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date: 11 December 2019

(p. 77) Pluralistic Ideas of Race

Abstract and Keywords

Ideas of race in the discourse of Africans living in the shadow of the dominant colonialist racial theory(ies) included Ignatius Sancho, Olaudah Equiano, and Quobna Cugoano in eighteenth-century England; and David Walker, Martin Delaney, Alexander Crummell, Edward Blyden, and Frederick Douglas in nineteenth-century America. Africans in England were active in abolitionist causes and expressed outrage at callous treatment of slaves at sea. African American abolitionists argued against slavery with the use of both religious and scientific principles. Douglass argued for the existence of only one human race and extended his arguments against slavery to opposition to the exploitation of Asian workers in the “coolie” trade.

Keywords: race, Ham, Africans, slavery, Frederick Douglass, Native American identity, blood quantum, decolonization, environmental justice, colonialism, Asian Americans, transnationalism, racial formation, immigration, US imperialism, human rights, ethnic identity, European expansions, Latin American positivism, globalization, Alain Locke, Harlem Renaissance, value relativism, critical pragmatism, fallibalism

Most progressive thinkers would now consider the modern ideas of race that were first developed by European philosophers to be inadequate or oppressive. It is therefore important to realize that these were not the only ideas about race in circulation during the time they were put forth and over the period of their dominant influence. Moreover, egalitarian progress in reality and intellectual history now permit more pluralistic considerations of ideas of human racial difference, especially pertaining to hierarchical taxonomies that have excessively valorized and privileged white Europeans at the expense of other groups.

It would require many volumes to attempt to do justice to pluralistic accounts of human races and ideas about race. The project would have to attend to what different societies meant by the word “race” and the many, many variations of this concept. But that is a matter of cultural anthropology. We will see in Part III that there is now good reason for skepticism about any objective taxonomy of human races that could be invariant over societies or cultures. If race does not exist, then this or that idea of racial difference cannot claim to be the right, or best, or most accurate one. Still, posits of human races and ideas about their differences have worked as ideologies radiating out from beliefs advantaging the most powerful (so-called) racial groups. Subordinate racial groups could, and have, generated their own ideas about racial differences. But even the most resistant among the oppressed have tended to think within the framework of racial posits and comparisons put forth by those with the greatest power and status within their own self-generated racial systems. Part of the reason for this has been that physical force and economic might have been used to back up the ideas of dominant groups, and part has been a matter of the lasting psychic impact of racist ideas and posits of race.

Ideas of race developed by nonwhite intellectuals, both in Euro-America and on other continents, have provided resistance to ideas of white superiority as developed by (p. 78) Euro-Americans and this resistance has been sufficiently critical and interesting for the notion of “pluralistic ideas of race” to make sense, philosophically. We therefore now turn to several of these counterperspectives, as a contrast to the hegemonic paradigm and also for informative intellectual diversity in the subject, as a value in its own right.

Albert Mosley introduces ideas of race from the discourse of Africans living in the shadow of the dominant colonialist racial theory(ies). From eighteenth-century England, Mosley considers Ignatius Sancho, Olaudah Equiano, and Quobna Cugoano; and from nineteenth-century America, David Walker, Martin Delaney, Alexander Crummell, Edward Blyden, and Frederich Douglass. African slaves were emancipated in England in 1772 but the slave trade continued. The large population of Africans in England were active in abolitionist causes. Their discussion of a well-publicized incident, in which a British captain callously threw 132 slaves overboard to collect insurance, led to the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807.

African American abolitionists contested the use of both religious and scientific principles to justify slavery. For instance, Walker, who was born a freedman, argued against the biblical justification of slavery based on the claim that Africans were the descendants of Canaan, the cursed son of Ham. Delaney, who was trained as a doctor by white abolitionists, became an early advocate of African American return to Africa. Crummell was also a nationalist, as was Blyden, who argued systematically against negro inferiority, as well as slavery. Douglass rhetorically “flipped” the definition of the “The Race Problem” from what to do with an “innately inferior race cursed by God” to what to do with a curse of greed and prejudice on whites that enabled their unrestrained exploitation of Africans. Douglass also argued for the existence of only one human race. His arguments against slavery were comprehensive and abstract enough to be extended to opposition to the exploitation of Asian workers in the “coolie” trade.

There is a difference between being violently brought to a new place and having invaders take one’s place—the physical persons of Africans and their labor were valued, whereas it was the lands and places of indigenous peoples that were valued. The resistant perspectives of Native Americans have been distinct in that they were driven from their ancestral homelands, although their descendants reside on the same continent. Kyle Powys Whyte demonstrates and explains that displacement of the settler–indigenous contact, from an indigenous perspective. His analysis is striking in showing how US government criteria for entitlements, or partial recovery of what had been taken, has required proof of ancestry in ways that have been alien to actual Tribal membership. On a broad physical sweep, the erasure of indigenous culture is evident in aerial views of great swaths of land in the middle of the US continent, which are divided into “patchwork” patterns. These stable “quilts” bear little resemblance to the appearance from the air of something like the “seasonal round” of Anishinaabe, who progressed from hunting, to harvesting, to fishing, over the seasons of a year, but returned to the same places over the years. And, of course, the erasure of indigenous identity extends beyond the physical landscape into culture, as evident in the paucity of educational material about Native Americans in the US school system and past removal of indigenous children to boarding schools, where they were deprived of their languages and culture.

Africans were physically removed from homelands, and homelands were removed from Native Americans, but throughout US history, Asian Americans were seen as perpetually foreign and unassimilable in contrast to European immigrants. However, Yen Le Espiritu (p. 79) suggests that the identities and status of Asian Americans cannot be understood via an internal national perspective that stops at US borders. Rather, “Asian American ‘alien citizenship’ flowed directly from the histories of conquest, colonialism, and semicolonialism that constituted US interactions in Asia.” Espiritu suggests that ideas of immigration often fail to take processes of othering and racialization into account. Nation states with large numbers of US immigrants—Mexico, China (including Taiwan and Hong Kong), the Philippines, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, South Korea, Guatemala, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia—have all had intense social, political, military, and economic relations with dominant interest groups in the United States. Along with coerced contributions to empire, through globalization, colonialism, and militarism, subaltern identities have been imposed on citizens and migrants from these nation states.

The foreign policy and international relations aspect of racial identities introduced by Espiritu in regard to Asian Americans has had a longer history in Latin America, where philosophers and political theorists within and without the academy have struggled with ideas of rights and identity, especially through literary creation and criticism, as well as philosophy. Susana Nuccetelli locates the origins of this discourse in the Iberian conquest during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and notes its continuance into contemporary concerns related to globalism. Nuccetelli tracks the following contributions from Latin American thought to discussions of race and rights in the United States: a Thomistic absolutist theory of natural rights that influenced secular modern natural rights theories; a philosophy of international law; a pioneering polemic about the moral backwardness of the treatment of Amerindians and the African slave trade; and a doctrine of compensatory justice claiming duties of reparation for past injustices. In addition, the question of mestajahe or mixed race has been part of Latin American political discussions about preferred forms of government, as well as identity, since the early nineteenth century.

In the last essay in this part, “Looking for Alain Locke,” Leonard Harris provides a poignant account of his search for a philosophical home for Locke’s work. Locke was the first African American to receive a PhD in philosophy, from Harvard in 1918. He was best known for his support of black writers, artists, and poets during the Harlem Renaissance. He was chair of the Howard University Department of Philosophy during a career lasting over thirty years and wrote extensively in value theory about culture and cultural relativity, as well as racial theory, in the tradition of pragmatism. Locke’s 1942 anthology coedited with Bernard Stern, When Peoples Meet: Race and Culture Contact, exhibits the relation of cultural pluralism to democracy. But Locke’s philosophical contributions did not enter academic philosophy until Harris rediscovered them in 1983.

Harris recounts that it took five years to find a publisher, the University of Chicago Press, for Alain L. Locke: Biography of a Philosopher (2008), which he wrote with Charles Molesworth. Locke was an only child and a lifelong bachelor who left no record of the suffering attending his homosexuality. He mentored and counseled many black intellectuals and artists but displayed little drama in his own trajectory from a middle-class home, to scholarship, to cultural criticism, to more scholarship. Harris presents that quiet background as a recipe for obscurity given dispositions to devalue black thinkers and exclude their contributions. As Harris develops his account of Locke’s absence from American philosophy, he interweaves a disturbing narrative about Locke’s ashes, which were kept in a paper bag, until finally removed from Howard’s Department of Anthropology to repose in an urn beneath a headstone in the Congressional Cemetery, in 2014, sixty years after his death.

(p. 80) Harris’s apprehension of the double absence of Alain Locke, first philosophically, and second, literally, outlines an African American perspective or view of race and racial taxonomy as tragic loss. The deep humanity of that perspective should be considered and accepted as an alternative approach to facile taxonomies that were imagined in order to posit the superiority of one racial group—as though the worldviews and life experiences of other groups were of no importance or did not even exist. Both the original posit and its effects have occurred on the premise that human races are real biological divisions. Part III provides consideration of whether there are at present good reasons to accept that.

Harris, Leonard, ed. (1983). Philosophy Born of Struggle: Afro-American Philosophy from 1917. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.Find this resource:

Locke, Alain. [1925] (2007). “The New Negro, 1925.” In Readings on Race, Representation, and African American Culture, 1892–1938, edited by Henry Louis Gates and Gene Andrew Jarrett, 112–118. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Reynolds, Glenn C. (2007). “A Native American Land Ethic.” Natural Resources and Environment 21 (3): 16–20.Find this resource:

Schlund-Vials, Cathy J., K. Scott Wong, and Linda Trinh Võ, eds. (2015). Keywords for Asian American Studies. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

Serequeberhan, Tsenay, ed. (1991). African Philosophy: The Essential Readings, Harrisburg, PA: Continuum International Pub Group Book.Find this resource: