Blacks in Philosophy in the US


[Reposting from August in the hopes of further discussion.]

In “What is the State of Blacks in Philosophy?” a recent article in Critical Philosophy of Race, authors Tina Fernandes Botts (Michigan), Liam Kofi Bright (Carnegie Mellon), Myisha Cherry (John Jay College), Guntur Mallarangeng (San Francisco), and Quayshawn Spencer (San Francisco) “introduce into philosophical discussion the preliminary results of an empirical study on the state of blacks in philosophy.” Among their findings:

– Blacks make up just 1.32 percent of the total number of people professionally affiliated (as grad students or faculty) with U.S. philosophy departments.

– Approximately 0.88 percent of U.S. philosophy Ph.D. students are black.

– Approximately 4.3 percent of U.S. tenured philosophy professors are black.

– Of black philosophy Ph.D. students in the U.S., half are female. That is about double the rate of the U.S. philosophy Ph.D. student population as a whole.

– The distribution of black female Ph.D. students across philosophy Ph.D. pro-grams is much lower than black males. Specifically, 69 percent of black female Ph.D. students are at Penn State.

– The top areas of specialization for U.S. black philosophers are (1) Africana, (2) Race, (3) Social and Political, (4) Ethics, and (5) Continental philosophy.

The article contains more data, along with figures and commentary, and is accessible here.

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ned markosian
ned markosian
6 years ago

These are mind-boggling numbers. What can we do to change this?Report

John S. Wilkins
6 years ago

Pay attention to African Americans who do philosophy?Report

Luke Sherry
6 years ago

I’m wondering what explains the much higher percentage of tenured faculty compared to graduate students. Isn’t the typical pattern for minority groups decreasing percentages as you go up the pay-and-prestige scale? Women in STEM are much more highly represented among graduate students and PhDs then they are among tenured faculty (i.e. the glass ceiling). I guess its possible that it signals a shift away from philosophy on the part of younger generations.

My only other guess is that black tenured faculty in philosophy might be coming from other graduate departments (e.g. a PhD in Af-Am studies)Report

Matt Drabek
Reply to  Luke Sherry
6 years ago

Your guess is one possibility. Another possibility is that philosophy has become more hostile to black people over time, and there are fewer black philosophers now than there were 10-20 years ago.

I guess one initial question I have about making philosophy less hostile to black people is: what is Penn State doing? Is there something positive going on at Penn State that can be replicated elsewhere? I mean, that stat (“69 percent of black female Ph.D. students are at Penn State”) is simply incredible, isn’t it? I’m still wondering if I’m reading that line correctly.Report

Matt
6 years ago

I guess one initial question I have about making philosophy less hostile to black people is: what is Penn State doing?

Maybe we want deeper answers than this, but I assume a big part of it is that Penn State has two well-known senior faculty (at least) who have race as one of their main areas of research, and several more faculty members who are at least interested in it. (I expect that some of the students followed Bernasconi from Memphis when he left there, but don’t know if that’s still a factor at this time.)

I know that Pitt, at one point, produced several really great African-American philosophers, despite not having anyone working primarily on race, at least in part because it put a conscious effort into recruiting them as grad students. (I don’t know whether Pitt still does this or not.) Whether Pitt was then a good place for them to be personally, I can’t say. But I think this offers some reason to think the the steps to take are not inherently mysterious, and so that departments that what to take them can probably figure out what to do.Report

ASDF
ASDF
6 years ago

Bryce Huebner, in a guest post at Digressions and Impressions (http://digressionsnimpressions.typepad.com/digressionsimpressions/2014/08/huebner-on-boundary-policing-race-and-gender.html), says:

“The kinds of critical race theory and the kind of continental philosophy that are commonly taught at Penn State are precisely the kinds of philosophy that tend to be dismissed, rejected, and marginalized by philosophers working at fancier institutions. Assuming that there is a stable practice of treating this kind of work as ‘not really philosophy,’ we should expect these judgments to serve a gatekeeping function, keeping Black women out of academic philosophy, or at least keeping them from getting jobs at the ‘best’ PhD granting institutions.”

What is the least racist response to this? Is it to stop calling these kinds of philosophy “not really philosophy” or is it to make sure that young black philosophers don’t get ghettoized at places that specialize in stuff that is “not really philosophy”?

I know that the label “not really philosophy” is pulled out in narrow-minded and unjustified ways all too often, and so a little of the first route is probably in order. We ought to distinguish between philosophy that is rightly dismissed as bad and philosophy which happens to be on topics that fall outside the established core (such as philosophy of race). The latter should not be dismissed as “not really philosophy.”

But still, there is a lot of bad philosophy out there and I don’t think we would be doing young philosophers, especially future ones, a favor by redescribing it otherwise. It is terrible if racism and sexism in our society, schools, and admissions committees lead young black, female would-be philosophers to be concentrated at schools that specialize in “not really philosophy.” It would be even worse if we then lowered our standards (perhaps after being accused of “boundary policing”) and said this is okay. So let’s focus largely on the second route: avoiding ghettoization.

Easier said than done, I know. And some people in positions of power are dismissive of “feminist philosophy” and “philosophy of race” no matter how rigorous it is, so they are obstacles, too. But still, I think we should be cautious here and not simply loosen standards (as unarticulable as they are) too much. There’s no net increase in freedom if we simply start calling slavery “an extended opportunity to exercise in the fresh air.”

(Please note that this is not to say there isn’t plenty of bad philosophy on mainstream topics. But that there is bad philosophy of one kind does not seem to be a reason to encourage bad philosophy of another kind.)Report

anonphil
anonphil
6 years ago

“It is terrible if racism and sexism…lead young black, female would-be philosophers to be concentrated at schools that specialize in ‘not really philosophy.’ It would be even worse if we then lowered our standards…. So let’s focus largely on…avoiding ghettoization. But still, I think we should be cautious here and not simply loosen standards…too much. There’s no net increase in freedom if we simply start calling slavery ‘an extended opportunity to exercise in the fresh air.'”

Is this a parody of condescending, stereotypical, and utterly tactless approaches to the topic?Report

An anonymous philosopher
An anonymous philosopher
Reply to  anonphil
6 years ago

This comment clearly violates Daily Nous’s comment policy, since it essentially consists of calling the previous commentator’s post (which raised a worry worth addressing and that many, many other philosophers share) “condescending”, “stereotypical”, and “utterly tactless” without even attempt at rational engagement.

When will those who wish to do good in the profession with respect to social justice issues realize that it does NOT look good to the vast majority of philosophers, and is counterproductive, to anonymously call people names on the Internet who disagree with you without explaining why you disagree with them?Report

anonphil
anonphil
Reply to  An anonymous philosopher
6 years ago

No one was called any “names.” The comment, not whoever posted it, was being criticized (assuming it wasn’t a parody)–and is not worthy of “even [an] attempt at rational engagement.” That is, the comment speaks for and undermines itself.

What does or does not “look good to the vast majority of philosophers” is morally and practically irrelevant–as is your speculation about what’s “counterproductive.” You might save your outrage for the virtually “no blacks” character of the vast majority of philosophy departments and venues.Report

Glax
Glax
6 years ago

“Another possibility is that philosophy has become more hostile to black people over time, and there are fewer black philosophers now than there were 10-20 years ago. ”

Is there any reason to believe this? I have only my own impressions, but it sure doesn’t seem to me that philosophy is any more hostile to black people now than it was 15 years ago.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Some of the dominant “analytic” philosophy programmes in the US today: NYU, Princeton, MIT, Harvard, Yale, USC… all of them profoundly elitist, and very expensive private universities. Similarly prestige-wise, there are the expensive elitist universities Stanford, Brown, Georgetown, Penn, Chicago, and maybe Duke and Syracuse.

Fortunately, there are still Michigan, Rutgers, Berkeley, Pitt, and UNC-Chapel Hill. But, there just aren’t that many top-tier “analytic” philosophy programmes at public universities in the US, much less at public universities that aren’t flagship universities.

These factors may partially – but only partially – explain why so many people moving from undergrad to grad are white people.Report

anon junior
anon junior
6 years ago

Sorry, but: what does or does not look good to the vast majority of philosophers is PRACTICALLY irrelevant? Relative to what goals, exactly?

Look, I enthusiastically agree with Bryce that (a) there is a stable practice of treating critical race theory and continental philosophy as unworthy of study (without having seriously read it), and (b) this practice systematically excludes women philosophers and philosophers of color who do interesting and important work.

But I didn’t take ASDF to be denying these claims. I took ASDF to be claiming that their implications are complicated and must be approached carefully. It would be a serious mistake to go too far in the opposite direction and ignore the fact that critical race theory and continental philosophy, like any other worthwhile branch of philosophy, is very difficult and is therefore often done very badly. That WOULD be condescending.

A natural objection here is that emphasizing this point in the context constitutes derailing. But I do not think this is the case here. It can sometimes seem like there are some well-intentioned analytic philosophers who have sometimes been less critical when discussing social justice online or in informal contexts than they are in more formal academic ones, either by enthusiastically commending work whose conclusions they endorse but whose arguments they have not seriously engaged, or by making arguments themselves with less care than they would give to more abstract, technical issues. I should stress that I am not sure if this is a real trend, or just an impression I get from a few isolated cases. However, if it is, very disrespectful and deserves more attention than it’s gotten.Report

anon junior
anon junior
6 years ago

(This reply was to anonphil’s last post last September–which I only just now realize, to my chagrin, was indeed from last September!)Report

Kenny
6 years ago

“Is there any reason to believe this?” Well, the data given show that black people make up a smaller percentage of the current PhD student cohort than they do of the current tenured faculty cohorts. Increasing hostility is one natural explanation of this, and in the absence of further evidence it should be considered just as much as any other potential explanation.

Some of the difference between these hypotheses could be tested by looking at which departments the current tenured faculty got their PhDs from. It’s less obvious to me how one would examine the difference in hostility between departments in the ’80s and departments today. (Also, I assume that “hostility” here could include any number of factors that make other areas of employment seem more hospitable than philosophy to black people in particular.)Report

Kenny
6 years ago

Is the claim here that the elitism and expense of the universities the dominant grad programs are at discourages non-white people from attending those grad programs? Or is it that the elitism and expense of the universities the dominant grad programs are at mean that fewer non-white people attend undergrad there, with then a further assumption that incoming grad students everywhere largely come from undergrad programs at institutions with dominant grad programs?Report

codeorange
codeorange
6 years ago

In response to: “I’m wondering what explains the much higher percentage of tenured faculty compared to graduate students.”

There’s a somewhat obvious possible explanation here, which I’m somewhat surprised no one has mentioned, viz. that black graduate students in philosophy are much more serious about philosophy than their white counterparts. Think about it: what would compel you, as a young black philosopher, to enter and stay in a Ph.D. program where you may well be the *only* black student (or minority of any kind)? Your accomplishments in philosophy may be brushed off by your peers as mere affirmative action measures and not as indicative of the quality of your work (yes, this latter thing unfortunately happens, I’ve seen it). If you have an interest in philosophy of race and are in an analytic program, your area of work may be considered non-serious (I’ve seen this happen, too). If you’re a woman, you be subjected to the sexual harassment in philosophy many women face and have your work dismissed on two grounds (you’re black and a woman). Why in the *world* would you stay? You must REALLY love philosophy!!! I mean, you must be the kind of hardcore philosophy freak who stays up all night reading philosophy and can’t wait for your next seminar and ends up writing a great dissertation and doing great work.Report

codeorange
codeorange
6 years ago

also, re this: “These are mind-boggling numbers. What can we do to change this?” I don’t have a lot of concrete suggestions, but I’ve often wondered why top programs don’t forge connections with historically black colleges and universities. A summer seminar for HBCU undergrads interested in philosophy. Faculty teaching guest lectures in HBCU philosophy classes (or maybe this exists and just not in the departments I’m familiar with).Report

Black Undergrad
Black Undergrad
6 years ago

For me, self-doubt is the single most dissuading factor to my continuing on to grad school in this field: Am I really good enough, or am I just a black girl and that’s why you want me here? Annoying, frustrating, and a tough consequence of overcompensation in reaction to discussions like these. I don’t mean to discourage conversations relating to minorities in philosophy, which I think have some potential to be constructive– this is simply something of which to take note. There may well be no middle ground.

Additionally, the only other african-american student in my department is ready to drop for an entirely different reason. He feels the atmosphere in philosophy is incredibly alienating, and after 6 months in the major unfortunately I agree. We learn about white people from white people who talk only about white people [that last bit is the important part!]– maybe there’s no place for people like us?

I’m happy to say we’ve agreed to go to grad school, and try to become professors in order to change that, which is exactly what I think needs to happen if we want more black philosophers. I remember the day my political philosophy professor played a recording of one of Charles Mills’s lectures in class……it meant a lot to see a successful black philosopher speak intelligently on subjects that his peers took seriously.

So dear professional philosophers: please tell your students about black philosophers, have them read papers and watch videos and do whatever you do with your material on the other guys. Just one class day would make a difference, it doesn’t have to be an entire course.
Honestly, all you need to do is show us we can matter.Report

Patrick Mayer
Patrick Mayer
6 years ago

Does anyone else think it is a good idea to get some models of the kind of inclusive syllabi that would meet the interests of people like Black Undergrad (and those speaking for other under-represented groups)? I have in mind a permanent thread where people can link to syllabi that have sets of authors that are at least representative of where the profession is and with luck representative of where (most of us) want the profession to be. I know that people put a lot of work in their syllabi and might not want to give them away, but this seems like a good cause, and anyway I think people would mix and match what they find, and I think this would help.
It seems to me that most of us when choosing between large scale revision of our syllabi done on our own and leaving them mostly the same, will choose the latter. And most of us, when choosing between reading new articles and books for the purposes of our research and reading new articles and books for the purposes of teaching, will choose the former. The easier it gets to see how an author works in a given kind of class, and the easier it is to see what who an author is responding to or can be contrasted with, the more likely most of us are to look into incorporating that author into our syllabi. I know this has an ‘Aww shucks, I just don’t know of enough women or minorities relevant to my courses, can you help me?’ sound to it. That is probably because that is almost exactly what it is. But I think lots of people are in that situation. That is part of the problem and how it continues, it seems to me. I don’t remember reading many women or minority authors as an undergraduate. I don’t remember reading any minority authors in grad school courses, and the women authors were basically only in ethics and political philosophy. Most of us form our sense of who the important figures are, and what the important debates are in grad school, and even if we form those opinions later, many of us (especially those in small departments) are in the position of having to rely on Oxford/Cambridge/Blackwells anthologies or the Stanford Encyclopedia for guidance on what the big topics/authors in sub-field are. I don’t get the sense that these sources are as inclusive as we want the profession to be. If I were better I would do this on my own, but if people like me were better this problem probably wouldn’t exist in the first place.
Anyway, Black Undergrad, thank you very much for your comment. It was awesome.Report

Patrick Mayer
Patrick Mayer
6 years ago

Sorry I missed this. Thanks.Report

Dana Howard
Dana Howard
6 years ago

Hi Patrick, another terrific resource is APA’s diversity and inclusiveness Syllabus collection: http://www.apaonline.org/members/group_content_view.asp?group=110430&id=380970Report

Rob
Rob
5 years ago

I wish I had seen this article and the reactions sooner. I happen to be a Black educator who teaches philosophy. I would have like to say to Ms. Black Undergrad: “Hang in there. We hear you, and are here for you.”Report

Joseph Rachiele
Joseph Rachiele
6 months ago

I just read came across this interesting article. In calculating the share of tenured philosophers that are Black, I don’t understand why they restrict the denominator to tenured *APA members*? I used the number of tenured philosophers from the Humanities Indicators report, which is over twice as high, and came up with 2% as my figure. Maybe this can go part of the way to explaining some of the puzzlement expressed here about the dramatic rise in the share of Black philosophers from the rank of PhD to tenured.
Report