Welcome to the return of the Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy discussion! We’re looking at Benjamin Mitchell Yellin‘s new article, “A View of Racism: 2016 and America’s Original Sin”. Tommy Curry kicks things off with a critical précis, which appears immediately below. Please join the discussion!

Critical Précis by Tommy Curry

I. Introduction

The world before us has changed, not in any substantial way regarding the reality of racism, but merely in how its appearance has offended the sensibilities of what white Americans are willing to now perceive. The essay by Dr. Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin is an admirable product of the attention white philosophers are now paying to this break in racial etiquette under the Trump administration. Mitchell-Yellin has written a very powerful intervention into two dominant views of racism amongst philosophers that do in fact require attention and, as he points out, serious intervention.

I would like to take a moment however to give some context or perhaps pretext to my comments. I am a Black philosopher who was both a friend and student of Derrick Bell. My approach to the study of Black radical thought is genealogical in the sense that it concerns itself with the centuries long history of Black writings, political organizations, and schools of thought that bridge radical Black thinkers in the United States with thinkers in the Francophone Caribbean and South Africa. Some philosophers, both Black and white, derisively refer to my work as intellectual history. Such a perspective however allows me to have very real sympathies and a shared perspective in what Mitchell-Yellin calls a genealogical view of racism in America.

This biography is necessary to give the reader some insight into my engagement with Mitchell-Yellin’s work, since I would like to think of this response as a thinking through with him rather than a mere criticism of what I myself may not have argued. I find that it is far too common in philosophy to simply point out what is wrong (which is usually short-hand for what “I” disagree with as a philosopher who rationalizes my biases or politics as method), rather than a careful engagement with the processes, assumptions, and histories a particular author utilizes in constructing their argument put forward in text. As philosophy does not believe in empirical findings or forms of evidence that give testament to the actual state of relations found in the world, I would like to think of this particular engagement with Mitchell-Yellin’s work as an acknowledgement of what is commendably argued and recognized as shortcomings in philosophical engagements with racism as a socio-historical process, and what I find to be not incorrect in his formulation of genealogical accounts of racism but incomplete.


II. It’s in the Past: Thinking through Racism from Mitchell-Yellin’s Perspective

Dr. Mitchell-Yellin begins his article with a somewhat obvious call to philosophers to rethink many of their assumptions associated with how one thinks about American racism. He writes “Whether or not one sees the current political moment as a troubling aberration or as the laying bare of America’s racist underbelly, many have a sense of a renewed mission to eradicate or at least mitigate racism in this country” (53). In a footnote associated with the aforementioned characterization of this “renewed mission,” Mitchell-Yellin cites Derrick Bell’s “Racial Realism” (1992) as a way to give some perspective to a long held intellectual tradition amongst Black thinkers that acknowledges that racism may never be eradicated in America, and that resistance against racism—anti-Blackness—white supremacy does not require that oppressed racialized groups, especially Black people, believe that racism will in fact end.

Unfortunately however our present attempts to eradicate racism falter in the face of actual racism according to Mitchell-Yellin, because “neither of the two main philosophical views about racism is fully up to the task of combating it” (53). The first view of racism that Mitchell-Yellin finds to be inadequate concerns itself with “institutional and social structures that perpetuate and enshrine racially disparate and oppressive policies and outcomes” (53) or what Mitchell-Yellin terms the political view of racism (54). The second view, or what Mitchell-Yellin terms the moral view of racism, “holds that racism is primarily a matter of individuals’ attitudes, such as beliefs about inferiority, hatred, and other forms of ill will” (53). While both views seem to offer the advocate of their respective position a way to combat racism, Mitchell-Yellin suggests that both view are seemingly impotent to actually do so. His article proceeds through an examination of the appointment of Jeff Sessions, a known segregationist, and the viability of ahistorical accounts of racism to solve racism, which is a historical problem. This latter point holds some weight for Mitchell-Yellin throughout the essay, he explains:

Both of the main philosophical views appear to suggest that justificatory appeals to the concept of race preceded the attitudes or structures that supposedly constitute racism. But this gets it backward. A careful reckoning with the past shows that the concept of race was invoked to justify racially disparate structures of domination and attitudes of superiority that were already in place. We want a view that properly attends to the unfolding of history (54).

Here Mitchell-Yellin introduces a criterion that he believes will add some weight behind what he will propose as a third way of thinking about racism, or what he thinks of as a genealogical view of racism that is “(1) essentially historical and (2) pluralistic—that is, the key elements in the analysis of racism are both irreducible” (64).

The moral and political views ultimately share a pragmatic aim or “the aim of eliminating or at least mitigating racism” (57). While both the moral view and the political view have their relative strengths towards the elimination of racism, they both fail to actually do so according to Mitchell-Yellin. He explains: “According to the moral view, institutional racism is real, but it is ultimately explained by appeal to individuals’ attitudes. Systemic change requires that we change hearts and minds,” (57), while the political view “holds that the racist structure of social institutions ultimately explains the racist beliefs and intentions of individuals. And eradicating or mitigating racism, on this view, is a matter of restructuring the scaffolding on which society is built. Only by changing racist policies and practices will we change the hearts and minds of individual racists” (ibid.). The inadequacies of the aforementioned views are made apparent in Mitchell-Yellin’s analysis of Trump’s nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions. Many opposed Jeff Session’s nomination on grounds that he held racist beliefs while others argued that his record as senator demonstrated he supported racist outcomes through his legislative voting habits (58). Regarding Sessions, the moral view would look at his personal attitudes and beliefs—his personal endorsement of racism—as the basis of rejecting his nomination. This position would fail because “the difficulties inherent in trying to determine the attitudes that reside in a person’s heart may preclude coming to any firm conclusion about whether or not Sessions is racist” (59). The moral view “focuses too narrowly on those that constitute ill will, possibly manifested by indifference” (ibid.). The political view fares no better since “[a]ttending to what is in the heart and mind of the individual in charge is not a distraction from, but rather a key element of, any plan to effect institutional change” (58). Mitchell-Yellin does of course acknowledge the obvious reply that the political view in no way excludes individual attitudes concerning racism, but rather asserts that institutions may be racist or have racist consequences in the world with or without racist individuals controlling them. Mitchell-Yellin nonetheless maintains that “this does not adequately address the complaint that changing institutional policy requires more attention to individual attitudes than the political view appears to give. The existence of a racist institution may not depend on the attitudes of the individuals involved in its present-day operations, but combating institutional racism does” (59).

In describing the origin of racism as the condition prior to the category of race, Mitchell-Yellin suggests that one can understand the birth of chattel slavery as the result of political and economic motivations aimed at dehumanizing a group of people that came to be racialized as Black and not white. As he writes: “The belief that certain people were inferior had its origins in the observation that they were unfree. But when it came to be the belief that this was so because they were “black” it served to justify their subjugation at the hands of those who were superior—now, because they were “white.” The subjugation came first and the racialized justification second, but, in contrast to the impression given by the familiar moral and political views, it was racist long before it was readily recognizable as such” (64). This problem for Mitchell-Yellin concerns how we think of the relationship between racism and the deployment of race to fulfill the dehumanizing aim of racism in America. Thus Mitchell-Yellin introduces his genealogical view as a way to account for racism more historically, and consequently more accurately than either the moral or political view. Mitchell-Yellin argues that a genealogical view allows us to see that racism “is properly understood in terms of individual attitudes, social institutions, and conceptual ingenuity that were interwoven in various ways, at various times and places” (65). Ultimately, writes Mitchell-Yellin, “the genealogical view weaves a historical narrative, to which both attitudes and institutions are essential. At the heart of this narrative are the psychological element of the drive to dominate and the social fact of the dominion of the dominant” (67). This of course is argued to satisfy the quandary of Senator Sessions nomination by elucidating the myriad of ways that the drive to dominate can be tracked throughout history and culminates in say the nomination of Jeff Sessions (69-70).


III. Objections to the Genealogical View as Conceptualized by Mitchell-Yellin.

Dr. Mitchell-Yellin makes a compelling case for the study of racism that appears to be a novel intervention in philosophical conversations, but one that has a long history and previous literature in more empirical fields, the not-so-popular writings of Black philosophers, and interdisciplinary endeavors like Black Studies. I say this with a sincere appreciation of Mitchell-Yellin’s utilization of my work in Critical Race Theory, and the works of other non-white philosophers. However, his system remains incomplete because he not only attempts to distance himself from the idea that racism is permanent or more enduring than a theorist could allow for in hopes to remedy racism, but the theoretical accounts of history found through genealogical excavations (66, n.27). Said differently, I argue that Mitchell-Yellin must envision his view of racism as merely descriptive, since a stronger case would make his system have to answer why he did not arrive at the conclusions of non-white theorists who reject his appeal to a universal human psychology and ameliorism. It is on this basis that I suggest he must rely on literatures and values that suggest that there is a pragmatic aim towards racism and a hope that it can be overcome and lessened by his system, and why he disregards the previous findings of authors who utilize similar views of racism that are too pessimistic about the future of racism, whites, and America.

For example, Charles Mills’s From Class to Race: Essays in [w]hite Marxism and Black Radicalism (2003) has argued that theoretical accounts of racism that pay attention to material history and the consciousness of whites as they emerge over time require completely new theoretical terms and concepts to express the complexity of the realities found. Following Frances Lee Ansely’s definition of white supremacy in “Stirring the Ashes: Race, Class and the Future of Civil Rights Scholarship,” as “ a political, economic, and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings,”[i] Mills concludes that “white supremacy as an overarching theoretical concept…enables us to pull together different phenomena and integrate these different levels: juridico-political, economic, cultural, cognitive-evaluative, somatic, metaphysical.”[ii] While Mills and Ansely suggest one version of a genealogical view, Mitchell-Yellin would have to suggest that the call for a new analytics to study white supremacy-racism as proposed by Mills would be inaccurate or not useful if these frames did not confirm, or conform to, the present literatures concerning human psychology (though Mitchell-Yellin does not mention if he is drawing from evolutionary or social trends).

Mitchell-Yellin seems sympathetic to a reading of history, but then seems to reject many of the conclusions and conceptual apparati race-crits, Black, Brown, and Indigenous scholars have introduced to describe what they see in methods that take a concomitant view of institutional structures, politics, and individual attitudes. Said differently, while Mitchell-Yellin touts the strength of his system as giving an account of anti-Black racism and the rise of white supremacy in the U.S., he simultaneously rejects (thought admits his system could be compatible with racial realism) pessimistic renderings of American race relations through an ahistorical maxim—that one need not conclude racism is permanent because such a question turns on some conceptualization of human psychology (66 n.27).

Black philosophers and theorists of race have gone so far as to suggest that there is an ontological problem, or anthropological obstacle, in our conceptualizations of racism because when we deal with Blackness we are not dealing with humans dehumanized from this status, but we are dealing with non-humans defined as such by Blackness or non-whiteness. As Mills argues in Blackness Visible, “As Robert Birt points out, the essential characteristic of racial domination and of black enslavement in particular is that blacks are ‘relegated to the subhuman, the bestial (or the category of things),’ that “blacks lose altogether the status of human being.”[iii] Mitchell-Yellin would say, “but we could discover this using the genealogical method.” To which I would say yes, but then have to dismiss the category (subhuman) as an accidental and contingent status that emerges from your analysis because you rely on a universal supposition of humanity, not subhumanity or non-being to categorize what you see as the disposition and possibilities of human psychology and individuality. So while it may appear to the reader that you are interested in what appears through an examination of history, ultimately you favor an account of white-human behavior that can be explained through psychology which itself is a product of the same racist history and assumptions about the mental capacity and deficient cultural tendencies of Black people found in ethnological writings after the Civil War.[iv]

Lastly, I am suggesting that Mitchell-Yellin would not be able to account for the histories unearthed in a genealogical view of racism. The history of anti-Black racism as a means to view contemporary iterations of racism would cost philosophers most if not all of the categories deployed as methodology and the normative ends of philosophical analysis. For example, the concept of gender would be on the chopping block since various historians have shown that gender originates as a racist theory to denote the savagery of non-European races.[v] Feminism was a backlash against Black male emancipation and helped launch a new era of 19th century imperialism, and popularly disseminated the idea that Black men were rapists, domestic abusers, and lesser males who would destroy American civilization.[vi] Queerness is as problematic as femininity as white men who wanted to practice homosexuality and white women who craved sexual experimentation used native male bodies to satisfy their sexual desires.[vii] In Vincent Woodard’s work, he suggests that white men’s homoerotic obsession with Black male bodies sometimes lead to the consumption of Black male flesh: cannibalism.[viii]

The error, or should I say incompleteness, of Mitchell-Yellin’s position is that he attempts to theorize Blackness within the rules of white human psychology and history. He does not attend closely to the pessimistic readings of non-existence/non-being/non-humanity found in the Afro-pessimist literature or even the call for ontological nihilism by young theorists like Calvin Warren who suggests that pragmatic aims, the individual, and the political would only hasten Black Death because an anti-Black world extinguished Black life to preserve those white values.[ix] The categorical ruptures such a view holds for how we think of ethics, feminism, and white life, would leave philosophy and many of the disciplines Mitchell-Yellin depends on barren, which is why many race-crits and theorists believe that such projects that historically trace the sociogeny of colonialism, white supremacy, and racism ultimately require not only the destruction of the present orders of knowledge (e.g. disciplines and their literatures), but the very idea of the human itself.[x]


[i] Frances Lee Ansley, “Stirring the Ashes: Race, Class and the Future of Civil Rights Scholarship,” Cornell Law Review 74 (1989): 993-1077, n.129.

[ii] Charles Mills, From Class to Race: Essays in [w]hite Marxism and Black Radicalism (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2003), 193.

[iii] Charles Mills, Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 11.

[iv] Robert Guthrie, Even the Rat was white: A Historical View of Psychology (Boston: Allyn & Bacon Classics, 1998).

[v] Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the U.S, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), and Melissa N. Stein, Measuring Manhood: Race and the Science of Masculinity, 1830-1934 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and Tommy J. Curry, ““Ethnological Theories of Race/Sex in 19th Century Black Thought: Implication for the Race/Gender Debate of the 21st Century,” in Oxford Handbook of Race and Philosophy, ed. Naomi Zack (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 565-575

[vi] Louise Newman, [w]hite Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[vii] Thomas Foster, “The Sexual Abuse of Black Men Under American Slavery,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 20.3 (2011):445-464, and Richard Aldrich, Colonialism and Homosexuality (New York: Routledge, 2003), and Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience (New York: Manchester University Press, 1990).

[viii] Vincent Woodard, The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism within U.S. Slave Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2014).

[ix] Calvin Warren, “Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope,” CR: The New Centennial Review 15.1 (2015):215-248.

[x] Sylvia Wynter, “Towards the Sociogenic Principle: Fanon, Identity, and the Puzzle of Conscious Experience, and What It Is Like to Be ‘Black,’” in National Identities and Sociopolitical Changes in Latin America, eds. Antonio Gomez-Moriana and Mercedes Duran-Cogan (New York: Routledge, 2001), 30-66.

11 Replies to “Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin: “A View of Racism”. Précis by Tommy Curry

  1. I would like to begin by thanking Matt King and the editors at PEA Soup for hosting this discussion and, especially, Prof. Tommy Curry for his careful and challenging engagement with my paper. It is a real honor to have the opportunity to think through these issues with him here. I have learned a lot from reading some of Curry’s published work, and from his comments here it is evident that I have a lot more to learn from him—and the many other thinkers he cites.

    I wouldn’t pretend to have written the final word on the subject of racism, nor would I claim to have covered all of the relevant literature in this one paper. Rather, as Curry highlights in his comments, my chief aim is to intervene in the mainstream contemporary philosophical literature on racism. My intervention is indebted to several intellectual traditions and strains of scholarship. No doubt there is more to read and think about. Some of Curry’s citations are welcome additions to the reading list. As he points out (here and elsewhere), there are important treatments of these issues that haven’t been adequately taken up in the mainstream philosophical literature. This is a shame. We can learn a great deal from these (in some corners) neglected thinkers. The result may be that we are convinced of the need to upend our aspirations vis-à-vis racial justice and our methodological and conceptual assumptions more broadly. As I hope is clear from the paper, I am quite sympathetic with the claim that (mainstream) philosophical thinking about racism needs to change. It fails both to adequately highlight the historical interplay between racism and the concept of race and to appropriately serve the aim to eradicate, or at least mitigate, the pernicious effects of racism. But I want to say something more here about how I think that empirical work in social psychology can be brought to bear on the latter issue.

    What I call the genealogical view of racism centers on the psychological construct of the drive to dominate. The basic idea is that racism is the result of the drive to dominate of those in positions of power taking certain features of subjugated people as objects, and these people and features, in turn, coming to be understood in racial terms in order to justify domination of them. Thus, my view of racism depends on the reality of a drive to dominate operating in certain ways at various points throughout human history. The truth of this view is dependent on some particular empirical claims. Some of these claims are the subject of historical, sociological, anthropological, and legal-historical investigation. But the view is, I think, also supported by evidence from the field of social psychology. Let me say something brief about this, in part, as a way to gesture at a means of investigating the merits of Curry’s worry that my view is incomplete in important respects.

    The evidence from social psychology that interests me in this regard comes from a specific branch of social comparison theory (Festinger 1954), namely, downward comparison theory (Wills 1981). There is evidence that we have a natural tendency to compare ourselves with relevant others who are doing worse off in relevant respects in order to raise our self-esteem, especially when our self-conceptions are threatened. A well-known study of breast cancer patients illustrates the idea (Wood, Taylor, and Lichtman 1985). The most publicly visible cases, for example, in the media, are “supercopers,” or survivors who beat the odds. Rather than fixing on these cases, perhaps as a source of information for how to beat the odds or as a source of hope that they might also be able to do so, researchers found that the breast cancer patients in their study overwhelmingly tended to focus on others who were faring worse than they were. Under threat, comparing themselves with others faring worse appeared to help these patients feel better about their own situations.

    This pattern is familiar. If a student does poorly on a test, she will tend to focus on others who did worse. And this will help her to feel better about her own low score. Someone without much money will tend to focus on others with even less money. This will help him to feel better about his own situation, without improving it in material terms. This fits a pattern that has long been noticed by those thinking about race. For example, Du Bois (1935) wrote of the “public and psychological wage” of whiteness. What I want to suggest is that the body of evidence supporting downward comparison theory provides experimental support for a basic psychological tendency that may allow whiteness to pay its psychological wage. An indentured servant with little prospect of accumulating the fortune he crossed the Atlantic from England to acquire can feel better about his poor lot in life by comparing himself with the enslaved African working the tobacco field next to him. He may be poor for life, but at least he’s not “black”—that is, subhuman. (Laws, of course, came to codify this, for example, by allowing indentured Englishmen to discipline enslaved Africans, but not vice versa. The psychological wage can thus come to be public in an important sense.)

    If downward comparison theory is roughly correct, then the drive to dominate may plausibly stem from something like a natural feature of human psychology. Now, as Curry suggests, there may be reasons to doubt the psychological findings here. And I’d be interested to hear about them, especially if they have to do with the very topic under consideration. Are the research paradigms that yield this body of evidence themselves racist in relevant ways? Do they rest on evidence of exclusively “white-human behavior” and so fail to generalize to all members of our species? I’m not sure what to say here. But I do find the central tenets of downward comparison theory interesting and am, at present, inclined to think that they provide illuminating empirical backing for the genealogical view of racism, which I find attractive on other grounds as well.

    Finally, I am interested in the possibility that this body of psychological evidence points the way to a way of investigating the pessimism Curry highlights in his comments. As I suggest in the footnote Curry refers to, the question whether racism is a permanent feature of human society would seem, on the genealogical view, to rest on the questions of whether the drive to dominate is a permanent feature of human psychology and of whether it must take racialized objects. Can we divert the drive to dominate to focus on other objects than race (and do so permanently)? Can we rid ourselves of this drive (permanently)? These are questions I’m interested to investigate. And I’m willing to follow the investigation where it leads. It may be that the pessimists are correct. In that case, the best that can be done, I contend, is for us to figure out how to mitigate the harmful effects of those oppressed in the name of white supremacy, which is itself a permanent feature of our world. I’ll admit that I sincerely hope not to have to settle for this pessimistic conclusion. But I’m open to the possibility that I might have to.

  2. I am a relative newcomer to the race literature. I am white, trained as an analytic philosopher and I work on political philosophy (mostly distributive justice) and feminist philosophy. I began teaching a course on race about four years ago, which I have taught many times in those years, because of my increasing alarm about the current political climate around race in U.S. society. I found this discussion of racism very illuminating.

    The question I have is perhaps typical of an analytical philosopher, and it concerns one of the central claims of the paper, namely the claim that both the individualist and structural (or institutional) views of racism “suggest that justificatory appeals to the concept of race preceded the attitudes or structures that supposedly constitute racism.” I am having trouble understanding why this is the case. Here is my worry: Suppose (in keeping with what history tells us about the emergence of race concepts) that part of what it is to be black is to be inferior to whites. Part of what it is to be white is to be superior to blacks. To be black or white is to occupy a certain position in a social hierarchy. Now suppose I offer an account of racism according to which (anti-black) racism consists primarily in social structures that operate to systematically disadvantage blacks. How is this view ignoring the idea that race concepts are already inflected with ideas of superiority/inferiority? Are these views necessarily treating the concept “black” as a strictly descriptive term, rather than a normative term? I would think that one could acknowledge that the disadvantage blacks face seems legitimate precisely because part of what it is to be black is to be (seen as) legitimately subordinated to whites. Further, one could acknowledge that equality between whites and blacks is a conceptual impossibility.

  3. Hi Cynthia,

    Thanks for joining the discussion! I’m glad you got something out of the paper.

    Your worry seems like an interesting one. But I’m not sure that I totally follow you. So, at the risk of repeating myself from the paper, let me say something about what I meant to convey in and around the passage you quote. And you can let me know if this helps to address your worry. (I fear it might not, in which case I would greatly appreciate your patience in helping me to better grasp what you’re after.)

    What I had in mind was this. The moral view claims that racism is to be analyzed primarily in terms of attitudes of ill will towards others on the basis of racial designations; the political view analyzes racism, primarily, in terms of institutional structures that systematically target people on the basis of racial designations. In both cases, we need to have the concept of race in play before we have racism because the concept of race is required in order to target individuals or groups on the basis of racial designations. My complaint is that this gets the history backwards. There were attitudes/structures in place that needed justification, and these attitudes/structures were, as a matter of how history unfolded, justified by appeal to race. So the concept of race, as we currently employ it, was invented in order to justify oppressive attitudes/structures that preceded it. And furthermore, these attitudes/structures were already racist. The appeal to race didn’t change them, so much as make it clear what they were all along.

    Now, you ask about a concept of race that is at once descriptive and normative. This seems to me to fit well with my view, but not with the other two views. Let’s try to think about how it would come to be the case that people would have the concept “black” where “part of what it is to be black is to be inferior to whites.” It would seem that this concept would need to grow out of individual attitudes and/or institutional structures that take those eventually labeled “black” to be inferior to those eventually labeled “white.” So the story of how the concept came to be will appeal to phenomenon that the concept is, on the moral and political views, being used to analyze, namely, racism. It is because a certain group of people with a certain social standing and power over another group of people systematically understood and treated these other people in certain ways that they came to regard them as members of a certain race (and themselves members of a different race). And I guess I don’t see how this understanding and treatment is anything other than racist—at the very least, I don’t see how this understanding and treatment doesn’t already involve the attitudes/structures that are supposed, on the other views, to be constitutive of racism. So it seems we have racism before we have race. And the moral and political views cannot properly account for this because they claim that we do not have racism until we have racial designations by which to pick out the objects of our attitudes or institutional structures.

    Does this go any way towards answering your question? I hope so. But please let me know.

  4. I’d like to thank you Dr. Mitchell-Yellin for your very interesting paper and Dr. Curry for his illuminating analysis. I’ve been struggling to understand precisely what the genealogical that you’re articulating is committed to. One of the things that has been worrying me is akin to the question that Dr. Stark is asking (as I understand it): I have for a long time attributed the “ontology” that you are articulating as a part of the genealogical view to constructivist views that I think are akin to the structural view that you are criticizing. I think you can interpret Taylor’s constructivism (2013), Hardimon’s constructivism via socialrace (2013), and Bonilla-Silva’s structuralist account (1997). These are all views that on my reading conceptualize race and racism with neither being ontologically prior and have a similar (if not quite so extensively historical) view. So akin to Dr. Stark, I’m uncertain of why we have to presume a structuralist account that doesn’t share those ontological elements.

    I have, however, struggled with how to integrate attention to individualist elements into that kind of approach. I think you can get the ontology that rightly understands the relationship between race and racism, but how do you integrate the individualist elements? A vital insight of your account is the drive to dominate; it facilitates the analysis of individual psychology functioning alongside the structural analysis. So I think that a piece that reintegrates the individualist psychological elements is a necessity, but I see Dr. Curry’s worry about whether an appeal to a psychological drive to dominate is the right connective element.

    I am also worried that Dr. Curry’s worry can be interpreted at a level deeper than your initial response suggest. I don’t think the worry is that the studies you cite will disproportionally reflect the perspectives of white folk, Western folk, American Exceptionalism and the like (I suspect they will, for the record); I think Dr. Curry’s worry can be applied to the entire enterprise, not just the specific features of a specific aspect of the enterprise. I’ll revisit the breast cancer study you cited in your response to try to make myself clear. The Wood, Taylor and Lichtman 1985 uses a study framework whose goal was to identify one of four possible responses to the exclusion of the other. That strategy, of abstracting these potential responses from each other to highlight one as most common, might be problematic, might reflect a particularly European engagement. (This isn’t a position I’m prepared to defend at great length. It is primarily meant as an illustration.) I was wondering if you had considered that any approach that makes an appeal to widely or universally occurrent aspects of human psychology would necessarily run afoul of a worry that we should problematic fundamental features of psychological research as an enterprise. (This may or may not be what Dr. Curry was getting at in his critique, but it is certainly inspired by his view.)

  5. Thanks for your reply. I have two further comments. Suppose that the concept of race was invented to justify oppressive practices that preceded it (e.g., colonialism, slavery). It doesn’t follow that that concept is the “concept of race as we currently employ it.” I imagine there are different conceptions of race and that our current conception, insofar as there is agreement on it, is different from earlier conceptions. Further, I’m having trouble seeing how the structures of domination that the concept of race was invented to justify were already racist. It seems to me they were racist the moment the concept of race was invented to justify them. So race and racism emerged simultaneously. This allows that 1) people are confused when they think that race initially emerged to mark a mere difference and was later used to justify hierarchy; instead races were always and already normative categories and 2) one can coherently refer to race (as a normative ontological category) in order to give an account of racism.

  6. Hi Jeanine! Thanks for joining the discussion. Your comments are interesting and helpful.

    I think I agree with you that there are a number of structuralist (or institutional) views that can share many of the ontological commitments of the genealogical view. However, as you also note, they tend not to be as “extensively historical” as I think they should be, and they do not also highlight the individual psychologies implicated in the construction of the relevant institutions. So while I think that my view is in many respects similar to some familiar accounts, I also think that these more familiar accounts do not adequately address two important elements: (i) the role of individual psychology in the origin, maintenance, and (re-)direction of the relevant institutions and (ii) the historical context and development of the relevant attitudes, structures, and concepts.

    And I think this creates some problems for these other views. I highlight two in the paper: (a) they are hampered in their ability to guide effective anti-racist action and (b) they suggest an incomplete, and perhaps also artificial in certain respects, historical narrative. I think these two issues are deeply related. We can learn where to go by looking at where we’ve been, and we will deeply confused about where we even are if we don’t know how we’ve gotten here. So I don’t claim that we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. These structuralist views contain many insights that we should keep hold of. But I want to insist that these insights can be deepened in important ways, and this will require rethinking aspects of the familiar accounts. For those who are sympathetic to what I’m saying here, it may seem as if the genealogical view differs from these other views merely in terms of what it’s emphasizing. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. In particular, I think that attending to individual psychology is deeply important here, and I don’t see this as a matter of added emphasis.

    Moving on to your final comment, about the potential dangers that might come with appealing to “widely or universally occurrent aspects of human psychology,” I’d like to hear more. I grant that the specific designs of particular studies may be problematic, say, because they carve up the terrain of possible responses in ways that exclude important possibilities. This is even likely true of entire views, theories, and perhaps even fields of inquiry. But I have a harder time seeing why we should be wary of appealing to universal aspects of human psychology, as opposed to trying to improve our investigation of these aspects in order to uncover *actually* universal aspects.

    One final thought, in defense of the appeal to the drive to dominate. One consideration in favor of this construct as the “right connective element” is that it seems to fit quite well into familiar accounts that are otherwise very attractive. Take, for example, Mills’ appeal to “domination contracts” (Mills and Pateman 2007; Mills 2017). He sees the racial contract as one, among other, such contracts. I think that the drive to dominate can help to illuminate the psychology of the individuals who originated and maintained the social structures that stem from and evidence such contracts, and it holds some promise of possibly illuminating a connection between the various contracts of this type in the psychologies of the individuals enacting and sustaining them, even now. This is to say that I think, aside from the empirical support for the drive to dominate that I see in social psychological research and also historical, sociological, anthropological and legal scholarship, I also see theoretical support for it in some of the familiar views of racism (and other forms of oppression).

  7. Hi Cynthia,

    Thanks for sticking with me on this stuff. You are raising some good questions/challenges. I’ll take your two further comments in turn.

    You’re right that it doesn’t follow from the concept of race being invented to justify oppressive practices in the past that this is the concept we currently employ. But I’m inclined to think that it is the same concept, in large part, because the practices are still with us (as are the relevant attitudes). This doesn’t mean that our employment of the concept is entirely unchanged. For example, we can allow that who counts as “white” has changed over time. But it seems to me that this is a matter of our application of the concept shifting, not our having revised the concept.

    As for my claim that the relevant structures of domination were racist prior to the invention of race to justify them, I admit that this will strike many as the incorrect thing to say. But consider what the opposite position implies. If race and racism emerged simultaneously, then we are committed to thinking that certain oppressive practices shifted categories once race was invented to justify them. They went from being oppressive practices of whatever sort to being racist oppressive practices. And insofar as the change was not to the practices themselves, but just to how they were justified, then this seems like the wrong thing to say. At one point in history, a group of people is treated a particular way, and at a later point they are treated the same way, and yet we label this second form of treatment racist, but not the first. This seems incorrect to me. The treatment and groups haven’t changed, only the (dominant groups’) understanding of what’s going on. I would imagine that those who were subjected to what came to be recognized by all as racist oppression were aware of what was going on well before their oppressors were. (And this largely remains the case even now.)

    Part of what I want to urge here is that our understanding of things needs to be sensitive to the messy unfolding of history. I’m not attracted to a picture according to which our understanding of what was happening at a given point in time is beholden to the concepts employed by those engaged in the relevant practices at that time. From our vantage point, we can see where things were headed, and so we can say that a set of practices was racist, not because it was, at the time, justified in racial terms, but because it was headed there and is inextricably linked, as a matter of how things unfolded, with the development of the concepts later used to justify it.

    I think all of what I just said is compatible with “1) people are confused when they think that race initially emerged to mark a difference and was later used to justify hierarchy; instead races were always and already normative categories.” And I’m not exactly sure what to make of “2) one can coherently refer to race (as a normative ontological category) in order to give an account of racism.” The genealogical view does, I think, refer to race as such a category. But it is aiming to give an account of racism that, it seems to me, is a different kind of account than those being given by more familiar views. For one thing, the genealogical account is essentially historical in a way that I don’t think the familiar moral and political views are.

    I would love to hear further thoughts on all of this if you have them.

  8. In his youth, Prof. Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin (hereafter, BM-Y) took a course or two with me and now I am very happy to welcome his intervention in the discussion some of us have been having on the proper philosophical analysis of racism. Prof. Curry urges us to rise above the rather crabby tendency to respond to new contributions simply with criticisms and, in the circumstances, I’m also happy to take a more irenic approach here. Near his article’s close, BM-Y already sketches some of my misgivings about his approach’s adequacy and relevance, and I leave it to the reader to judge the success of BM-Y’s replies. Let me here, then, try mainly to pose some questions to BM-Y.

    First, what is the genealogical approach to racism that BM-Y proposes and adopts? Further, what is genealogical about it? I assume that Nietzsche is the classic source here. My far-from-expert view is that, working at cross-purposes to the Enlightenment project of finding some new, secular authority (e.g., natural sympathy, human nature, the moral sense, pure practical reason) behind the familiar norms of Christian morality, Nietzsche offered a speculative history of the origins of moral (dis)approval, praise, blame, and so on, suggesting that, if something like that history is true, then morality’s origins undercut the Enlightenment assumption that there are genuine and important moral truths to be grounded. Moral claims, as he understood them, can be explained but not justified. I ask how BM-Y’s genealogical account similarly changes the topic and project for a philosophical account of racism’s nature and immorality.

    Second, what does BM-Y have against counterfactual arguments? Part of what sinks verificationism is the realization that even an ordinary empirical claim such as ‘This is a glass of water’ commits its believer to such claims as that it would freeze at one temperature, freeze at another, and so on. So, too, to say ‘X is racist just because it’s Y’ can commit one to claiming that whatever lacks Y can’t be racist and whatever has Y must be racist. Much of my own early philosophical work on racism consisted in showing that those implications could undermine accounts of racism found in prominent thinkers on the subject, some of them philosophical and some not. Counterfactual thought-experiments are a vital, and still badly underutilized, tool for inquiries into racism’s nature and immorality.

    Third, what contribution to anti-racism should we expect from an account of racism? BM-Y talks as if, to advance anti-racism, we need to charge those who drag their feet with racism. But that’s not so. True, sometimes someone’s indifference to, or lack of enthusiasm for, anti-racism will stem from her indifference to the well-being, and even to the rights, of those likely to benefit first and most from anti-racism, namely, Black people. But sometimes, such indifference will stem instead from someone’s lack of concern for justice or for socio-political matters in general, or from any of dozens of other grounds. In any case, what we need to fight racial injustice is not more commitment to race, but more commitment to justice. Yes, devotion to anti-racism may require of us far more than a mere absence of racial ill will, contempt, heartlessness, acedia, and so on. But that’s because it will require far more than our not being racist.

    Fourth, is BM-Y’s on board with Prof. Curry’s narrow insistence that we need to rely more on the political thought “radical” Black writers? If so, why? It’s always good to know more rather than less, I suppose, but it’s prominently radical and militant thinkers whose ideas we hear constantly invoked. (It’s instructive that when Cornel West recently brought out a volume of M.L. King, Jr.’s writings, its point was to recover and showcase the “radical” side of King’s thought.) My own desire is to hear more from political intellectuals whose vision is undistorted by obeisances to showing ‘materialist’ bona fides and Procrustean effort to force all social phenomena into the dubious framework of ideology, class, superstructure base, social Critique with a capital C, and the Left’s familiar bugbears, hobbyhorses, and obsequies. (For my part, I find Christopher Lebron’s recent deployment of moral concepts of shame, character, virtue, and perfection(ism) a welcome splash of illumination, insight, and reality cutting through the murk of ideology-theory.)

    Finally, I ask him, “Why so soft, so submissive, and yielding? Why is there so much . . . abnegation in your heart?” (I forget where I read that.) That is, why does BM-Y seemingly privilege reforming mainstream philosophical discussion of race over using philosophy to expose and correct the errors in influential but philosophically obtuse mainstream discussions? Why this lack of self-confidence in our discipline to advance the truth? As I mentioned, some of my work exposed indefensible accounts of racism in the writings of journalists, public intellectuals, political scientists, historians, law professors, and others. (Among my targets were works by Jim Sleeper, Dinesh D’Souza, Glenn Loury, George Frederickson, Harlan Dalton, Manning Marable, and others.) Instead of exposing the public to our important service of bringing philosophical critique to bear on what passes for political wisdom in the wider academy and in public media, today’s philosophers too often content themselves with going after a small number of other philosophers deemed insufficiently empirical–that is, too conceptual, too philosophical–often niggling over minutiae of formulations. Can we move our guns out of a circle, for a change, and use them against dangerous falsehoods at large in the world?

  9. Prof. Garcia,

    It’s a real pleasure to have you joining the discussion here. Your work on these issues, as I acknowledge in the paper, has had an immense influence on my own thinking. And I think you sell yourself short with your remark that I “took a course or two” with you. You were my first real philosophical mentor. That is to say, we wouldn’t be here if not for you. (There are some interesting counterfactuals lurking here!)

    You ask some excellent questions. I’ll try to answer each one. But please let me know if I miss something in my reply or if what I say isn’t up to snuff. Also, I’ll break up my response into three posts to increase readability.

    You ask what the genealogical approach to racism is. Here’s a try at an answer: The genealogical view is (a) essentially historical, in that it insists on attending to the actual events that led to where we are at present with respect to race and racism; (b) essentially pluralistic, in that it insists that neither individual attitudes nor institutional structures are fundamental to an analysis of racism; and (c) centers on a particular psychological construct, namely, the drive to dominate, in the context of a social reality, namely, the dominion of the dominant. In a phrase, the genealogical view provides an account of racism that centers on the historical development of various attitudes and structures out of the operation of the drive to dominate in the context of lived social hierarchy. I tried, in the paper, to sketch some ways in which this view is distinct from others familiar from the literature.

    You ask, relatedly, what is genealogical about my approach, with specific reference to Nietzsche. I’ll try to say a bit about this. Clearly, Nietzsche’s focus on “origins” has influenced my thinking. I want to know what the origins of our racist attitudes and structures were. And this is connected to a second aspect of Nietzsche’s thought: critique. (This is also connected to your question about radical thinkers, as I’ll mention below.) Uncovering the origins of our attitudes and institutions can lead to critical inquiry into their justification. Here, I think, my own far-from-expert interpretation of Nietzsche’s project diverges a bit from your own. I’m not sure that he is committed to the claim that moral values cannot be justified, only explained. Rather, perhaps he is committed to the claim that moral values cannot be justified in certain ways, while leaving it open that they may be justified in other ways. Importantly, perhaps we can justify certain values and practices on the basis of their psychological roots. Roughly, if value systems are expressive of the structure of drives, then we may be able to justify a value system on the basis of the psychological order that originates and sustains it (and which it perpetuates). But I grant that this is tricky. And I’m way out on a limb here. The point that I want to bring out is that I have been influenced by Nietzsche’s project of turning a critical eye towards our system of moral values. In the context of racism, I am convinced that it is important that we turn a critical eye towards the attitudes and structures shaping our world and behavior. And part of doing so is investigating the origins of these attitudes and structures. This can tell us more about what they really are, which, in turn, can inform thought about what they should be.

  10. [Reply to Garcia 2/3]

    This brings me to your question about radical thinkers, especially Black radical thinkers. One thing I have gotten out of reading people in this tradition is a keen, critical perspective on the social structures that shape our society and influence our behavior. This isn’t to say that other thinkers are not also providing important insights. But it seems to me that one thing that is often “radical” about some of the thinkers in the tradition you ask about is that they aim to draw back the curtain and reveal what has really gone into making the society in which we live. In the context of racism, this often involves things like interrogating the connections between race and the adoption and maintenance of particular legal regimes, or disciplinary practices and norms, and so on. Now, this isn’t to say that only radical thinkers are interested in such issues. But I’ll admit that I find insights in scholarship by “radical” thinkers that often challenges basic assumptions of those working within more mainstream traditions. This hooks into my interest in a critical examination of the attitudes and institutions relevant to understanding racism. (As an aside, I think this is deeply connected to the topic of contemporary discussion of MLK Jr.’s legacy. Some of what I’ve been reading about him lately has been at pains to stress that his legacy has been sanitized, especially by eliminating mention of his anti-poverty and anti-militaristic positions in favor of exclusive focus on his pleas for racial harmony. But, these thinkers argue, these positions are not really separable without misunderstanding what MLK was all about. And moreover, the tendency to separate them out allows for his legacy to fit more neatly into the status quo, in which there are stark racial disparities in areas like wealth inequality. In short, much of the “radical” discussion of MLK at present seems to me to be at pains to uncover the ways in which his legacy has been coopted by the very institutional structures he fought against. In some ways, this is an object lesson in how these structures perpetuate themselves and we would do well to grasp this if we find these structures in need of changing.)

    Now to your question about anti-racism. I agree with you that more commitment to justice is necessary to fight racial injustice. And I also agree that combating racism (whether construed as aiming at its elimination or aiming at mitigating its harmful effects) requires more than not being racist. I was at pains to make this point in the paper. But I’m not sure whether I agree with your characterization of my view as labeling those who “drag their feet” in the fight against racism as themselves racist. I discuss institutional racism and claim that combating this requires putting people with anti-racist motivations and know-how in charge of the relevant institutions. But this isn’t to say that individuals involved with racist institutions are themselves racist. Perhaps I’m committed to saying that their conduct, in the context of the racist institution, is racist. I’m fine with that. This doesn’t amount to a character judgment about them as individuals, and it doesn’t, on my view, necessarily license targeting them with blaming responses. I am attracted to a view like T. M. Scanlon’s (2008), on which there is a distinction to be made between permissibility and blameworthiness (and a further distinction to be made between judgments of blameworthiness and blaming responses). None of this is in the paper (or fully worked out in my head, even). But the basic idea I have in mind is that an individual may engage in racist conduct, and we can judge that this conduct is wrong without thereby judging that the agent is blameworthy for it (or thereby engaging in blaming responses). This, it seems to me, takes some of the sting out of the charge that my view casts the net too wide in labeling conduct racist. And it is compatible with insisting that racist conduct is necessarily immoral, just perhaps not always in the same sense (sometimes it’s wrong, sometimes it’s blameworthy, oftentimes it’s both).

  11. [Reply to Garcia 3/3]

    On to counterfactuals. Perhaps I should’ve been less strident in my rejection of them in the paper. As your comment brings out, there is a case to be made that a complete grasp of certain things (e.g., the concept water) involves a commitment to various counterfactuals. Point taken. But I had something else in mind, and I’ll just say a bit about that. What I had in mind was something of a corrective maneuver in response to how I read much of the extant literature on racism. As I read them, many philosophical accounts of racism aim at providing necessary (and sufficient) conditions on something being racist. My view does not do this. Rather, my view focuses on what has gone into the development and maintenance of the racist attitudes and institutions we find ourselves with. I suppose things could’ve gone differently. And there is some value in asking whether, if they had, the outcomes would’ve been racist. But this seems to me to distract from the more important project of investigating the origins of what we find ourselves with, and so also the related critical project of revealing what it is we have. The value of counterfactual thinking is perhaps greatest in connection with the project of identifying unrecognized or as-yet-unrealized forms of racism. But, as I suggest in the paper, I think my view actually does a better job of this. By laying out the actual origins of racist attitudes and institutions, we are in a better position to predict when new or unrecognized ones are potentially in the offing. And even if a complete grasp of racism requires commitment to various counterfactuals, my thinking is that it also requires a critical grasp of the relevant history. And I don’t see as much attention being paid to this in the familiar, mainstream philosophical accounts of the subject.

    Finally, let me say something about the aims of philosophy and the targets of my critical remarks. I’ll mention that I do take aim at one journalist and public intellectual in the paper. Jamelle Bouie has argued that we needn’t care what’s in Jeff Sessions’ heart, but rather should focus just on his public record when considering the question if he’s too racist for the post of AG. As I say in the paper, I think this is wrongheaded. As the nominee to head an institution roundly criticized as racist, we should care very much what’s in his heart. I’ll also mention that I have been writing about some of these issues for a popular audience in a blog I maintain at Psychology Today. That forum seems to me to be better suited to attacking the confusions and falsehoods peddled to the general public. A publication in an academic philosophy journal seems to me to be targeted at my philosophical peers. I’m talking to them, and so I’m focusing on where I think they’ve gone wrong (and right!). I think this displays confidence in our discipline’s ability to advance the truth. I’m engaging with views that I find important and insightful, even though I don’t think they’re entirely correct. Also, I think critical engagement between philosophers serves the aim of better informing the public. Reading some (in my view, many of the better) journalists, pundits, etc. in popular media, one gets the clear sense that they have studied some philosophy in college, sometimes earning undergraduate or even graduate degrees in the field. They have read the philosophical scholarship, from academic journals and books, on these issues. And so contributing to the academic discussion, even by criticizing the views of other philosophers, can be a way of shaping the public conversation by helping to shape the thought of those students who will eventually go on to write for or speak to a public audience. I say all of this, not to justify point-scoring or pedantic argumentation about minutiae, but rather to situate what I’m trying to do in this paper in the context of my broader aims as an academic and citizen.

    Well, that’s a lot to post in response. But you asked some very good questions. I hope to have done them justice.

Comments are closed.