A Philosophical Symposium on ‘Black Lives Matter’ Without Any Black Authors

Recently, the Journal of Political Philosophy  published an issue with a special symposium section on “Black Lives Matter.”  It’s an important and timely subject, and fits with recent calls to bring the tools of philosophy to bear on matters of pressing public concern. A philosopher told me about the symposium last week. I took a quick look and put it in the Heap of Links. A few days later some discussions online alerted me to the fact that I had missed something noteworthy about this collection of essays, given the topic: none of the authors is African-American.

How did this come about? The symposium grew out of a workshop on political violence held at the University of Connecticut a few years ago. Philosophers of color were on the program and were, along with the other participants, invited to submit papers for consideration for publication in the journal—none did, and the editors of the journal did not think to ask others not involved in the workshop to do so.

This past Wednesday, Chris Lebron (Yale, but soon to be at Johns Hopkins) posted about this at Philosopherin the form of an open letter to the journal’s editors:

The idea ‘black lives matter’ is an ethical demand calling for an end to the erasure of black lives and presence by systems of racist power anchored in a history of white supremacy…

So, if you might—please do—try to imagine my distaste when it was brought to my attention that your journal published a philosophical symposium on ‘black lives matter’ with not one philosopher of color represented, without one philosopher of color to convey her or his contextualized sense of a movement that is urgently and justifiably about context.  It certainly cannot be said there was no one to ask. I should know. I just published a book on the philosophical foundations of black lives matter.

Now, it might be the case that this particular symposium is merely unfortunate –the journal asked every black philosopher and political theorist it could find and was turned down. (Disclosure: I was not asked.) From an outside point of view, someone desiring to take on this more generous stance but not wanting to do so on blind faith would have only to do something simple: revisit the journal’s publication record and if it turns out that the topic of race or at least black philosophers, no matter the subject of their work, were decently represented in the journal’s pages, then we have some grounds to extend good faith. But things don’t look very good on this front, either…

[We] can ask whether the journal has in [the past] five years taken the political problem of race seriously as philosophically worthy. One might (or might not) be surprised to learn that at four issues a year, making a total of nearly twenty issues (including a special issue titled “Philosophy, Politics, and Society”), the Journal of Political Philosophy has not published a single article on the philosophy of race: voting, elections, immigration, global markets, and animals have gotten their time in the journal’s sun. But as black Americans, and the philosophers who study racial inequality—a political philosophical problem—have directly engaged one of our era’s most sinister moral and political quandaries, the journal has failed to represent race in its pages. Maybe more damning, so far as I can tell, not one black philosopher has seen her or his work appear in the pages of your respected journal, on race or any other topic.

You can see, then, how at this point the generous reading of the mishandling of the symposium comes under significant pressure… 

The next day, the editor of the Journal of Political Philosophy, Robert Goodin, along with co-editors Lea Ypi, Nicholas Southwood, and Christian Barry posted a response, also at Philosopher:

We, the Editors, sincerely apologise for the oversight in not including a Black author in a Symposium explicitly entitled ‘Black Lives Matter’. We accept the point eloquently and forcefully made by our colleagues that this is an especially grave oversight in light of the specific focus of Black Lives Matter on the extent to which African-Americans have been erased and marginalised from public life. Part of the mission of the JPP is to raise awareness of ongoing injustices in our societies. We appreciate and encourage having an engaged and politically active scholarly community willing to hold
everyone working in the profession to account. 

We have learnt important lessons here and will do our utmost to avoid such oversights and errors in the future and to be more sensitive in the manner we encourage, curate, frame and present work that engages with issues of grievous and persistent injustice.

They then outline some changes they will be making at the journal in response to this series of events, including adding at least two African-Americans to the journal’s editorial board.

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