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.

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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.

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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.