Flourishing with Controversy: How Philosophy of Race Does It


One of the popular narratives about higher education is that the discussion of and disagreement over controversial ideas is imperiled, owing to the dominance of political correctness on college campuses. 

Here at Daily Nous, I’ve occasionally argued that this narrative is overblown, and that, especially in philosophy, informed and reasonable discussion of controversial issues is not in serious danger from political correctness. (If anything, the threats to philosophers discussing race have tended to come from other directions, e.g., these two cases.)

For example, if there were an area of philosophy about which ordinary folk would guess political correctness is stifling debate or enforcing a party line, it might be philosophy of race—yet controversial subjects and unpopular views are routinely raised and debated among experts in this area as a matter of course in professional journals, academic conferences, and classrooms, and the field of philosophy of race is not plagued by constant crises.

How is this the case?

Julie Mehretu, “Auguries”

To find out, I asked Quayshawn Spencer, the Robert S. Blank Presidential Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, who works in philosophy of race, philosophy of biology, and philosophy of science.

Professor Spencer agreed with my characterization of philosophy of race in general but noted some counterexamples. These include the defense of “transracialism” by Rebecca Tuvel (Rhodes College), and the ostracization of a couple philosophers who have defended the idea that there are intellectual differences among races that are in part genetically caused (i.e., “the hereditarian hypothesis”), naming Michael Levin (CUNY) and Neven Sesardić (Lingnan) as examples.

Apart from these “few exceptions,” he says, “there is a variety of controversial topics that philosophers of race do research on without any backlash.” He explains:

For example, while it’s taboo to defend a biological essence for race or the biological reality of race in the social sciences and the humanities (except for philosophy), there is no such taboo in the philosophy of race. For instance, Anthony Appiah made his name by defending a biological essence for race, I made mine by defending biological racial realism, and the profession has treated both of us quite well. In general, the conferences, workshops, colloquia, etc., in philosophy of race are quite friendly to the controversial topics that philosophers of race tackle. Well, there is vigorous debate, but you know what I mean.  If anything, the most tension I’ve seen among philosophers of race occurs among Continental and analytic philosophers… But that’s nothing new. That’s happening all across the profession.

I asked Professor Spencer if there are lessons to be learned from philosophy of race’s success in flourishing with controversy. Here’s what he had to say:

(1) The above average diversity among philosophers of race makes a big difference.
Notice that most of the proponents of a biological essence for race (e.g. Lucius Outlaw, Anthony Appiah, Naomi Zack, J. Angelo Corlett, etc.) or biological racial realism (e.g. Outlaw, myself, Michael Hardimon, etc.) have been racial or ethnic minorities in the US. Also, the first philosophical attack on the legitimacy of the idea of institutional racism, as it’s typically understood, came from Jorge Garcia (who argues that  the common thread to all instances of racism worthy of the name is an origin in unvirtuous character that is found in a special vice that opposes justice and benevolence). In one sense, this isn’t surprising since racial/ethnic minorities are overrepresented in the philosophy of race. But even so, it’s telling that the majority of the philosophical work defending controversial views like racial naturalism (the view that race has a biological essence), biological racial realism, or the illegitimacy of institutional racism has been done by racial/ethnic minorities.  I have been told in private that this is no accident. Other philosophers of race are more willing to tolerate this kind of work exactly because we’re racial minorities and there’s less worry that we have racist motivations. So, I definitely think that improving diversity in the relevant way is one way to conduct controversial research and discussions well.

(2) Rapport is key.
If you’re going to debate and discuss controversial topics, it helps to know that the motivations of your interlocutors are virtuous. Fortunately, since philosophy of race is a small subfield, it’s easy to get to know people through other people you trust. Then, you know whether to take their work as a genuine piece of scholarship as opposed to motivated by nefarious ends. Otherwise, there can be and often are trust issues that develop and that block or frustrate the free exchange of ideas. For example, if an unknown White male philosopher gives a talk in which he uses several examples where black men are violent criminals, then he will probably experience a lot of hostility from the audience during Q&A. However, this is less likely to happen if he’s fairly well known and trusted by the audience members. Also, if he were part of the in-group, he probably wouldn’t use those examples anyway. Somebody would have already told him that they would be offensive coming from him. Also, in the classroom, I don’t get to the really controversial stuff in my philosophy of race course until the end of the semester when the class size has dwindled to only those who are serious about the subject matter and when the students are familiar with one another.

(3) Norms are key, especially around language use.
First and foremost, it’s a norm in philosophy of race to call a group of people what most of them are okay with. For example, it’s against the norm to casually call Black people “Negroes” in a philosophy of race talk or a classroom discussion, especially if you are not Black. There are complications… some groups have quickly changing norms around naming. For example, one popular norm now is to write “[email protected]” or “Latinx” for the relevant group. “Hispanic” is fine too, but “Latino” is often viewed as offensive by Latina philosophers of race and Latina students. As you can imagine, it’s pretty easy to follow such norms in academia and the classroom. A much bigger complication, however, is what to do when the subject matter is the semantics and pragmatics of racial slurs or epithets! That is a very popular area of research these days, but some norms have arisen that I think work well, such as writing various slurs or propositions with slurs in them up on a white board, numbering them, and talking about the relevant word or proposition with the numbers. I’ve seen Luvell Anderson do this first at a philosophy workshop and the audience members were quite thankful.

(4) Epistemic standards are key.
When I teach philosophy of race, I clearly explain to my students that you don’t get to just shout your opinion and stomp your feet. In my course, we advance propositions and defend them with arguments, usually deductive arguments. I teach them how to put together a deductively valid argument, how to defend its soundness, how to raise fair and strong objections, and how to convincingly reply to such objections. Then I reinforce those epistemic standards in class discussions and written assignments. Obviously, this tends to happen naturally among professional philosophers. Of course, not always. 

Others who work in philosophy of race are especially encouraged to share their thoughts about the field.

(And heads-up: tomorrow, I’ll be putting up a post in the Crash Course series on the metaphysics and epistemology of race.)


Related: “Which Ideas Are Students Protected From? Which Are Faculty Fearful to Defend?“; “The Ideas Faculty are Too Scared To Defend: A Follow-Up“; “Where the Open Exchange of Ideas is Most Protected and Valued


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Jen Morton
Jen Morton
2 years ago

I also have found that my philosophy of race classes are the ones where both (1) we have some of the most productive, respectful classroom discussions and (2) we discuss some of the most controversial issues. I agree with Quayshawn that much of that has to do with who tends to be serious about doing philosophy of race (members of racial minorities and white students who tend to be sympathetic to their concerns), the sense of community that develops in the classroom when discussing such difficult topics with each other week after week, and that we talk about the norms governing discussion explicitly at the start of the course.Report

AO
AO
2 years ago

How often do Levin or Sesardic get assigned in philosophy of race courses? And who are the contemporary active philosophic defenders of “biological race realism” with the “hereditarian” implication that there are group differences, attributable to genetic variation, in intelligence, temperament, and time preference (as Levin and Sesardic pointed to)? Stephen Kershnar, who was an associate of Levin’s, is one example, but he hasn’t done work on this area in a long time.

Further: does anyone seriously believe that things would go over well for a philosopher in academia if they advocated within the framework of these views that immigration policy (see Richwine), education policy (see Jensen, Murray), and even welfare policy (see Sowell, Williams) should be designed in light of such information? It’s not a surprise that “biological race realism” and so forth can be defended by philosophers of race who also stress that this shouldn’t really matter for controversial political policy (at least not in a right-wing direction).Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
Reply to  AO
2 years ago

Wait, I was under the impression that Sowell was a prominent critic of race realism.Report

Jen Morton
Jen Morton
Reply to  AO
2 years ago

I’ve taught Levin. And I told students he was a professor in our department (before he retired).Report

Ed
Ed
2 years ago

In light of this post coming soon after the one on gender issues, it’s easy to come away with the suggestion that philosophy of gender is not flourishing with controversy, at least relative to philosophy of race. As someone working in both, I’ll just say that philosophy of gender is not flourishing with controversy _on social media_. It’s fine everywhere else.Report

Raf
Raf
2 years ago

Anthony Appiah and Naomi Zack are referred to as “proponents of a biological essence for race”, which is supposed to be “taboo”, yet in the SEP article on race, I read that “[r]acial skeptics, such as Anthony Appiah (1995, 1996) and Naomi Zack (1993, 2002) contend that the term race cannot refer to anything real in the world, since the one thing in the world to which the term could uniquely refer—discrete, essentialist, biological races—have been proven not to exist”. So Appiah and Zack are proponents of something that, by their own lights, does not exist–and, in this way, they are defending a “taboo”?Report

jmugg
Reply to  Raf
2 years ago

My understanding of Appiah and Zack’s views are that the concept of race is an essentialized biological one. Since, it turns out, there is no biological racial essences, race must not exist. Racial skepticism/eliminativism might be worrisome for scholars and advocates who think forming a black identity is important, either for the purpose of solidarity or sense of self. Appiah addresses this point explicitly at the end of his contribution to ‘Color Consciousness’:

“…And there is a regular response to these ideas from those who speak for the identities that now demand recognition, identities toward which so many people have struggled…’It’s all very well for you. You academics live a privileged life; you have steady jobs; solid incomes; status from your place in maintaining cultural capital. Trifle with your own identities, if you like; but leave mine alone.’ I answer only: my job as an intellectual is to call it as I see it. I owe my fellow citizens respect, certainly, but not a feigned acquiescence. I have a duty to reflect on the probable consequences of what I say; and then, if I still think it worth saying, to accept responsibility for them. If I am wrong, I say, you do not need to plead that I should tolerate error for the sake of human liberation; you need only correct me. But if I am right, so it seems to me, there is a work of the imagination that we need to begin.” (Appiah 1996: 104-105)Report

Raf
Raf
Reply to  jmugg
2 years ago

@jmugg, we may have different understanding of “taboo” (and perhaps “proponent” as well). For example, open borders “might be worrisome for scholars and advocates” who care about national identity, but that does not make open borders a taboo position in the humanities and social sciences, i.e. something for which you would be ostracized (in the manner of Levin and Sesardic).Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Raf
2 years ago

I take it that being an error theorist about race would count as ‘taboo’ in the wider culture, yes. Think about how “I don’t see race” is a punchline, not something anyone would sincerely utter who is in the know.Report

JH
JH
2 years ago

Much of the ostracization faced by Michael Levin might be (partially? mostly?) explained by the fact that he has published in American Renaissance, which is widely described (by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Washington Post, etc.) as a white supremacist magazine and organisation. Some quotes from, and titles of, these contributions can be found on SPLC’s page about Levin: https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/michael-levinReport

Matt
Reply to  JH
2 years ago

This is right. Levin was a pretty explicit white supremacist. (I have actually taught one or two of his papers before, and even the academic ones are pretty clearly white supremacist. I don’t think I’m exaggerating at all to say that. His “less formal” work doesn’t even try to be cautious about this.) But, I don’t think that even the most aggressive and least careful statements I’ve seen on twitter and other places by gender critical philosophers can be properly compared to Levin’s work or his views.Report

Matt
2 years ago

When I was a grad student early in my studies, I presented a paper at a grad student conference on the philosophy of race. It was an interesting and fun conference where I felt like I learned a lot. At dinner, though, I was shocked to hear the key-note speaker, who is a well-known philosopher of race, make a number of extremely nasty and personal attacks on Anthony Appiah. (I won’t name the person here, or go into the details of the attack, which were really quite unpleasant.) There was at least some analytic/continental divide dispute in the background there, I think, but it was really amazing to me. This was before social media use had become as common in philosophy as it is now (2002, I think), but perhaps things would have been more publicly nasty in philosophy of race, too, if twitter had been a way for people to act out and misbehave at the time. I suppose it’s lucky that the field had become a fairly mature area of study by the time that twitter (and common use of facebook by philosophers) took off.Report

M
M
2 years ago

A concern: If we care about making debates about controversial issues in, say, metaphysics of gender topics fruitful/flourish/etc., we need to have analogous features for those in the metaphysics of gender as in race.

However, I don’t see transpersons advocating that gender isn’t real, whereas I could see a minority advocating either race is or isn’t real (both the former and latter in an especially metaphysically robust sense). This neither confirms nor denies whether or not there is a metaphysical basis for gender identification, just that I don’t know if diversifying gender debates would be as fruitful for gender issues as it has been in race. Similar thoughts may or may not apply to other areas.

This is something that just came to mind. Hopefully, someone can correct me.Report

Edward Teach
Edward Teach
2 years ago

(1) is important for thinking about ‘representative’ views in the transgender debates. Of these underrepresented groups within philosophy, 13% of US citizens are black, 12% are latinx. but current estimates have less than 0.6% as transgender. In other words, each single trans philosopher is as representative of US trans people as about 41 minority philosophers would be representative of US racial minorities. And that’s before we start thinking about selection pressures which might cause sample bias i.e. people who are trans and want to be recognised as their felt gender identity are probably going to be a lot more motivated to become trans philosophers arguing that felt gender identity is sufficient for being that gender.

Spencer lists 7 leading philosophers of race who are racial minorities taking taboo positions, and note this seems to help make those positions more palatable and discussions less hostile. The implication is that if these 7 philosophers all argued against biological racial realism, discussions would be much more hostile, and this seems very plausible. When we look at the transgender debates, it seems that most of the commonly cited trans philosophers agree that trans women are women, and that any other position is harmful. And surprise surprise, here we find a lot of hostility.

And this can help explain some of the hostility in the debates. Trans inclusive people see that the number of trans people writing on their ‘side’ as highly representative of the trans population (given this population is small). The fact there’s something of a shared position strengthens this position even further, and makes it look like their intuitions are tracking something important about the world.
In contrast, those on the GC/Trans exclusive side see this ‘consensus’ as artificial, and not authoritative, given most of ‘the literature’ has been developed by trans people writing in response to trans or queer people in journals and media that are outside of mainstream analytic philosophy, and it could easily have gone another way if different trans people with different views had been the ones to become philosophers.

So an upshot seems to be that if there were ~7ish trans philosophers who argued for the GC view in leading philosophy journals, and respectfully engaged with the trans-inclusive view to help set some norms, I suspect a lot of heat would be taken out of the debate.Report

On Hostility
On Hostility
Reply to  Edward Teach
2 years ago

I bet many philosophers of race named in this post would wisely choose to be more careful about expressing skepticism about race categories in a climate where there was a real possibility such arguments would be misappropriated as arguments for the repeal of race-based anti-discrimination protections. In the case of trans-exclusionary philosophers expressing skepticism about gender identity, it is not obvious that they would be inclined to make the same judgment. Why is it not obvious?

1. The lifting of gender identity-based anti-discrimination protections is not a far-out hypothetical scenario. This scenario is a very real possibility in America in the coming months. The current administration is aiming to reverse an Obama administration policy that put in place such protections at the federal level. Removing these gender identity-based protections would allow, for example, doctors to abstain from providing care to transgender people in non-emergency medical situations (see https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/24/us/politics/donald-trump-transgender-protections.html/).

2. Some people advocate for gender identity skepticism precisely to support the end of gender identity-based anti-discrimination protections. Philosophers with these views may see themselves as part of an advocacy project aligned with e.g. Julie Beck’s (see https://rewire.news/article/2019/03/08/house-republicans-hide-behind-lesbian-radical-feminist-to-push-anti-trans-agenda/).

Given the US political context, it is not at all surprising to me that trans philosophers would be on the whole unwilling to ‘cross sides’ to argue for skepticism regarding gender identity given that their federal anti-discrimination protections are currently in jeopardy. It seems like there are significantly more important things at stake for them than facilitating non-hostile academic debates.

It seems like painful contingencies and injustices are precisely what should inform how literatures on topics like gender and race should develop. Inclusionary and exclusionary feminists should be in agreement on this point, but they each might be inclined to emphasize different injustices. Here, too, the philosophy of race literature provides a good example of how to proceed. This field demonstrates an appreciation for, and fluency with, the particularities of history in relation to the present. It is also informed by a vast literature spanning everything from cladistics to critical theory.Report

Professor X
Professor X
Reply to  On Hostility
2 years ago

Just on the first point, current race skeptics tend to be what Glasgow calls reconstructionists. They think that races are not real, but they do not exactly express “skepticism about race categories”. For instance, they don’t say that black people don’t exist, but rather that they exist as a racialized group, or something like that.Report