Philosophy and the Racial “Epistemic Horizon”


Looking back, I brought something special to those spaces that are predominantly white at Duquesne. And I don’t think that white philosophers can offer what I offered to those Black students and students of color. There is a certain discourse, certain assumptions, a shared discourse, a shared worldview, a shared style. There is also a certain understanding of where they come from, the specific racialized-cum-economic challenges that they face.

While white philosophers can have good intentions, and they should, they lack that shared space of being, that shared epistemic horizon that reveals layers of reality that so many of them don’t share with their Black students and students of color. So, it wasn’t just what I taught that was important to Duquesne, but my racialized presence in a sea of whiteness. Students of color must be able to see that Black folk are in academic positions of authority such that they can possibly see themselves in those roles in the future.

That’s George Yancy (Emory) in an interview with Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina) at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? 

The interview covers Yancy’s life, especially the impressive trail he blazed from the projects of Philadelphia to the halls of academia. Matter of race come up throughout the interview and discussed explicitly by Sosis and Yancy, who is black, in an exchange about three-quarters through. In response to the above quote, Sosis says:

I agree that there is an urgent need for diversity, and I agree with a lot of the stuff you said about standpoint epistemology earlier, but I wonder if you underestimate our ability to empathize with each other a bit. We can talk like we are talking right now, and we have imagination and intelligence to help us bridge gaps between us. Like, when you describe going to Yale, I think lots of people can relate to those feelings. We don’t all have the same struggles, but we can understand the struggles of others. I mean, I’m not a bat!

To which Yancy replies:

I’m sure that there is much that you and I can agree on and about which we share similar feelings. In fact, this interview proves that. There is a certain beautiful bonding that has taken place. But you don’t need to be a bat to fail to understand what it is like to be Black or a person of color. Being white in America will do the trick. In fact, there is a study  that shows how white people fail to show empathy, especially when combined with subtle forms of white racism, toward people of color. Of course, that study finds this to be indicative of a kind of ethnocentrism, more generally. Your question is a good one, but I don’t think that I’m underestimating the extent to which white people can’t or don’t empathize with Black people or people of color. Again, this might also be linked to the ways in which so much of our culture (visual or not) requires Black people and people of color to empathize with white people. This is because it is necessary for Black people, for example, to have a kind of dual cognitive skill where we are forced to understand what goes on within the white world and what goes on within our own worlds. White people, can, for the most part, avoid our world, avoid Black children’s literature (the very few books out there dealing with Black children and their lives), avoid serious Black characters playing serious roles in movies.  I don’t think the imagination and intelligence of white people under white supremacy help them to empathize with Black people or people of color.

White history has proven that; it isn’t just my pessimism. I mean, Kant is said to be brilliant. Yet he was a racist. The same holds for Hegel, Hume, Thomas Jefferson, and others. Or think about unarmed Black people, especially Black men and boys, and how they are being killed by the white state and proxies of the state. Those instances are not about empathy. Those white cops holding Eric Garner down showed no ethical imaginative bridge building.  The history of white America has been one that has systematically failed or refused to understand the plight of Black people. White imaginative power and intellectual power seem very feeble when it comes to addressing in a positive and ethically robust sense the pain and suffering of Black people. And, it is far more painful for Black people because white people are not bats. Perhaps if they were bats, we would understand that they aren’t human so that they don’t have a developed ethical disposition that prevents them from treating us like fellow human beings.  Yet, the Black Lives Movement proves that white people, for the most part, don’t understand Black lives and how our lives don’t matter. Perhaps it would be better if white people were bats. Perhaps it would be easier for Black people to digest so much white indifference and at other times so much white violence and vitriol shown toward us.   

Philosophers are people, too (part 782,104). But perhaps we’d be easier to explain if we weren’t.

The whole interview is here.

yancy-george-text-photo

 

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Harry Dexter White
Harry Dexter White
5 years ago

I always get nervous about creating these sorts of epistemic divisions between groups, insofar as they are divisions. I thought the whole point of the struggle for equality, recognition and rights depends on the idea that we are all really the same fundamentally. Of course we can have major differences in condition due to unjust practices and exploitation rooted in history and institutions, but closing off genuine understanding, sympathy and so on, which are prerequisites for progressive social change on top of overt struggle, seems like a retrogression and actually plays into the hand of racists who are only happy to acknowledge insoluble differences between groups of people along lines of color.

I’m probably just totally ignorant of the complexity of the issue, and I’m looking forward to someone shedding some light on this. I simply don’t have enough background in this area to make a serious judgment. I had to get this out there if only to start a little discussion. It seems like no one is commenting.Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
Reply to  Harry Dexter White
5 years ago

I’m inclined to agree. Rather than doubt its feasibility, I think deep, genuine understanding and empathy ought to be precisely what we strive for. Moreover, I think framing the lack thereof as an unbridgeable gap in some sense feeds into the problem.Report

Tom
Tom
Reply to  Grad Student
5 years ago

I agree that it would be counterproductive and short-sighted to take the epistemic gap to be unbridgeable but I don’t think that Yancy is committed to that claim. Rather, I take him to be saying that the epistemic gap (1) exists and (2) is often underestimated by white philosophers and white people in general. I take these to be claims about the situation right now, not necessary or universal facts across all possible worlds. I can’t speak for Yancy, of course, but I think that, on a charitable interpretation, he’s just saying that there is an irreplaceable and necessary role for black people and people of color in philosophy because they have a distinctive and important perspective. That does not seem very controversial to me – wouldn’t we say something similar about people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, political perspectives, and different upbringings?Report

prime
prime
Reply to  Tom
5 years ago

Your interpretation of Yancy’s claims clearly represents what he said and meant. But the previous comments are responsive to the fact that he did not express equal concern for white feelings, understanding, strategies, goals, etc. Yancy has written a lot (including for the NYT’s “The Stone”), so anyone truly interested in his type of perspective won’t have difficulty getting started on learning more.Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
Reply to  Tom
5 years ago

There isn’t anything I disagree with in your charitable interpretation — but Yancy’s remarks seem (to me) to be much more pessimistic than that. He goes a step further and expresses a very high degree of doubt concerning whether or not that gap (both real and, as you mentioned, very much underestimated) can be overcome.

Sosis’ point is that while he agrees that there’s an epistemic issue before us, he thinks we can use our intelligence and abilities to talk, listen, and imagine in an effort to bridge the gap, or come to a much deeper understanding of what the experiences of of black people and people of color are like.

Yancy replies:

“I’m sure that there is much that you and I can agree on and about which we share similar feelings. In fact, this interview proves that. There is a certain beautiful bonding that has taken place. But you don’t need to be a bat to fail to understand what it is like to be Black or a person of color. Being white in America will do the trick. In fact, there is a study that shows how white people fail to show empathy, especially when combined with subtle forms of white racism, toward people of color.”

The last two sentences are what seem to me to be insinuating that white people – by virtue of being white – are almost necessarily cut-off from any genuine understanding of what it’s like for a black person or person of color. The study linked to, described as showing “how white people fail to show empathy”, was carried out procedurally with white subjects watching videos of people of different ethnicities drinking a glass of water. Mirror neurons fired when the videos had a white person and less, sometimes not at all, when the video had a person of a different ethnicity.

^What does that sort of procedure tell us at all about empathy? There are many other viable explanations that are being overlooked and excluded, namely the possibility that mirror neurons “recognize” simple, physical tasks that we carry out multiple times every day more in individuals that more closely resemble us visually. Moreover, if we want to really get at the heart of empathy, do we want to reduce it to mirror neurons firing when we see someone drinking a glass of water? I’m pretty sure our mental, emotional, and chemical responses are MUCH different in cases where we see people in horrible living conditions, being brutalized by a police, and plagued by other forms of injustice. But he cites this study as showing how white people fail to empathize with non-white people which, to me, carries pretty heavy connotations (along with other things he says) that the capacity for white people to empathize with non-white people is nigh nonexistent.

Surely we need more black, person of color, female, and non upper-class white perspective. But one of the reasons for that — which Yancy didn’t acknowledge (at least in the segments included in Justin’s OP) — is so that people from different backgrounds can come to understand the lived experiences of people whose perspectives we lack.Report

Another Grad Stud
Another Grad Stud
Reply to  Grad Student
5 years ago

I’m not sure I see these last two sentences — “Being white in America will do the trick. In fact, there is a study that shows how white people fail to show empathy, especially when combined with subtle forms of white racism, toward people of color.” — as insinuating that white people are almost “necessarily cut-off from any genuine understanding of what it’s like for a black person or person of color”. My problem is precisely with your choice of word “necessarily”. That is attributing an overly strong claim to Yancy, one that he is not committed to.

In fact, it seems plain obvious that Yancy is making descriptive, non-modal claims; to think or claim otherwise seems uncharitable at best. Part of what Yancy is saying in this interview is that white people in general (there’s some controversy about what makes a person “white”, but let’s not get into that), in virtue of being situated in the social/cultural/political positions that they are in fact in, experience epistemic failures (lack of imaginative skills, empathy, etc.) when it comes to, say, the Lives of Black Bodies. (On this point, also cf. Charles Mills’ notion of “White Ignorance”.) In that sense, it is only plausible to reason, such epistemic failures of whites aren’t necessarily so insofar as the social/cultural/political structures that have created such epistemic failures to white people are only contingent. Now, we can both agree that there are tons and tons of whites who can very well understand what it is like to be a Black person or person of color in America, but that doesn’t really undermine Yancy’s claim, which is that this phenomenon of whites’ widespread epistemic failures are characteristically *white* in the sense that it is linked to, again, certain social/cultural/political structures — indeed, we may just call it white supremacy.Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
Reply to  Another Grad Stud
5 years ago

You forgot the word “almost”.

Moreover, I don’t think anyone would disagree about the social/cultural/political structures that contribute to the epistemic problem. The disagreement seems to be where Sosis and others are suggesting that we can overcome the epistemic gap through discourse, and Yancy seems to think that it’s rather hopeless.

Where Sosis suggested that white people can use intelligence, imagination [and listening skills] to work on bridging the gap, Yancy fairly ardently refuted the claim and included ” I don’t think the imagination and intelligence of white people under white supremacy help them to empathize with Black people or people of color.”

So are all the white people who live in a society characterized by white supremacy (if we’re using the term in the social/cultural/political sense and not the more commonly used “David Duke” sense) are just totally hopeless? I’d hope that’s not the case — and I find it a counterproductive, pessimistic claim to assert, especially given just how bad the situation is. Wouldn’t taking the opposite (i.e. optimistic) approach be better?Report

A Nobody
A Nobody
5 years ago

So, I can’t help but notice, so far in the comment section, one person claimed “I’m probably just totally ignorant of the complexity of the issue” after raising quite some dismissive comments of Yancy’s ideas. Another one criticized Yancy partly on the grounds that some legitimate point they think Yancy should’ve made and acknowledge is not found in Justin’s OP. Way to go, philosophers!Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
5 years ago

“you don’t need to be a bat to fail to understand what it is like to be Black or a person of color. Being white in America will do the trick.”

Whether interpreted as a claim of metaphysical or nomological possibility, or merely a description of existing white people, this kind of obvious hyperbole seems unhelpful to me. If being white in America does the trick (of precluding empathy), it’s hard to see why whites should try to understand or empathize. Of course, Yancy can still claim that whites should try to change the system that precludes their understanding black people. But it seems clear to me that we should *also* try to empathize, and if Yancy is right, that would be tilting at windmills for the foreseeable future. You can do verbal gymnastics over the phrase ‘do the trick’, but the entire thrust of Yancey’s discussion leaves no room for optimism about white empathy. Indeed, he clearly means to disagree with the interviewer’s modest claim that whites *can* empathize with blacks.

The inference from police violence to the cognitive and emotive stupidity of white people is also pretty obviously intellectually irresponsible. This isn’t serious thought about political problems. It’s sloganeering, buzzwords, and (understandable) hostility.

This version of identity politics isn’t just junk social science. It’s counter-productive to progressive movements–it pushes the races apart rather than attracting whites to the cause of black empowerment. That would be forgivable if Yancey were speaking truths that whites needed to hear. His over-generalizations and cavalier approach to difficult sociological issues don’t justify it.Report

Another Grad Stud
Another Grad Stud
Reply to  Johnny_Thunder
5 years ago

I’d like to push back on this rather uncharitable interpretation of Yancy. Let’s take a closer look at what Yancy is saying here:

“I’m sure that there is much that you and I can agree on and about which we share similar feelings. In fact, this interview proves that. There is a certain beautiful bonding that has taken place. But you don’t need to be a bat to fail to understand what it is like to be Black or a person of color. Being white in America will do the trick.”

Now, it’s quite easy to interpret Yancy’s words “being white in America will do the trick” as stating that being white (W) is a sufficient condition for failing to properly understand or empathize with what it is like to be a person of color in America (F). Indeed, if you take that sentence and ask an intro to logic student to translate it into sentential logic, the result will most likely come back as something like “W -> F”. However, we are not undergrads here doing sentential logic translations. We should not forget the context matters here, but it seems to be ignored in this interpretation of what Yancy’s saying.

The interviewer’s question is basically this: is there any special, philosophically interesting explanation for the alleged whites’ inability to empathize with people of color and their experiences? By adding “I’m not a bat!”, the interviewer is pushing Yancy to be as precise as possible. Yancy’s answer, then, first confirms that whites’ alleged inability in question is not due to natural cognitive or epistemic deficiencies (such as bats’ inability to “feel”). And if you think about it, there’s a bit of metaphorical talking behind both the interviewer’s question and Yancy’s answer, thanks to Nagel. But Yancy’s overall point, I take it, is that the phenomenon in question is not naturally explainable by traditional epistemology, and that it must be causally connected to certain social structures. So to be charitable to him, instead of interpret him as making a conditional, generalized claim, one should interpret Yancy as saying that one’s inability to empathize with people of color is *characteristically* caused by certain social structures of a white supremacist polity. Here “characteristically” avoids the accusation of making an overly generalized and obviously implausible claim, but it keeps within it the core element, namely that the phenomenon in question is causally connected to white supremacy.

Moreover, Yancy would probably agree that whites ought to try to empathize, and that there’s value in doing so. But he would, I suspect, argue that it’s not *just* a matter of putting more mental efforts, i.e., trying harder. White professors at elite departments, with good intentions and all that, aren’t necessarily going to excel at figuring out what the experiences of philosophers of color are like, what the needs of students of color are, etc. Yancy is saying: whites should adopt new strategies, such as *actually listening to people/philosophers/students of color*. And it is in that sense the presence of people of color in the discipline is important. Truth of the matter is, as Yancy in this interview and many other social epistemologists and philosophers of race have put it, for the most part, whites can and often do — with very little to no cost — avoid understanding the lives of people of color, their struggles, their experiences, their collective mentalities. Why think to do that, after years of *not* doing that, *never* having done that, is something whites can suddenly become good at just by trying harder, perhaps with a good heart?

A final comment: Yancy is someone who has a goddamn PhD in Philosophy and who has peer-reviewed publications on all such issues. In Justin’s OP, he is giving an interview, and we all know how loosely sometimes we talk in situations like that. Taking a few sentences here and there, without consideration of their contexts, and then accusing him of playing the so-called identity politics game — that seems to me to be far more intellectually irresponsible.Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
Reply to  Another Grad Stud
5 years ago

The interviewer’s question is not “basically this: is there any special, philosophically interesting explanation for the alleged whites’ inability to empathize with people of color and their experiences?” He explicitly posits the question of whether or not Yancy is underestimating the ability of white people to do *just that* (empathize), and goes on to say how we might be able to do so. In light of his explicity positing of the question of whether or not Yancy is underestimating the ability of white people to empathize, it’s pretty clear that his “I’m not a bat!” is an insistence on his ability to be able to empathize with other humans of all ethnicities. You’ve got to be trying *really hard* to get the reading you got out of that, so I think it might be you who has the context of Yancy’s response wrong.

Given that Yancy attempts to refute the interviewer’s suggestion that white people can empathize with other ethnicities, unless we want to assume that the interviewer is in some sense not listening to Yancy (which is a tough claim to make considering that he – like everyone else here – agreed with the need for diversity and that there is an epistemic problem before us), what would be the reason for Yancy disagreeing with the notion that someone like Sosis could do well to bridge the epistemic gap? Unless you want to appeal to the procedurally poor study cited above (as well as ignore other plausible explanations for the findings), I’m not sure what the reason for rejecting Sosis’ line of thought would be. The study he cited hardly comes anywhere close to “confirming” anything about the capacity for empathy or the lack thereof (see my above comment).

We all seem to be in agreement on the notions that 1) there’s an epistemic issue and 2) we need more diversity but where some of us are pushing back is the divisively hopeless tone that Yancy is bringing to the discussion.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Another Grad Stud
5 years ago

I didn’t interpret Yancey in the manner you suggest. I didn’t interpret at all; my claims were directed at his exact words: “being white will do the trick [of making you non-empathetic towards black people]”. In my view, how or whether to interpret this quantificationally and truth-functionally is entirely unclear (and that’s a problem when you’re generalizing about a race).

I also don’t think the context excuses this language in the manner you suggest. I don’t see how the point about being white doing the trick can plausibly be interpreted as “one’s inability to empathize with people of color is characteristically caused by certain social structures”. And I don’t see anything else in his comments that encourages this interpretation. Consider, also, this sentence: “I don’t think that I’m underestimating the extent to which white people can’t or don’t empathize with Black people or people of color.” Of course, it can be variously parsed (is it only to a small extent that white people *can’t* empathize? Yancey’s remarks don’t see to me to fix such an interpretation).

Maybe Yancey’s actual views are those you attribute to him. Fine, then I don’t disagree with him. But as you point out, he has a PhD in a relevant area. We should expect him to be able to speak with some precision on the subject; if he meant what you said, it wouldn’t be very hard to express that, particularly if you’ve already worked out your views. This total lack of precision seems to me to make it pointless to try impose precision.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
5 years ago

Two more points on why I think this is irresponsible:

1. There are elevated rates of anti-Semitism and homophobia amongst black Americans. The problem extends to black intellectuals and political leaders, much as white anti-black racism extends to white intellectuals and political leaders. (As James Baldwin put it, “Georgia has the Negro and Harlem has the Jew.”) Imagine substituting ‘Jew’ or ‘gay’ for ‘black’ and ‘black’ for ‘white’ in Yancey’s remarks. (E.g., “you don’t need to be a bat to fail to understand what it is like to be [a Jew or gay]. Being [black] in America will do the trick.” Would we bother trying to parse this into harmlessness?) I’m of course not claiming that black anti-Semitism and white anti-black racism are comparable problems. What I am saying is that generalizations about groups and their propensities to develop empathy for out-groups need to be framed carefully and need to be empirically informed.

2. A lot of excellent thinkers have thought carefully and made extensive use of empirical data to study strategies for reducing racism and racial bias. Yancey’s remarks come across as crude and empirically uninformed in light of this research. Here are a couple of examples:

http://www.ncsc.org/~/media/Files/PDF/Topics/Gender%20and%20Racial%20Fairness/IB_Strategies_033012.ashx

https://web.ics.purdue.edu/~drkelly/KellyFaucherMacheryGettingRidRacism2010.pdfReport

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Johnny_Thunder
5 years ago

“There are elevated rates of anti-Semitism and homophobia amongst black Americans…. [G]eneralizations about groups and their propensities to develop empathy for out-groups need to be framed carefully and need to be empirically informed.”

“James Baldwin….” “you don’t need to be a bat to fail to understand what it is like to be […gay]. Being [black] in America will do the trick.”Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Matt Weiner
5 years ago

I’m not sure I see what the quotes are supposed to reveal. But the claim about elevated rates of homophobia and anti-semitism is of course consistent with the claim that we should be empirically careful. The claim about rates of prejudices is easy to check and has no implications for how optimistic or pessimistic we should be about the hard empirical question of whether or how the prejudices will diminish. (I myself am optimistic that they the ones we’re talking about have diminished and will continue to do so.)Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Johnny_Thunder
5 years ago

“But the claim about elevated rates of homophobia and anti-semitism is of course consistent with the claim that we should be empirically careful.”

Yeah, but the claim that we should be empirically careful is not consistent with making the claim about elevated rates of anti-semitism and homophobia without citing any evidence, which is what you did.

I mean, let’s go through your substitution exercises, shall we? “Imagine substituting ‘Jew’ or ‘gay’ for ‘black’ and ‘black’ for ‘white’ in Yancey’s remarks.”

gay/black: “you don’t need to be a bat to fail to understand what it is like to be gay. Being black in America will do the trick.” Well, some gay people are black. Like James Baldwin, the one black person you actually cited. So it doesn’t seem as though being black in America will do the trick of making you fail to understand what it is like to be gay. And, of course, the leaders of the anti-gay movement, the Tony Perkinses and the like, are overwhelmingly white.

“you don’t need to be a bat to fail to understand what it is like to be Jewish. Being black in America will do the trick.” Leaving aside the small number of black Jews, I can speak to this, because I’m Jewish. It is true that the latest ADL survey I can find (I figured I should be empirically careful) shows somewhat higher levels of anti-semitism as they measure it among black people than the rest of the population, though they don’t break down cross-tabs enough to show whether that might be explained by features other than race (and if there are subgroups of white people that show more anti-semitism than black people).

But it’s still a distinct minority. And I have never felt as though black people exhibit the sort of incomprehension of my situation that Yancey is talking about white people exhibiting towards black people. The blithe assumption that my family celebrates a holiday that doesn’t belong to my religion? Mostly coming from white people, as much as black. The anti-semites that I’ve been assigned to read? Mostly white people (been assigned a lot more T.S. Eliot than Amiri Baraka); in philosophy, exclusively white people. The people tweeting images of Jewish journalists being shot and shoved into ovens, the political party that is promoting these kind of people, whose candidate’s son and surrogate makes casual Holocaust jokes? Not the party supported by black people!

You’ve already acknowledged that these cases aren’t like white anti-black racism. In fact they’re nothing like white anti-black racism. To act as though switching these groups up shows anything–as though it’s all just a matter of “generalizations about groups and their propensities to develop empathy for out-groups”–shows exactly the lack of empathy that Yancy is talking about. As though Jews live in a culture dominated by Black people, the way Yancy described Black people living in a culture dominated by white people! You really are demonstrating that you haven’t thought about what Yancy is saying.

The comment about “generalizations about groups and their propensities to develop empathy for out-groups” is telling, too. You bristled at Justin’s “white fragility” comment, but your way of reacting to the accusation that white people lack empathy for black people is not to demonstrate any such empathy, or show how you can improve your empathy, but to complain about how this is a nasty generalization about white people. So yeah, this is pretty much exactly what Justin described below. You’re making the discussion of racism all about how this is too uncharitable to white people, without any sign of acknowledging that white people have some work to do.

And to be clear, I’m not trying to persuade you here, because I think that would take more effort than I’m willing to put in. I just want to leave a comment that isn’t about how Yancy is unfair to white people.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Matt Weiner
5 years ago

Matt, some of this is fair. And I don’t think we’re disagreeing on the issues I meant to raise (being empirically careful when talking about groups). I guess we might disagree about the propriety of my comments. Here are a few responses to your specific arguments:

“But the claim about elevated rates of homophobia and anti-semitism is of course consistent with the claim that we should be empirically careful.”

“Yeah, but the claim that we should be empirically careful is not consistent with making the claim about elevated rates of anti-semitism and homophobia without citing any evidence, which is what you did.”

I disagree. When a certain empirical fact isn’t really in dispute and the evidence is easily accessible, I don’t think you need to cite. So I don’t think it would be irresponsible to say that there’s significant anti-black racism among whites without citing evidence.

“gay/black: “you don’t need to be a bat to fail to understand what it is like to be gay. Being black in America will do the trick.” Well, some gay people are black. Like James Baldwin, the one black person you actually cited. So it doesn’t seem as though being black in America will do the trick of making you fail to understand what it is like to be gay. And, of course, the leaders of the anti-gay movement, the Tony Perkinses and the like, are overwhelmingly white.”

Fair enough. I should have said ‘straight and black’. Instead of black. I don’t think this really undermines my argument. (You might think it says something about me.)

“But it’s still a distinct minority. And I have never felt as though black people exhibit the sort of incomprehension of my situation that Yancey is talking about white people exhibiting towards black people. The blithe assumption that my family celebrates a holiday that doesn’t belong to my religion? Mostly coming from white people, as much as black. The anti-semites that I’ve been assigned to read? Mostly white people (been assigned a lot more T.S. Eliot than Amiri Baraka); in philosophy, exclusively white people. The people tweeting images of Jewish journalists being shot and shoved into ovens, the political party that is promoting these kind of people, whose candidate’s son and surrogate makes casual Holocaust jokes? Not the party supported by black people!”

Of course the prejudice manifests itself differently and has fewer bad consequences. (Though there are, of course, worse consequences than those you mention–hate crimes, e.g.) And white anti-Semitism has worse consequences than black anti-Semitism. We agree on that too.

There are things that Yancey says that are true and that are made untrue when we do the substitutions. So to clarify: I’m talking about his incautious pessimism regarding white empathy for blacks and the kinds of grounds he gives for it.

“To act as though switching these groups up shows anything–as though it’s all just a matter of “generalizations about groups and their propensities to develop empathy for out-groups”–shows exactly the lack of empathy that Yancy is talking about.”

I don’t know what you mean by “it” in “it’s all just a matter of…” Of course there are many ethical, political, etc. facets to prejudice, generalizations about groups, etc. I was talking specifically about being cautious in making claims about groups. I think there are general canons of reasoning that apply regardless of the groups you’re talking about (and, indeed, whether you’re talking about human groups or samples of other things).

“As though Jews live in a culture dominated by Black people, the way Yancy described Black people living in a culture dominated by white people! You really are demonstrating that you haven’t thought about what Yancy is saying.”

I didn’t say or assume that.

“The comment about “generalizations about groups and their propensities to develop empathy for out-groups” is telling, too. You bristled at Justin’s “white fragility” comment, but your way of reacting to the accusation that white people lack empathy for black people is not to demonstrate any such empathy, or show how you can improve your empathy, but to complain about how this is a nasty generalization about white people. So yeah, this is pretty much exactly what Justin described below. You’re making the discussion of racism all about how this is too uncharitable to white people, without any sign of acknowledging that white people have some work to do.”

I hate this business about bristling, fragility, complaining, etc. It sounds to me like idiots who accuse each other of being “butthurt”. I’d really rather focus on the substance. I don’t think I bristled at Justin’s video. Reviewing my response, I still don’t think I did. Your comment comes across to me more bristly than my response to Justin or to you.

My response to Yancey is more heated than it should be, I’ll grant. I don’t think that reflects on my supposed lack of empathy towards black people, though, but rather on my tendency to get annoyed by an ideology that I disagree with and to press ‘post’ too quickly.

I also haven’t made the discussion about how Yancey’s comments are “unfair” to white people. Yancey’s central point is that we should doubt that white people can become empathetic towards blacks. I’ve objected that he hasn’t defended this claim in a responsible way and that it would be counter-productive for whites to adopt this pessimism. At no point have I claimed that Yancey’s comments are offensive to whites or anything like it. So this isn’t changing the subject and it’s not what Justin’s video is about; the video doesn’t depict people of color making claims and being debated by white people on precisely the issues raised.

And for what it’s worth, I’m not doing this out of an academic concern for scientific method. I’m involved in issues of social justice and think that work like Yancey’s is steering a great deal of activity in a terrible direction. We can disagree about that or leave it for another occasion (or just not bother), but I bring it up because I hope you’ll re-think your imputations of such negative motivations to me. (Is it too fragile of me to be mildly offended by such imputations?)

On your point about not acknowledging that lots of white people “have some work to do”: fair enough. Whites need to fight against racism and lots of whites need to work to become less racist or racially biased. I’m not sure I see such an acknowledgment as mandatory in the way you seem to, but I do recognize that it’s worth doing. If my failure to acknowledge this is what you mean by my failing show empathy, then I think thats a bit unfair, but I hear your point.

“And to be clear, I’m not trying to persuade you here, because I think that would take more effort than I’m willing to put in.”

Thanks for the clarification.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Johnny_Thunder
5 years ago

Thanks for the response, Johnny. I don’t think either of us wants this conversation to last all week, so I’ll just stick to a couple of things; if I don’t respond to something that’s not meant to reflect on it one way or the other.

“When a certain empirical fact isn’t really in dispute and the evidence is easily accessible, I don’t think you need to cite.”

OK, but the evidence about black homophobia is more complex than you allow for here:
https://thinkprogress.org/new-survey-debunks-the-myth-of-black-homophobia-e5066ae38aa8#.gwu66zy5o
http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/05/02/180548388/crunch-the-numbers-on-blacks-views-on-gays
http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/10/07/blacks-are-lukewarm-to-gay-marriage-but-most-say-businesses-must-provide-wedding-services-to-gay-couples/

Which means that when you say “straight and black” the “and black” isn’t really doing any work. (And that’s what it would take to make it objectionable.) In fact the Pew link above suggests that being black makes it easier to have empathy for LGBT people, though I don’t know if there’s data backing that up or if it’s just speculation in the writeup.

“I’m not sure I see such an acknowledgment as mandatory in the way you seem to, but I do recognize that it’s worth doing.”

Well, there are two parts to this. Do white people as a whole show insufficient empathy toward black people currently? I think that’s hard to dispute. Can they show more empathy? You may be right to say that Yancy is too pessimistic about that–if that’s what he said–but it seems like the proper response is to prove him wrong. Be the change you want to see.

(Also, just as a note, there’s another public intellectual named George Yancey, who’s different from the George Yancy under discussion.)Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Johnny_Thunder
5 years ago

“In fact the Pew link above suggests that being black makes it easier to have empathy for LGBT people, though I don’t know if there’s data backing that up or if it’s just speculation in the writeup.”

You’re right, the issue is more complex than my comment suggested (so your tu quoque is successful). So to flesh out that complexity a bit:

I stand by my claim that homophobia is significantly more prevalent among blacks than among Americans in general, though. The survey results reported in the article you link to don’t directly address homophobic attitudes. One plausible possibility is that Jim Crow and the civil rights act have made blacks more opposed to allowing businesses to refuse service to certain groups. This might not be indicative of anti-gay attitudes outside of this context. Here is a report on some data that suggest it’s not:

http://poq.oxfordjournals.org/content/67/1/59.short

And of course, negative attitudes don’t become unimportant just because they don’t cause policy stances. Listen to some of the gay black men who talk about the difficulty of coming out in their community.

With all that said, to return to my initial point, I think it would be foolish to assert that black straight men can’t become less homophobic or less empathetic toward gays, or anything in that neighborhood. For one thing, the existence of the homophobia, and even its duration, don’t tell us what will happen as society changes. For another, there’s lots of evidence that the homophobia is decreasing. The claim that whites can’t or are unlikely to become more empathetic towards blacks is foolish for both of the same reasons.

“You may be right to say that Yancy is too pessimistic about that–if that’s what he said–but it seems like the proper response is to prove him wrong.”

On proving him wrong: I think you’ve missed my point. I haven’t claimed that Yancy’s conclusion is wrong. What I do know is that he hasn’t given the right kind of evidence for what he’s claimed. I don’t think any detailed argument is required to show that the current levels of police brutality, racist 18th and 19th century philosophers, and an irrelevant cognitive neuroscience paper don’t entitle us to conclude very much about whether whites can become more empathetic towards blacks. (Though they entitle us to conclude that white society has a long way to go.) I also think the analogies I gave illustrated the weakness of his argument in the way I intended. It’s just that they involved claims that were unnecessary to this argument and that arouse opposition. That’s on me.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

Justin, the characters in the video say racially insenaitive things and then are offended by being called racist. The discussion in this thread concerns an empirical hypothesis about the propensity of whites to become non-racist. Why do you think the video is relevant to the discussion of this different issue?Report

Another Grad Stud
Another Grad Stud
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

When people are more focused on whether Yancy’s suggestions are “optimistic” enough, rather than whether they are in themselves plausible and philosophically interesting, it seems wrong. That — not ANY theoretical disagreement — is perhaps the biggest issue I have with some of the commenters here. When people criticize philosophers, or people in general, of color, for sounding “counter productive or progressive”, “pessimistic”, I can’t help but think if that just means they think Yancy’s words aren’t as comforting to the ears enough, and they aren’t really (interested in) listening to what those words say. So, I think this video is quite relevant.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

“Some commenters here take the main issue to be how Yancy’s remarks about living as a member of a discriminated-against group in a racist culture—which are fairly uncontroversial when understood with a modicum of charity—are an insult to whites.”

Who said Yancey’s remarks are an insult to whites? I see people claiming that they’re unduly pessimistic, empirically unsupported, and counter-productive. These all seem like fair game to me. Maybe I missed the comments you have in mind. Or maybe I need to read between the lines more? (But would that be denying the commenters a “modicum of charity”?)Report