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  • Playing the Race Game:A Response to Thandeka's "Whites: Made in America"
  • V. Denise James

I. Introduction

It is rare that I both disagree so thoroughly with the first few lines of a talk or article and still find it compelling and timely. Reverend Dr. Thandeka's "Whites Made in America: Advancing American Philosophers' Discourse on Race" is one such paper. She begins, "'Racism" and 'white privilege' have outlived their usefulness as concepts and judgements. Neither term explains what's going on in America today" (Thandeka 26).

Like many, Thandeka marks the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States as a signal that something was missed in the months or years prior. With others, Thandeka asserts that Hillary Clinton's major misstep in the election was calling the Trump support base "deplorables" and in so doing, neglecting the needs or desires of those overwhelmingly white voters. New categories and concepts that fit better and explain more than racism and white privilege are necessary, on Thandeka's view. She claims, "American philosophers have a special role to play here because the requisite fieldwork includes moral values formation" (Thandeka 26). I am unconvinced even as I think she and I share common concerns.

Clinton won the popular vote but lost the election not because Trump represents some new champion of a misunderstood white populace, but rather because of all the old isms. The Electoral College, white backlash against the presidency of Barack Obama, and the misogynist coverage of Hillary Clinton all may have been thinly cloaked in new rhetoric but barely. And in response to this, philosophers could have a role, but it is not special, even as it might be distinctive. If philosophers of the sort that attend the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy's annual conference have some contribution to the fight against oppression, it is the same contribution we have always had [End Page 51] to offer—a set of disciplinary practices of problem articulation and evaluation that go hand in hand with a commitment to social meliorism that may compel some of us to join the multitudes in protest, resistance, and change.

I would argue, perhaps now more staunchly than I would have just two years ago, that terms like "racism" and "white privilege" explain well what we saw in this last election cycle. The rise and centering of Steve Bannon's white supremacist-friendly Tea Party; the retreat and pandering of the mainstream Republican Party; and the continued recalcitrance of racism, classism, sexism, and xenophobia do not put us on new terrain; rather, they reveal just how far we have tramped around back to the same paths when some of us may have thought we were headed to other destinations. I wonder if the problem is one of vigilance and not one of tools. I follow Angela Davis, who, in her reflections about the meaning of social justice and change when so much of what she initially fought for with revolutionary zeal, seemed to have been lost and coopted.

We should be especially aware of how the notion of civil rights, especially for women and people of color, has been redefined in a way that contradicts is collective impact in favor of an individualized interpretation that pits individual white men against groups and classes that have suffered historical discrimination.

(Davis 131)

Davis calls on us to recast and retool our analyses and practices to fit the situation while keeping a view to the sociohistorical conditions of its occurrence. Racism and white privilege can still be put to work, especially if we are cautious with Davis, as I am, that individualizing oppression can lead to its continuation.

What might be unique about our moment is the explicit tension that several decades of calling the isms what they are (and have been) make possible. The white supremacist must deny racism and defame feminism even as he sets about in his plans to take America back. Even with their deficiencies, concepts like racism and white privilege have explanatory power of a breadth and depth that I find lacking in the individual experience-centered notion of white racial identity formation found in Thandeka's remarks...


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