Cosmopolitan Racism, Trump, and Philosophy (guest post by Bharath Vallabha)


The following is a guest post* from Bharath Vallabha, former assistant professor of philosophy at Bryn Mawr College.

“Trump is actually much more aligned with the dominant norms of academic philosophy in America than with the KKK”

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Cosmopolitan Racism, Trump, and Philosophy
by Bharath Vallabha

 Trump, like many of his supporters, vehemently denies he is a racist. He says he loves African-Americans, Mexicans, Chinese—and more, that they love him. If Trump and I were to interact one on one, I don’t get the feeling he would think he is better than me because he is white and I am brown. He seems too cosmopolitan for such explicit racism.

And yet the night of the election and in the following days, I felt a pit of fear in my stomach. That though I am an American citizen, that somehow I am a second class citizen. That I am welcome in America, as long as I know my place. I felt it during Trump’s campaign a well: a pervasive, subtle, and yet not so subtle, aura of whiteness around him, his family and his staff, which seemed to say, “This is what America really looks like.”

How can I think Trump is too cosmopolitan to be an old fashioned racist and yet worry about minorities in a Trump presidency? If Trump is cosmopolitan, shouldn’t that be enough for me to feel safe during his presidency? Not quite.

For Trump is a cosmopolitan racist. He is cosmopolitan in that he thinks people of all races can live together. But he thinks that cosmopolitanism is the discovery of white people. That it is the white culture of Christianity, European advancements and the Founding Fathers of America which enables all races to live together. On this view, cosmopolitanism in America requires preserving white culture as the essence of America.

Seen from this angle, Trump is actually much more aligned with the dominant norms of academic philosophy in America than with the KKK. The KKK is old-fashioned, non-cosmopolitan, segregationist racism. Trump is too integrated into global capitalism to favor such segregation. What Trump wants is to preserve white culture as uniquely qualified for enabling racial integration—that America can be colorful as long as at its core its culture is white.

The strongest intellectual defense of this view is found not in conservative think tanks, or on Breitbart, or in the nether regions of the internet. Open most introductory philosophy text books in America, or sit in most philosophy classes or conferences, and one can see vividly the identification of cosmopolitanism with white, intellectual culture.

Hume, Berkeley, Kant and Hegel were all cosmopolitan racists who explicitly argued that only European culture and philosophy could enable world peace by keeping in check the barbarism of non-Europeans. Russell, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Quine in the twentieth century all lived through colonialism and segregation, and yet never addressed it in their philosophy—because they accepted the cosmopolitan racism of their times and their philosophy departments which assumed that non-whites had no rational philosophy to speak of (false), and so couldn’t be cosmopolitans in their own light (false again).

To say Kant was a cosmopolitan racist isn’t to deny the significance of Kant’s philosophy. But because Kant lacked knowledge of the philosophical traditions of other cultures, he didn’t conceptually separate his philosophy from his cultural practices. He assumed that spreading cosmopolitanism meant spreading European culture. With that assumption in place, colonialism seems almost like an act of charity.

Trump is channeling the same confused sense of charity, at once seemingly so benign and yet so destructive, when he says he will help African-Americans by putting more police in the inner cities or that Mexican-Americans love him even though he says most Mexicans coming into America are rapists. The reasoning is simple: “Non-whites struggle because their culture doesn’t help them; I will help them by giving them the protection of my cosmopolitan white culture; but to do that, I need to first protect white culture. When non-whites realize protecting white culture is in their best interest, they will love me.”

I have heard this reasoning before. It is the thinking behind why the philosophy curriculum hasn’t changed for the most part even though the college study body has diversified in the last fifty years. It is assumed it is a service to white, black and brown students to read European philosophy, for it opens up their mind to cosmopolitanism. And yet, the narrative goes, students don’t have to read non-European philosophy because none of it ever became cosmopolitan, and is limited by religion or culture. On this view, the white intellectual culture of philosophy has to be preserved not because it is white but because it has already transcended race; because any threat to it is a threat to cosmopolitanism itself.

Many people in America are not ready to let go of the idea that America is a fundamentally white nation. Till the civil rights movement, this idea was defended on the ground that whites are simply better, smarter, more industrious than non-whites. This is implausible to believe after the end of segregation and the prominence of minorities in sports, arts, media, technology and business, not to mention a black president. So some other grounding for a white America is needed. Trump and parts of the alt-right found it in the old colonialist idea that white culture is fundamentally cosmopolitan in a way other cultures are not, and so preserving white America is both the right of “true” Americans and a benevolent act at the same time.

This cosmopolitan racism is not a remnant of the past or the fringe right. Trump is channeling in a crude way some of the latent assumptions of Western society and its understanding of the other, assumptions implicit even in the great Western philosophers of the last four centuries and in current educational practices. Understanding a Trump presidency and challenging it requires rethinking these deep seeded assumptions about cosmopolitanism and universality, and about philosophy itself and its history.

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