On the Basis of Race
Updated: Jun 21
In my last post I reflected on how, as a society, we occasionally come to see the most basic questions of social order as the most urgent, practically necessary questions. I then sketched an agenda for future reflections on the current crisis and opportunity around race. Yet I now see – as so often happens in philosophy – a detour that may be illuminating, as there is more to say between the two topics. Wandering down this path should prepare us for the next set of reflections.
What led me toward this detour was the realization that the two topics - questioning the fundamental basis of our society, and confronting racist crimes and the need to make things right - are deeply intertwined in America. It seems that, historically, the most common prompt for asking the most fundamental questions about society - which is to say, to ask philosophical questions - has been the glaring injustices of racial relations, and recognition that the present social order simply cannot and must not stand.
Consider our greatest crises and decisions, turning points and transitions as a Nation: determining whether there would even be a union, given Northern opposition to slavery (even if this opposition was inconsistent and, by our standards, inadequate) and Southern insistence on preserving it. The Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War, crucial Constitutional amendments, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Initial Reconstruction of the South, followed by bitter reversal. The enormous social transformation that resulted from the Great Migration of Southern Blacks to the North. Forcible desegregation of the military, public schools, and public places. The Civil Rights movement, and civil rights and voting rights legislation. Assassinations, riots and fires. Affirmative action. Partial integration, gentrification, and displacement of communities. The distinctly racial “war on drugs” and mass incarceration of Black men. The election of the first Black president. The visceral – and vicious - backlash of the 2016 election, and blatant racists coming out of the woodwork and into the mainstream. The recent murder of George Floyd.
Each of these moments and movements (and many more we could name) presented fundamental questions about what sort of society we are and ought to be. Each time, the central, burning issue – most giving rise to these questions, and most needing resolution - was what to do about race. This should not surprise us. As early as the Constitutional Convention race was a decisive issue, and the closest the U.S. ever came to dissolving was caused by irreconcilable disagreement regarding slavery. The visiting Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835), often regarded as the single most insightful study of America ever written, identifies racism as “the most formidable evil threatening the future of the United States,” as the enormous error we made at the outset, its rot infesting the foundations and potentially bringing the entire edifice down. Racism, as much as anything, has forced us to think deeply about who we are, where we came from and where we should go. When we do this, we do philosophy.
My intention is not to offer a rereading of American history in a few paragraphs – an obviously impossible task, especially by someone who makes no claim to be an historian, or scholar of African-American studies. Rather, I wish to say that to address racism is to engage in philosophy – to go back to the fundamentals, to questions of good and evil, freedom and power, identity and community, justice and fairness, and more. To this extent, it is not surprising that many key Black intellectuals and leaders – including Frederick Douglass, WEB DuBois, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama, Cornell West, Danielle Allen – have had philosophical minds, and been deeply philosophical in making sense of race (even if not using the technical language of professional academic philosophy. But that’s not why we’re here). Philosophy contributed to their brilliance in shining light into the Nation’s darkest corners, and in lighting the way out. By challenging us personally and politically, they challenged us philosophically - to ask who we are and who we want to be.
In short, I want to suggest (and it is just that, a suggestion, as I am not certain) that facing racial injustice and struggling for justice is inherently philosophical. This may sound odd (perhaps even outrageous), since philosophy is often regarded as the epitome of privilege, as an idyllic activity reserved for the easiest times in life. Many of the Ancients saw philosophical contemplation as the province of the few who were spared attention to the necessities of life. In contrast, the struggle for racial equality is often brutally necessary, in many cases nothing less than a struggle for survival, the glaring opposite of the idyllic leisure said to allow for philosophy. My point is that to criticize and confront racism is, in an important sense, to do philosophy, and that such philosophizing is not a luxury but rather a necessity. The millions of people demonstrating in recent days are engaged not only in politics but also in philosophy.
Finally, mention must be made that I am White. This colors my perceptions and thinking (as does the identity of every person). Given this social privilege in a racist society, not only do I come at these issues differently than might a person of color, but racism does not come at me in the same way. To some extent, I have the luxury of deciding whether and when to think about race, in ways persons of color do not. The issues do confront me – bringing me not only to this blog, but lately to the streets – but not in the same way. Thus for me philosophical confrontation with racism is not always experienced as a practical necessity.
Rather, the confrontation with racism becomes urgently necessary when I do what philosophy has counseled from the beginning – to pause, observe, question, imagine, discuss – in pursuit of intellectual honesty and understanding, integrity and justice. Please join me.