started jumping and kicking about like he was blind, and you could smell his skin burning. He kicked so hard that the platform, which was burning too, fell in, and he rolled out of the fire at my feet. I jumped back so he wouldn’t get at me. I’ll never forget it. Every time I eat barbecue I’ll remember that nigger. His back was just like a barbecued hog.
Admittedly, raising the question of race may signal some degree of danger or discomfort to the ego. But burying one’s head in the sand is not in this case an option. For now that the question is on the table, intellectual integrity, together with social responsibility, demands an answer. Perhaps, when the prince is finally caught without his splendid raiments on, when his naked backside is deliciously or disappointingly exposed, he himself may come to realize or even admit the total destitution of the substance and heft he had hitherto feigned to possess. Another apt way of phrasing this is to say with Emerson, quoting Montesquieu: “It will not do to say that negroes are men, lest it turn out that whites are not.”
Why the Contributors Did Not Answer the Question Directly
The contributors, to be sure, wanted to reflect on race, but not necessarily in a way that would directly answer the question I raised. In fact, it appears as though in their own minds they answered the question by actually participating in the project. But the deeper question remains: why had they not hitherto addressed the issue? In my view, it would not be remiss to surmise that part of the reason for the demur should be sought in the practice of tradition. Since the founders or fathers of American philosophy—Jonathan Edwards, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Josiah Royce, George Santayana, John Dewey, and so forth—deliberately burked or made short shrift of the subject of race, their less illustrious successors followed suit by feeling justified in fostering so appalling a practice of silence, however socially irresponsible it may prove to be. Of course, the venerable founders themselves cannot escape the charge. After all, other intellectual lights—Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a visiting Alexis de Tocqueville, for example—had the subject on their agenda. Indeed, is it not interesting that in our own day, two compatriots of Tocqueville—Jean-Paul Sartre and Paul Ricoeur—after visiting or residing in the United States, deemed it pertinent to engage in some form of reflection on race in this country? So, the question persists: why not American philosophers of comparable stature?
With respect to this eminent silence or neglect, another possibility worth pondering is that, in keeping with characteristic philosophical hauteur, our colleagues may consider the subject of race quite beneath their hallowed dignity. Perhaps, in short, the reality of race and racism is too sordid and squalid, too philistine and picayune, to deserve their serious attention, the royal splendor of their ponderous Apollonian gaze. This position, however, holds no water. Social and political philosophy, ethics, theodicy, and the treatment of any aspect or form of evil remain securely within the bounds of philosophical reflection, and the problem of race and racism is clearly not an exception.
To recapitulate: the contributors have chosen to answer the question according to their own lights. They were encouraged to proceed in the path of such independence, given the touchiness of the topic, to maximize the ease of creative flow and to produce a piece that would be sincere in both content and tone. The upshot of their earnest endeavor toward this end is that we have a volume containing a rich variety of views and styles, especially since of the eight authors, four are men and four are women. All of them, however different in age, title, or rank, are well-known or prominent members of the American continental tradition in philosophy. The strength of the volume is also supported by the fact that each of these studies is original and has not appeared elsewhere. As it turned out, four of the chapters have a more personal resonance than the others. Hence, in concert with the optative strain of our project, we’ve placed them as the first part mainly to set the tone for the remaining four, which are less personally imbued and more esoteric in focus and formulation.
On the Use of “Confessions”
Finally, what inspired us to borrow the word “confession” from Saint Augustine is not the religious raison d’être of his work, not the portrait of a man over whose very soul the sword of Damocles seems to suspend, not the narrator’s personal quest for wholesome rest and repose in an “eternally ambient truth.” Nor is it, more precisely, the fact that the Confessions remains a living document of consummate self-analysis—to boot, the telling story of an unsettled soul fervently beset by the errors of its ways and thereof assailed by abysmal grief, struggling, despite all odds, to recover its pristine condition and regain the clarity, confidence, and composure of mental equilibrium. It was, rather, the fact that its verbal effulgence and overflow stand in stark contrast to the embarrassing silence—the verbal dearth—that gave rise to our project. Hence, in approaching the matter with an ironic twist, we contend that if there can be a confession in the form of a profuse outpouring of words, there may likewise be an occasion for a confession induced by challenging a disquieting and calculated silence. That, in brief, is the sole reason for using Augustine’s work as a sursum corda.
Summaries of the Chapters
Caputo makes no apologies for having neglected to focus thematically on “race” as an item of interest in his professional writing. Nevertheless, he is emphatic in showing that ever since he presented “radical hermeneutics” on the intellectual landscape in the 1980s, his work has continued to underscore the plight of the disadvantaged, the disinherited, the social outcast, the marginalized, the rejected—those who are systematically excluded, the helpless who have been arbitrarily subjected to silence. Relying on his consummate skill as a phenomenologist—a critical analyst of Husserl and Heidegger, and an astute and sympathetic reader of Levinas and Derrida—Caputo examines the underside of key claims and pretensions of Western thought and finds them suspect in their motive and wanting in their morals. Here, for example, is a glaring instance of phenomenology hoist with its own petard: “The so-called pure ego is not only implicitly the ‘man of reason,’ but is also a Euro-white man, as if white were not itself one more color and Europe not just one more place on the map. The ‘neutralization’ in virtue of which the epochē allows the pure ego to appear ends up meaning to whiten out, to make something pure white.” Impelled by the full force of sheer intellectual integrity, Caputo drives home his point: “Husserl’s attempt to elevate ‘Europe’ into a spiritual essence, to essentialize Europe, was also an essentialization of white. . . . Pure reason is pure white.” Perhaps because in the canonical thinking of the West whiteness—purity—is identified with the highest reaches of reason, which in turn becomes synonymous with light, truth, life itself, Caputo chose darkness as his theme, the very darkness with which Paul Simon fraternizes in his song “The Sounds of Silence.” The relevance of darkness in this regard pertains to a vigilance against a kind of thinking that would situate the subject in the light, ergo the right. Caputo is convinced that there is no privileged human being, no one entrusted with a special message, no one given a secret, and that since this is the case, we are all together in this thing called life, all huddled together in darkness. Hence darkness can be used as a metaphor—our common ignorance about life—and also as a target of our prejudice: the other, the tout autre, that challenges our sense of complacence and in the same breath provokes our suspicion, fear, and hatred. Caputo’s reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is an example of what we mean: “Here, in the United States—where Europeans of many nations, seeking freedom and a new world, forged a country on the basis both of the political ideals of the European Enlightenment and of the slaughter of both the native population and the African slave population—all of this together, not one without the other—we do not lack the occasion for such hospitality.” In Caputo’s lexicon, “hospitality” means the recognition in oneself of an “egological agon” that is resolved by coming to terms with one’s own shortcomings, and in the end accepting someone who is totally different in her complete otherness.
In a refreshing piece of personal history—a remarkable departure from the taxing prose of his more theoretical work—Margolis presents a rare glimpse of his encounter with the sinister practice of racism. He recounts, with striking candor and sincerity, his painful experience of betrayal by neighbors, friends, and colleagues in academia when he dared to take a stand in the name of justice. On his accounting, one would have thought that, like Milton’s Lucifer, Margolis had toyed with the sacrilegiously subversive idea of making a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven. Yet the gesture that incurred such vehemence and ire consisted of simply publishing a brief article on segregation—in the 1950s, granted—in the AAUP Bulletin. It was then that all hell broke loose: “My university contract was not renewed. The local and national AAUP never came to my defense or to the defense of free speech. And no one that I knew in the whole city of Columbia [South Carolina]—in government, university, town, media, circle of friends, acquaintances of every kind—ever came to my defense. Everyone shunned me like a leper.” But as often happens in such crucial moments, a decisive individual comes forth. So, Margolis continues, “except for one white colleague who taught at a black college in Columbia, a splendid man, a neighbor in fact, who, together with his wife and children, was so terribly marginalized that he could make no possible difference,” nobody supported him. There is much more in these rare down-to-earth reflections by Margolis that warrants the reader’s attention. Although on the basis of his scholarly work he comes across as a philosopher’s philosopher and as the principal proponent of “robust relativism,” Margolis is, for all that, a man whose feet are solidly planted on the ground. Here is an example: “Suppose . . . that the West begins to imagine that it must equal the religious zeal that it perceives among suicide bombers of the Middle East. I don’t believe that this is happening or is about to happen. But I do see how easy it would be to move in that direction, and I mistrust its allure.” The point here is that Margolis knows what is taking place in the present world order and understands the reasons for it. The question that takes center stage, however, pertains to racism: can it be defeated? Margolis has his own ideas about it.
Whether by inadvertence or by design, Sullivan’s personal and professional experience as a white woman informs the tenor and tone of her reflections. It follows that the chapter she contributes to this volume is unambiguously animated by a feminist voice. Sullivan spells out several salient reasons why, in her view, white philosophers for the most part shy away from the topic of race and racism. Initiating her inquiry with reference to her own situation, she writes: “I began to concentrate on race and white privilege because of sexism. I did not want to be perceived as ‘complaining’ about oppression, a perception that feminist but not antiracist struggle risked in my case.” With rare candor and intellectual honesty, Sullivan discloses the inner turmoil she experiences both as an individual involved in the “possessive investment in whiteness,” to borrow an apt phrase, and as a woman compelled to struggle against the sexism of male domination. Probing deeper into the sources of this state of uneasiness common to many women colleagues, Sullivan shares the following confidence: “For a white woman to philosophically reflect on sexism generally is for her to be ‘in the right,’ a position that often is more psychologically comfortable for her (even though she is rightly wary of the danger that this position will be reduced to that of wronged victim) than a position that puts her ‘in the wrong,’ as reflection on racism tends to do.” In other words, a white woman feels morally justified and socially vindicated in fighting a system that faults her on the basis of gender alone, as opposed to taking up the cause against racism that would in effect attempt to subvert the racialized hierarchies that constitute the actual social order. The implication here is that on a subliminal level these women support the system of white domination that grants them the privilege they verily take for granted. Besides the Augustinian strain of self-analysis that marks Sullivan’s captivating piece, other key factors are given equal consideration. She treats, for example, the questionable intellectual dependence of some American philosophers on thinkers from Europe; the effects of racist practices in the United States on the skepticism entertained by some white philosophers about the intellectual capabilities in philosophy of nonwhite individuals; the continued impact of the “recapitulation theory” on the population as a whole; Julia Kristeva’s theory of foreignness; and more. Sullivan concludes her chapter by suggesting feasible ways by which the question of race may be fruitfully included in the academic practice of philosophy.
McWhorter begins by avowing her lifelong confusion about racism, “even while encountering and experiencing it daily.” To help her gain some clarity on the issue, she reverts to Omi and Winnant’s Racial Formation in the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s. In this work she discovers, much to her dismay, that the civil rights movement did not succeed in dispelling the ambiguity and perplexity of what racism means to most Americans. What had apparently aggravated the issue is the realization that a theoretical shift had taken place: racist practices were less discernible in individual behavior and more manifest in institutional structures. In view of this “overall crisis of meaning”—that racism hovers somewhere in limbo between the individual psyche and a collective consciousness embedded in social structures—the conclusion is drawn that there is no “commonsense” agreement on what racism means. For this reason, since the very meaning of the word “racism” has been obscured, the effort to challenge the practice becomes even more herculean. But the absence of a commonsense understanding of what racism means should not—indeed, cannot—deter philosophical reflection or discourage social engagement. Hence, while acknowledging the difficulty of “philosophizing about something if you don’t know what it is, . . . with the professional risks of venturing into a relatively uncharted philosophical terrain,” McWhorter contends that we are nevertheless morally bound to try. Further, she adduces a more visceral reason why she considers writing about racism both difficult and daunting: “the emotional risks of closely examining phenomena that have shaped and scarred us all since early life.” In fact, this odyssey into the deeper recesses of our scheme of things is one that very few of us are honest and courageous enough to attempt. That is why, according to McWhorter’s musings, few white philosophers venture to write about race. Another reason has a more professional basis, even though this too is no excuse for avoiding the issue at hand. On McWhorter’s accounting, continental philosophers allow their reflections to be determined, for the most part, by texts “authored by someone with either a French or a German last name.” It is therefore not surprising that the very philosophers who profess commitment to social problems within the discipline find themselves “stuck discussing the topics” those European thinkers “thought were important.” While acknowledging some input from Sartre, Horkheimer, and Adorno, it is in Foucault’s work—which investigates the concrete genealogies of cultural realities—that McWhorter finds the kind of relevance she needs to develop a genealogical account of modern racism in the United States.
Willett identifies herself as belonging to, and so situates her discourse within, the liberal philosophical tradition. But although she subscribes wholeheartedly to its principles of individual freedom and equality, she takes issue with its undue emphasis on the autonomy of the individual at the expense of what, in Hegel’s lexicon, is called sittlichkeit, the primary ethical substance that constitutes the social practices, the concrete life, of a people. In effect, Willett’s dismay with the disregard for the material and cultural conditions of existence displayed by the liberal outlook led her to African American writers and their treatment of race. The consequence of race in this context emerges in connection with the question of identity, and the relevance of identity is established by its unmediated link with self-reflection. On Willett’s telling, philosophical thought itself, insofar as it seeks to develop our capacities for self-understanding, begins with reflections we conduct about ourselves. The problem, however, is that today “white philosophers typically do not think of ourselves as having significant racial or social identities, and so categories such as race do not often play a role in our philosophical reflection.” Willett is alluding to the deep-seated conviction on the part of many a white person that in establishing one’s identity, reference to whiteness is simply unnecessary. The fact that our bodies manifest themselves in different perceptible forms should not oblige us, Willett argues, to subject those who look least like us to abjection, humiliation, or death. That is why working toward a color-blind and race-free society remains a worthwhile endeavor, even though, or perhaps precisely because, the obstacles to its realization are persistent, nefarious, and legion. In her efforts to articulate a response to the issues of racism in America, Willett deploys her ample acquaintance with the works of Hegel, Merleau-Ponty, Bourdieu, Patricia Hill Collins, Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, and Toni Morrison. The upshot of Willett’s inquiry is that the tendency of liberal philosophers to downplay “the social drama of the family, its entangled connection with community and history,” must be renounced if the urgent problem of race is to be given serious consideration.
While agreeing on the timeliness of race as a social issue, Hoy indicates that philosophers have disregarded the question of race because of first philosophy’s ingrained pretension to treat only the universal and timeless features of human existence. The mishap of Thales—his notorious artesian dip due to inordinate astral musings—is the legendary case frequently adduced to illustrate the perils of paying scant attention to the ways of the world. But Hoy points out that efforts have been made by some philosophers—Sartre and Foucault, for example—to focus less on universal essence and more on difference and particularity. Hence, to offset the structural shortcomings of first philosophy (or foundationalism, as it is also called), Hoy reverts to the methodologies of critical theory and the reflexive sociology of Bourdieu. “Briefly,” writes Hoy, “whereas traditional theory assumes a timeless standpoint for its pronouncements, critical theory recognizes that the need for theory arises only in a certain situation and that it can illuminate only that situation. Thus when race is the topic, even if one does not think that race is real under ideal circumstances, one can think that in present society race has real effects.” Under this rubric, race would be an apt and viable topic for analysis. The insight in Bourdieu that has a singular appeal to Hoy is the conception of a “field” and the “habitus” that come into play. Hoy’s concern pertains to the likelihood that there is indeed something about the field of philosophy that has blinded philosophers from seeing what should be so obvious: issues about race. He explains: “The habitus is made up of dispositions that have been built into the bodily hexis throughout the formative years and that are shared by all who belong to a given social group. The field is the background that makes the moves of the habitus intelligible. If the field is the game, the habitus is the feel for the game.” He then remarks on the two possible ways of construing the relation of the field and the habitus: (1) causal, where the individual’s actions are determined by the habitus; and (2) as a grid of intelligibility, where some actions may seem appropriate and others inappropriate. Hoy subscribes to the second option because it enables philosophy to reinterpret itself to overcome its empyreal aloofness and immediate social evils. According to Hoy, Sartre and Foucault are good examples of thinkers who have owned up to their social responsibilities in treating, however tentatively or programmatically, the problems engendered by the construction of race. He supports his claim by a close reading of Sartre’s “Portrait of the Anti-Semite,” for example, and by examining the notion of biopower in Foucault’s “Society Must Be Defended.”
For Warnke, the conundrum of racism consists in its overriding insistence on a totalizing tendency. Given the plurality of human characteristics and the variety of social markers people employ in calling attention to themselves, why do they incline toward singling out a particular feature or trait to claim adamantly, to establish conclusively, who they are? Phrased in a different way, by what moot measure, from what misguided motive, in the name of what perverse affectation does one opt to confer on oneself so perilous a reduction of being? Warnke, who initiates her inquiry with a close reading of a study on race by Kwame Anthony Appiah, shares his contention that a partial solution to the problem of race and racism is to assert and affirm one’s nonracial identities. Thus, “if we remember that we are not only ‘blacks’ or ‘whites,’ but also brothers and sisters, members of different or no religions, chess lovers and baseball players, we can take up a set of crosscutting and interlocking identities. . . . In this way we reduce the tendency of our racial identities to exhaust the options for who we are.” An idea in Appiah that appeals greatly to Warnke is the distinction made between racial identities that purport to be “recreational.” When one is construed to belong to a separate “race” in the United States, as was the case with the Irish and the Italians, for example, the difference is taken to be fundamental. But when “whiteness” was transmuted into the defining characteristic of a race, whiteness itself became basic, and being “Irish” or “Italian” transposed into an exercise of optional identification. In this sense, persons can choose to disclose their ethnic identities and display their cultural affiliations on days of national celebrations and other occasions of group gatherings. The snag here, of course, is that under this state of affairs only persons categorized as white are granted the privilege to assume recreational identities. The good thing about recreational identity—its salutary feature—is that it is freely chosen. More, the individual does not feel constrained to remain straitjacketed in it. That is why Warnke wonders about the possibility of attaining the freedom of recreational identities without presupposing the inflexibility of a more fundamental racial identity. How will she treat the issue? What tack will she pursue? She responds: “I think the insights of hermeneutics, and particularly of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, can help in this endeavor.” Why? “To identify individuals as black, white, Hispanic, or Asian is to understand them in a certain way. To this extent race is an interpretation, and our inquiry into it might begin by looking at the elements that philosophical hermeneutics identifies in our interpretations of texts.”
In a discussion designed to be open-ended and thought provoking rather than conclusive, Ladd demonstrates how the experiential basis of philosophy has been stultified and hedged by the arbitrary constraints of Anglo-American practice. The fact that the chapter is admittedly programmatic in form should not belie the significance of the problems it treats, the gravity of the claims it makes, and the solutions it proposes. By the term “philosophy in chains” Ladd means “that the dominant ethos of today’s mainstream Anglo-American philosophy imposes restrictions on the right aims of doing philosophy, on the proper sorts of problems to be explored, and on the right ways of dealing with them. As a result it closes off areas of philosophical exploration that an open inquiring philosopher might want to develop.” The question that immediately arises is this: what would motivate a discipline, whose reason for being consists in exploring whatever pertains to human development, to stifle or impair its own nisus by such self- imposed constraints? The answer offered in this piece is as clear as it is complex: cultural imperialism. In Ladd’s view, to summarily dismiss as “primitive” the social practices of others without exerting any effort to understand their sittlich bases, “is not only theoretically (and empirically) absurd but also immoral and politically dangerous.” This observation, banal as it may seem because of its truism, is nonetheless apt to inspire, for example, a critical self-assessment on the part of those whose lives have been affected by 9/11. In other words, arrogating “rational” privilege to our own entrenched ways of being, and in the same breath ascribing primitivism, decadence, and barbarism to other societies, can no longer be assumed as grounds for a solution. On the contrary, that way of thinking contributes eminently to the problem. Ladd also considers the question of personal identity, regarded by mainstream philosophy as purely metaphysical and, in his view, treated with corresponding detachment or indifference. Inspired by Eric Erickson’s theory of “identity crises,” Ladd proffers that “the concept of identity used by people of color belongs to an entirely different category from that of the concept used in mainline philosophical circles. . . . The kinds of problem that involve this psychosocial concept of identity are questions like: ‘Who am I?’ ‘Where do I fit in a multiracial and multiethnic world?’ ‘Where do I belong?’ and so on.” It is worth noting that Ladd’s reflections on these issues remain consistent with his efforts long ago to broaden the scope of philosophy as far back as 1957, when he published his groundbreaking study The Structure of a Moral Code: A Philosophical Analysis of Ethical Discourse Applied to the Ethics of the Navaho Indians.
In sum, the distinctive feature of this anthology—the mark that sets it quite apart—lies in the fact that of the myriad studies that focus on race matters in this country, it alone dares to ask distinguished white philosophers why they have not hitherto addressed publicly the urgent issue of race and racism. Thus the question that guides our work, which is as direct as it is unflinching, compels the individual contributor to engage in an unusual and critical self-analysis that, by virtue of its sheer personal tenor, is certain to draw the attention of faculty and students in various academic disciplines.
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