Academia, philosophy, and ‘race’

It was recently brought to public attention that of the UK’s 18,510 university professors, only 85 are of black origin (Black African/Black Caribbean/Black ‘other’), a soberingly disproportionate figure. Some people may want to explain this incongruence by saying that it is proportionate, or makes sense, when you consider the amount of black people entering and remaining within higher education. However, rather than the problem being solved with this explanation, it re-emerges in questions surrounding the reasons as to why this may be the case. If there are a disproportionately low number of black students entering (and remaining in) higher education, this itself needs to be questioned, with discussions had on financial situations, state education, implicit biases, and other social and economic barriers that may be disproportionately affecting certain sections of the population. In this blog post I will explore these factors, as well as suggesting that discussions on ‘intelligence’ genes within bioethics may serve to perpetuate a hostile and exclusionary environment.

The situation for black academics appears to be more acute in academic philosophy. There are only 5 black philosophers employed in UK universities, with just two of these being employed in philosophy departments (both at UCL), and the other 3 in classics, humanities and ‘theology, philosophy and religious studies’ departments. Philosophy is also notorious for its lack of female representation. Statistics show the number of women gradually reducing at each stage of academia – although 46% of philosophy undergraduates are female, this drops to 31% of philosophy PhD students, and is at its lowest with only 24% of full time staff being women.

Why are these historically disadvantaged groups faring so badly in academic philosophy, (and for those of black origin, academia in general)? One reason, perhaps, is the existence of implicit biases operating in the hiring processes and unconsciousness of those present within HE institutions. Recent psychological research shows that “most people—even those who explicitly and sincerely avow egalitarian views—hold ‘implicit biases’ against such groups as blacks, women, gay people, and so on, based on unconscious stereotypes of these groups.” This has effects in how CVs are evaluated, interviewees are perceived, and how journal articles are reviewed. Further, ‘stereotype threat’ means that victims of stereotypes underperform because they are unconsciously preoccupied by fears of confirming the stereotypes about their group—so preoccupied that they show elevated heart rate. Research by Steele et al. shows that in such threat-provoking situations, marginalised groups perform worse in standardised testing, a finding that should perhaps cause us to re-examine our reliance on this method of determining perceived intellectual capability. In a report for the British Philosophical Association on Women in Philosophy, Jenny Saul and Helen Beebee note that “if philosophy is also stereotyped as male, as seems likely, women philosophers are likely to suffer from stereotype threat quite frequently. This will lead women to underperform at all career stages, including crucially high-stress moments like job interviews.” These findings can be extrapolated to telling us something about the black absence in philosophy, if we consider that philosophy is also stereotyped as white.

Perhaps another factor to take into consideration when reflecting on the black absence in academic philosophy and academia in general, is the presence of institutional racism. This could, as we have seen, be a result of the implicit biases people are unconsciously operating with, and also manifest itself in more explicit actions. The recent, I, Too, Am Oxford, campaign showcased the everyday microaggressions faced by some ethnic minority students, highlighting a clear racial element to their university experience. Although it may be the case that many ethnic minority students do not share this hostile experience (as the counter-campaign We Are All Oxford sought to show), it remains that certain students have faced uncomfortable situations that have arisen on the basis of their perceived racial difference, an obstacle unique to students of ethnic minority backgrounds.

Further, recent research from HEFCE showed that white university students at English universities receive significantly higher degree grades than their peers from minority ethnic backgrounds, despite both groups entering university with the same A-level grades. It was found that 72% of white students who have grades BBB at A-level went on to gain a first or upper second-class degree, compared with only 56% of Asian students and 53% of black students, suggesting that universities in England are failing to support black and Asian undergraduates during their student career. One possible explanation for the disparity in degree classifications achieved by students that entered with equivalent A-level grades, is the experience of racism while at university. A recent NUS study found that one in six black students said they had experienced racism at their institution, and many linked those experiences with a drop in confidence and motivation, reporting that they felt marginalised and socially excluded; experiences that are likely to have knock-on effects on their studies. It also emerged that a third felt their educational environment left them unable to bring their minority perspective to lectures and tutorials, and 7% even openly labelled their learning environment as “racist”. These are profound statistics and merit an open discussion on issues surrounding race and the academy.

Perhaps another factor explaining the lack of black academics is the lack of black students at elite universities.  In an increasingly competitive academic job market, one’s pedigree, in the form of university background, is highly important, with qualifications from elite universities serving as Pavlovian indicators of academic capability. And, it seems, black British young people are far less likely to attend the UK’s most selective universities, a factor which may make it harder to get academic jobs. The Independent Commission on Social Mobility pointed out that “there are more young men from black backgrounds in prison in the UK than there are UK-domiciled undergraduate black male students attending Russell Group institutions.” Despite black Britons (of Caribbean heritage) making up 1.5% of all domestic students attending UK universities in 2012-13, just 0.5% of domestic students at Russell Group universities are from black Caribbean backgrounds. Analogously, Black African students make up 4.4% of total domestic students, but comprise just 2.1% of students attending Russell Group universities. What are the reasons for this discrepancy? One major factor is that black students are far less likely to achieve the requisite A-level grades – but this itself is a phenomenon in need of explanation, through an analysis of the social and environmental indicators of educational attainment.  Another reason is that black students are less likely to be offered places when they do apply – a recent study has shown that “Russell Group applicants from state schools and from Black and Asian ethnic backgrounds remained much less likely to receive offers of admission from Russell Group universities in comparison with their equivalently qualified peers from private schools and the White ethnic group.” Again, another phenomenon in need of further research and explanation.

Philosophy and race

Although philosophy is not alone as a discipline in its poverty of black academics, I believe a dialogue needs to be had on the hostile climate perpetuated by certain discussions within bioethics. There is a trend in the literature towards considering the ethical implications of genetically enhancing our cognitive capabilities and selecting embryos on the basis of their displaying so-called “intelligence” genes. Prioritising human life on a particular conception of “intelligence” is dubious enough, but when these discussions spill over onto questions regarding biological “race” and “intelligence” we should be concerned. Peter Singer has defended the pursuit of research into a ‘link’ between ‘race’ and ‘intelligence,’ arguing that to say we should not investigate this link “is equivalent to saying that we should reject open-minded investigation of the causes of inequalities in income, education, and health between people of different racial or ethnic groups.” In his book, Practical Ethics, Singer engages in a discussion on racial differences without anywhere defining ‘race’ or pointing to any scientific basis for this concept. He also discusses sexual difference, stating:

“The fact that there are more males at both extremes of ability in mathematics, whereas females tend to cluster more around the average level, does support Lawrence Summers’ ill-fated remark about the relative scarcity of suitable female candidates for Harvard positions in those areas of science and engineering in which mathematical ability plays a key role. Only those with exceptional ability become professors, and even within that select group, only those among the very best have any prospect of becoming a professor at an elite institution like Harvard. It isn’t difficult to see that males are likely to be overrepresented among those at the extreme upper end of the scale of mathematical giftedness.”

Operating within such discussions on genes, ‘intelligence,’ and ‘race’, are the following assumptions:

  • That there are certain, specific genes that correlate with intelligence, and that these can be isolated and identified.
  • That genetic determinism is true (that intelligence is largely determined by genes).
  • That intelligence is a scientifically testable category to the extent that allows for these conclusions about genes and intelligence to be drawn.
  • That race is a scientifically testable category.

These are all glaring assumptions that ought to be questioned rather than taken as axiomatic premises. I do not have time to sufficiently deconstruct them in a single blog post, but will attempt to say a few words on each:

  • The inheritability of IQ is a debated issue. A recent scientific study showed that most reported genetic associations with general intelligence are probably false positives. The idea that we can isolate a few genes that correlate with intelligence and call them the ‘intelligence’ gene is a contested one.
  • There is strong evidence against genetic determinism. It is widely recognised that social and environmental factors, such as early nutrition and development, child care, and education, influence and explain IQ variation more than genes. (See here, here, and here for elucidations of such views.)
  • There is no universal definition of intelligence. It is a transient, context-dependent and culturally relative category. Standardised testing, and the means we have of determining perceived intellectual ability should not be taken as the apex of verification. Iris Marion Young, amongst others, has highlighted that “most criteria of evaluation used in our society, including educational credentials and standardized testing, have normative and cultural content,” and that “impartial, value-neutral, scientific measures of merit do not exist.”
  • There is broad scientific agreement that essentialist and typological conceptualisations of race are untenable. Race is more appropriately conceived of as a social construct, rather than a scientifically testable category.

It is important to note that I am not calling for censorship in research, but am questioning the legitimacy of research into genes, race, and intelligence, when it relies on so many debated premises. Further to this, I urge that we ought to be particularly concerned when research such as this could have adverse social effects and the potential to cause harm. Perhaps in a situation where intelligence and race were perfectly verifiable, coherent concepts, such research could be conducted. They are not, however. It should also be considered that historically, they were created and used to reinforce social inequality, and justify discriminatory behaviour. Bearing in mind the context of their inception, we should therefore, be very wary of their re-appropriation as testable categories. Especially when there exists widespread intellectual disagreement on their validity.

Further, we should not underestimate or ignore the effect that this kind of thought has on a) people’s perceptions of others b) people’s perceptions of themselves. Although Singer states that, “no matter what the facts on race and intelligence turn out to be, they will not justify racial hatred, nor disrespect for people of a different race,” he may be naïve to think research into such ‘facts’ will not garner prejudice. We cannot take this kind of research to be occurring in a vacuum, immune to producing consequences. Such research could be contributing to an adverse climate in academia, feeding phenomena such as implicit biases and stereotype threat, exacerbating the situation. It’s almost no wonder that there is a black absence in the academy, with research like this, premised on dubious suppositions being heralded as legitimate ‘scientific inquiry.’ It should be considered that research like this could have prescient and alienating social effects. I’ll end with a quote from Dr Nathaniel Coleman, one of the 5 black philosophers employed in the UK, who recently spoke in the Times Higher Education supplement on philosophy and race. Speaking on the worrying effects that suspect science can have on perception and attainment, he writes:

“In 1789, in London’s Diary, the Sons of Africa wrote that “the nation at large is awakened to a sense of our sufferings, except the Oran Otang philosophers”. Without doubt, this reference was to philosophers who had bought into the theory of Edward Long, according to whom “the oran-outang and some races of black men are very nearly allied”. Indeed, “[t]hey are, say the most credible writers, a people certainly very stupid and very brutal”.

Fifty years later, even the abolitionist William Wilberforce still described Long as “a writer of the highest authority on all West India subjects” and referred to Long’s “celebrated history of Jamaica”. More recently, Phillip Atiba Goff, assistant professor in social psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, has found “evidence of a bidirectional association between Blacks and apes that can operate beneath conscious awareness yet significantly influence perception and judgments”. Thus, that unspoken and unspeakable suspicion, that sits on the tip of your tongue, and that might mean I don’t become a professor of philosophy, is the question: “Is Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman an oran-utang?” The threat of this stereotype, Claude Steele, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, tells us, causes stress to those, who, like me, spend an inordinate amount of time, energy and resources, to ensure that no one has any reason to think we are acting according to type. Yet, when we do dodge the threat of the oran-utang, our academic achievements are frustratingly attributed to luck, to fluke, to outside help. “How long shall they kill our prophets?”, Bob Marley once asked. Stereotype threat and attribution bias are killing our prophets.”

Philosophical inquiry, and the work that goes on in the academy, should not be thought of as isolated from the causes of the black absence in academia.  Along with the social and environmental indicators of educational achievement, it could all be part of the same story.

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18 Responses to Academia, philosophy, and ‘race’

  • Andrews says:

    Here is a simple hypothesis you could have taken into account: black people in the Western world do not value philosophy (or, for that matter, academic jobs that concern mostly abstract constructions, such as theoretical physics, linguistics, mathematics and the like) as much as non-black people. And there is a simple explanation for this: when you had to fight your way toward social equality, you prioritize jobs with a certain social recognition over jobs with less social recognition (or at least, over jobs that concern things you don’t perceive as enjoying social recognition).

    • Anon says:

      From my very limited experience I would agree that Black people are more likely to be interested in philosophy that centers around social justice than more esoteric concerns. My neck of the woods appreciates philosophy of the public square but I can’t imagine anyone working in academic philosophy or being respected for working in the field.
      I do read feminist philosophy and have tried to publish without having the credentials but I am unwilling to sit through undergrad work that I think might be irrelevant to social justice and I have not spent the time to examine every curriculum to find one that specializes in social justice.
      On the other side of the question I think it is ridiculous for black academics to use 14 of their 15 minutes of speaking time at conferences to complain about racism instead of using that time to promote their ideas and theories. Who cares if some dead guy compared someone to an ape. Think how ludicrous that idea is – that all people may have descended from apes but some people continued to evolve while others did not. Why even bother to argue with an idea so foolish.
      What I would like to know is how did the 85 academics succeed and can they teach others what they did correctly?

  • Jessica says:

    Please try actually reading Peter Singer before you straw-man the crap out of him to the point of character assassination. If you actually *read* Practical Ethics, specifically the first chapter, you will see that Singer argues for individual differences, not differences by group, and that factual differences cannot ground equality differences. In fact, he argues the EXACT OPPOSITE of what you claim he does. Just as he does in the article in which you completely take him out of context. Singer emphasizes in Practical Ethics, as well as in the article you linked to, that any differences across people (of any sort) are going to be due to environmental factors.

    The criticism that philosophy is predominantly white (to an excessive degree) is sadly accurate, but your treatment of the issue is both sloppy and counter-productive. Respectable philosophers do not defend overtly racist positions– Peter Singer is the only example you give of this so-called “trend”, and as I just pointed out, that criticism is utterly, and offensively, false. Now, it is true that historical philosophers (just as anthropologists) discussed other races/cultures in terms of primitiveness, etc. But these ideas are repudiated today.

    Lastly, you can’t easily blur the lines between sex and race in their treatment in philosophy. Many influential philosophers (Aristotle, Kant, Wittgenstein, and more) argued against women being “rational” enough to pursue philosophy, and the treatment of women as being more emotional than rational is something that unfortunately endures today. You do not find a persistent stereotype linking race and rationality in the same way, and philosophy is all about rational thinking.

    You are correct to draw attention to an important issue that is truly a weakness in the field of philosophy. But it is not an issue that requires false added drama to it in order to be pressing.

    • Gulzaar Barn says:

      Hi Jessica, many thanks for your comment. I do explicitly acknowledge that Singer argues that factual differences cannot ground equality differences (I quote him as saying “no matter what the facts on race and intelligence turn out to be, they will not justify racial hatred, nor disrespect for people of a different race.”) I accept that his fundamental argument (is trying to be) that individuals’ abilities have nothing to do with the moral consideration we grant these human beings, and that he is morally concerned with individual differences rather than group differences. What I find problematic, however, is that despite acknowledging this in Practical Ethics, he goes on to talk at length about “group differences” in the hypothetical, but using real research and data, such as The Bell Curve, the work of Arthur Jensen and H. J. Eysenck, and multiple sexual difference studies using girls and boys. Despite arguing for his principle of equal consideration early in the chapter “Equality and its implications,” and saying that “we can admit that humans differ as individuals and yet insist that there are no morally significant differences between the races and sexes,” he goes on to have an explicit discussion on sexual and racial differences, if only to say that such differences do not have implications in terms of equality. I argue, however, these kinds of essentialising discussions are still harmful. He is discussing these in the hypothetical, all to show that if such differences existed, they wouldn’t ground prejudice: “all we have to ask is: suppose that one ethnic group does turn out to have a higher average IQ than another, and that part of this difference has a genetic basis; would this mean that racism is defensible and that we have to reject the principle of equality?” The undercurrent to all of this, however, (and it is compounded by his use of real data,) appears to be that genetic differences do exist, and this is the view that I am arguing is harmful, largely on the basis that race and intelligence are not coherent enough concepts for these kinds of discussions to be had. Further, my claim was that these concepts were previously used by those with an agenda, and that we shouldn’t underestimate the effects of this kind of line of thought in feeding implicit biases and stereotype threat, and perpetuating a hostile climate in general.

      In regards to environmental factors, it appears that he acknowledges their role, but is still concerned with genetic factors, despite this: “almost everyone accepts that environmental factors do play a role in IQ differences between groups; the debate is over whether these environmental factors can explain virtually all of the differences.” Further, in the article, he writes, “it clearly is possible that differences in IQ scores between people living in impoverished countries and people living in affluent countries are affected by factors like education and nutrition in early childhood. Controlling for these variables is difficult,” but then goes on to say, “Yet to say that we should not carry out research in this area [of race and intelligence] is equivalent to saying that we should reject open-minded investigation of the causes of inequalities in income, education, and health between people of different racial or ethnic groups.” So although, as you say, Singer emphasises environmental factors, it seems he is still fundamentally concerned with genetic factors.

      Finally, you state, “You do not find a persistent stereotype linking race and rationality in the same way.” The very discussion being had is on race and intelligence, and if we accept that rationality is a subset, or forms part of intelligence, this is exactly what we are continually seeing.

      To be sure, all I am “claiming” in this piece is that he has written favourably about carrying out research into a link between race and intelligence (as he does in that article.) And I have pointed to the problematic features of this, namely, the use of the concepts, race and intelligence.

      • Jessica says:

        Thank you for the response. I think your characterization of his project on the whole is correct, that genetic differences have no moral relevance, roughly speaking.

        But he DOES discuss that intelligence is a vague concept, and equating intelligence with IQ is particularly problematic. Essentially Singer’s argument is: ok, pseudo-scientists, let’s suppose the hypothesis that there are racially demarcated genetic differences in intelligence (IQ) is true (PE, 30, he says this explicitly). (And he notes at some length the problem with equating intelligence and IQ, and the use of intelligence as a category generally, and he comes down quite hard on this, especially toward the end of the essay.) Then, as you note, he demonstrates this has no moral import.

        BUT, and this is where he is misread in the op-ed piece as well as the book chapter, the actual uncovering of raw data correlating IQ with some specific group or other is merely factual research (it is descriptive, not normative), and it is only racist/sexist/ablist/etc. when inappropriate normative inferences are drawn from such correlations.
        This is where your criticism of ‘race’ being treated as an ahistorical category is apt, but while philosophers using such data bear responsibility for that use, this responsibility is shared with the people performing the studies as well. Singer himself is responding to the use of the data, and arguing it has no merit in drawing moral distinctions, whether or not we find it fruitful research.
        His view, more or less, reduces individuals to their interests, in a way compatible with utilitarianism generally, and argues for equality of consideration of interests across individuals. This principle of inequality, as he discusses, is incompatible with structural discrimination against a variety of groups: racial minorities, women, disabled, and those not considered “intelligent.” ‘Intelligence’, as a category related to IQ, he argues is as arbitrary as race or sex. He comes down quite hard on the trend of meritocracy that rewards those who are “intelligent,” whose interests are treated with superior weight.

        Hence, the accusation against Singer of:

        “Operating within such discussions on genes, ‘intelligence,’ and ‘race’, are the following assumptions:
        • That there are certain, specific genes that correlate with intelligence, and that these can be isolated and identified.
        • That genetic determinism is true (that intelligence is largely determined by genes).
        • That intelligence is a scientifically testable category to the extent that allows for these conclusions about genes and intelligence to be drawn.
        • That race is a scientifically testable category.”

        simply misrepresents what Singer is up to. He states explicitly that he is operating under those assumptions *for the sake of argument,* because he has a broader point to make. To then accuse him of operating under those assumptions without awareness is, obviously, gross misrepresentation of the argument, hence, a straw-man.

        Since I’m not sure to what other philosophers you are referring, I can argue only about Singer. But given that you extrapolate from Singer to an entire subfield of philosophy (a risky move in a field that is notorious for being rife with disagreement), I am skeptical. I am slightly more familiar with philosophy of biology than bioethics, but generally speaking, discussion of ANY category as a natural kind is bound to have vague boundaries, and this is something often noted. Indeed, many influential philosophers (Quine and CI Lewis being perhaps most famed for this critique) note that natural kinds in general are conceptually problematic.

        So, if the issue is that race is treated as a natural kind (and I agree with you that this overlooks vital sociohistorical information), then it’s already going to be something blurry and imprecise.

        • Jessica says:

          The short version of everything above is: Singer doesn’t condone, nor does he indicate that he would, the studies involving genetics, intelligence, and race. In fact, at various points he implies his skepticism of them. But he would be opposed to dismissing the studies solely on the basis that they are “racist” by nature.

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    “It is important to note that I am not calling for censorship in research, but am questioning the legitimacy of research into genes, race, and intelligence, when it relies on so many debated premises. ”

    By this standard, very little research would be legitimate. We do not have an universal definition of consciousness is, so much of philosophy of mind is illegitimate. It is easy to find critics of all the constructs in economics, sociology, psychology and linguistics. In fact, we can even find supporters of geocentrism, so any research based on the assumption of heliocentrism should be regarded as debatable, right?

    The examples you bring up are problematic. Yes, a naive interpretation of genes, race and intelligence will no doubt be stupid or biased. But you are making a strawman here by leading the reader to believe that everybody investigating the topic are unaware of the complexities of heritability (it is different for different social classes!), genetic determinism. or the *big* debate about the intelligence construct. Not to mention how genetic studies are wrecking the underpinnings of the traditional division into races.

    Defending a good position with bad arguments weakens it. It shouldn’t, from a purely logical standpoint, but in social practice it does. One should hence be careful in choosing how to defend inclusiveness.

    • Gulzaar Barn says:

      Thank you for your comment, Anders!

      ““It is important to note that I am not calling for censorship in research, but am questioning the legitimacy of research into genes, race, and intelligence, when it relies on so many debated premises.”

      By this standard, very little research would be legitimate.”

      I agree, by this standard, very little research would be legitimate. However, this is not the only standard I am employing in my analysis of research into genes, intelligence, and race. It is not just the debatedness of premises, or the fact we can’t reach universal definitions – it is what is contained within the premises, and the context in which the definitions we have were formed, that means we should question the legitimacy of research into intelligence and race. I am not saying that if certain concepts are contested, that this gives us sufficient reason to question the legitimacy of any research using them. Instead, I was talking specifically about race and intelligence. Why do these concepts merit special attention/treatment? Why should research employing these concepts be especially attuned to sensitivities surrounding their historical and general use? I suggest that because of the historical import of ‘race,’ it ought to be particularly questioned when used now, and the context of its construction (i.e. to categorise people in order to justify discrimination, during the time of colonialism and slavery) is relevant to questioning its validity as a notion now. I don’t think the same could be said for concepts such as consciousness, which do not share this same contextual weight. This historical import means that researchers investigating the link between race and intelligence should be sensitive to the potential harm caused by their reappropriation of such concepts by ‘objective science’. I maintain that all this is not sufficient to censor any kind of research, all I suggest is that these concepts be sufficiently deconstructed in projects where they are used, but I found this to be wanting in Singer’s analysis.

      With regards to your second point, I did not mean to suggest that everybody investigating the topic is unaware of the complexities of heritability. Instead, I wanted to criticise one particular author’s (Singer) defense of research into the link between race and intelligence, by criticising the assumptions implicit in that kind of view, that he doesn’t attempt to support with argument, but takes as granted. Also, your point that genetic research is subverting the underpinnings of the traditional division into races lends support to my own that race isn’t a scientifically testable category to the extent that allows us to draw meaningful conclusions. This combined with its historical legacy should make us skeptical of research that employs it without also engaging in corresponding critical analysis.

      • Mike says:

        Gulzaar, I fear that there are two completely separate research traditions here, and your comments only acknowledge one. You’re writing as if all scholarship on psychometrics is rubbish, and that the scholarship on racial/social justice competently addresses complex issues of genetics and heritability. This seems willfully ignorant, much like, say, creationism.

        I don’t mean to be rude, and would be happy to go over, point-by-point, what psychometrics says, and alternative interpretations of your data where the outcomes we see are a combination of many factors, not just white people being racist.

  • Tom says:

    Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems like some of the comments to the author suggest a certain level of harshness (almost scorn) that I don’t normally find on this blog — maybe I don’t read it enough. Why not just say I disagree with X for reason Y?

  • Stacey Goguen says:

    To the OP:
    Props for adding to the public discourse on this issue and props for the extremely professional and gracious responses to less than ideally charitable comments.

  • Stacey Goguen says:

    This comment may be thread-jacking a bit, but I hope in a way that aligns with the goals of the original post.

    I think it’s worthwhile for us philosophers to take note that we, when addressing issues concerning injustice in our profession, often adopt the following priority. First, we focus on making sure people are aware of potential flaws in the argumentative structure of their analysis about said injustice. Then, if there is time and energy left, we think about the professional and ethical implications of said issues of injustice.

    It says something troubling about our profession if, when we are confronted with a conversation about structural racism in our profession, we find ourselves often saying something like, “Yes this is an important issue, but FIRST, let’s talk about your philosophical rigor in discussing it.” What does that say about us, if our first instinct is to critique someone’s presentation and argument—when the issue on the table is existing and rather severe injustice?
    (And I don’t mean this as primarily a critique of the individual commenters on this post. I’ve seen this pattern in dozens of other posts on other philosophy blogs.)

    This is not to say that we should *never* critique blog posts about injustice. (Sad that I feel the need to explicitly say that, right?) It is, instead, a call to think about what it means if we want to spend the majority of our comments talking about whether the OP gave a sufficiently robust argument, and a much smaller portion talking about the injustices being discussed.

    Something significant is going on if an OP is like, “Hey, so about that racism in our profession…” and what motivates us to comment is, “Whoa, I think you got Singer all wrong there.”

    Yes, part of this is whatever general psychological principles govern internet commenting behavior (https://xkcd.com/386/). But I really think it is worth our attention that when someone tries to talk about the ways our profession is perpetuating unfair and exclusionary practices, we find ourselves so easily drawn to assessing whether they are being a good (enough) philosopher about it. (I myself still feel the temptation to do this. It feels like an easy, comfortable way to contribute. I am wary of things that feel comfortable in these discussions.)

  • Claudine Boothe says:

    Whiteness is by and large the only philosophy Europeans have ever produced. Whiteness has spawned, buttressed and perpetrated the most heinous crimes in history; some of which are transatlantic slavery, colonialism, capitalism, imperialism and all of which have resulted, and continue to cause large scale genocide, economic exploitation and military brutalisation of Africans and non white peoples. When will Europeans acknowledge that their so-called philosophies are whats wrong with the world, and that their academic and other ‘racist’ institutions should have the decency to encourage non white perspectives on a much larger scale than they currently do. It is obviously the only ‘intelligent’ approach they can take to defuse the culture of economic, military and reglious violence their domination has unleashed upon this earth; and its best for their own physical safety too. With the rise of the Chinese, the world is becoming a more challenging place for European domination. The rise of Jihadism is also making it more difficult for Europeans to perpetuate crimes against humanity without retaliation–Libya not withstanding;– therefore Europeans should do more to ‘liberate’ philosophy by making it truly ‘accessible’ to non white peoples. The trouble is that some white philosophers are so mindlessly arrogant that they consider ‘access’ as ‘dumbing down’; much the same as they considered ‘equal opportunities’ and ‘affirmative action’ years ago to be a favour to the rest of humanity; when it is really Europeans (white ones) who have ‘dumbed down’ universal philosophies based on natural law, by reducing Black and brown humanity to ‘property status’ for their own greed.

  • Jess says:

    In addition to what has been said before, I just wanted to point out: In Singer’s article at Project Syndicate it is not at all evident that he is making the assumption that racial categories are objective biological classifications that capture relevant genetic differences only “for the sake of the argument“. To me, the context clearly suggests the contrary. Irrespectively of what Singer says in other places, publishing an article for a wider public that easily invites this kind of misunderstanding is certainly no great service to addressing problems of racisms. For that reason alone Gulzaar’s clarifications are quite appropriate and helpful. Besides, allegations to the effect that the comment is offensive, counter-productive or creating “false drama” obtain a comic dimension in view of the tone of some of the replies.

  • Claudine Boothe says:

    Jess, what do you mean by false drama. Is that contempt for other interpretations of Singer’s foolishness.

  • Matt says:

    This is a nicely done post. Some people might find it useful to look at Phil Kitcher’s discussion of scientific (or often “scientific”) investigation of race in his book, _Science, Truth, and Democracy_. The basic idea is that it’s an area to use extreme caution, given that it’s an area where we can expect our less-than-conscious biases to lead us astray, the costs of getting things wrong are very high, and even if we get things “right”, the likely social costs and mis-use can be expected to be high. These considerations don’t just apply to race, but I think they apply quite nicely there.

  • susan says:

    To Jessica: I found your opening comment “please try actually reading Peter Singer the cap out of him to the point of character assassination” to be self-referentially ironic and condescending. If you are entering the profession, I hope that you develop the principle of philosophical charity. Studying Mr. Barn’s gracious responses to you and other hostile interlocutors would be a good place to begin.

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