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
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), 30-66.1