White Supremacists, Charlottesville, and the Philosophy Classroom

Racist violence has been a defining feature of the United States since its creation. One risk of focusing on highly visible instances of racist violence, such as the “Unite the Right” rally by white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend, is to make it seem more exceptional and more recognizable—and more alien to ordinary American life—than it actually is.

Nonetheless, such events can serve as entry points for discussions of larger issues, and as fall semesters begin at colleges and universities in the United States over the next month, professors will no doubt be discussing the rally in their courses.

How should philosophy professors teach about and make use of the rally?

Part of philosophy’s distinctive value is exposing the unstated assumptions that contribute to people’s beliefs and attitudes. One avenue for philosophical inquiry, then, would be to take the stated beliefs of the white supremacists and see what propositions would have to be true in order for their beliefs to be justified. Doing that could involve figuring out what questions those propositions are supposed to be answers to, and then seeing how their preferred answers fare in comparison to others, or seeing what would need to be true in order for those questions to be well formed. And so on.

For example, one thing the marchers chanted was “you will not replace us.” I have no doubt that a philosophically sophisticated and wide-ranging course could be built around unpacking that one slogan.

Suggestions for ideas, materials, and methods that might help with teaching about the rally and its attendant issues in such a way are welcome. Also welcome are  suggestions for alternative approaches to the subject.

I understand that the way of approaching the topic that I mentioned above may seem too detached and clinical for covering evil and dangerous actions, like the Charlottesville rally. In its defense, I’d say that it: (a) draws on philosophy’s distinctive strengths and shows the power of philosophical inquiry, (b) is appropriately interdisciplinary insofar as assessing the answers to some of the questions will involve pointing to empirical work in other disciplines, (c) may avoid the appearance (to one’s students) of “unjustified” political “bias” (note the scare quotes, please), and (d) can of course be used in conjunction with other approaches to the subject.

I also happen to think that when it comes to showing just how stupid and wrong-headed these white supremacists are, this method would be devastatingly effective, but that judgment may be a product of bias — that is, a bias in favor of the value of philosophical inquiry.

In addition to the query about teaching, I’d like to ask for links to writings by philosophers on the Charlottesville rally. You can mention them in the comments or email them to me and I will add them to the list, below. (Owing to professional travel and personal commitments over the past week I’ve been spending considerably less time in front of the computer, so I’m sure there is stuff I’m missing.)

Links to work by philosophers on the Charlottesville white supremacist / white nationalist / neo-Nazi march (will be updated as new links come in):

Some related previous posts at DN: Diversifying Your Syllabus Made EasierPhilosophy and the Racial “Epistemic Horizon”Anglo-American Philosophy: “A Site of White Supremacy”Cosmopolitan Racism, Trump, and PhilosophyPolice Shootings of Blacks in the U.S.; What Can Philosophers Do or Say in Response?The Best Philosophy Articles on Race and Gender.

Are these goons coming to your campus? This video will give you an informative and scary preview.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please enter an e-mail address