Archive for philosophy
Law professor Paul Finkelman has an important commentary piece in the New York Times on two recent books on the “democratic” icon and famous founder Thomas Jefferson. Much of what most Americans believe about Jefferson’s everyday life in regard to racial matters is fictional or distorted in the direction of our “good” founders are “great liberty and equality advocates” in both thought and everyday practice.
A leading scholar of slavery and our “founding fathers,” Finkelman has much to say about this matter, especially in regard to the very interesting new book by Henry Wiencek that presents much data on Jefferson’s lifelong commitment to slavery and abuse of those he enslaved, including his sexual coercion of the young Black teenager Sally Hemings (see here). Finkelman argues that even Wiencek–who argues the younger and more egalitarian Jefferson becomes more of a hypocritical and money-oriented slaveholder as he ages — is too kind to Jefferson, especially in his early decades:
Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views . . . he tried to justify through pseudoscience. . . . when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves.
Finkelman adds that Jefferson was not the supposedly “good slaveholder,” the oxymoronic phrase often used for numerous slaveholding founders and other white slaveholders:
He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks.
And Wiencek’s book provides much more evidence of Jefferson’s brutality toward those he enslaved.
Thomas Jefferson is still a top democratic icon for a great many Americans, especially white Americans — with little critical recurring or public attention being given by whites to his everyday practice of extensive and often brutal slaveholding. Jefferson is also a founder (with intellectuals like Immanuel Kant) of early Western “race” framing that aggressively celebrates the white “race’s” superiority in most areas and puts down “inferior races” such as (enslaved) black Americans. You can see this most dramatically in his famous and only major book, Notes on the State of Virgina (see my analysis of Query 14 in that aggressively white-racist-framed chapter of his book here).
Well into the 21st century few Americans, especially few white Americans, know this bloody founding history, and remarkably few seem willing to learn it and examine its implications for our contemporary and still systemically racist society. Why is the historical truth on systemic racism so hard for most whites to accept and publicly discuss in this society?
Note: Paul Finkelman has a very good book, Slavery and the Founders, that I can recommend to you if you want to know more of the hard truths of our founding, slaveholding era and about the slavery-protecting US Constitution crafted by famous founders.
There have been a lot of nasty-ass rumors embraced by philosophers and your run of the mill academicians surrounding the material substantiations of time as “histories,” and the meta-physical “flow of time,” as linear continuum towards progress and development. It is assumed without provocation that the variety of “histories” offered by racialized oppressed peoples enclosed within [H]istory—understood as a universal account of white civilization—emerges as continuities that further the evolution of not only our American society, but the edifice of the West. In short, we are told to believe that the multiple histories that now emerge at this moment are in fact the inevitable result of the genius of the Dialectical Hemi-(spherical engine) driving the expression of multiple subjectivities. But time need not revolve around such a mythical perspective; a perspective that demands from colonized people that they cherish their past enslavement and historical debasement by racism, and accept that their contemporary suffering, their present dehumanization, and their ongoing exploitation by the political economics of the university, blessed them with the post-colonial discourses to be shared with a now attentive white audience waiting to take stock of their critiques. The dominant schema of America’s liberal democratic order suggests that history be read and time be gauged by the falling away of the organized oppressive structures of the past, where the present is known by the remnants the last fading vestiges of racism, and the future will be identified by the absence of the barriers and attitudes of the past and present filled with only enlightened white folks who are adamantly against racism. This progressive teleology—the idea solidified by integration which suggests racism and the political economics of white supremacy will simply disappear over time—is the largely accepted political dogma of not only our social life, but the unquestioned paradigm of our academic lives as well.
As a function of its unique specialization, academic education determines for us what figures and categories are synonymous with knowledge. As such, even the most creative scholar who aims to be “radical,” forges their weapons from the formal templates of criticality outlined within disciplinarity, where the newly acquired linguistic armaments of race, class, and gender do little more than justify the revisions made to already bourgeois Black women’s thought like Anna Julia Cooper so that they may be copyrighted as canonical figures and made into Black feminists who truly supported the pluralist democratic ethos realized by America’s civil rights era. While intersectionality, popularly referred to the study of “Race, Class, and Gender,” what I have called the “trinity of bulls**t,” in previous writings, remain the three stooges of any inquiry into racist oppression, this rhetorical trope does little to tell the reader anything about the actual methods and/or concepts needed to understand the complicated nexus between racism, political economics and sexual exploitation.
It only contends that we should make “discursive space” to hear from the subjects many have agreed to believe come to embody this allusive trinity. As Peter Kwan has argued in a series of articles entitled “Jeffery Dahmer and the Cosynthesis of Categories,”“Complicity and Complexity: Cosynthesis and Praxis,” and “After Intersectionality,” intersectionality (specifically the idea of race and gender) has been used primarily as a tool to center an identity politics that justifies defining race and gender as Black women, rather than on the systemic dynamics of racist sexual exploitation. In short, the rhetorical tropes of race, class, and gender are thought to be evidence of something like rigor and interdisciplinarity, but in reality they announce categories that disciplinary consensus has decided are represented by specific antebellum women authors compatible with integrationism, feminism, and the revisions to and selective reading of their thought along these lines.
Similarly, I have argued in previous works like “Concerning the Under-specialization of Race Theory in American Philosophy: How the Exclusion of Black Sources Affects the Field,” that disciplines reward scholarship dealing with race that abide by the correct ethics of disdain,—
those ethics that outline the proper rules of engaging racism and colonial oppression—so that the resulting engagements of non-European peoples against their oppression can qualify as philosophy is of the utmost concern(Curry 2010, p.50).
These ethics de-radicalize analyses of racism, because an actual investigation into racism in the discipline of philosophy would begin with institutional criticisms that attack the organizational integrity of philosophical organizations like the American Philosophy Association (APA), the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy (SAAP), and the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP), the largely white philosophy departments with histories of racial discrimination, and the work of white philosophers contributing to the erasure of Black, Latin American, and Indigenous peoples in an effort to solidify white thinkers authority on racism and colonialism over and against the reading of authors who are part of the groups that actually suffered under oppression. In philosophy, this is largely done by explaining away the racism of white scholars like John Dewey (who supported segregated education, assimilation, and the naturalness of racial antipathy) and Josiah Royce (who advocated the United States take up the “white man’s burden,” and British colonial administration in the South) , and revising the theories of European thinkers like Immanuel Kant (a figure Emmanuel Eze demonstrated was not only racist, but responsible for racial taxonomy), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (who supported slavery and argued Africans were outside of history and civilization) and Michel Foucault (who not only steals his analysis of prisons from the Black Panthers, but dismisses the persistence of racism based on skin color), so that what the discipline says counts as their (now revised and inclusive) “non-racist ideas,” amounting to little more than proclamations that Americans should strive toward democratic progress, and that (white) individuals are moral and rational, take priority over the highly developed racist associations (think Josiah Royce’s idolization of Joseph LeConte), anthropologies (think of Kant’s founding of physical geography and pragmatic anthropology), and actual thoughts of these historic white thinkers. Failure to abide by this disciplinary etiquette results in being labeled as “ideological,” “political,” and “anachronistic”—a nasty ad hominem intended to suggest that the scholar in question has no grasp of history despite the deliberate ahistorical nature of reading American and European authors of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century as being in line with sixties’ brand Kingian integrationism.
These aforementioned propagandas are meant to deter the young Black philosopher from questioning the institutional legitimacy of philosophy’s disciplinarity. The initial strategy pursued by many departments is usually positive and involves offering the young Black philosopher evidence of inclusion and progress in the field. This is usually done by showing the Black graduate student/s that the department either has people who write on W.E.B. DuBois and/or Frantz Fanon or people who are sympathetic to these authors’ work. This is usually combined with introducing the student/s to one or more of the Black philosophers who comprise less than 1% of the discipline in an effort to show the student that there are people who look like them doing work in philosophy. Mind you, very rarely are these gestures followed with actual curricula changes, like classes and/or dissertation support aiming to cultivate a comprehensive specialization in DuBois and Fanon equal to that of white figures like Kant, Hegel, or Dewey, or followed by the hiring of Black faculty (even in the cases with one professor—it is usually just that one expected to teach all of Africana philosophy and European traditions as well) with specializations on these figures once the deficiency in Africana philosophy is recognized. As dissatisfaction grows with the inculcated chimeras of pluralism and diversity in philosophy, the Black graduate student is warned that their “growing anger,” and “radicality,” not only threatens their careers, but their matriculation. This repressive apparatus (the doctorate) is used to wed the Black philosopher to their duty as a philosophical thinker on race—which is to gradually change (by moral appeal) how whites think about Blacks. In other words, the Black philosopher is recognized not as race theorist, but racial therapist by sanction.
Perhaps the direst consequence of philosophy’s racism on the Black mind is the Black philosopher’s obsessive hope in the redemptive character of white innocence; or what Joe Feagin has described in our conversations as “white virtue.” Because racism is understood to be a “mistaken idea” held by ignorance, academic philosophy maintains that Black philosophers arguing with and talking to whites, even dead whites through their scholarship, uncovers the virtuous purity and innocence of white reason. Accepting that whites can and have changed as a result of integration and the desegregation of the academy is made into a professional prerequisite. Almost a decade before Derrick Bell introduced what would come to be known as his racial realist thesis, Robert F. Williams, author of Negroes with Guns, argued in that work that:
The stranglehold of oppression cannot be loosened by a plea to the oppressor’s conscience… We have come to comprehend the nature of racism. It is a mass psychosis…the logical inventions of a thoroughly diseased mind. The racist is a man crazed by hysteria at the idea of coming into equal human contact with Negroes. And this mass mental illness called racism is very much a part of the “American way of life (p.110-111).
A rigorous study of American racism marks history through the endurance of epochs, not differences between generations, where the conscious realization of America’s history of slavery, Jim Crow and domestic colonization stems from the civilizational motif solidified by the teleological continuity of empire, not the idealized hope that white colonizers instilled in their progeny the ideas to overthrow their own economic, political, and military superiority over the world. In other words, the descendants of whites carry with them the aspirations for, not the aversion to, the legacies of their colonial parents.