Race: September 2011 Archives

The Philosophical Gourmet Report, which ranks philosophy programs and gives specific listings of which departments are strongest in which areas of philosophy, will be adding the category of philosophy of race in its upcoming revision, which will take place this fall. Brian Leiter, who organizes the Gourmet Report, posted a quote from philosopher Tommy Curry about this long-overdue change:

Black philosophy continues to be lured toward the approval of whites as if their standards and acceptance can/do accurately describe the merit of our work. We have seen this in the work of whites like Sullivan and Bernansconi [sic], and now have it yet again regarding Leiter. They take Black conversations, market them as "legitimate" and benefit from them by controlling the academic "rigor" of the discourse.

Shannon Sullivan writes about race as it has affected her as a white woman and reflects on the nature of whiteness as she's come to understand it through dialoguing with non-whites and through applying philosophical skills she's learned by practicing philosophy. The idea that this must be seen as an attempt to control blacks is ludicrous. Bernasconi's work, from what I've seen, also seems motivated by wanting to understand a legitimate philosophical topic of inquiry rather than any sense of whipping those black philosophers into conformity.

Philosophers working in the area of race have complained to Brian Leiter that he's ignored an important area of philosophy where much good work has been done, and so he's finally (years later than I would have liked) added it to his surveys of which departments are seen by those in the loop of philosophy of race to be good programs for that area of study. Surely many of the people who will be commenting on this will be non-white, even if there are some people working in the area who are white.

I'm not exactly Brian Leiter's biggest fan. We've each criticized the other both publicly and privately. But I can't fathom the claim that he's motivated by wanting to exert power over black philosophers in particular. Even if you thought he was using the Philosophy Gourmet Report to control the discipline or to promote himself (rather than the more charitable interpretation that he does it to help students find the programs best suited to them, which I think is his actual motivation), his goals wouldn't be to have white people controlling black people. They would be to have an in-group of philosophers controlling which departments get seen as the best. It is true that his advisory board, whose rankings determine the report's rankings, is a pretty white group, but philosophers as a whole are a pretty white group. At worst, you might accuse him of not being concerned enough to include non-white philosophers in his advisory board.

Now there's a claim in the general vicinity of what Curry is saying that I think is not so removed from reality, although I think it's also wrong if applied to undermine the work of whites on race issues or to claim that it's illegitimate for white philosophers to evaluate the work of black philosophers. That claim is that black philosophers can have conversations about issues affecting them that white people won't understand as well. This is true. There's a kind of epistemic privilege that comes from having experienced certain things, and being black in America does bring with it some experiences that white people don't understand as well. So some conversations among black philosophers will be harder for white philosophers to step into and participate in the same way or to evaluate as good or bad philosophy. Sure.

However, there are also experiences white people have in America that involved race that also bring something to the table that black philosophers have less ccess to. I'm not claiming this is symmetrical in terms of an equal number of experiences or similar kinds of experiences, but I am pointing out that any social location can involve experiences that only people in that social location can understand. Some of the experiences whites have blind them to certain racial issues, but some of the experiences blacks have can make them less sensitive to certain race issues as well. There are experiences that someone who is white who is heavily interwoven with black Americans will have that most blacks and whites will not have. (See here for much more argumentation in this direction.)

Despite all this, it simply isn't impossible for white philosophers to do good work contributing to discussions of race, and just about all non-white philosophers have recognized this. It simply isn't impossible for white philosophers to look at these discussions and form reasoned opinions about whose arguments are better than whose. It simply isn't impossible for white philosophers to get a sense from these discussions whose work is having the most influence and therefore whose work is seen by the participants in these discussions as the best work.

So the idea that a white or nearly-white advisory board can't evaluate the work of non-white philosophers or the work of philosophers on issues that have come out of black discussions is not, because of the facts about epistemic privilege, a complete non-starter. There may be additional difficulties in it than what you already have in evaluating the work of philosophy of religion when most of the reviewers pay no attention to that subject (as is certainly the case with the Gourmet Report advisory board in general). But they have ways of dealing with this. A good advisory board member who doesn't know philosophy of religion will presumably ask people they know who do it which philosophers or which departments are strongest in that area. So in the end I don't think even the more reasonable claim in the area of Curry's criticism can justify his resistance to this or to the work of white philosophers on issues related to race.

At least twice in the last few weeks I've come across someone claiming that the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the one-drop rule in 1986. I was surprised, because shortly before the first time I saw this claim I'd come across someone else saying that the 1967 case Loving v. Virginia, which is best known for overturning Virginia's ban on interracial marriage, also declared the one-drop rule unconstitutional. So I eventually started looking into both claims. It turns out that the first is false, and the second is true. That is, the Supreme Court did overturn one-drop-rule style racial classification laws in 1967, and they did not affirm a one-drop-rule law in 1986.

What Chief Justice Earl Warren's opinion in Loving actually says in the main text is that racial classifications need to be subjected to the most rigid scrutiny, especially if they form the basis of some impact in a criminal proceeding. But this isn't a new judgment. It's a quotation of a previous decision. And it's not clear what the most rigid scruntiny is supposed to be or how it would apply to one-drop rule laws, and he never applies it to such laws. But he points out that the basis of the racial classifications used in the Virginia law were instituted specifically to preserve the conception of white purity advocated by the invidious discrimination of 1924 Virginia that was of a piece with the kind of segregation at odds with the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and that can't stand up to the most rigid scrutiny.

It's not quite clear, however, until you get to footnote 11, which says that the racial-classification system of Virgina is "repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment" (and therefore presumably unconstitutional, although he never explicitly says they're overturning that law too). Since this is the reasoning for the overturning of the interracial-marriage ban, and not some aside on a topic not necessary for guiding the current case, I think it does count as overturning one-drop rule laws, at least any justified on the basis of white supremacy or purity (as I'm sure all actual one-drop rule laws were). But I now understand how it can do that in a way that I didn't really notice before. The real work is done in a footnote.

But the first claim is simply false. What happened in 1985 was a case involving a Louisiana woman who had thought of herself as white all her life who then discovered that her birth certificate listed her parents as colored. Louisiana law, until 1983, had a 1/32 one-drop rule, which counted someone as colored for having one black ancestor out of 32 great-great-great grandparents. Her parents were classified as colored by that law. She herself actually didn't count as black by that law, since it was her great-great-great-great grandmother who was black. But her birth certificate listed her as colored because her parents were listed as colored on theirs. So it wasn't the one-drop rule law that led her to be classified as black on her birth certificate. It was the cultural practice among doctors and midwives of transferring the racial-classification of the parents to the child when both parents had the same classification. Her parents had never objected to their classifications, and corrections to birth certificates apparently had to come from the person whose birth certificate it is issuing a complaint and request for correction.

So the state court concluded that there was no legal justification for forcing the birth certificate office to issue corrected birth certificates. They then said that the repealed 1/32 one-drop rule law was not relevant, because midwives and doctors aren't subject to the prohibition on government employees' violation of the 14th Amendment, since they're not government employees. Finally, they said the one-drop rule laws involved with this did, by their judgment, violate the Constitution, but they were bound by Louisiana Supreme Court precedent on that question. None of their analysis depended on any stance on the one-drop rule law, which was no longer on the books at this time anyway and thus could not be overturned by a court in any direct way. The case apparently got appealed to the Supreme Court in 1986, and they opted not to hear it, but it seems crazy to me to take that as a sign that they would affirm a one-drop-rule law.

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