January 16, 2014 John Drabinski

Race, racism, and thinking with philosophy

by Tommy J. Curry and John Drabinski

Jason Stanley and Vesla Weaver lay out some critically important ideas in their “Is the United States a ‘Racial Democracy’?” essay in The Stone at the New York Times website. The information is frightening, if not entirely surprising: the criminal justice system penalizes African-Americans in ways that reveals both institutional racism and mass political disenfranchisement of Black people. The numbers tell much of the story and ought to horrify all decent people. The numbers clearly have that effect on Stanley and Weaver and that shows in the earnestness of their prose and analysis.

At the same time, it’s worth asking some follow-up questions about how African-Americans appear in their essay, an essay dedicated not just to numbers and trends, but also to philosophical analysis. Namely, it’s worth asking how, in its key moments, Stanley and Weaver erase Black people from the scene at the key point of analysis: the intervention of philosophy in the discussion. Such intervention is of course the mission of The Stone.

The tags for the essay list “Blacks” and “race and ethnicity” among the indexable topics. But what happens when philosophy comes onto the scene in order to frame questions of justice, belonging, and democracy? That moment is not Black, it’s not racial, and it’s not ethnic (unless the ancient Greeks count as ethnic here). Despite the fact that the essay talks about Black Americans, no one from the African-American intellectual tradition shows up. This is both curious and disconcerting.

It is curious because the question of belonging has been one of the cornerstones of the African-American tradition from its very beginning – this is philosophy born of struggle. The tradition has always been critically engaged with questions of disenfranchisement, violence, and death – the very problems Stanley and Weaver want to address. One need only think of James Baldwin’s remark in a famous letter to his nephew (published as a preface to The Fire Next Time), that “it was intended that you should perish in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go behind the white man’s definitions, by never being allowed to spell your proper name.” Or W.E.B. Du Bois’ famous notion of double-consciousness in Souls of Black Folk, which gives the tradition so much of its language of disenfranchisement, outsiderness, and counter-modernity. Or Richard Wright’s fiction. Or Angela Davis’ political writings. And so on. One would think that the authors would turn first to this tradition. Instead, then turn to Plato, Aristotle, and John Dewey.

It is disconcerting because the essay wants, at bottom, to elevate the visibility of the Black experience, to make suffering under institutional racism identifiable and to hear the voices of the victims. But at the very moment in which that voice could be most bold, the philosophical moment, the authors turn to a very different set of thinkers. They turn to white thinkers. This is absolutely a choice; we have to remember that, always. The racial resonance of this choice, no matter how buried in the authors’ subconscious and analytical habits, needs to be registered. Loudly. For, in the moment of Black visibility, the authors erase the African-American tradition by excluding when including is both most appropriate and most easily done. In the place of the Black philosophical voice, Stanley and Weaver give us characters from the white philosophical tradition. Even the task of revealing the injustice of a racist prison system is carried by Dewey, rather the many, many Black intellectuals – past and present – who’ve written so much on just that injustice. This is a revealing oversight and has hopefully prompted much reflection, not only in the authors of The Stone piece, but also in readers who may not have noticed this racial sleight of hand.

Sure, one could ask: given the enormity of the question of mass incarceration and a racialized legal and penal system, why focus on philosophers? Here is a bit of an answer. The Stone, to begin, is concerned with philosophy and philosophers, so it is exactly the place where such questions are properly raised. As well, one could ask back: why is the Black intellectual tradition something to be negotiated away, instead of moved to the center? And, ultimately, we have to have some focus on the philosophers here because failure to do so reveals something about the sedimentation of racism in our habits of reading and analysis. However unintentional, the turn to white philosophers when discussing urgent matters of race and racism sends a clear message: when important stuff is analyzed, we fall back on what white people have said. Moving the Black intellectual tradition to the center moves against that, and in that way moves against the presence of racial prejudice in our subconscious, saying instead that African-American thinkers have thought this through, that their or our terms are plenty rigorous and insightful, and that we should take note of the fact that, even at a century or more old, their work continues to illuminate the racial present. Anti-racism isn’t just about looking at Black people in new ways. It is also, and probably foremost, about Black intellectuals telling an important ethical and political story in established, complicated terms. Especially when that story concerns the fate of Black bodies in the U.S.


Taking the Black intellectual tradition seriously might shift some of their analysis. In this sense, moving the tradition to the center is not a matter of respect, but a matter of knowledge and insight. A few words on that.

According to Stanley and Weaver, it is the “liberty of the ancients that provides the fundamental justification for the central political ideals of the American Democratic tradition.” These ideas, perhaps best articulated by Benjamin Constant in 1819, consist in having a voice in the formation of policies and in the representatives that govern us. Unfortunately, such a voice has been violently silenced in the racial history of America. After the Civil War, the period of Reconstruction saw the passage of the 13th amendment ending slavery (1865), the 14th amendment giving due process to all citizens (1868), and 15th Amendment giving Black men the right to vote (1870). The master narrative of American democracy suggests that these amendments indicated an opening up of the America public, allowing greater civic participation for the previously enslaved Black. But nothing could be further from the truth. Remember, the 13th amendment states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States,” and it is this exception that has been used to imprison Black men and negate the rights extended to them by these Reconstruction era reforms.

Even cursory attention to Black political writings during Reconstruction demonstrates a pessimism regarding American democratic ideals, and a proto-racial-realism that saw the changing racial dynamics of the American nation to be little more than cyclical adaptations fixated on the maintenance of Black subordination. In his 1888 speech entitled “I Denounce the So-Called Emancipation as a Stupendous Fraud,” Douglass argues that the dilemma facing Black Americans is a rooted in forced poverty and the criminalization of Blacks acting only to survive.

Do you ask me why the Negro of the plantation has made so little progress, why his cupboard is empty, why he flutters in rags, why his children run naked, and why his wife hides herself behind the hut when a stranger is passing? I will tell you. It is because he is systematically and universally cheated out of his hard earnings. The same class that once extorted his labor under the lash now gets his labor by a mean, sneaking, and fraudulent device… Finding himself systematically robbed he goes to stealing and as a result finds his liberty — such as it is — taken from him, and himself put to work for a master in a chain gang, and he comes out, if he ever gets out, a ruined man.

To Douglass, this legally enforced system sounded like “the grating hinges of a slave prison, [and] read like the inhuman bond of Shylock, stipulating for his pound of flesh.” While initially hopeful that the criminalization of Black people would eventually fall away, Douglass’s 1895 pamphlet, titled “Why is the Negro Lynched,” shows that he slowly began to accept the nature of American racism, namely that racial violence was seen as necessary to how the white American exercised and safeguarded their right to liberty. Black liberty was seen as fundamentally incompatible with white liberty, and as such the myth of the Black rapist, the barbaric Black criminal deviant, was invented to justify lynching and incarceration.

A mere five years later W.E.B. Du Bois confirmed Douglass’s analysis in a now forgotten article entitled “The Spawn of Slavery: The Convict Lease System of the South” (1901). This article  argued that crop-lien and convict lease “systems are the direct children of slavery, and to all intents and purposes are slavery itself.” Du Bois and Douglass were not alone in their diagnosis of American democracy; they were joined in their findings by no less of thinkers than Ida B. Wells-Barnett, John Edward Bruce, and Mary Church Terrell.  According to the work of historians like Martha Hodes and Kathleen Blee, when the prison did not arrest the political gains and economic progress of Black Americans quickly enough, white men and white women formed respective Ku Klux Klan organizations to prevent the growth of Black businesses and deny Black men the ballot.

The liberty denied to Black Americans exceeds the considerations articulated by Stanley and Weaver. The realities of anti-Black racism simply cannot be captured through a language of unfairness, or their view that “the system that has emerged in the United States over the past few decades is a racial democracy.”  They offer readers an account of the increase of Black imprisonment from the 1970’s forward, but list not one reflection of a Black political prisoner who offered an account of incarceration or the growth of the police state—no Assata Shakur, no Huey P. Newton, no George Jackson. The reflections of Black political prisoners on the failure of American ideals to deliver liberty to Black people in America is silenced for the liberalist paradigm which frames the ideal itself to be in tension with the denial of the ideal in reality. However, if Stanley and Weaver would have considered an author beyond the liberalist veil erected by Elizabeth Anderson’s work, they could see how the work of more famous Black philosophers, like Angela Y. Davis’s Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prison, Torture and Empire (2005), suggests that obstacle to true American democracy is not the ideals, but the institutions and industrial complexes that give reality to our concepts of freedom, liberty, prosperity and property. Following Du Bois’s call for industrial democracy, Davis understands that American ideals do exactly what they are meant to do—distract the oppressed from the systemic-material causes of their oppression.

The historical divide between slavery and the growth of prison industrial complex is illusory. Prisons have been analyzed in Black social philosophy as the continuation of American slavery from the late 19th century to now. Building off the insights offered by Critical Race theorists like Derrick Bell in the 1990’s, Michelle Alexander’s top selling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2012) has shown that, despite the same level of drug use in Black and white communities, Black communities are targeted and Black men specifically are given harsher sentences resulting in their disenfranchisement and solidifying their social position in America as a permanent racial undercaste.


The exclusion of Black dissent against the ideas of America is an example of how history continues to assert itself in our present conversations regarding American racism. The founding ideals of this country have been admirable to a specific racial class in this country, and why shouldn’t it be? For white Americans, ideals of freedom, liberty, and happiness have been gained by creating social structures, and economic disparities under the banner of democracy that has mirrored the view that white America is in fact superior to Black Americans and the darker world. For racialized peoples, these ideals have meant suffering, inequality, Jim Crow, and death – the sort of dynamic that leads Nathan Huggins in Black Odyssey to describe the history of the United States as not a history of developing freedom, but of ongoing tyranny. If Stanley and Weaver are truly concerned with the status of America’s racial democracy, then why frame the discussion about Black people, the victims of their narrative, under the same racial boundaries they indict? If fairness is a guiding principle, or should be a guiding principle of civic participation, why exclude the perspectives of the victims of racism and the voices of the imprisoned? There are plenty, and their ideas a systematic, rigorous, provocative, and the diagnosis is compelling and varied.

In the end, it is important that we see how Stanley and Weaver’s shift in what we might call “philosophical visibility” – erasing the Black philosopher so that the white philosopher can speak – repeats one of the most troubling aspects of the study of Black people: Black people are looked at and spoken for (here, in statistical information), rather than doing the looking or speaking themselves. The African-American intellectual tradition is deep, complex, and worthy of close attention. While Stanley and Weaver certainly have shown concern for the contradictions that arise in a “racial democracy,” their troubling choice of terms and figures for philosophical analysis reveals how desperately the reading and writing habits of philosophers stands in need of decolonization.

, , , ,

Comments (16)

  1. Jason Stanley

    This is a great piece, and absolutely correct. We absolutely should have made the point with the black intellectual tradition, in particular I think Charles Mills would have been most suitable. It is unforgiveable not to have done so. Nothing short of a thorough apology is appropriate, and I do so here. But I do have some questions about exactly what distinctions are at issue, which I shall follow with in the next post.

    • Jason,

      Thank you for your replies. If I may, there are many Black intellectual traditions that have differing opinions on the matter. While I can appreciate the recognition of the problem of excluding perspectives of Black Americans and theorists, there is a larger concern that cannot simply be remedied through inclusion of an author like Mills.

      Mills’s is certainly one of the great minds of our generation. His work stands next to the theoretical interventions made by Cedric Robinson in terms of how we understand white supremacy, philosophy, and the social contract. However, the terms he uses to place him in conversation with white academic philosophers, should not be mistaken to be “the Black radical tradition,” in this case, because he is in fact drawing from authors 100 years prior, and works in economic theory certainly inspired by his specifically Caribbean roots. For example, In Radical Theory Caribbean Reality: Race, Class and Social Domination (2010), Mills shares his journey to radicalism in the censorship of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. This radicalism and his engagement with the material critiques of Critical Race Theory evidenced not by his most popular text embraced by professional (white) philosophy, but his lesser known publication From Class to Race: essays in white Marxism and Black Radicalism (2003). The point here is that Mills is participating in rather than defining/representing this tradition.

      This then brings me to the point regarding the arguments in the essay. There is a long tradition in Black intellectual thought that sees continuity between slavery and the post-civil rights era. The work we cited from Douglass to DuBois represents a pessimistic or as Derrick Bell termed it a “racial realist” account of American democracy. Currently, the work of Afro-pessimists and anti-colonial thinkers keep this tradition alive and well. What we were pointing out is that you and your co-author seem to have no familiarity with these works, or if you did, seemed to suggest that more mainstream philosophers are more adequate for dealing with the problem of mass incarceration, despite many of the authors writing in the 1970’s being actually incarcerated, or imprisoned intellectuals (Joy James 2003). Their work specifically indicts the view that there is can be a “non-racial democracy” in America given the anti-Blackness of this country. We can find this sentiment not only in the works of say Robert F. Williams (1962) Negroes with Guns, but more specifically the analysis offered by Huey P. Newton in Prison, “Where is Thy Victory” or even the extremely popular work by Angela Davis titled “Political Prisoners, Prisons, and Black Liberation.”

      This perspective of looking at the perpetual reproduction of racism and the role the prison industrial complex has in derailing radical social revolt and maintaining social control is what is being erased. While descriptive, your joint authored piece has yet to acknowledge the analytic terms needed to adequately diagnose the problem you ask the readers to attend to. There is no mention of white supremacy, or whiteness, or if you would prefer Mills’s work, you have not grappled with the white polity, or white supremacy as a geopolitical system.

      So we must be careful in pointing out what we exactly mean by inclusion.

      • Dear Tommy,

        Thanks so much for this thoughtful reply, which I just saw. I have learned a lot from this post (I can’t stop thinking about the points, and will write you off-line for reading recommendations). I think you are simply cutting much deeper than we went in the piece. We nowhere provide a critique of liberalism. In fact, we endorse political equality without economic and social equality. We also go nowhere near arguments for the conclusion that there are systematic barriers to a non-racial democracy. It is, as you suggest in the original post, within the confines of liberalism. We are not at all condemning any ideals, we are raising a point about the blinding effects of ideals generally, that could apply to any ideals. But there is an implicit endorsement of political equality without social and economic equality in the piece – certainly there is no criticism of that. I am bowled over by Mills, and I agree with the assessment you give of him. But we definitely did not seek to bring in a critique of liberalism in this piece, since the piece is aimed precisely at liberals. So you were right about that charge in the original post. Including the critiques of liberalism you mention, as well as critiques of the very idea of a non-racial democracy in the United States, would clearly have made it a much better philosophy piece. I’m still not sure that (a) it would have been accepted into the NY Times, and (b) would have had the same impact, had we included these deeper and more radical points. It would clearly have been a better philosophy piece but maybe not the vehicle for presenting liberals with their own hypocrisy, and hence maybe would have gotten less attention. I’m not seeing the CBC posting on their Facebook page an argument that the United States cannot be a non-racial democracy, or that political equality requires economic and social equality. And we wanted that kind of impact. None of this affects your point that we should (I’m furious at myself) have started out and centrally featured black American philosophers.

      • Also I totally agree that our “joint authored piece has yet to acknowledge the analytic terms needed to adequately diagnose the problem you ask the readers to attend to.” If you can get a piece into the NY Times that does adequately acknowledge the analytic terms needed to adequately diagnose the problem, you will have really done a significant service for the country. It is hard enough for me to be allowed to write on any political topic. At least for me, there is a short leash. The Stone for example did not publish a single piece on Occupy Wall Street. And I’m sure someone has tried to get in the sort of piece you mention; in fact I know of at least one person. It didn’t work. In that context, getting in a piece that gets liberals to admit hypocrisy is a significant achievement. Not as philosophically deep as you are calling for, but that is so difficult to be done, for various practical reasons. You cannot call an end to the illusion of the American project in the pages of the NY Times.

  2. Jason Stanley

    I do have a question about some of the distinctions that are here. You make reference to “the liberalist paradigm which frames the ideal itself to be in tension with the denial of the ideal in reality.” I’m not sure I understood this. What we mean is not a liberalist paradigm. I don’t think it’s a liberalist point at all. Our point is rather to raise a general problem with the vocabulary of ideals. That is specifically the point we attribute to Anderson (since it occurs in the section of her book against ‘ideal theory’, not against ‘liberal ideals’ or ‘American ideals’). Is this really a ‘liberalist paradigm’? In fact, it’s historically more accurate to call it a fascist paradigm, because at least I most clearly associate it with Carl Schmitt, who was not example a liberal. Moreover, we certainly did not mean to make the point attributed to Davis, that “American ideals do exactly what they are meant to do—distract the oppressed from the systemic-material causes of their oppression.” This is a point, at least as here stated, that is about American ideals. One can make a similar point about liberal ideals – this is what Charles Mills makes at length. We aren’t doing that in our piece, which just aren’t, and it is a misunderstanding to think we are. I think this is blaming American ideals too much. They sound great in the abstract; so did Stalinist ideals. We are raising a point about ideals generally. We absolutely did not mean this to be a particular point about any given set of ideals, and we understand Anderson in this way as well. Sadly, I am not an expert on the black intellectual tradition, and so I associate the point most clearly with Carl Schmitt (though he also had it in for liberal democratic ideals in particular, it was his more general point about all political language). You are absolutely right that we should have made this point with the use of the black intellectual tradition. I just am conversant enough with the black intellectual tradition to find exactly this point in it. Obviously, the point that liberal democratic ideals have been used this way has been made many times in the black intellectual tradition. But part of the writing style of this piece was not to target American ideals in particular, and so not to blame those ideals in particular, but to target the very notion of a political ideal, and suggest that maybe any ideal is invariably misused. That’s the chief point we are making. I am certain it is in the black intellectual tradition. But you don’t make it anywhere here. I would be very interested in sources that do make exactly that point. But it’s non-trivial to find that point anywhere.

  3. Jason Stanley

    At least for myself, I would like to simultaneously (a) thoroughly agree with the authors that we should have drawn on the rich black intellectual tradition in our article, while (b) disassociating myself from the point that the authors think we are making, namely raising “pessimism regarding American democratic ideals”. The intention was to raise a point that equally well explains why Stalinist ideals suffered the same fate.

  4. Jason Stanley

    Ok, here is a problem with this critique. For some reason, you are assuming that I did the philosophy, and Weaver did the facts. Nothing could be further from the truth. The point we are making comes from Weaver’s paper “Frontlash”. While I agree we could have cited earlier historical antecedents in the black intellectual tradition, it isn’t easy to find them, and you don’t provide any here. Here is the point as I made it on my Facebook page: “People seem to think that in my piece with Vesla Weaver, I did the philosophy and she did the facts. I don’t know why people think this, but it seems to have led to a systematic misunderstanding of one of the central points. In Weaver’s paper, “Frontlash”, she argues that the passing of the Voting Rights Act led to a movement by its opponents to use it to mask a counterattack in the form of the justification of mass incarceration. Weaver is not there arguing, “German Ideology” style, that the ideals in the Voting Rights Act are somehow themselves just the ideals of the ruling class. This is how I interpret Charles Mills’s criticism of Rawls – as saying that the very idea of the social contract is a social contract just for white men. This is just not Weaver’s point. Weaver’s point is that ideals, any ideals, even the best ones, blind you to their violation. Weaver exhibits nothing but respect for the ideals of the Civil Rights Movement, not the disdain shown by Mills for liberal ideals. It’s just a different point. It’s a point that occurred to me first and most clearly when reading Weaver’s paper, “Frontlash”, and I personally think it also occurs in Carl Schmitt and Elizabeth Anderson. It was why I was excited to meet her when I came to Yale, and thrilled by the opportunity to co-author with her. We are making her point. I did make the physical contribution of saying that it’s also Anderson’s point. But Vesla has a copy of Anderson’s book in her office, and seemed quite familiar with it. It is not the case that I am doing the philosophy here. To confuse the point that democratic and liberal ideals are just ways of expressing the superiority of the group in power with the distinct point that even the best ideals are bound to be used to mask “more repressive social control” is to miss, in my opinion at least, the philosophical moral of “Frontlash”.” That is what I said on my Facebook page. I made this clear in Facebook conversations immediately afterwards just as a matter of course. To assume that I did the philosophy and Weaver did the facts is a transparently weird assumption. After all, she is a co-author on the piece. She read multiple drafts. What is the justification for the assumption that she is not the author of that point? She is in fact the author of that point. I also made some of the statistical points, believe it or not. The point is in there because we co-authored this piece, and it’s her point.

  5. Sorry, I prepared class, went to sleep, brought my son on a school visit, and now wanted to finish the comments. Yes, there is no question it was completely idiotic not to begin with the black intellectual tradition, and also the voices of those who suffered from incarceration. That is what Vesla Weaver wanted us to do. I do think that the final version was written so fast and so late at night brought all the various tendencies of implicit bias to the fore. The lesson has definitely been learned. It won’t happen again.

  6. And though I entered the details of the points – because I found the post so engaging, I don’t want that to distract from my agreement from the main point of this post, which is not that this or that point is equivalent to the point we made, but it is absurd to write a piece like this without, say, pointing out that political equality without economic and social equality is just the sort of liberal ideology that Davis is presented as here so effectively targeting. And our piece, for various propagandistic purposes, is in fact endorsing that piece of liberal ideology – that political equality can be separated from economic and social equality. And so, by not incorporating the very critiques of liberalism so cogently presented here, we not only tragically missed an opportunity to avoid absurdly only mentioning white historical figures, but presented a weaker piece, one that clearly does not contain critiques of liberalism with which I (I can’t speak for Vesla) heartily agree. So not only would the piece have been less exclusionary by including the critiques of liberalism discussed here, it would have been a clearer superior work of philosophy. So lesson really learned – exclusion always leads to worse philosophy.

  7. Tommy – why don’t you write a piece of the sort you envisage, and submit it to the Stone? It would be huge if somebody could get the deeper analytic tools you are calling for into the New York Times. I’m not sanguine that it is possible but in the end surely cogency of argument together with readership carries the day. In my own cases, given past experience, I know what the editors will and will not let me personally get away with. There is no way I could have written this article independently of Vesla (and it is basically her ideas – I was most traumatized by the thought that the philosophy was just me). But somebody else could perhaps explicitly, rather than implicitly, get the idea of white supremacy communicated. Somebody should certainly try!

  8. LK McPherson

    Respectfully, Jason, I’m not sure you’re recognizing the blunt force of the Curry and Drabinski critique. The radical view is not that (American) political ideals can be misused but, rather, that their racialized “misuse” in the U.S. has always been crucial to their use. Your liberal framing in terms of misuse does not simply not include the “deeper and more radical” critique but is actually at odds with it.

    Perhaps I’m being dense and some of your replies here are supposed to be absurdist. Why else suggest, for instance, that Curry and Drabinski submit a version of their critique to The Stone? Their central point of contention is the exclusion of this type of Black dissent. As you concede is deliberately on display in your piece with Weaver, the NYT necessarily enacts such exclusion. (All the news that its media gatekeepers of civilized democracy deem fit to print.)

    The assumption that you were responsible for most of the philosophy in the piece is hardly bizarre. You’re the trained philosopher; Weaver is trained in empirical fields. Anyway, it’s not clear you’re doing her any favors by ascribing most of the philosophical approach and substance to her. There are, as you know, Black philosophers who care and think about race, though the philosophy profession typically hasn’t seen fit to bother with their interests.

    I appreciate that you mean well. But your extended replies to Curry and Drabinkski’s response have tended to overcomplicate and obscure some fairly basic issues.

  9. John Drabinski

    Jason, thanks for replying with so much here, and sorry to be slow responding myself…I’ve been awash in stuff and am only now getting to your, Tommy’s, and now LK’s extensive comments.

    Tommy lays out a lot of important stuff I’d sign on to about liberal democratic theory and the like. Thanks for that, Tommy.

    In terms of the overall aim of the piece, you respond on a couple of levels that I wanted to re-emphasize and underscore (it’s funny how even a couple thousand words still have to rush through points, no?).

    + In terms of where we turn for our analysis, we wanted to avoid simply appealing to a kind of racial ethics of commentary, in which inclusion would function as a kindness or pleasant or even obligatory gesture. Rather, and I think you see this (though some parts of the comments left me unsure if we were clear enough), it is in some ways a question of the kinds of expertise that develop within a tradition. Questions that get asked and re-asked over time and generations, and therefore take on a depth dimension that has to be reckoned with. In the case of incarceration, cruelty, and the ongoing gratuitous punishing and persecution of Black people for the fact of blackness…that has some depth in the tradition. It’s not the entirety of the tradition – the Black intellectual tradition is varied, complex and full of debates – but it is one of the cornerstones.

    For me, and Tommy too, I believe, this makes the tradition something one ought to turn to for reasons beyond respect, diversity, and inclusion. For lack of a better way of putting it, this is the expertise of the tradition, and therefore one of those places where it is best and most illuminating.

    + The visibility of the Black experience is its own question and important here; it’s the first paragraph, really. The thing that always worries me is that we double gesture in these moments: heighten visibility, render invisible. I like that you and Weaver brought philosophy to a crucial racialized political issue. I worry about the double gesture, though, because given the near complete absence of African-American thought from the institution(s) of philosophy in the United States, our sensibility is hyper-attenuated. I think it should be. Perhaps in an ideal world we wouldn’t be so attentive (not sure, that’s another discussion), but in a world that has all but eliminated blackness from philosophy, it’s something that matters.

    + More, however, is the question of how visibility and engagement with the tradition would change analysis and insight. I think we made some headway on that issue. It really changes how we talk about democracy and ideals of quality, belonging, and the like. In particular, so much of the tradition begins with the idea Huggins’ Black Odyssey (yes, I love this book) advances: for Black people, the history of the United States is the history of tyranny, not democracy and the like. Rather, democracy and the like were (and continue to be) defined as the condition of the tyrant who is victorious; freedom is free because it subjects millions of people.

    That shift in vocabulary and frame would really change you all’s analysis, and I think your and Weaver’s analysis would have to recalibrate itself were it to engage with this tradition seriously.

    Engaging the tradition is a massive project. We don’t learn this stuff over a few years; no tradition worthy of the word “tradition” is so readily learnable. In that spirit, I hope that our post and these comments start engagement between traditions, and that any and all disputes illuminate what’s so urgent about contemporary political life: the unspeakable life of the racialized prison industrial complex.

  10. Sabine

    thank you for your last comment, John, particularly the last passage. to the point, indeed. respect for black knowledge is not about “adding”, or “including.” best concise argument in this respect, Frank Wilderson, first chapters of Red, White and Black.

Leave a Reply

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