Topic for #52: Philosophy and Race (DuBois, MLK, Cornel West)

We PELers spent black history month actually reading black history, and on 2/28/12 spoke with Law Ware of Oklahoma State University about philosophy and race. Is there a philosophically viable concept of race at all? What are the potential sources of past and current oppression, and what general strategies seem promising to deal with them? Is "understanding" all one needs to beat prejudice? Here's what we all read:

"Of our Spiritual Strivings," by W.E.B. DuBois, which is chapter 1 of his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois was a historian who took classes with William James and knew his philosophy. This essay gives an existential take on what it's like to live with a "double consciousness:" to see through the eyes of Western culture (from his white teachers) as an intellectual, but also to see through the eyes of his oppressed brethren. Far from simply wanting blacks to integrate, he saw the black experience as providing a spiritual viewpoint that commercial white America sorely needed. You can read the book online; however, the Norton Critical Editionincludes lots of helpful footnotes and supplementary essays.

Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (1963) and "The Black Power Defined" (1967). MLK did have a PhD in philosophy of religion. In the first of these essays, he explains the philosophy behind his non-violent political methodology, and in the latter, he displays a surprising streak of realpolitik. We also looked at the very short speech by Malcolm X, "The Black Revolution" (1963) for comparison and contrast.

"A Genealogy of Modern Racism," by Cornel West, which is chapter 2 of his 1982 book Prophesy Deliverance!West is renowned in academia for his scholarship in pragmatism, but most of his books have to do with race. In the essay he brings up Foucault's theory of power, where oppression can be meted out through all the tools culture has at its disposal. In this "genealogy," he describes how the history of Western thought, with its habits of scientific categorization and its classically inspired aesthetics reinforced ways of thinking that ruled out in advance the equality of blacks.

Check back to this site in the couple of weeks after the episode is posted for more links and information regarding the books, lectures and other media discussed during the episode.


  1. dmf says

    excellent, CWest has become a caricature of himself but I have seen him at conferences and even in the pulpit and he was a force to be reckoned with balancing the democratic hopes of Dewey with Santayana’s sense of the tragic. These days his main point is that as we see the limits of largely unfettered capitalism in a flattening world the black experience in America offers a possibility of how to be poorer with dignity and a humane but fierce sense of justice/community.
    The question I would ask is a kind of post-colonial one which is it even possible to be outside of the mainstream consumerist culture in America?

      • dmf says

        not in any easy way, there is something about having to define oneself against that brings the other close to the center of what one does and therefore who one is, and they often have to negotiate with/in the englisch world.

  2. dmf says

    here is West via Democracy Now remembering the struggle at Attica and sermonizing on the “niggerization” of America:

  3. David Buchanan says

    Personally, I’ve always been reluctant to speak up for the cause. Because of my “race” and gender (white male), it seems like one of those areas where I should just shut up and listen.

    I wonder if you guys (Mark, Seth, Wes, Dylan) feel that way. Do you wonder if it’s really possible to appreciate the black experience or understand any kind of outsider status? I like to think that the latter can give some kind of access. I mean, race, gender and sexual orientation are far from being the only things that’ll alienate a person from the mainstream. In fact, American bigots have been all too happy to lump intellectual positions in with the nation’s persecuted minorities, as we see in hateful phrases like, “pinko commie faggot” or Rush Limbaugh’s “feminazi”. There is very often a virulent anti-intellectualism intertwined with the other forms of prejudice. The very existence of African-American scholarship is mocked and ridiculed regularly on talk radio shows, for example. As everyone can plainly see, Pelosi (most powerful woman in U.S. history) and Obama are every ditto head’s worst nightmare.

  4. Bruce Adam says

    It sounds as if you’re going to discuss African Americans and bigotry. All good.
    Surely this is only one small aspect of ” Race and Power”.

  5. Evan says

    Regarding the question, “is there a philosophically viable concept of race at all”, Razib Khan has recently written about whether there is a modern genetic concept of race at all on his blog:
    Though his perspective is as a geneticist, he at least dips his toes into the philosophical angle (re the species concept in general, for example). I’d argue that any discussion of the philosophy of this subject should grapple with the most recent science, so he’s worth checking out, particularly because he deals with some common intuitive objections that he feels are hollow.

    • David Buchanan says

      As I understand it, genetically speaking, the most distant relations on earth are something like 11th cousin. Our species is almost literally one big extended family. Scientifically, “race” is a meaningless concept and the distinction between black and white even more so. Today there is more genetic diversity within Africa than there is in the rest of the world combined. And, as most everyone knows, every so-called race originally came out of Africa.

      On a similar note, there is evidence to believe that there was a dangerous narrow population bottleneck around 75,000 years. (Because of a volcanic eruption big enough to disrupt global climate for several years.) It’s estimated that there were only 10,000 people left on the planet at that point. We nearly became extinct and everyone alive today is related that population.

  6. pirsigfan says

    Bruce Adam :
    It sounds as if you’re going to discuss African Americans and bigotry. All good.
    Surely this is only one small aspect of ” Race and Power”.

    Right. What about Jewish and aboriginal groups. Are all the choices of race which the government defines on so many of its applications legitimate races?

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      I’ll have to see how the discussion goes before deciding if this was really an appropriate title.

      “What are the philosophical issues involved in the history of the American black struggle?” is really more what I’m figuring out, but I try in these posts to come up with some more suggestive description, else every ep would be titled something like “what’s the deal with Kierkegaard?”

        • dmf says

          I’m not sure that there is a hard line to be drawn there but certainly questions like what it means to be human are at play here, and what if anything is the grounds of rights and or the law, if those aren’t philosophical questions I’m not sure what is.

  7. Law W. says

    While the lens employed may have been articulated by a subjugated group whose skin color is black, it does not mean that the subject matter will exclusively be confined to their experience. I suspect that the idea of Double Consciousness, for example, articulated by Du Bois is applicable to women, gays, and other oppressed groups. Same thing with West’s Normative Gaze–these are not ideas that only have currency in the black community.

    • dmf says

      thanks for helping us to work these things thru, I’m not really sure what is being objected to, or at least worried, by some of the commenters here but everything is grist for the mill I imagine.
      have you written at all about Eddie Glaude’s In A Shade of Blue?

  8. Joan says

    thank you. i look forward to this discussion.
    i just listened to the first few chapters on librivox. do you know it?
    i am a bit obsessed…too many books, so little time.

  9. Law W. says


    I am familiar with Glaude’s work, but have not read that particular text.

    I think that many people have a deep suspicion about the philosophical analysis of race for at least two reasons:

    1: Philosophy is a predominantly white discipline. While this is changing slowing, there are very few people of any color other than white working in the field. As West once said at a conference, “Philosophy is one of the last academic disciplines to be integrated.” In the same way that people were suspicious about a philosophical analysis of feminist issues, people are suspicious about race.

    2: For a long time, there were philosophical discussions happening in various communities, but these people were largely unconcerned about publishing because of certain real existential concerns–so you see that much of the philosophical work will be speeches and the like. It is very difficult to take the time to sit down and write when you are busy organizing, marching, and speaking.

    There is more to it, but I suspect the podcast will cover some of it.


  10. David Buchanan says

    Considering the context, I guess just about everyone has already seen “Examined Life”. The section with Cornel West was well worth a second look, especially if you want to get in the mood for the current readings. The man is an entertainer, an artist. I don’t know how it does it.

    Q: So, do you have to go to school to be a philosopher?

    A: Oh, God no!

    It just takes courage, he says, and then improvises a lot. It’s a good song, so to speak.

    The link:

  11. dmf says
    Robert Bernasconi is a leading scholar of the modern philosophical canon. Together we discuss two titans of twentieth-century thought, Heidegger and Levinas, exploring what they teach us about the limits of philosophy and the opening of philosophy to an ethics that responds to human suffering. We also address how Bernasconi’s work in the critical philosophy of race is his own response to these issues on the basis of his experience living in Memphis

  12. Joan says

    Who would you suggest reading that addresses the experience of race in america now, as this 21st century is upon us, especially in the area of the experience of young people and their interaction with our educational system, from elementary to university? Is Cornell West able to match the sheer power/intellect/insight of Dubois?
    Hey, if anyone is interested, on Sunday, March 18, 2012, 7:00 PM, The Ethical Society of Philadelphia,
    1906 South Rittenhouse Sq, Philadelphia, PA (map) is hosting a discussion on WEB DuBois:
    ‘Join the Leader of the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia, Hugh Taft-Morales, for a discussion with Dr. David McBride, Professor of African-American History at Pennsylvania State University. We will explore W. E. B. Du Bois and the immense impact he had on Philadelphia and the world as a remarkable scholar, political activist, educator, and more.’ These talks are open to the public, and at no cost.
    **on a different note: i toured the eastern state penitentiary yesterday w/a friend, in philly. A pretty thorough tour is offered, lasting about an hour, and you have access to other areas on your own (al capone’s cell, with an oriental carpet, sofa, and classical music playing for the full effect of the preferential treatment he received, the women’s wing, etc.) Eerie, crumbling, the facility remains, with neighborhoods having gown around it after its completion, as a concrete example of how horribly wrong the ‘quaker experiment’ went, with the thought to use solitary confinement of prisoners as a way for them to find their inner peace and reform. And they sell ‘Discipline and Punish’ in the gift shop. Foucault would be proud!

  13. Law W. says

    Tommie Shelby’s We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity, Randall Kennedy’s The Persistence of the Color Line, Jonathon Kazol’s The Shame of the Nation, and Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow all address the issue of race in a contemporary context. As for Cornel West being able to match the brilliance of Du Bois, I would have to say of course he cannot. Du Bois was a once in a generation mind—still, that does not mean that West does not provide valuable insights.

    • dmf says

      I don’t think that West is lacking in any capacity to think in relation to Du Bois but in a sense DB had to start from scratch while West has many more resources at hand to work with, that said West, RKennedy, Appiah, Glaude et al, are increasingly focused on cosmopolitanism and economics which is an interesting shift in focus, hard to sort out this how much this might have to do with the demands of our times vs the particular situations of these authors.

  14. Law W. says

    I have to disagree with you dmf. When you consider the real changes that Du Bois ushered in–plus the prescient nature of his work and ideas, I have to side that way. However, this is all subjective. Both are needed and important–plus, admittedly, I may have a bias since Du Bois is generations ago and West is still alive.

    Now, as for the economic turn, I think that is the natural evolution of work in race. When we move beyond theory to praxis, economic is where racial differences are most pronounced. One would be very myopic to only focus on race and not address issues surrounding class. That is very perceive of you to point out.

  15. Joan says

    Thanks for the suggestions. I work in a position where I interact with a predominantly black community (I am a white woman, 2nd generation Italian-American) a few days a week, as an educational consultant. I feel an intimate connection with the kids, but at times I do feel that I just can not really understand their perception of the world. I would like to understand.
    And you are forgiven.

  16. Bear Mathun says

    I hope that I am not too late…

    One comment that I think should be made about this topic is the scientific perspective.

    According to Geneticists that I know, analyses of the genetic variation of populations have been done. Then some sort of clustering was done, and they discovered that there was much more genetic variation within Africa than outside it.

    So, one can cluster the human race based on genetic characteristics, but it would mean that the population outside of Africa would be put into one cluster, and the other clusters are within Africa.

    This puts lie to the often repeated classification of “Africans, Caucasians, and East Asians”: which is used by those who claim racial variance of intelligence.

    • Profile photo of Wes Alwan says

      And again, it simply doesn’t matter whether there is more genetic variation within races than between them, any more that it matters that we share more than 70 percent of our DNA with nematodes when contemplating how we differ from them. What’s relevant is phenotype, and what we take to be important phenotypic distinctions. And in the end, what distinctions between human beings are important is up our practical concerns, and not something that science can tell us. And if your intuition is that hair color and other markers are “trivial,” you need to reflect on the fact that they become important to human beings as signifiers of deeper cultural differences. And those differences are enough to make them legitimately significant.


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