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date: 17 November 2019

(p. 191) American Philosophy and Ideas of Race

Abstract and Keywords

Alain Locke assessed the anthropological theories of race in his day and rejected the idea that race was causally related to culture. Locke argued further that scientific theories of race were not always the best theories for understanding the phenomena of race. His solution was to develop a concept of ethnic/social race, and his account is still relevant to contemporary philosophy of race. Locke distinguishes between three primary conceptions of race: theoretical or anthropological, political, and social. Locke separates conceptually his analysis of the underlying social, political, and economic causes of social differentiation, which produce various social groupings including races, from the socially imbedded and encoded practices, and epistemological standpoints that inform the phenomena of race contacts and interracial relations.

Keywords: Alain Locke, eliminativism, ethnicity, culture, anthropology, W. E. B. Du Bois, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Lucius Outlaw, racial identity, racial identity, Cornel West, black men, post-Obama existential threat, extrajudicial killings, racial/social dynamics, insurrectionist ethics, racism, Leonard Harris, Angela Davis, resistance, anachronism, antiquarianism, Du Bois, ideology, antiracist critical theory

Human chattel slavery is an institution that has been ubiquitous throughout history, and some experts believe that current sex trafficking has resulted in more slaves alive today than at any other time (over 25 million). However, the countries that legally made slavery a vital part of their economic system (at least 10 percent) have been few: ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Brazil, the Caribbean, and the US South. It cannot be surprising that the enslavement of African Americans for close to 250 years (1620–1865), together with ideologies of their racial inferiority and that of their descendants, has had deep and enduring effects on US racial identities and race relations.

Slavery has been practiced in other parts of the modern world, but its indelible connection to racial differences may be unique to the United States. Until the late twentieth century, historians described racist ideas about black people as the cause of their enslavement—“They were enslaved because they were black”—but more recent scholarship has identified ideas about race as justifications for violence and oppression undertaken for economic reasons. One current view is that race itself is a form of ideology and racial prejudice is a rationalization for racial discrimination undertaken for reasons independent of ideas about race.

The focal point of race in American history has been black race or African ancestry. Insofar as the United States has had a distinctive history of race, there has been intellectual, political, and creative attention to the subject. So in that sense, when American intellectuals, specifically black American intellectuals—although not only blacks, because there are also nonblack progressive voices—analyze race, American philosophy of race occurs. In that history, (p. 192) certain figures loom: Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, and up through the early twenty-first century, Cornel West.

Philosophy of race is not the only distinctly American intellectual strain. American thinkers also created a distinctive tradition of academic philosophy. Pragmatism, or Americanist philosophy, or process philosophy, was extremely popular in academic letters from the late nineteenth century to just before World War II, when core writings were produced by William James, Charles E. Pierce, and John Dewey. But pragmatism has also lived on through many tendrils and revisions, in the work of Q. V. O Quine, Hilary Putnam, and Richard Rorty, as well as iterations and variations in postmodernism. It is natural given the specifically American history of race, for American pragmatist philosophy to intersect with American philosophy of race. Many contemporary academic philosophers of race find the dynamic tools of Americanist philosophy methodologically congenial for their work on race, and others claim African American thinkers such as Douglass and Du Bois as foundational for their thought about present issues. In recent decades, the link between philosophy of race as distinctly American and American pragmatism has been emphasized by Cornel West, an avowed pragmatist and public intellectual, who has influenced many contemporary philosophers of race. (Although, despite being claimed by academic philosophers and his own distinguished career at Harvard, Princeton, and Union Theological Seminary, West does not view himself as a philosopher, primarily. He writes for his website, “I’m a blues man in the life of the mind. I’m a jazz man in the world of ideas.”)

We saw in Leonard Harris’s essay in Part II, that Alain Locke’s philosophical work had been ignored or neglected over much of the twentieth century. Locke’s dissertation advisor at Harvard was Ralph B. Perry, a student of William James, who himself worked on a naturalistic theory of value. Jacoby Carter here introduces Locke as well known for his work in value theory, aesthetics, cosmopolitanism, democracy, and cultural pluralism, but still obscure in matters of race. Locke’s work on race appeared mostly in lectures during 1915–1916, but was not published until 1992, so reading Locke on race is a matter of reclamation. Carter explains that Locke conceived of race in three ways: anthropologically, which took biological factors into account; politically, or as the result of power balances; and socially, which was a matter of culture. Locke rejected the idea that races were biologically distinct but at the same time did not think they could be “eliminated” from social ideas and interactions. Carter interprets Locke as holding that race is a matter of cultural distinctions, transmitted as social inheritance.

Chike Jeffers compares and contrasts three American thinkers on ideas of racial identity: W. E. B. Du Bois, [Kwame] Anthony Appiah, and Lucius Outlaw. At issue is Appiah and Outlaw’s opposing interpretations of W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1897 essay, “The Conservation of Races.” Delivering his essay at the first meeting of the American Negro Academy, Du Bois began by noting that “The American Negro” has always taken a keen interest in the subject of race, because of imputations of black inferiority. And, Du Bois continued, “He has, consequently, been led to deprecate and minimize race distinctions, to believe intensely that out of one blood God created all nations, and to speak of human brotherhood as though it were the possibility of an already dawning tomorrow.” Du Bois recognized racial identities as based on real physical and biological differences, but he took the most important part of the idea of race into the social realm. Du Bois defined a race as a cultural group, “a vast family of human beings, generally of common blood and language, always of common history, traditions and impulses, who are both voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain more or less vividly conceived ideals of life.”

(p. 193) Jeffers notes that Appiah disagrees with Du Bois’s definition, because in order to identify the common history that constitutes a race, the group itself would have to be defined. Appiah claims that in his list of eight races, Du Bois defines races based on their geographical origins. Outlaw takes Appiah to task for picking apart Du Bois’s cluster concept of race and proposes instead a political interpretation of Du Bois’s definition. As a result, Outlaw, like Du Bois, posits a value in racial identities. Jeffers resolves these conflicting approaches with reference to Appiah’s later interpretation of Du Bois as emphasizing the social and psychological aspects of race: If races or racial essences are not biologically real, social racial identities are, because they “shape the ways people conceive of themselves and their projects.”

In the tradition of the political dimension of racial identities mentioned by Outlaw, Clarence Sholé Johnson criticizes Cornel West, as an American pragmatist and race theorist, for his relative silence about “racially-motivated extrajudicial killings of young black men” by US police officers in recent years. Johnson insists that West has not produced the criticism to fulfill his role as a public intellectual and prophetic pragmatist:

Pragmatism, as is well known, is an action-oriented theory that considers ideas useful only insofar as those ideas can produce results in the form of action. So prophetic pragmatism, as a variant of American pragmatism, is a philosophical position which invokes critical discourse as an instrument to engage and solve problems that confront the society, especially in situations of moral urgency.

Johnson argues that West has rested on his earlier description of a nihilistic existential threat overhanging black youth. The causes of this threat are external oppression, but the threat itself is an internal psychological and spiritual “disease of the soul.” Jeffers himself identifies a new threat in the form of post-Obama antiblack violence after the election of a black president in 2008. This threat is a literal resurgence of hatred and violence, most evident in extrajudicial police killings, and it is a disease of the “body politic.” Jeffers calls for a forceful pragmatist response toward social justice in this case.

In “Insurrectionist Ethics and Racism,” Lee McBride turns to Leonard Harris and Angela Davis for inspiration regarding “human liberation and social amelioration in the face of racism.” According to Harris, racism strips a racialized population of its humanity, through degradation, terror, and humiliation. McBride, in the tradition of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Leonard Harris, rejects moral suasionist methods for correcting racism. Needed are struggle and resistance—revolution. Angela Davis has supported insurrectionist ethics in relation to racial justice: opposition to racist norms and authorities; radical action on behalf of racialized populations; universal liberation through particular group advocacy; the cultivation of individual character traits of defiance and resistance.

Robert Gooding-Williams explores the relationship between antiracist critical theory and the history of African American thought, in terms of a debate between anachronists and antiquarians about the relationship between the current practice of philosophy and the study of the history of philosophy. The basic issue is the relation between present normative concerns regarding race, and intellectual and political philosophical history; the question is how to reconcile contemporary urgencies without misinterpreting or distorting past thought. Gooding-Williams works through this problematic with the examples of the social and political thought of Du Bois and Frederick Douglass. He concludes that it is necessary both to be sensitive to contextualized historical meanings and concerns and to relate the (p. 194) present to the past. And indeed, this process of learning from past thinkers in order to move forward from injustice in the present, is an ongoing project exemplified in all of the essays in this part.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony, and Martin Bunzl, eds. (2007). Buying Freedom: The Ethics and Economics of Slave Redemption. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Douglass, Frederick. (1845). A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office.Find this resource:

Dubois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. Accessed May 16, 2016.

Finley, Moses I. (1980). Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. New York: Viking Press.Find this resource:

Jefferson, Thomas. (n.d.). “Notes on the State of Virginia.” Massachusetts Historical Society. Accessed May 16, 2016.

Rorty, Richard M. (1989). Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

West, Cornel. (1989). The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.Find this resource:

West, Cornel. (n.d.). Official Website. Accessed March 29, 2015.