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Concerning the Underspecialization of Race Theory in American Philosophy: How the Exclusion of Black Sources Affects the Field.

From: The Pluralist
Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 2010
pp. 44-64 | 10.1353/plu.0.0042

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Despite the recent rise in articles by American philosophers willing to deal with race, the sophistication of American philosophy's conceptualizations of American racism continues to lag behind other liberal arts fields committed to similar endeavors. Whereas other fields like American studies, history, sociology, and Black studies have found the foundational works of Black scholars essential to "truly" understanding the complexities of racism, American philosophy-driven by the refusal of white philosophers to acknowledge and incorporate the foundational works of Black scholars at the turn of the century, as well as the relevant insights of contemporary race theorists-remains in a very real sense underdeveloped and theoretically impoverished. This notable absence of "historically melaninated perspective" has allowed American philosophers to continually celebrate the seemingly random reflections of white thinkers, like John Dewey, Jane Addams, and the recently emergent works of Josiah Royce, concerning "race," as indispensable sources of insight into racism.2

Race theory,3 as understood in American philosophy, is primarily geared toward proving that historical American figures like Dewey or Royce can be useful to contemporary race problems by emphasizing their rejection of biological determinism, their seemingly proleptic embracing of multiculturalism, and their participation in liberal race organizations like the NAACP. The problem with this approach however, is that it erroneously assumes that the growing rejection of biological determinism around the turn of the century was concomitantly a rejection of white supremacy and the dogma of Black inferiority. By failing to ask whether or not embracing the environmentalist position on race, popularized in America by Franz Boas, can be unproblematically translated into our present-day language of diversity and multiculturalism, the American philosophical tradition functions as a first rate apologetic-an unquestionable defense against claims that its heroes/heroines are in fact anti Black racists. By making the symbolism and rhetoric of the post-civil rights era seem like the inevitable consequence of these white philosophers' thinking about race at the turn of the century, American philosophy unapologetically maintains it hegemonic exclusion of Black thinkers as sources of philosophical insight on racism, while simultaneously justifying its exclusive focus on white thinkers as the unquestionable foundations of race theory.

The purpose of this essay is twofold. First, I intend to historically contextualize what American philosophy takes to be "progressive" race thinking, and secondly, and more importantly, I aim show that the current approaches to studying race, as represented by organizations and journals in the American philosophical tradition, perpetuate the underspecialization of race theory. Because American philosophers aiming to study race and racism are not held accountable to historical fact or contemporary finding, current scholarship revels in the absolution of its heroes rather than contributing to conversations that explore the persistence of racism in American society at large and specific practices in the discipline of philosophy that continue to bar Blacks and non-European descended peoples from describing, addressing, and producing scholarship from their own culturally relevant experience.

Mistaking Environmentalist Stances for Antiracist Positions

For many American philosophers, there is an assumption that any anties-sentialist position about race-or a position that holds the view that race is not biologically determined, and therefore a product of social, historical, and cultural origin-is an antiracist position. While various historical works like George M. Fredrickson's The Black Image in the White Mind, John S. Haller Jr.'s Outcasts from Evolution, and Thomas Gosset's Race: The History of an Idea in America have demonstrated to other humanist disciplines that the nature of race ideology in America has remained firmly rooted in white supremacy and anti-Black racism, American philosophy continues to perpetuate the idea that a change from biologically determined explanations to cultural, social, or historical accounts are necessarily less racist. What contemporary works like Gail Bederman's Manliness and Civilization show to the most casual reader of race theory is that the increase of America's heterogeneity during the first decades of the twentieth century forced white race thinkers to create more effective accounts of "race" that used progressive education, assimilation, and feminism to sustain anti-Black racism. In fact, Richard Rees's Shades of Difference argued that the concept of "ethnicity" became a socially recognized category in American...

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