Ferguson & Philosophy Class


It is the beginning of the school year. Some professors start off their first class with deep puzzles, or thought experiments, or polls. Others begin with definitions of philosophy or by reciting and discussing inspiring passages from great philosophical works. Still others, strangely, hand out syllabi and read through them. There are those, though, that like to bring current events into their classroom, and right now, in Missouri, we have a current event that brings into view a version of the United States that doesn’t match up with the typical college student’s understanding of how our society works. One of the things a philosophical education does is disturb the ordinary, and the events in Ferguson seem to do that all on their own—even if they are all too ordinary for some segments of the population (as many have remarked: if this is how the Ferguson police behave when the entire world is watching, imagine what they do when we’re not). So the Ferguson story may make for a valuable and timely opening-day conversation with your students.

While the recent conflicts in Gaza attracted the attention of several philosophers (see the collection here) from what I can tell, philosophers have not yet published opinion pieces on what has been happening in Ferguson, and not many have substantively blogged about it (see Leigh Johnson’s “Ferguson and American Apartheid” for one exception; please share others you know about in the comments). Still, the lack of reading material should not deter in-class discussion. How, if at all, can philosophy help students understand what is happening and what is important about what is happening in Ferguson? If you were to discuss the events there in your class, what would you ask? What ideas would you explore? What would you hope to achieve?

guest
20 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Sareh Pouryousefi
Sareh Pouryousefi
7 years ago

Joseph Heath has blogged about the shootings: http://induecourse.ca/police-shootings-are-a-gun-control-issue/Report

Sherri Irvin
7 years ago

I teach in a predominately white institution, and I think it’s very important to inquire into the appropriate epistemic approach to events like this. A Pew poll suggests that 80% of African Americans think that race is relevant to understanding the killing of Michael Brown, while only 37% of whites do. Law professor Russell K. Robinson’s “Perceptual Segregation” (http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/facpubs/34/) discusses instances in which observers of different races see the same events very differently, with white subjects typically minimizing the relevance of race. When one brings to the table an epistemic stance according to which the unit of analysis is just a single interaction between two people, disregarding the structural, institutional and historical context, it’s easy to say, “Well, there’s no special reason to think that race is relevant; this kind of interaction could have happened between a black officer and a white victim.”

As Kristie Dotson argues in “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing” (http://philpapers.org/rec/DOTTEV) and Charles Mills argues in “White Ignorance” (http://philpapers.org/rec/MILWI-3 / aapf.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/white-ignorance-vii.doc), there are structural mechanisms in place in white-dominated societies that invite this sort of decontextualized inquiry and that tend to silence observers who attempt to bring relevant background knowledge and experience into the discussion.

Why are so many white observers unaware of the long and ongoing history of police violence and discrimination against people of color at all levels of the criminal justice system in the US? Why are people unaware of the history and institutional mechanisms that lead to a town that is 67% black having “a virtually all-white power structure: a white mayor; a school board with six white members and one Hispanic, which recently suspended a highly regarded young black superintendent who then resigned; a City Council with just one black member; and a 6 percent black police force” (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/18/opinion/in-ferguson-black-town-white-power.html)? Yes, that’s right: in a town that is 67% black, only 3 out of 53 police officers are black.

It’s interesting to consider why mainstream discussions of events like those in Ferguson are so often ahistorical and decontextualized, and to consider what it would take to nudge our society in the direction of a more appropriate epistemic approach.Report

GF-A
Reply to  Sherri Irvin
7 years ago

Thank you for this very informative comment, and for the references. I was wondering what (if anything) you thought this indicates about the question of whether Ferguson could be profitably discussed on the first day of class.

My inference is that the answer is ‘no’: most white students are not prepared to discuss Ferguson sensibly, and could very well say something harmful in class. To me, first giving students tools and texts to think through racism seems necessary to avoid, as you say, “ahistorical and decontextualized” discussions of an issue that can only be properly understood within in historical and sociological context. And waiting until later in the semester gives the class time to build up both ground-rules and trust for talking about racism (and sexism, and ableism, etc.). But maybe you don’t want to draw that inference? I wasn’t sure. Thanks!Report

Sherri Irvin
Reply to  GF-A
7 years ago

I agree with Lionel K. McPherson’s comment below.

Given that white students (and often professors) tend to arrive with such entrenched ahistorical and decontextualized perspectives – which is to say that they arrive with such deeply entrenched white ignorance, to use Mills’ term – it is unlikely that this topic can be fruitfully discussed in a PWI in a course that doesn’t address racial injustice more deeply.

Two-hour evening panel discussions about the events in Ferguson are being organized at my own institution and another nearby PWI. This sort of event, with careful selection of speakers and careful moderation, provides enough time and space to begin recontextualizing the events and encouraging audience members to do the same.

I would add that to teach an ethics, political philosophy, epistemology, feminist philosophy, philosophy of biology, or intro to philosophy course (and this list is not exhaustive) without seriously addressing the philosophy of race and racial injustice is a huge lost opportunity in many ways. There is a brilliant and growing literature in these areas that is highly relevant to students’ understanding of their social world. But to incorporate this content effectively, one may also need to tackle one’s own tendency toward ahistorical and decontextualized thinking.Report

LK McPherson
LK McPherson
Reply to  Sherri Irvin
7 years ago

Appreciated, in all respects.Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
7 years ago

FYI, the hashtag #fergusonsyllabus, which is used to flag discussions about Ferguson and teaching, has been quite active on Twitter for a couple of days.Report

LK McPherson
LK McPherson
7 years ago

I would strongly caution philosophers–namely, those who have little experience with critical thinking about race in the U.S. and who have few, if any, close peer relationships with Black Americans–to wade into the Ferguson situation in class.

The following excerpt from the Heath piece (unfortunately, linked above) is a prime example of how not to proceed:

“Anyhow, it seems to me that all the focus on race is unlikely to do much to prevent future police shootings, whereas a focus on gun control might. I suppose this may seem like a bit of a leap, since Michael Brown was not armed. The point, however, has to do not with a specific interaction….”

This–by which I mean not merely Heath’s summary paragraph but the entire piece–is almost a complete fail on so many levels. Honestly, I feel too embarrassed and exhausted to take on the work of explaining why. That job is mostly not worth the effort, anyway, when confronted with the type of casually vicious and uninformed mindset on display.

More directly to the point: I can hardly imagine, were I a Black student, a worse way to begin the academic year than by having to suffer through Heath-type musings.

Leigh Johnson’s post at New APPs and Falguni Sheth’s article at Salon (both linked above) are very good. The problem, though, is that class discussions cannot possibly begin and end there: given the constituency of the overwhelming majority of philosophy courses and who will be teaching them, there’s no reason to believe that things will go well enough on balance, at least from the perspective of any Black students who might be in attendance.

The broader topic of racial injustice needs, unto itself, at least a substantial part of a course–which is likely to select for teachers who already have some basic knowledge and sensitivity.Report

LisaShapiro
7 years ago

I don’t want to wholly defend Joe Heath’s piece, but one thing to keep in mind is that it is very much written from a Canadian perspective. Canada has some race issues, but they manifest very very differently than they do in the US. Canadian history is very different. Canada has much tougher gun control laws than the US, and it is absolutely the case that living here in Canada, I can walk around in some of my city’s more dangerous neighborhoods, neighborhoods with systemic poverty and drug abuse issues, and not fear at all for my life or overall safety (when I tell US visitors that the Downtown Eastside is one of the sketchiest parts of town, they are genuinely shocked). Canadian policing practice is also very very different from that in the US. Policing is very much about engaging with the community being policed, about respecting persons, and about harm reduction. I see beat cops having casual conversations with the folks in Downtown Eastside regularly (the park around the corner from me has some issues from time to time), and the tone of those conversations is calm and in the spirit of information gathering — there is not a tone of intimidation or threat. The judicial system is very different — there is not (for the moment anyway) a prison-industrial complex. Sentencing is premised on rehabilitation and aims in many cases to restore relationships between the perpetrator and the community (see restorative justice). While it is impossible to see events in Ferguson, MO independent of issues of racial prejudice, I would suggest that some degree of cross-cultural comparisons can serve to bring other perspectives to bear on the ways in which violence against black youth in particular are manifest in the US. I’m not sure Heath does this effectively, but I think that is perhaps part of what he is aiming for. I certainly agree that it is not the best essay to use in a beginning of term classroom setting.Report

praymont
praymont
Reply to  LisaShapiro
7 years ago

“Canada has some race issues, but they manifest very very differently than they do in the US. … Policing is very much about engaging with the community being policed, about respecting persons”

I can’t agree with this characterization. Quoting from Professor Scott Wortley’s report, POLICE USE OF FORCE IN ONTARIO (2006): “While Black people represent only 3.6% of the population, they represent 27.0% of all deaths caused by police use of force and 34.5% of all deaths caused by police shootings. The Black rate of police shooting deaths (1.95) is 9.7 times greater than the provincial rate (0.20) and 16 times greater than the rate for White people (0.12).” (pg. 42)

The document is at http://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/inquiries/ipperwash/policy_part/projects/pdf/AfricanCanadianClinicIpperwashProject_SIUStudybyScotWortley.pdf

Wortley also documents the use of racial taunts by Toronto police (pgs. 6, 16 & 17 of above report).

See also Tiana Reid’s piece from Vice (Feb. 14, 2014), in which she traces the racist practices of Toronto police (inc. racial profiling) going back several decades. http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/the-toronto-polices-carding-practicesReport

Brandon Beasley
7 years ago

I echo Lisa Shapiro’s comments about Heath’s piece and policing in Canada.

I also think that LK McPherson is being somewhat uncharitable to Heath; he is not saying that race is irrelevant in understanding what happened. What he is saying is that gun control might be a more effective way of ensuring such things do not happen again.

Now, that is probably not true. I think it is clear that dealing with the systemic issues relating to race is very important in ensuring that it doesn’t happen again. Heath makes a good point about police officers acting such that anyone they encounter might have a gun. But he ignores the facts about police attitudes towards Black people and how that might have specifically contributed to what happened.

So I think Heath’s point about gun control should be included in our story of what happened, but that it is not the whole story.

I think Heath’s piece is, unfortunately, naive in this respect. As Lisa Sharipo says, I think his Canadian perspective is blinding him to the full import of the racial issues at play.Report

Rachel V McKinnon
7 years ago

I’d be focusing on issues of racial privilege (e.g. white privilege) and violence/harassment, as well as the epistemology of ignorance.Report

Joseph Heath
7 years ago

First of all, let me say that I would never have recommended my blog post for use in an American classroom, since it was intended primarily for a Canadian audience (where our current federal government has been weakening gun control). That having been said, I don’t think it hurts for Americans to occasionally be exposed to a non-American perspective on their problems, since it is possible sometimes to miss the forest for the trees. This is probably not the time though, as far as students are concerned.

As far as the substance of the argument goes, Lionel, you quote me saying “all the focus on race is unlikely to do much to prevent future police shootings, whereas a focus on gun control might.” I don’t see why that’s controversial. I mean, I’m not talking about diagnosing root causes here, I’m talking about what can be done to reduce the number of police shootings in America. As praymont (Paul?) points out, Canadian police can be plenty racist. And as I said, statistics are hard to come by, but it seems that in a typical year in America, there are more than 400 deaths-by-police shooting, while in Canada (with 1/9th the population) there seem to be fewer than 10, and some years there aren’t any. So a black man in Canada is far less likely to get shot, not because the police are less racist, but because the police don’t really shoot many people….

Now of course talking about gun control in the United States is also of limited usefulness as well, because there’s nothing foreseeable on the legislative front (plus with 310 million guns in circulation, the horse has already left the barn). Still, I think it’s weird that if you look at something like the Huffingon Post’s “10 things you can do to help the people of Ferguson”
(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/19/how-to-help-ferguson_n_5688541.html)
they have as one item “stop voting for defense industry-backed lawmakers who voted to continue the 1033 program,” which is weirdly specific, considering the fact that they have nothing about “stop voting for lawmakers who oppose gun control.”

Also, I do think it’s worth observing that treating police shootings as a gun control issue creates an opportunity for an unconventional alliance with certain libertarians, who have been getting agitated over police militarization, no-knock raids. etc.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
7 years ago

The best way for philosophy professors to raise discussion in the classroom of what is happening in Ferguson would be to raise discussion of why there are so few black philosophers and why so few black philosophers are on syllabi.

I am not saying not having more black philosophers in the profession is even remotely as horrible as killing an unarmed black teenager. Nor that the philosophy profession is somehow responsible for what happened in Ferguson.

But it is hypocritical for academic philosophers to thump their fists at the disparities in Ferguson without looking more deeply and openly about the disparities in their own field.

A big difference between Ferguson and the philosophy profession is that perhaps many whites in Ferguson are overtly racists, which I believe is certainly not true in philosophy. But the killing of Michael Brown is not an overt race crime. The issues of race and class at play here are more implicit. If it was an overt race crime, something like a modern civil rights movement would make sense. But the reason why the 60s model doesn’t fit is that racism has become more implicit. So, the question is: what is the best way to address implicit racism? How best to confront the issue that the officer might have experienced Michael Brown as very aggressive because of implicit bias, such that neither the officer nor his defenders would even agree that what the officer did was related to race? These are hard questions.

It is only worthwhile to raise discussion of Ferguson in the classroom if these hard questions are going to be addressed. There is no point raising the discussion only to bemoan how horrible racism is or empty discussion of “what can be done”, which go nowhere since they are not dealing with the hard questions.

If the hard questions are to be confronted, best to confront them in relation to the spaces where the questions are being asked. Anything else looks like just a way to soothe our collective sense of guilt, and a poor attempt at that.

Professors might not raise the issues of their own profession in the classroom out of the worry that if they did so, they might lose the respect of their students. But I think the opposite is more likely. Speaking just for myself, if I was a student and a professor raised the issue of race in the philosophy profession as a way to talk about race in America in general, I would have tremendous respect for that professor. Of course, this is not a conversation to be had just on the first day of class or as a way to introduce philosophy. It would have to be done a little more substantially than that, though without suggesting that dealing with the issue of race in philosophy somehow has to be figured out before other philosophical topics can be addressed.Report

Zara
Zara
7 years ago

I’m sure that there’s much to object to in Heath’s piece. When I originally read it, I thought it was interesting and thought-provoking, and brought to light a possibly relevant causal factor in explaining the large number of police killings in the US. Canadian police, as it turns out, are also viciously racist and strongly inclined towards racial profiling. But, so the hypothesized explanation goes, they are not as afraid as American police are that the person they are confronting will be armed. Thus, in situations similar to those that regularly hit the news, they hassle and berate their victims, but don’t shoot them dead. Maybe this is “a complete fail at so many levels”. I would benefit from an explanation of how it is a complete fail: an explanation might open my eyes to things I did not see. Maybe some of the other participants in this conversation would also benefit in a similar way.Report

Roxanne
Roxanne
7 years ago

For a Philosophy and Science Fiction Course, first day:

Avatar/Pocahontas mashup from YouTube
Blog post: http://io9.com/5422666/when-will-white-people-stop-making-movies-like-avatar
White Privilege checklist
Ferguson statistics
Argument analysis — why “let them fix the black on black crime first” arguments fail, etc…

I’d be thrilled if anyone can offer a suggestion for a sci-fi short story/video on a purportedly post-racial utopia or dystopia…Report

Sherri Irvin
Reply to  Roxanne
7 years ago

Are you familiar with Derrick Bell’s “The Space Traders”? PDF here: http://www4.ncsu.edu/~mseth2/com417s12/readings/BellSpaceTraders.pdfReport

Roxanne
Roxanne
Reply to  Sherri Irvin
7 years ago

Thanks! I’ll take a look at it…Report

Benjamin S. Yost
7 years ago

Those interested in relevant sociological analyses of race, power, and policing should check out the sample syllabus compiled by Sociologists for Justice:

http://sociology.about.com/od/Current-Events-in-Sociological-Context/fl/The-Ferguson-Syllabus.htmReport

Leigh M. Johnson (@DrLeighMJohnson)
7 years ago

Welcoming any and all suggestions for this draft version of a “Ferguson Syllabus for Philosophy”:http://readmorewritemorethinkmorebemore.blogspot.com/2014/08/ferguson-syllabus-for-philosophers.htmlReport