Episode 52: Philosophy and Race (DuBois, Martin Luther King, Cornel West)

On W.E.B. DuBois's "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" (1903), Cornel West's "A Genealogy of Modern Racism" (1982), and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (1963) and "The Black Power Defined" (1967), plus Malcolm X's "The Black Revolution" (1963).

What kind of philosophical lessons come out of the history of black oppression in America? Historian and intellectual DuBois describes the "double consciousness" involved living as a black man in the white world (he was the first black man to graduate from Harvard); he sees the oppression experience as providing some spiritual insight that the rest of us could use. West analyzes the codification of racist aesthetic standards in western philosophical history, leaving us with traces (a white "normative gaze") that require more than a tolerant attitude to root out. The American civil rights writers discuss the practical ways to combat this legacy, the upshot being that whites will not in themselves become enlightened and fix everything, but that blacks simply needed more economic, political, and cultural power. So where does this leave us some decades later? Read more about the topic and get the texts.

The full foursome is joined by Lawrence Ware of Oklahoma State University, who serves as the token professional in our amateur melting pot. Contemplate our liberal bias! Snicker at my awkward white guilt!

End song: “Bankrupt” by The MayTricks, from the album Happy Songs Will Bring You Down (1994), one of my more amusing musical crimes against the inventors of funk. Download the whole album for free.

If you enjoy the episode, please donate at least $1:


    • Kyle says

      Agreed. Law is hilarious and really lightened the mood on a pretty serious subject. I’d love to see him become a sort of regular guest.

      • Justin Blackmon says

        This is my first time writing on here, but I just wanted to say how much I really enjoyed this episode.

        The addition of Lawrence was awesome. He seemed to really mesh well with the group. He should be a some kind of regular guest.

    • Kanaka says

      In Par. 205 of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Miller), where Hegel criticizes the “sceptical self-consciousness” as being “unconscious,” he says: “Its deeds and its words always belie one another and equally it has itself the doubly contradictory consciousness of unchangeableness and sameness, and of utter contingency and non-identity with itself.”

      • Kanaka says

        Then, in paragraph 206 a new form of consciousness emerges (i.e., the Unhappy Consciousness) which knows itself to be “the dual consciousness of itself” and is aware of “this self contradictory nature of itself,” or, “knows itself to be a duality.”

  1. Adam says

    Great stuff!

    Towards the end of the podcast, and in a few other places throughout, the topic racism in classical texts (i.e. Kant, Locke etc.). I had a philosophy prof. once who tackled this in a lecture on Kant. He said something like, if we think of a philosophers writings as a brick wall we can try to locate these racist/sexist/homophobic etc. elements on the wall. So the important question becomes where is the block? Is it on top or down towards the foundation? If it is on top the ideas can be easily reconstructed removing these faults; if it is towards the foundation it becomes much harder to reconstruct. This seems a good method for dealing with these problems. Using it we are forced to pay attention to these problem.; we can’t minimize them. Yet, we aren’t forced to throughout the baby with the bathwater as it were.

    One other thing. On the topic science, aesthetics and the enlightenment (as well as romanticism) there is a great book “Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism” by George L. Mosse (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Toward-Final-Solution-History-European/dp/0865274282) who does a close analysis of how these play and interplay into racism ideology. This is a good book to go along with the West text.

    Thanks for all the great podcasts. Keep up the great work.


  2. Joshua says

    Anyway, more substantively, I’d like to address the Enlightenment practices in science with regard to society and race. The discussion on the podcast was kind of defensive about empirical science, and the most generous treatment given to Dr. West’s idea was “things emerge from the culture in the tradition of science, that are bad science, and not in line with the real practice.” I think the history gives a broader picture.

    When John Langdon Down was practicing in the 1800s, he came to identify what we know as “Down Syndrome.” He observed the look of the children and individuals affected, and came up with his own theory, based on the racist science of the time. One idea that inspired him was the idea that (something like) the evolutionary progression of a species was replayed in the gestation of the embryo->fetus. Observing human forms from the womb, you start out with a single-celled organism, progress to something fishy, then reptilian, then apelike, then (in the assumptions of the time) to African, to Asian, and to Caucasian based on the race of the parents.

    The disorder was named “Mongoloidism” at first, because Down used observation to conclude that it was white children who had been born at the “Mongoloid” or Asian phase of human development. The interesting thing, that I think backs up Dr. West’s idea, is that the idea was defeated empirically. The discovery later of black children with Down Syndrome was a refutation of Down’s idea about “Mongoloidism,” since black children with the disease should be smarter than the general black population, having progressed to a higher developmental stage in utero, but reality showed they had similar cognitive limitations as Down Syndrome individuals from any race, and so the idea that it was linked to some sort of Asian evolutionary stage was incorrect.

    Thanks to the horrors of Nazi Germany and what we learn in school today, the scorn placed upon Charles Murray and the Bell Curve, etc. we see the domain of racialized science as purely one for the huckster, the charlatan, and the philistine, that no one would intellectually honestly attempt to enter the field. While these conclusions are (in my opinion) the correct ones for today and how far we have progressed, I think Dr. West’s point is that we have forgotten that was not always true. There were many people doing racist science in the 19th Century driven by empiricism, falsification, and other principles of science such that we cannot separate them from the mainstream of what honest scientific practice means like we can with Josef Mengele or Trofim Lysenko in the 20th Century. We have to understand their racist ideology as bottom-up and emerging from the good faith practice of 19th Century science (in its primitive form) instead of the top-down search to find loopholes to justify a racist ideology that find endemic in the practices of 20th Century figures, esp. under authoritarian regimes.

  3. Bear Mathun says

    I have just listened to this podcast (realising that my earlier comment was too late).

    I will first start with a correction – it was not Mohandas Gandhi who started the non-violence movement. It was first articulated by Lev Tolstoy (the author of Anna Karenina). He wrote a letter (in English) to Tarak Das spelling out “passive resistance”, and this letter made a deep impression on Gandhi.

    I was relieved that you avoided getting bogged down in a discussion of race. But this means that the discussion is broadened to issues of identifiable groups – ethnic and cultural groups. So the discussion is much broader.

    However, as someone who is living outside the United States, it would seem to me that the discussion of race is an American preoccupation rather than in other parts of the Anglophone world. The only time it gets any airplay is when something terrible happens such as the recent riots on London and other parts of England, or the bombings in the Underground.

    Looking at American cultural artifacts (films, TV, books) it seems that race is still haunting the consciousness. The characters are often “racially balanced”, carefully having diversity.

    However, there does seem to an insidious racism that was mentioned. The fact that there are “Black Churches” and “White Churches” is something most people outside of the US (in English speaking countries) do not understand and have not experienced. It extends beyond that. A friend tells a story that he was in the US on business and one of his colleagues invited him to the boss’s party. Of about 300 guests there, only 5 were white – and they were from Europe.

    The first time that I heard the word “miscegenation” applied to people rather than racehorses was in an American context. So I am wondering whether there is a cultural bias in the US to ethnically mixed marriages. Certainly in other parts of the English speaking world there is not a strong disapproval of this.

    • Daniel Horne says

      Hi Bear,

      Allow me some quick bullet points by way of response. My impression is that any differences between the US and (let’s say) the UK on the subject of race, including its worth as a topic, are more a matter of degree than kind:

      1. Discussion of race outside the US

      BBC on race in the UK:

      The Observer on race in the UK:

      The Guardian on race in the UK:

      …and a little bit on the subject in The Telegraph:

      …and some here from The Economist:

      …and a little bit more here from The Independent, which has some interesting stats:

      You get the idea. I don’t think race as a discussion topic is unique to the American experience.

      2. Racially-diverse casting in dramas

      The latest Guinevere Pendragon on BBC’s Merlin:

      The latest Friar Tuck on BBC’s Robin Hood:

      The RSC’s recent-ish choice for King Henry VI:

      You and I would both find these welcome and interesting developments. But I don’t think the British decisions to cast such actors for these roles originates from concerns different from any you might impute to American productions. We can agree that producers from both countries thought race shouldn’t be relevant to creating interesting dramatic roles. Alternatively, we can agree that producers in both countries desire casts that more-or-less reflect the viewing demographic, so as to expand viewership and ratings. I’m unsure that — in either context — it has to much to do with a “haunted conscience.” It’s either a naked concern for advertising (or licensing) revenue, or a progressive cultural sensibility, or some of both. But I don’t see why one set of actions would stem from a cultural pathology, and yet the other wouldn’t.

      3. Black churches in the US and UK:

      Where to start with this? I’m not sure what you mean by the “fact” of “Black Churches” and “White Churches”. Exactly which fact? How are you defining “Black Church” and how are you defining “White Church”?

      A church often mirrors its local community. If the population of a local community (let’s say, San Francisco’s Fillmore District) is majority African American, it’s not hard to understand that the majority of parishioners would be African American as well. Thank God, or we’d never have the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church!:

      But, look, you see the same dynamic with the Brixton Gospel Choir:

      and of course, London’s Glory House Church:

      Or just check this directory:

      …or this article:

      …and here’s a truncated micro-history of Black churches in Britain:

      …and (more for US readers) here’s a quick review of Britain’s backlash against the Jamaican immigration of the 1950s:

      4. “Miscegenation”:

      The word doesn’t seem wholly foreign to the Queen’s English. It’s listed in the OED, specifically with reference to people, and not animals:

      The word “miscegenation” certainly appears to be in BNP Chairman Nick Griffin’s vocabulary:

      Insofar as the BNP successfully fields candidates into local offices, and recently won 2 seats in the European Parliament, I find Griffin to be an example worth citing. The BNP received over 5% (1 in 20!) of votes in the 2008 London(!) mayoral election. Somebody is voting for these BNP guys, and my guess is that they’re not too keen on the whole ethnically mixed marriage thing:

      As to whether there exists in the US a cultural bias against ethnically mixed marriages, well, it must be on the wane, according to recent stats:

      As far as the thankfully liberal British attitude toward mixed marriage is concerned, it would seem to be (as in the US) a relatively new, and relatively isolated, phenomenon:

      • Bear Mathun says

        I did not say that these problems do not exist outside of the US. You can find racists and bigots in any society – there have even been cases of neo-nazis in Israel. But it seems that the discussion of race is more prevalent in the US than outside it.

        Yes, miscegenation is in the Queen’s English – but I had previously only heard it in the context of Animal Husbandry and breeding. So its use about people was very shocking.

        Also note that there are many pejorative and insulting terms in English, as there are in all languages. These terms are commonly used by members of the BNP, but they still remain offensive (as does the BNP).

        The main point I was making was that the discussion of race and the problem of race are much more in the American public discussion than in other Anglophone countries.

        • Daniel Horne says

          Hi Bear,

          As I wrote, it’s a matter of degree, not kind. Looking to the examples I cited above, all of these concerns are discussed in some volume in the UK as well. I’m not sure by what meaningful criteria we could state that they are a uniquely American preoccupation.

    • Profile photo of Law Ware Twitter: @law_ware says

      Good catch on the Tolstoy correction. I’d forgotten about that.

      The primary reason why churches in America are so segregated is due to the responses of predominately white churches during slavery.

      The AME split off from the UMC because of the segregation that some UMCs forced upon the former slaves in their congregations during worship. Richard Allen and other black clergy found these conditions unacceptable and organized a denomination where they could follow the teachings of Wesley in an atmosphere where they felt free. For a substantive discussion of this history, check out: http://www.amazon.com/Black-Religion-Radicalism-Interpretation-Religious/dp/157075182X

      The Black Baptist phenomenon is the result of many in the Southern Baptist Convention supporting (SUPPORTING!!!!) slavery–and actively fighting against the civi rights movement. In response to this, the National Baptist Convention and the Progressive Baptist Convention were formed. This is part of why the Southern Baptist Convention will probably change it’s name soon. They are trying to distance themselves from that past.

      Race and racism permeates everything in America. From education, to religion, to economics, to fashion. As a member of this minority population, I see it everywhere–those who do not are simply blinded to it or do not care.

      • Bear Mathun says

        I had read that missionaries were often chased away by slave “owners”, and threatened. I guess it is hard to “own” a person during the week, then on Sunday morning go to church to sit next to him and address him as “brother”.

        This is more shocking if you realise that these “Christian” gentlemen believed that if the slaves did not accept Jesus they would go to Hell: so they were effectively condemning the slaves to eternal misery after pretty miserable lives.

        But you confirm my impression that race and racism permeates everything in America. This is very concerning – not only for Americans, but for everyone in the English speaking world. America has an enormous cultural influence in the world and it would be a disaster if this influence also exported racist attitudes.

        As for those who are blind it – I am reminded of a video clip that went viral a couple of years ago. It featured dancers, and a person in a bear suit walked across the background. At the end, the question was asked if you had seen the bear. Almost everyone missed the bear until it was pointed out.

        Racism and other forms of discrimination are similar: unless it is happening to you, you are likely not to notice until it is pointed out.

        • Profile photo of Law Ware Twitter: @law_ware says

          Bear, I think you hit the nail on the head.

          A recent book from Randall Kennedy, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, addresses the way race touches upon everything in America. Perhaps you may be interested in it: http://www.amazon.com/Persistence-Color-Line-Politics-Presidency/dp/030737789X

          I got interested in philosophy of race by accident. I was initially interested in philosophy of religion, political philosophy, and ethics. However, once I stumbled upon philosophy of race, I saw how everything could be tied together: the use of religion by slave masters to oppress their slaves; the political ideas behind much of the black power movement, it is even present in aesthetics once you take into account the ‘normative gaze,’ etc. That is a long winded way of saying that race is everywhere–the question is do you see it, and if you do see it, do you care?

          • Joan says

            could you write a little about the meaning of the ‘normative gaze’, in the context of aesthetics?
            i think i understand it, but i’m not sure.

          • Law says

            Hi Joan:

            As mentioned in the episode, West argues that the normative gaze comes from Greek standards of beauty–and these standards of beauty set the norms for what our culture deems as aesthetically pleasing.

            While I am not convinced that West has proven causality–I do think his analysis has intuitive power.

          • Joan says

            that is what i understood it to mean.
            thank you.
            yes, i agree that the analysis has power.
            i see a pecking order that starts in my elementary-aged students, unfortunately.
            to counter this, i try to promote the value of inner beauty.
            it’s tough to see the pain of the kids not deemed ‘the prettiest’, etc.

          • Joan says

            Thanks, Law. Sometimes feels like a drop of water in a big ocean, you know?
            I have never understood how any human could feel superior to another human based on melanin.
            If aliens came to our planet, they would think dogs ruled.(since we walk behind them and pick up their poop!)

  4. dmf says

    I’m @about54minutes in, just wanted to note that Foucault gave up on his idea of the “medical” gaze but never really moved away from a kind of structuralist view that there were logoi at work that were extra-human and in which we were functioning and I think that CWest was pointing to something similar, not unlike Heidegger’s idea/epoch of technology (not simply machines) as a kind of meta-logic by which we come to see everything (and one) as resources to be used whether we want to or not. What separates the post-68 folks like Foucault and Kristeva from Heidegger (and I think Deleuze) is that they eventually gave up on the idea of revolution and got more focused on micro/individual modes of resistance.
    back to the podcast..

  5. dmf says

    On a more general note can we think of scientific (and other) categories/generalizations in pragmatic terms of how it’s useful to break up and or join aspects of the world for our uses, and then more particularly is there any work looking at race from a performative stance (like J.Butler on gender)?
    In lights of this podcast maybe Emerson and Gramsci should be added to the reading list?
    On the OWS question its not just a technocratic matter of alternative mechanisms/systems but why are peoples’ consciousnesses such that they willfully participate in their own oppression, which is where Zizek and all come in.
    The question of things/ideas being too abstract to be actionable may both be why there aren’t more minorities(and women) in philo and part of why some of us took the pragmatist/sociological/practice turn.

      • dmf says

        there is some aspect at work there, but ‘acting’ black or white is usual spoken of as being inauthentic (not keeping it real) as opposed to being the ways in which all identities are composed, received, and even improvised.

  6. Profile photo of C.-Derick-Varn says

    I enjoyed this issue particularly the part on double consciousness, but I think one has to have a really limited view of pre-Enlightenment mentality to say that classifications schemes that appear racialist are unique to post-Cartesian thought. Actually reading Medieval and late antiquity manuscripts as well as living in East Asia, I find this to be a highly questionable assumption. But this is a minor point.

    • Daniel Horne says

      Hi Derick,

      I agree with you, but I was impressed by Seth’s rejoinder, that West’s point may have more value if not taken literally to explain historical causation. It seems to me that scientific / rationalist thought can take almost no credit for alleviating the most explicit forms of racism over the centuries. And, in fact, those working within the scientific / rationalist tradition did much of the heavy lifting in codifying and systematizing racist agendas.

      Maybe this is a minor point as well, but I find it interesting that whatever progress we’ve made in dealing with race seems to have come from intellectual traditions other than the post-Cartesian tradition.

  7. David Buchanan says

    I’m thinking that racism (and sexism, etc.) are features of a larger power structure in which cultural values are articulated and enforced through an elaborate system of scapegoating and hero worship. The values of the culture, both positive and negative, are projected onto various types of people. On this view, the denigration of women, for example, means that the culture as a whole denigrates feminine values or over-emphasizes masculine values, neither of which are the essential property of either gender.

    Racism must work like this too. i’m talking about the overt kind of racism, wherein the other race is an object of hate as we see in the typical klansman, say. If you listen to such a person rant, you’ll know exactly what he hates and fears about himself. Racism is a handy way to put all your shit on the other guy and claim all the virtue for your own. It’s a worldview for those who like to keep it simple. Very simple.


  8. Bear Mathun says

    One comment about the slowness of Martin Luther King’s speeches. I am not sure if you have addressed a large group of people without a PA, but when you do, there is a need to project your voice – almost shout.

    Doing this slows your speech down, as each phoneme takes much more energy and air. I imagine that when Dr King started out, most of his sermons and speeches were in halls without a PA so his public speaking slowed down as a result.

    • Joshua says

      He wasn’t belting (i.e., shouting from the top of his lungs) that much, though. You don’t have to slow down that much if you’re not belting. Gershwin opera singers can fill a huge room with voice doing showtunes that are 50% faster that are totally recognizable, even with zany accents.

      He very rarely went to shouting except for effect during a climax (like, FREE AT LAST, GOD ALMIGHTY FREE AT LAST, that speech was mic’ed, but its the same thing for the unamplified speeches) because you’d have to retire as a black Baptist reverend at 35 from a blown out voice. I can promise he chose to speak at 90-120 BPM for the effect.

      • Profile photo of Law Ware Twitter: @law_ware says

        I’ve listened to many speeches from that era that involved PA (Malcom X, Stokely, Jesse Jackson, Baynard Rustin, etc.), but MLK is the slowest of them all.

        Besides, it was funny. We were having a bit of fun imagining all the possibilities. If people stopped a comedian every time they exaggerated the truth, comedy would be next to immpossible. I doubt he would speak so slowly while in a Burger King drive-thru–but it is funny to imagine it.

        • Joshua says

          No attack intended, Mr. Ware. I was just saying that I think sometimes the quality of the reverend’s rhetoric by itself can overshadow the talent/training he must have had with delivery of the rhetoric. To be honest I mostly only go back & listen on his Day of Remembrance each year and it seems appropriately solemn (esp. the Vietnam speeches) but I can appreciate how it would start to become difficult for someone whose job it was to do that regularly =)

          May I ask a couple questions?

          1. About the “Negro” colloquialism: During the podcast it was brought up that MLK was using that classification specifically to describe something like his synthesis of people of African descent and Real Americans, and how that was in opposition to how Jesse Jackson came to prefer “African-American,” etc. The talk didn’t really go much into Malcolm X, but the major thing I’m familiar with in regards to his use of the term is his house Negro vs. field Negro bit. Am I right to think that he was invoking that disparagingly against the sort of folks that wanted to embrace the term?

          2. How did “Uncle Tom” end up as derogatory? The character is kind of one-dimensional, but in the story, he seems to be a stand-up guy for a black character written by a white woman, giving up his life that others might escape slavery. Is it because a depiction of a black man as subservient is just unforgivable to those who most closely identify with racial emancipatory politic? (i.e., the backlash against Morgan Freeman’s performance in Miss Daisy or Denzel Washington rejecting the opportunity to star in the Amistad film)

          • Profile photo of Law Ware Twitter: @law_ware says

            Hi Joshua:

            1. Negro was a common word from Blacks in that time–as you know. What I was pointing out was the emphasis that Malcolm X placed upon the African identity of black people in America. Jesse Jackson popularized the term, but you can find the genesis of this idea in people like WEB Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, but I would argue that Macolm X and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) are the most influential proponents of this idea.

            And yes, Malcolm X put the phrase ‘house negro’ in the black lexicon–a phrase that one hears often. (I once heard Kevin Hart refer to Herman Cain as both a Uncle Tom and a House Negro.)

            2. It is not the book that made the phrase ‘Uncle Tom’ a derogatory epithet, but, instead, it was the minstrel shows and subsequent dramatizations of the novel that are to blame. Now, I have deep problems with the book to be sure (in the same way that I have problems with Driving Ms. Daisy, The Help, The Blind Side, and The Legend of Bagger Vance); yet, I do understand what she was trying to do.

            You perceptively point out the problems with the book–he is one dimensional, he is also subservient , he is overly nice to white people, and he chooses to stay behind. Now keep in mind that he is a slave–take into account that it was written by a white woman, and you begin to see some of the problems.

          • Bear Mathun says

            You mention 4 films (I have seen none of them, but I have heard of 2 of them) and a novel (I know about because of a song by Warrant), but I understand their genre. So I would be interested to know what your problems are with the films and novel. And does it affect the entire genre?

          • Law says

            My problems with the books and the movies are too lengthy to be explicated here; however, I may some day soon write something to post on the website that discusses my issues at length–and opens the door for edifying dialogue with you guys on here.

        • Bear Mathun says

          Yes, it was funny. But I was thinking of the reasons for his slow speech.

          Also, I agree with the need for comedy (perhaps a good topic for discussion and Aristotle’s lost volume??). The humour made this podcast particularly good, and I think allowed some issues to be addressed openly.

          Yes, Joshua, I do understand about voice projection – I am thinking more of Wagnerian soloists singing above a 130 piece orchestra. But to do so, there is a lot of technique and training.

          In the days before the PA, preachers were taught to slow their speaking and to breathe from the diaphragm so they would not have to shout.

  9. Amir Zaki says

    Wes made a comment during the podcast that (paraphrasing) “Being a skeptic about whether race exists is like being a skeptic that distinct species exist or tables and chairs”. Really? Are those equivalent claims? I think that species can often be categorized by DNA structure. But, there is really no good evidence that there are races as we currently understand them. I, like a growing number of people, have quite a mixture of genes from people with varying physical features from throughout the world. If I am of a race, I’ve yet to understand what race I belong to. So, either the premise is that everyone is OF a certain race that you can define, OR just some people get to have that status if they are pure enough, OR, it’s an outdated and scientifically unfounded idea. This is not to say that racism doesn’t exist. It obviously does. But, distinct races don’t. And if they do, and you are doing a podcast about them, you ought to define them. The starting point of the podcast assumes something that is highly contestable, making the jump that because there is institutionalized racism, that race exists. The idea of race should be held up to the same scrutiny and rigor as any other topic you all have tackled so diligently in the past.

    • Joshua says

      That comment wasn’t validating racial categorization, it was acknowledging that we can comment on groups/categorizations we make (or have made) without having to assume they are pointers to some sort of Platonic form and have any sort of objective truth.

      • Amir Zaki says

        It’s not a platonic form I’m suggesting. It’s a definition. If we comment on groups/categorizations, we ought to be able to define them clearly, or even semi-clearly. We can do a much better job of defining the difference between a lion and a shark, or a table and a chair in the vast majority of cases. It’s much more vague when it comes to discussing differences of physical appearance in humans based on outdated and unfounded notions of ‘race’. The world has 7 billion people in it today, a good portion of whom have been traveling intercontinentally and breeding for hundreds of years, drastically changing the appearances of what used to be somewhat homogenous groups. The more we continue to discuss race using the antiquated model handed down to us, the more we perpetuate it’s ills.

        • David Buchanan says

          I think Amir makes a pretty good point. The main reason we want to assert that race is a scientifically meaningless concept is to push back against our own recent history wherein we saw moral nightmares like eugenics, social darwinism and, much more recently, proponents of “The Bell Curve”. It’s just a fact that science has been used to validate all kinds of racist beliefs asserting who’s pure enough or which race should reign supreme. So, I think it’s not unreasonable to start a conversation about race by pulling the rug out from under that nonsense.

          The distinction between so-called races is not at all like the distinction between tables and chairs. A more fitting analogy to racism would be ranking different types of chairs based on superficial differences in appearance, like saying all yellow chairs are inherently superior to blue chairs. It’d be like saying round tables are inherently inferior to oval tables. Since these distinctions are so trivial and irrelevant to the actual quality of tables and chairs, it would probably be fair to say that the use of such rankings only shows that the user knows very little about furniture.

          If we admit that the concept of “race” has no scientific, biological basis, then we have to admit that our economic and political arrangements are socially constructed and therefore alterable. I guess nobody around here needs to be told that the differences between people are cultural, not genetic, but I said it anyway.

          • Profile photo of Wes Alwan says

            David — there is not a scientific consensus that there is no such thing as race. See the link I posted below, and see also: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/are-there-human-races/.

            Second, you’re asking to choose which properties are essential for classification and which are not — but I doubt you could give any justification beyond the practical concerns of the classifiers. If you want to move make the next skeptical move and argue against essences altogether, then you merely illustrate the point that arguments against the concept of race really rest on philosophical problems facing classification generally. Which means we need a more sophisticated philosophical theory that does not require that we think something ceases to exist because it is socially constructed. If you want to get rid of races, you’ll have to get rid of everything else in the world as well.

          • Joan says

            wes, great link. thanks.
            have you read the book, and if so, do you recommend it?
            i see it had good reviews from pinker, whose work i respect (the blank slate is classic in my field), and dawkins (i have not read any of his books, though many articles)
            my thought is that race as a biological construct is becoming more blurred every day, as global inter-connections change boundaries.
            race as a socio-cultural-economic construct is where racism comes from. a racist is someone that needs something to make them feel as if they are superior, since they have no true sense of inner worth/value.
            quite sad, actually, but pity is not what should be felt when racist actions manifest in cruelty of any kind.
            do you agree?

          • David Buchanan says

            It looks like there is less scientific consensus than I thought, Wes. Thanks for the link.

            Essentialist criteria didn’t even occur me, however, and I don’t assume that “socially constructed” means non-existent. I was pressing race as a construction because constructions are alterable. You can change your mind but you can’t change your body – not at that level anyway.

            Apparently it does make good medical sense to think in terms of race, as the linked article pointed out. But that’s just recent science and not socially constructed in the same sense as the long historical practice of classifying people according to race, which is almost always ugly and not at all about medicine. I mean, when you said (below) that “we make adequate use of the concepts of race ..all the time,” I sincerely wondered what you could be thinking of. What do you mean by “adequate use”? Don’t you think the historical baggage is a bit too much? The concept is soaked in blood, no?

        • Ryan says

          The claim which you raise about mixed genes can be applied to all animal species just the same, but that’s beside the point that people actively socialize with one another based on notions of race that are not merely genetic. You’re also misrepresenting the argument, Wes claimed that it is the same as there being differences within the category of chairs and within the category of tables, not that the races are as distinct as chairs are from tables. Yes, it is sometimes difficult to discern two similarly constructed chairs from one another, but that does not entail they are then necessarily identical. I also want to respond to David that if these differences were merely subjective, there would be no reason for any concern, but the actual differences are most importantly socioeconomic before anything else, and in that sense they are completely objective. The chairs are not just painted differently, but some have had their legs cut out from underneath them.

          Now, who cares about making some distinction between a “platonic form” and a “normal definition” in this instance? You couldn’t possibly produce an argument that would make this clear on its own after two thousand years of obsessive back and forth, let alone to then go and apply it haphazardly to specific instances of other completely unrelated topics. There have been multiple Plato episodes on this show even and the issue was obviously not nearly settled.

          >This is not to say that racism doesn’t exist. It obviously does. But, distinct races don’t.

          What could this mean? One objective difference that every American is willing to concede to is that we are specifically divvied out based on affirmative action, and that is only by remaining ignorant toward all the other ways in which the separation of races both as overtly defined, and also based on unconscious cultural biases, affects the lives of individuals. The podcast has managed to get by since the very beginning without derailing every discussion by obscure terminological debates. In this instance I think they are assuming that because there is institutionalized racism, the presupposition of race is rampant among people. The problem is rather that you are constricting yourself by an antiquated model handed down to us concerning what “real existence” means in contrast with imagined or irrational parts of the world, and you can bet that exact kind of assumption has often been employed in order to deny others their personhood.

          • Amir Zaki says

            Again, the issue is being sidestepped. If you are going to discuss an idea, even a general definition of the idea needs to be articulated. If the discussion were about ‘god’, one would need to articulate even generally speaking, what that concept entails. Just because religion is rampant, doesn’t simply mean that a) god exists, or b) that there is a clear conception of the idea amongst people. So, we can continue to discuss institutional racism until we are blue or we can actually look at and demystify the the idea in the first place. You seem to be saying that defining ‘race’ even semi-articulately, is ‘an obscure terminological debate’. What’s obscure about it? The science is pretty clear cut. Races don’t exist and the fact that there is a ‘rampant presupposition’ that they do is not a justification for continuing the discussion in that spirit. In fact, it seems that philosophy is precisely the place to deflate those ideas and pick them apart.

          • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

            Here’s the best I can do:

            1. Race as a general concept is bogus. I totally grant the point you’ve been making.

            2. In the specific circumstance of black vs. white in America, there’s a history that has separated the “geist” of the two groups such that there are different cultural things to talk about.

            3. This separation was historically on skin color lines, and as this remains a key marker in people’s attitudes, it’s the lens through which we understand #2, i.e. how we determine that there were two groups to analyze in the first place.

            So the subject of Du Bois’s book is entirely this dynamic. It’s not unique to the US; there’s an analogous though not identical history throughout the colonized world, but:

            a. Overgeneralizing #3 to claim “black identity” with all of Africa is suspect, and would require an assessment of how similar the situation in the US is with those in Africa and elsewhere, and likewise, that these situations are more similar in some important way than the plight of other colonized/oppressed people.

            b. Since much of the substance of #2 comes down to general issues of power that surmount the specifics of #3, the discussion very naturally leads to more general discussions of class, i.e. what we brought up via the Occupy movement.

            c. Due to #1, we could make a similar analysis of, e.g. Jews in Europe being a different “race” for the purposes of (as Nietzsche does) talking about their “geist” and racism and race relations, even though in America Jewish is considered a separate “race” by just about no one.

            d. Since the (socially constructed) phenomena of race is built out of such specific historical circumstances, it’s foolish to think that everyone in every circumstance will have anything like a racial identity, or that “mixed race” people will know what to make of the whole thing (their very existence belies the concept of race itself; if there really were separate races as there are separate species, they should not be physically able to mate), or that even black people if divorced enough from the historical origin of the division will feel any affinity to the issues having to do with it (e.g. Obama, black people born in Africa now living in the US, or just anyone who hasn’t felt anything like racism in his or her experience).

          • Ryan says

            There are separate species that are able to mate, why are we being critical about the entire history of racialized science in the same breath as we hope that this fallible institution could have resulted in some final settlement over the matter for the present? The same method by which Downs came to his nonsensical conclusion is exactly what allows for so many practicing economics today as an alleged empirical science to willfully instigate other racial prejudices.

          • Joshua says

            When it comes down to it, claims about “species” are also rather ephemeral and prone to social construction in the scientific field. Look up ring species like Larus gulls, where each subset can hybridize with another part of the set, but not all. Look at dogs, where interbreeding is physically impossible between everything we label as “dog,” like a Saint Bernard and a Chihuahua. You can also see it in the move to phylogenetic nomenclature, with clades being defined along the lines of “this species is all individuals that share a common ancestor with X while not being members of Y group (i.e., a “mammal” being defined as any animals further up the family tree along the branch that starts with the most recent common ancestor of humans and platypusses)

    • Profile photo of Wes Alwan says

      Really? Can species be categorized by DNA structure? We share more than 70 percent of our DNA with tapeworms. Would we thus say that we are more than 70 percent alike? And since so many living things on the planet share so much of their DNA, why not put them into one one big species? IF not, which DNA differences will be your criteria for dividing species? The one that makes my eyes blue and your eyes brown, or the one that makes me a chimpanzee and you a human being?

      The concept of species involves much more than DNA. Crucially, it involves a physical form. And this physical form plays a critical role in biological theories; for instance in an evolutionary explanation of how a phenotype fits into a niche. And when we explain natural selection, we don’t say that something works directly on DNA; it works on phenotypes — e.g., a mismatch between environment and physiological function.

      Now we can argue that the physiological characteristics — such as skin color and hair color and facial structure — are not “really” “essential” characteristics that we ought to pay attention to. But they are in fact based in genetics. They are traits passed on through reproduction. And the fact that there may be more genetic variation within a race than between them for features that we might want to argue are more “essential” but somehow not as salient as they “should” be is a normative claim that cannot be justified scientifically. The fact is that historically these physiological markers have been salient to human beings; and that salience is all they need to be “real,” just as the salience of sitting and so on is all that is required to make chairs “real.” The fact that these markers are taken as signifiers of deeper cultural differences deepens this salience. You can say that there is an element of “social construction” here, but it is philosophically naive to think that to argue that something is socially constructed is to argue that it doesn’t exist.

  10. dmf says

    “In the wake of the controversies about whether John Locke’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade impacted the writing of The Two Treatises of Government and whether Immanuel Kant’s failure to condemn publicly the use of African slaves in the Americas is evidence of racism, Bernasconi investigates the broader philosophical response to slavery between 1650 and 1800. He shows how incipient ideas of race operated in that literature. In addition, he proposes that historians of political philosophy should devote more attention to the debates about the enslavement of Africans not only for what it tells us about the failures of some of the canonical philosophers of the period, but also for what it tells us about philosophical argument more generally.”

  11. Martin Orwell says

    I really agree with Mark (#41) and that race really must be an existentiallist issue.

    This raises the valuable concept that race is an culmanative influence of a variety of social and economic factors with a set of shared indicators. This suggests that experiances of race alter from country to country, era to era and from ‘race’ to ‘race’. Further what counts as a race will alter over time. From this perspective, the controvocies over how to acceptably refer to a member of a racial gourp gains a new import – is being a ‘hyphen’ ‘country man/woman’ the same as being a ‘racial epithet’ man/woman? Isn’t the experiance of a ‘moor’ in Elizabethan England very different from a barbarian in Classical Rome or a Helot in Classical Sparta? Simmilarly is just being ‘white’ always to be situated outside of racial discourses of suppresion just because being ‘white’ sets one outside the racial discourses in Europe and Northern America?

  12. Profile photo of Wes Alwan says

    I’m not going to give an extended defense of the concept of race, because I frankly find the skeptical argument patently absurd (and based on wishful thinking with obvious political motivations). But briefly, the kinds of skeptical arguments against race can be applied to any concept you like. And incidentally, that something is socially constructed is not an argument against its existence. (Not to mention the fact that what’s socially constructed and what’s not is a deep problem). There also such things as banks. You’re not going to convince me there aren’t such things as banks by pointing to their social construction, lack of necessary and sufficient conditions, fuzzy conceptual edges, or lack of a basis in physics or biology. We make adequate use of the concepts of race and banking all the time, and there’s nothing more required to justify them. But what race means precisely is an interesting problem. Here’s an good discussion: http://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2012/03/04/why-both-sides-are-wrong-in-the-race-debate/

      • Burl says

        A very good find by dmf, as may always be expected.

        The author of the article does a fine job of laying out the many-faceted race discussion that the PELers have mirrored in posts and comments.

        But, she just had to throw in current political prejudice and charge those horrid Republicans with trying to – as always – make sure whitey wins.

        “In truth, the Arizona legislature was not motivated to confiscate textbooks because it opposed complicating students’ understanding of what race is or how race works. Their real concern, as stated in the bill, was about “solidarity” and “resentment.” “

        Sounds like a reasonable policy for educators in a democracy.

        “They are scared of a curriculum that might foment an anti-white sentiment among impoverished populations of Mexican and Central American kids. One might think they are worried about misplaced political targets…”

        One might, but must one?

  13. Joan says

    ‘Debates today concern how to explain the historical development of the physical traits we associate with races, but nobody with any standing believes that the racial groups named in the Great Chain of Being actually exist. In short, scholars have become quite critical of the concept of race.’
    –I agree. It gives me some satisfaction that ‘scholars’ have become critical, as well. As racism continues to exist,
    to fight the good fight is essential.

  14. Burl says

    Professor Ware

    I wonder if you would describe and/or make contrasts with your professional activities as a philosophy professor with emphasis in the area of race with the occupational activities of Mrs Blackwell as gleaned from this interview w/ Bill Moyers?


    Her background is in law, but her work is in sociology/political activity. I am impressed w/ her work and would call her a philosopher of race also. I would love to have had her come and speak to one of my classes back in the day when I taught.

      • Profile photo of Law Ware Twitter: @law_ware says

        Hey Burl:

        As I’m sure you remember, the end of a semester is a very busy time. I have not had a chance to check out the video, but I will soon.

        However, I do see movement like OWS as the next stage of the civil rights movement. King was very concerned about economic justice. Operation breadbasket is very much in that vein. Also, he was in Memphis to show solidarity with garbage workers who were on strike when he was assassinated. So movements for economic justice as certainly parallels–especially when you take into account the fact that many times they people who are systematically in poverty happen to be people of color.

        Unfortunately, I fear that OWS still lack clarity of vision and lucidity of message. That is something that King would have found unacceptable.

  15. Burl says

    Sounds right on all counts. Do let me hear your thoughts on Mrs. Blackwell when you have some free time…I think you will LOVE her insight – I do.

    • Joan says

      i will (not sure if that was directed me; very busy in my world as well). i hope to get a chance to catch up here soon! thanks, burl.

      • Burl says


        You will very likely enjoy the Moyers-Blackwell interview I linked on Apr 17 above, and I look forward to your assessment/comments, as well.

        She is a realist about the sociology of race. Sociology, it seems to me is the field most appropriately equipped to study how political/community efforts can be effective in fixing endemic lingering problems.

  16. Jose Ortiz says

    I’m obviously late to the party, but I just wanted to say that as a Puerto Rican, who’s part African, and a philosophy major I really enjoyed this episode (as of today I only have 3-5 episodes I haven’t listened to) and wanted to say thanks for covering the topic.

  17. says

    I’m on my second round through the backlog of podcasts (yeah, huge fan; was PEL citizen up until very recently, but financial uncertainty struck), and I just wanted to point out that this is perhaps one of my most favorite episodes. I’d choose The Law over The Rock any day; awesome! Also, did people miss his great joke when he was talking about cheeks, the ones on our faces?

    There’s a great debate on race, and my comment is thus; there are no strong human races apart from cultural ones, and anyone who dips their toes into evolutionary biology would be very careful sloshing certainty about strong categories of race around. There was some reccomendation of Jerry Coyne’s website (not a blog, he says) is a good one; the concensus is weak, however I think we mostly agree there’s a *weak* race term, but nothing you can hang a substantial racism claim on. The scientific backing was strong science of its time which has diminished quite a bit over time as we refine and learn more; evolution washes out these concepts more and more.

    There’s an argument there from structuralism (or at least that’s where criticism of science comes from), but structure is only a human bias we conventionally agree to. We’ve kinda agreed at the time that race was real, and we’re still dealing with the baggage of that, at least culturally. But, really, it’s not *actually* there in as much as we build up the notion of structures share some degree of perception of structure with other humans and creatures but ultimately isn’t what we think it is; our knowledge of the universe is awfully sparse, and that’s talking from the experts point of view (so don’t get me started on the layman’s stab at it). It’s all models. Even atoms aren’t what most people think they are, and they certainly don’t look like people think they look like. The atomic knowledge we have is a model. A model. Not even reality. And we think we know about atoms, and some how our knowledge of race (in a stronger biological sense) is equally or more certain? Humbug!

    It’s models and conventions all the way down, so blaming science for the culturally concept of race because people can’t tell it apart (or refuse to, or won’t) from the scientific category of race is ridiculous. We must blame ourselves, in our cultural conventional sense; science is our best attempt at getting away from our stupid bias and cultural mess, and if anything is to blame for a better understanding of the universe and the complete bollocks of things like racism.


  1. […] This approach – in which one merely overpowers or indoctrinates rather than persuades one’s political opponents – essentially replaces the concept of justice with that of might-makes-right, and represents a loss of faith in the efficacy of reasons and principles. That may seem fine if you think you can win a raw power struggle. But history should tell you that you can only win such struggles in the short term. Far more effective in the long term is adherence to principle, and the kind of appeal to conscience that gave the civil rights movement its real power. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *