Chris Lebron interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Chris Lebronis a philosopher who asks deep questions about theories of justice appropriate for race. He thinks about bridging the gap between abstraction and lived experiences, about American democracy and racial inequality, marginalisation and oppression, about the idea of character and how it helps explain racial inequality, about the problem of social value, about why Rawls isn't enough, about 'white power', about despair and blame, about perfectionism and egalitarianism, about soulcraft politics, about three principles of racial justice and about the lamentable number of black philosophers currently working in the Academy. Give this one the time of day to sink in, then reboot...
3:AM:What made you become a philosopher?
Chris Lebron:I consider myself to be a person who has, even from a young age, harbored a certain kind of discontent with what I personally refer to as the tragedy of humankind. By this I mean to refer to the fact that people are possessed of extraordinary powers of imagination, reasoning, industry, magnanimity, but also of malice, destruction, and meanness. So far as I can tell we seem as a species tightly bound to this tragedy. But we each, personally, have a particular relationship to it and though I can often be deeply cynical, I can admit to cultivating an enduring hope that we individually have the potential to better comprehend our relationship to this tragedy so that we can do our small part to remain on the right side of the ledger. To my mind, this is the struggle of humanity vs. humankind. But how to do so, how might we do so, how ought we to do so? - this is a very great question. This question has been a part of my own complicated vacillation between love for humanity and resentment towards it.
I became a philosopher and theorist initially because I wanted to answer the question on how we get and stay on the right side of the ledger. As I mature in my career, though, I am coming to learn that I do philosophy because I want to know how I might get and stay on the right side of the ledge and in my personal struggle with the question I hope to invite others to take up my reflections and when they are pointed in the right direction, follow thusly, and when they are not, to help me and others find that direction, if it is there to be found.
3:AM:Your starting point for working out a theory of justice is to presuppose that if you’re black then you’re not part of society as democracy supposes isn’t it? Is this what you mean when you discuss ‘lonely citizens’ and shame?
CL:A theory of justice appropriate for race has one central obligation and that is to bridge the gap between abstract notions of the good, the right, fairness, etc. and the lived experience of race, the way history and power converge on the being and the fabric of reality of blacks in America. There are many kinds of injustices in the world and racial injustice certainly isn’t the only one to be marked by asymmetries of power. However, it has a singular place in American history – racial domination made America what we know it to be today. What is the nature of this thing we refer to as America? Well, it has at least a few discernible and significant attributes. One is that it is a liberal democracy – that is, it is regulated by a form of governance that takes the freedom and liberty of its citizens to widely participate in politics to be fundamental; this feature is itself underwritten by a deeper normatively inflected commitment which is to treat persons in a certain way – as possessing autonomy and having the station of equal standing among peers in the social and political scheme. Another is that it is a liberal democracy founded in the course of practicing racial domination. My position here is not unique in the history of (black) thought – to found a nation’s constitution and develop its institutions in this manner settles early lessons about which persons are supposed to be the legitimate beneficiaries of the constitution and institutions. A beautiful thing about a democratic government is that it can be made to change, but the nature of change required to address racial inequality have historically left not only scars but present-day battlegrounds of difference rooted in resentment on both sides of the racial divide, whites’ sense of being threatened by change, and insecurity of a many kinds for all involved. A democracy’s struggles largely constitute not only its history but its culture which itself teaches a variety of lessons to those constantly learning how to be citizens and how to assess other citizens. The bases for both these lessons and our apparatus for judgment is thus fraught with serious problems that affect the content of those lessons and our practices of judgment.
Finally, America is a liberal democracy that, despite that description and despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, continues to be a functioning and quite vibrant site not only of common indicators of racial inequality (income, wealth, resources, employment) but of racial marginalization (segregation, the reproduction of disparaging racial stereotypes in our popular media) as well as racial oppression (disproportionate jailing and the devaluation of black life by the institutions of criminal justice whether it be by disproportionate application of the death penalty or unpunished acts of violence against blacks by police). So we have to ask ourselves: just what kind of ‘liberal democracy’ is marked by a strain of deep and disrespectful injustice that is contrary to the very idea of liberal democracy? My answer is: One that doesn’t merely marginalize but one that explicitly and implicitly rejects the humanity of black Americans. So it is more than not being part of American society. It is deeper. It is not being seen fully as the kind of thing that can vie for membership in American society – a human being. So here, the question of loneliness is not itself as central as the diminished value of black humanity.
I noted the slippage between the standards and principles entailed by the form of governance we describe as liberal democracy on the one hand, while on the other, the consistent demeaning and unjust treatment of black Americans. The very notion of slippage between the principles to which we subscribe and the reasoning, attitudes, and actions we take up provides the grounds for shame. That we might or ought to feel shame in any instance is not in itself in the ordinary course of things always a reason to raise questions of justice. When as a parent we affirm the virtue of generosity towards our children but act meanly on an occasion, this seems appropriately remedied by a genuine apology and show of affection. So the question here is, what, for me, raises the question of justice in the case under consideration – racial inequality? This is the role I set for character.
3:AM:Can you explain what you mean when you say that you think the USA suffers from bad character? How does it help explain systematic racial inequality?
CL:The idea of character has not typically been deployed in contemporary theories of justice and this has been so for a fairly straightforward reason. Theories of justice have mostly been concerned with distributive justice (the division of goods that are the product of a scheme of ongoing cooperation) and the role of institutional design in achieving distributive justice. Apart from the general and prior commitments of ideal theory, this focus tilts us away from certain ideas central to our ethical traditions, among them virtue and character. This has a bit to do with what some would claim is a category mistake in applying these ideas to institutions in addition to or instead of persons – philosophers do not tend to think of virtues like kindness or bravery applying to institutions, and in some instances that hesitation is justified. But this also has to do with what one has to go in for in mobilizing these ideas. If you seek to work out an approach to institutional design that is a fit for a certain conception of distributive justice then what you will really be attentive to will be matters of fairness, procedure, and properly structured deliberation. If you turn towards ideas like character, then you have to extend the theory, if it can be so extended, into an analysis of history and political development and an interpretation of our social landscape. But this will not be interesting if you think you can theorize fairness prior to politics and history, or if you are concerned that these particulars are sufficiently myriad to systematically organize for the purposes of prescriptive arguments.
And this is how the idea of character helps explain racial inequality. I might identify at least two approaches to that idea. One says that character has to do with the complex of habits and principles we possess and affirm and the way we develop, fail to develop, apply, fail to apply those principles and habits appropriately given the relationship we are addressing at a given point. Another, (attributable to Joan Didion) equates character with moral nerve – standing by our convictions and denying opportunities to regret our actions because doing so is on a par with rejecting our earlier selves – the self that made the decision we wish we might not have made. Now, I don’t agree with this idea of regret in its particulars since I don’t think regret amounts to rejecting our earlier selves, but there really is something to the idea of moral nerve that is to the point here: a failure to abide by the principle undergirding the form of government we endorse and ostensibly practice is not itself a failure or moral nerve – that can just be moral error. However, when that error – to put it mildly – persists for a few centuries without thorough and (consistently) sincere address, that is a failure or moral nerve. To overcome that failure, we also need to keep in view the first approach to character having to do with habits, virtues, and moral learning. When we observe the persistence, range, and depth of racial injustice, we are not talking merely about blacks not getting one good or another, we are talking about a polity unable to bring into right relationship the duties of democratic citizenship with the moral obligation to respect other persons as persons. This, I have argued, is fundamental to justice because without that relationship coming to bear, nothing else can effectively be done.
3:AM:Can you explain what you are arguing when you say that the problem of racial inequality is the problem of social value – does this mean you’re arguing out of a tradition of social theorists led by W.E.B. Du Boisand Frederick Douglas?
CL:The problem of social value stipulates that blacks are not accorded the appropriate care and concern that motivates the proper distribution of goods in the first place. So it is an idea that attempts to bridge the gap between norms, history, sociology, and moral motivation – it is an analytic heuristic to support the argument for shame and character in a theory of racial justice as I above briefly reviewed. However, while I have coined this term and given it analytic shape, two things must be said about it. First, within the realm of intellectual inquiry, the substance of ‘social value’ is not new in my work at all. Indeed, the problem of social value is a kind of concern expressed by Douglass, Du Bois, Baldwin, and many others in the history of black thought.
Second, that said and acknowledged, it was not my intention to argue out of that tradition, as you have put it. I formulated the idea out of frustration with my existence as a person of color and my observation of the kinds of things that have, do, and will continue for the foreseeable future to frustrate brown Americans. What’s interesting here, though, is that I suppose it puts me right back in that tradition precisely because for Douglass, et al these concerns were not motivated by the intrigue of conceptual puzzles but by the urgency that is a result of facing marginalization as fact of everyday life.
3:AM:Why is a philosophical project like John Rawls’s theory of justice not capable of gaining the necessary traction with racism in the USA? Is it because it can’t grip hold of the question: ‘why don’t/won’t can’t you accept us as your equals?’ and without being able to engage with that its going to evade the issue? And is this a theory specifically about racial inequality in the USA or are we to suppose it can be generalised?
CL:I have an imagining I like to share with my students regarding John Rawls – one that I don’t in fact know whether it is true, but I imagine it to be perfectly possible. Here it is: It is 1963 and Rawls, like many Americans is watching on television the use of fire hoses and dogs to violently suppress peaceful black protesters in Birmingham, Alabama. And he is thinking, my God – how on earth do you get people as opposed in their positions to come to an agreement concerning how to move forward in a democratic society? With this question he becomes increasingly certain that his device, the original position behind the veil of ignorance is the only way to secure reasonable deliberation regarding principles of social justice precisely because each of the parties to this shameful event and the history that gives rise to it, has a great deal to lose or gain, thus won’t be able to think the way (Rawls thinks we need to think) in order to derive rational principles of justice.
When I share this narrative, I myself can see how someone at the time could see a device like the original position as not only reasonable, but necessary. But now, the passage of an additional fifty years since the Civil Rights Act suggests a quite insidious form of racial inequality – one that can reproduce many of the effects from the days of Jim Crow under the watch of full formal equality. This should give the normative political theorist pause. My understanding of the issue has evolved into the position that it’s not even really a matter of whether Rawls’s framework can get a grip on the question, “why don’t /won’t/can’t you treat me like an equal?” It is that it is not really interested in asking that question at all. To ask that question requires that one take stock of what has been going wrong in our democratic dealings, but that can’t be in view when on a theorist’s own description strict compliance is being assumed.
I’d like to be more clear in ways that I have not been before that sometimes my discontent is directed right at Rawls’s work, but other times my criticisms of Rawls is really meant to call to account his followers. I suspect Rawls himself would not argue that his work can be stretched to answer questions having to do with racial or gender inequality. But many of his followers, who occupy various positions of power and influence in the field have insisted that the work can do that, and by doing so, have as a consequence relegated direct questions of racial ethics to a kind of low-level status.
So, yes, without asking that very specific question – why don’t/won’t/can’t you treat me as an equal? – being addressed, we do evade the issue because we pass over the very essential questions having to do with the intersection of moral motivation and social power. That said, I didn’t devise my theory to be generalizable. When I was a graduate student, a theory that can ‘travel’ was often portrayed as a sign of not only intellectual elegance but of analytic utility. I won’t quarrel with that in general, but the attribute of generalizability is often portrayed not merely as an attractive virtue but a necessary one – one that shows the work really is rigorous. I do disagree with this latter stance. When I developed the arguments that would ultimately shape The Color of Our Shamein my dissertation, I intentionally sought to devise a theory good for one thing: to say something new (to political philosophers/theorists) about racial inequality in America. It would please me very much if a person considering race in the United Kingdom, for example, found something helpful in my work – I think there are some ideas in there that would travel, like social value, but I also think that that idea would have its most potent meaning only if modulated by that theorist as called for by the specific conditions of the United Kingdom. If it turned out that the idea didn’t need modulating that would be interesting but that kind of outcome was and isn’t my goal.
3:AM:You don’t reject everything in Rawls though do you?
CL:I tend to think it’s a bad idea to reject everything found in any writer’s work because even when confused, work that makes it to the public is really trying to say something to us and it is an offense to reason to close one’s ears to it, or refuse it an audience a second time because we didn’t agree the first time. And when you have a work like A Theory of Justice, it is really silly to put the whole book to the side; it has shaped an entire field, for better and worse.
I don’t reject everything in Rawls because there is a sincerity and elegance in the work that results in ideas that are worth thinking about: what is it about a scheme of ongoing cooperation that makes attending to moral equality distinctly important? Why should we allow undeserved attributes and resources shape the potential for a person to achieve a good life of her own choosing? These and many others are really important questions that enliven our conceptual apparatus to features of normative political inquiry that should always remain front and center. My issue isn’t that Rawls doesn’t ask and skillfully attempt to answer worthwhile questions, it is that there are many other questions to be asked and also that our answers need to really embody imaginative reach when put to the test of our experiences, and here I sometimes find the work wanting.
3:AM:Why are you doubtful that the term ‘white power’ can grip the complexity of racial subordination?
CL:When we think of the term ‘white power’ we often conjure up something like the specter of angry white men in hoods taking the liberty to publicly terrorize blacks in the name of racial supremacy, shouting “White power! White power!” The possibility of that image depends on many features of American society that do not hold today. Before I move on, I do not want to be mistaken as saying there are no white racists today; some of them even subscribe to the doctrine of white power. But we need to be clear-eyed about our contemporary condition and realize that the real issue is the relationship between consistency and dissonance and not only consistency. What do I mean by this?
Nothing could be more obvious, I hope, than that in many ways, the facts and features of black inequality have remained startlingly steady for over a century since the Emancipation Proclamation. This is consistency. However, it is also clear that the nature of the expression of racial ire has modulated on account of the prominence of implicit bias as contrasted with explicit racism. It is also a fact that we have a black president, something beyond the realm of possibility even twenty years ago, I think. But this is the thing – we have these very significant shifts which ostensibly indicate progress overlaid on the persistence of the many forms of racial inequality already listed earlier. That is dissonance. If we were talking only consistency we would also be talking about the presence of similar mechanisms and conduits of oppression and terror. But we are talking about dissonance here – the confusing co-habitation of formal equality and wide-spread marginalization and often terror by different means, such as when a white cop abuses or takes the life of a black man often with impunity. When we are trying to make sense of that kind of a thing, it seems to me that the notion of white power is going to limit rather than expand our analytic capacities to get a grip on the nature of racial inequality today. Insisting on deploying the term white power is certainly provocative, and sometimes helpfully so, but I also think that mostly it commits the same offense I above charged Rawls/Rawlsians with – it leads not only to confusion about how to answer certain important questions, but also is not interested in or does not permit asking those questions.
3:AM:A key idea you argue for is that we need to engage with the characters of the people inside institutions rather than ignoring this element. Your approach is subtle. You say character is influenced by an interplay of the environments and structures we find ourselves in. Can you unpack what you mean when you say the best way to understand this interplay is ‘to understand whites as under the influence of moral disadvantage and blacks as under the influence of ethical disadvantage’?
CL:Analysis of racial inequality at the level of persons is burdened by important issues. On the one hand, the fact of the matter is, the number of explicit/intentional racists among the white population in America is comparatively small, certainly smaller than it was in the middle of the 20th century, for example. On the other, implicating blacks in their own inequality is not only often wrong (which is not to say it is never justified or necessary or right) but fraught with the baggage left behind by commentary, such as that found in the Moynihan Report, in the late 1960’s and 1970’s that sought, in the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, to quickly offload responsibility for blacks’ woes onto blacks themselves. Here, two things come into view. The error of (entirely) blaming blacks for blight, as an empirical matter. But, also, substantively, there is the basic issue of blaming the victim which is understandably deeply taboo for blacks – consider the kinds of reactions Bill Cosby generates, for example, when he says not entirely unreasonable things like that young black men should not be eager to dress in stereotypically provocative ways (e.g. sagging jeans). This is seen as a kind of treason by many, and the reaction is understandable if sometimes unfortunate.
Thus, we are left with a really important issue. We need a way to bring into view the persons who populate institutions and we need to hold them to some account for not only past actions but also for prospective ones in helping to realize justice and we need to not act as if all whites are racists and as if blacks have merely been the force of their own undoing. This is how I conceive the relevance of moral and ethical disadvantage. As we’ve already reviewed, my theory is one that takes as central questions of character, and one idea that is important in speaking about character is habits or moral learning. We can learn our moral and ethical lessons in better or worse ways and when we think about the socializing effects of fields of power, in this case racial, we are all bound to learn some lessons badly and develop unfortunate, even offensive and harmful habits.
The divide I wanted to draw had to do with how one group treats another, and how the other group treats itself. But I wanted to ask this question from the perspective of gauging readiness to participate in realizing social justice. Taking the idea of implicit bias both seriously and as more widely representing the essential failing in white Americans, I wanted to argue that these are people with (generally) the right basic conceptions of democratic morality but whose grasp or understanding of these conceptions warp once blacks come into view. Here, we want to think about folks who, for example, are forgiving of whites on welfare, but then when blacks are on welfare denigrate blacks as free-riders and the welfare system as enabling deviant behavior. In this kind of instance, the basic virtue of generosity comes undone for little reason other than those receiving the benefit are the wrong color. We want to try and establish consistency in the relationship of generosity and compassion to public policy across all cases. The inability to do so (and to fail in similar kinds of instances of reasoning) is a moral disadvantage – a habit of moral reasoning that is the result of badly learned lessons or improper lessons altogether. What is important here is that the agent is not himself the source of a kind of explicit evil but is definitely a vehicle for an instance of it that is in conversation with history and we should be concerned to sever that relationship.
On the other hand, precisely because of fairly severe systems of exclusion, deprivation, and disrespect, it is the case that some in the black community have less than desirable conceptions of some normative ideas. Let’s take honor, for instance. I find it personally despairing to recall the way friends (and sometimes, I) back in my early years would gladly and confidently look down on other kids who took book learning very seriously. To do so was to “sell out” – to lack integrity thus not act honorably. But surely that can’t be right. That claim supposes that there is something intrinsically valuable, intrinsically black about ignorance – I can’t imagine that any culture could seriously affirm that position, Western or otherwise, yet, it is not an uncommon one in the black community. There are of course clear and understandable reasons why these kinds of attitudes take hold. When your life and circumstances are deprived of power and authority, you naturally seek to assert it organically in ways that are available to you, so when you tell a young man, from the position of institutional authority he perceives as complicit in his deprivation, that he needs to see things like you do and go to class, how can we not expect him to snub his nose at us? But this is absolutely not a pathology as has been asserted by conservatives – this is a bad ethical lesson, it is a disadvantage, and just as with whites, we should hope to correct it.
3:AM:If schemes of power cripple white’s attempts to avow anti-racism, and the power structures sustain these schemes, isn’t this a recipe for despair rather than shame? And what role has blame got in this analysis? And is this where your idea of the contrast between ‘the disadvantaged agent’ and the ‘determined agent’ finds its force?
CL:I need to begin answering this question by disclosing that exactly something like a sense of despair often took hold of me in working out my theory. Some days it still does. But no matter how cynical one is, normative theory is necessarily optimistic (since it is trying to figure out how to develop a world better than the one we have got) and the source of my optimism resides in a distinction I must draw given the way the question has been put. I’m not convinced whites’ capacity for appropriate care and concern are ‘crippled’ – that word usually indicates a permanent/irreparable injury to a particular capacity. There is a position one can trace in the tradition of black thought, especially (for me) in James Baldwin– but maybe it really is just a hope – that whites are not beyond redemption, that there is no way for them to come into right relationship with their democratic commitments on the one hand (even the minimal ones) and racial equality on the other (even when thinly conceived). We do have some reason for despair – I have been pressing the case that the kinds of inequality we see reproduced fifty years after the Civil Rights Act is deeply alarming.
On the other hand, no one can deny that there has been some progress. To take something very basic, 3am wouldn’t have interviewed me fifty years ago, first because I most likely would not have had a position at an institution (thus acquiring the attendant goods, such as a university press book), and second, even if I did, I would likely have been discriminated against by its editors – that’s just the way it was. But here I am today and that is something. I want to say, then, that we should take the changes we can’t deny as providing evidence of the existence of resources for further changes we often seem to resist. So, yes, this is where the contrast between disadvantaged and determined agents matters in my work, for if whites and blacks are both determined in their shortcomings, then not only are Rawls and (some) critical race theorists asking the wrong questions, so am I.
I think here is where blame has some role but we have to be careful with how loose we are with that word. Blame is easy, and resentment of it is even easier. What I mean by blame, in at least one sense, amounts to something like moral notification – you have done or are doing something that requires your ethical attention for us to be able to move forward together. Maybe somebody will remark that I am not really talking about blame precisely, but I see little harm in speaking of it in this way for our purposes. The point is, it is almost always useful to make that kind of claim; what is less useful is when its only expression comes in the form that indicates there is a score to be settled. But here I want to be careful because I don’t want to foreclose radical politics – it just is the case sometimes that a score does need to be settled. But the point at which that stance is taken, we’re not talking blame anymore but the synthesis of accusation and judgment, and then, we are often past the point of dialogue. If anything causes me despair it is that I sense, I feel that if racial inequality is not resolved sooner than later, (more) blacks will decisively move past being interested in blaming toward accusation/judgment.
3:AM:You advocate a type of perfectionism don’t you? Can you unpack it and say what it is and what it isn’t?
CL:I consider myself an egalitarian. Briefly, by this I mean someone who believes that all people are equal in a deeply moral sense of that word and should be treated as such; that thick moral duties can be derived from the fact of shared humanity. But what few people know about me is that one of the biggest influences on my thought is the strand of perfectionism that runs through John Stuart Mills’s On Libertyas well as Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Geneaology of Morals(though not only there in his work). This strand of perfectionism, as I interpret it goes something like this: there is no offense in saying that there are people who not only do some things better than others but that some people are better than others more generally; the real offense to my mind is when we are complacent about that fact or possibility, thus the person who can be better qua human potential, refuses to tax his or her own capacities, or – and this is actually important for my own brand of egalitarianism – those who are more advantageously positioned in this way withhold the resources (capaciously conceived) for others to more fully develop their skills. (I admit, little support for this last condition can be found in Nietzsche, but can be found in Mill.) I think some will find my position odd because on the one hand it affirms a position that most find inherently aristocratic but then tries to retrofit an egalitarian ideal over it. How does that work? I suppose it depends on an empirical hypothesis that could prove to be confused but in the absence of such proof I am supposing that each of us possesses a certain kind of genius to be better than merely competent moral agents.
Here I tend to think of the idea of moral literacy as put forward by Barbara Herman. Her analogy is that our capacity for reading is merely latent when we begin to learn to read, but through practice and instruction we get better and better at it to a point that not only do others not need to read to us, but we become more and more responsible for increasingly sophisticated interpretations of what we read. Her view is that our moral capacities work something like this and this is how we become more moral and are also susceptible to being held responsible for what we do, for lapses in judgment. Thus, the kind of perfectionism I advocate is, analogously, a very rigorous literacy program – one wherein Americans better learn to not only rationally understand but affectively sympathize with the racial harms they are complicit in bringing to bear. This does require a more sophisticated moral apparatus; I will reserve my despair if ever I become convinced that we are not all equally possessed of the requisite apparatus.
3:AM:Why can this be the central normative ideal?
CL:I’m not sure I can answer why it can be the central normative ideal. I can say, though, why I think it must be – the preponderance of evidence that our moral habits are lax and dislocated is too great to ask those responsible for injustice to try and address it from within their extant capacities and dispositions. To my mind it is simple: we must be better to do better; otherwise, in thirty years you and I will be having this conversation again and I will be asked, “What do you think has prevented us from achieving racial justice over the three decades since we last spoke?...”
3:AM:And what political vehicle do you suggest is needed to drive this ideal forward?
CL:Half of the answer to this question was given in The Color of Our Shamein the form of three principles of justice meant to assist in the project of soulcraft politics – policies to get the previously discussed brand of perfectionism off the ground. Political philosophers tend to be quite bad at thinking in terms of concrete policies, even non-ideal theorists and I’m no better in this regard. That said, my aim was to suggest guidelines for conceiving of policies that accorded appropriately with both widely held liberal norms and more rigorously argued perfectionist standards.
The real difficulty for me in answering this question, however, has to do with the fact that The Color of Our Shameforms only half of my philosophical/theoretical program. I am currently at work on my new book, From A Human Point of View: (Re)Imagining Racial Egalitarianismand this book is being conceived as part of a system, if I can put it that way, that once in place offers a more full approach or response to racial injustice. The new book is something of a significant departure not in terms of conceptual groundings since I am still very much concerned with matters of character and the like. Rather, the book is being written as a work having to do with personal ethics. The central claim of the book builds on a pairing between Baldwin and Bernard Williamsto argue for a human point of view of equality – a perspective on equality wherein the salient aspects of our humanity count for a great deal in ordering our political affairs. The attendant claim is that an act of imagination that prompts us to explore what it is like to be the person making a claim of equality is needed or at least helpful. In the course of the project I enlist a selection of black novels to serve as a form of testimony on the experience of racial inequality and all of this leads to be me revisiting some central ideas in moral and liberal theory – the reactive attitudes, consensus, and blame – under the light of this approach to equality. I say all of this because I’m not sure I have in view a political vehicle to convey, as it were, my preferred brand of perfectionism. Rather, I have an intellectual agenda the next step of which is to try and write this book as the kind of book I would want all citizens to read and react to.
3:AM:Can you say something about the three principles of racial justice you discuss and perhaps indicate how had these been in play we’d have handled recent notorious cases of racial injustice such as the Trayvon Martin case and the Ferguson murder?
CL:Of the three principles I articulate in The Color of Our Shame, one is epistemic, another is propagandistic, and the final is participatory. The American Re-Education Act principle calls for wide spread programs of full and honest disclosure of America’s racist past and racially fraught present. The example I use in the book is how the Civil Rights Act is typically taught – Martin Luther King, Jr. is often presented as the guiding light and representative of the struggle. There is no offense there, save that more difficult questions of Malcolm X’s or the Black Panther’s roles much less the conditions that gave rise to each are put to the side. When this happens, schools do not prepare students for effective citizenship that is sensitive to marginality and the effect of oppression. Rather, a package of neatly ordered ideas and facts is handed over conveying the senses that America has been more fair than it in fact has and black people never have had nor do not now have cause for rage. The Just Trojan Horse principle endorses the use of state power to present messages meant to condition our attitudes towards blacks and about ourselves. As I am now sitting here and writing my responses I’ve just watched a news report containing police car footage of a white office in South Carolina who stopped a black man supposedly for a seat belt violation as he was pulling into a gas station – he exits his car, gun drawn and asks the man for his license and registration; the black man makes a move towards his car to retrieve what the officer has asked him to produce and the officer, instead of advising the man to move slowly fires three rounds.
My principle would allow the following: a state sponsored Public Service Announcement during prime television that shows this video (or the increasingly countless number of others depicting this kind of abuse) and says the following at the end: “If you are white, and middle class and live in the suburbs, this would probably never happen to you or your child.” Because it’s true – it most probably wouldn’t. The final principle is the Boondocks principle. I’ll defer on explaining the reason for the name. The substance of the principle calls for extensive institutional reform that allows for widespread establishment of citizen councils to provide local oversight over various administrative procedures – law enforcement, economic development, districting, etc. – and further, to subsidize participation of those not sufficiently wealthy to participate in the event of lost income from participating rather than working, and finally, to implement stringent labor laws to prevent workers from being fired from their jobs for being civically engaged rather than economically productive. Together, the principles are really meant to indicate a muscular strategy for soulcraft politics, for the moral improvement of the polity on matters of race and racial sympathy.
Now, you ask what difference my proposals might have made in cases like the shooting of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown (or Oscar Grant, or the choking of Eric Garner or….and on) and I have to say that it depends on when we are imagining these changes would have been implemented. If we are imagining just a few years ago, probably little difference. Habits and norms are slow to change, which I can accept as a fact of social psychology. If the Civil Rights Act had eventuated in something like this and we imagine it is done successfully these men might still be alive today. There are two phenomena that are the cause of black ire today, and we are seeing this in the Michael Brown/Ferguson case. On the one hand blacks perceive a degree of hypocrisy in the enforcement of the law because no black can imagine a black officer shooting and killing a white youth in the way Michael Brown was shot and killed and not being immediately vilified widely in the American public and arrested immediately. On the other, there is something more sinister that black folks sense and that is quite distinct from vagaries in public sentiment and institutional procedure after the fact; there is something preceding these tragedies – these men were all seen as legitimate objects of violence in the first place, as persons who by virtue of their skin color were deemed dangerous thus as warranting a shoot first ask later attitude. But how awful is that? The principles I offer are meant to deeply reshape how we value black humanity and to trigger shame when we realize we prize it far less than we do whites’ for no other reason than that whites are white and that blacks are black.
3:AM:Congratulations for being awarded the American Political Science Foundations of Political Theory Best First Book prize this year for ‘The Color of our Shame.’ But there are hardly any black philosophers; it’s a situation even worse than the lamentable number of women. Why do you think philosophy is worse than other departments in this respect and what can be done?
CL:Thank you for your congratulations. The prize was a great honor to me personally, but it was also a significant gesture of respect towards the field of race and philosophy/theory as one attending to a real and urgent moral problem. The fact that philosophers of race are generally attending to an urgent moral problem helps highlight the unfortunate if not perverse observation that we are not better represented in a field where normative inquiry is central.
According to a research note recently published in Critical Philosophy of Race by Tina Fernandes Botts, Liam Kofi Bright, Myisha Cherry, Guntur Mallarangeng, and Quayshawn Spencer, there are currently 156 black philosophers across the career spectrum – doctoral students, non-tenure track, tenure track, tenured; fifty percent are tenured faculty – seventy-three tenured black philosophers. To put that number in perspective consider that the membership of the American Philosophical Association is estimated at about 11,000 members. That means black philosophers (and let’s just assume that all 156 are dues paying members) represent just 1.4 percent of the field. Surely some of the 11,000 dues paying members are not American academics, but that wouldn’t change just how unsettling the percentage is.
So the question naturally arises: why does the field have this problem? I can’t pretend to know the answer. I doubt the question has one answer. To my mind, there are two kinds of sociological problems – one that has not that much to do with the discipline per se and one that does. Philosophy by its nature benefits from a certain amount of leisure – a hefty library of books and lots of time to reflect. But in America time is money and money is not something that a significant proportion of blacks have had much to dispose of. Additionally, my own experience of the discipline and observations of its practitioners is that having access to it at a sufficiently high level prior to grad school or even prior to undergraduate studies is a privilege. American education has increasingly prized math and science preparedness, and even when the humanities are favored, literature and history tend to be the winners in public schools. That means that by the time that students make it to college, they have already begun to learn the tools of math and science and a select group of the humanities – a kind of preparation that helps even if bypassing technical fields and pursuing more ‘practical’ fields of interest like public relations, accounting, etc. By contrast, the barrier to entry in philosophy is pretty high. Generally one greatly benefits from having (one might be tempted to say, is required to have) read or being familiar with (at least) some of the ancients as well as a significant number of the modern German thinkers. The point being, these are texts that are not commonly taught and do not present themselves as accessible – one can only imagine the difficult experience of making sense of The Critique of Pure Reason or The Phenomenology of Spiriton one’s own with neither guidance nor prior preparation. Here, we see a pipeline problem in a very deep sense that extends beyond grad school admissions to the very nature of what it means to be prepared for study in the field.
The other sociology problem concerns the sociology of knowledge. In We Who Are Dark, Tommie Shelby rightly notes that philosophy of race is often grouped with applied philosophy and is thus seen as less worthy and rigorous than ‘pure’ philosophy. I need to be fair in noting that many fields are home to methodology fights – right now, for example, political science seems to be at a crossroads where it seems those smitten with econometrics are increasingly trying to edge out scholars who think the study of politics is comprised of more than running elaborate models with large-N data sets. But what is ironic here is that while that approach is not especially friendly to scholars who study race, there are many who have been able to find a place at the table in journal publications, high profile faculty appointments, landed books with the preferred academic presses, and so on. Not even this, though, can be said for philosophy. Part of the issue is methodological – ideal theory makes it very difficult to reflect on race in its particulars. Once one sufficiently abstracts from facts of the case, the distinctive moral gravity of the problem begins to slip away. Then when one realizes that the most prized journals remain under the influence of the tradition of analytic liberal theory, then one also begins to understand why so little work on race makes it into these journals. The effect snowballs and becomes self-reinforcing. If you are a working normative theorists who cannot place in Ethics, or Philosophy & Public Affairs and similar journals then it is presumed that the work just really isn’t that good, and if that is the case, then you may not be good enough to be at X top ranked department, and if you’re not at X top ranked department then you must not be good enough to be brought out for talks at Y top-ranked department…One can easily see just how black philosophers quickly become invisible and by way of that invisibility presumed less skilled.
Apart from the methodological aspect of the problem there are also worries about how the substance is perceived and how we are treated on account of that perception. I once sat down with a senior colleague as I prepared a response for an R&R. The paper began with a strong claim about the absence of race in our most prized theories of justice. Two things happened at this meeting. First, I was told “I don’t see what’s especially interesting about racial inequality. Second, I was presented a rather long lesson on the importance of humility – apparently, I appear and act too self-possessed – it was hard to not hear the word “uppity” in the speech I was given by this ‘liberal’. And I know I am not alone in this kind of experience where the very basic issue of whether the questions black philosophers often want to ask are sufficiently “interesting”. When a field faces these two rather broad problems concerning social practices, habits, and norms, the almost complete statistical absence of blacks from philosophy becomes much less mysterious.
As to what can be done to rectify the situation, the discipline has more direct control over the second sociological problem – that of knowledge – and here it is a difficult thing because we’re talking about people being made to undo various causes of behavior: in some cases it is merely habit, in other cases it is stubbornness and ignorance, and in other cases, it is straightaway bias. My observation is that a significant contingent of younger white philosophers are actually on the right side of this, and they are often getting jobs in ‘influential’ departments, the departments many blacks are not. My position is that they have a duty to act from their convictions and help police behavior: a colloquium invite list is comprised of one hundred percent white speakers, somebody needs to say something; a specialized conference on normative political theory is organized and race is not part of the conversation, somebody needs to say something; a high profile journal has not accepted a piece on race in the course of a year or two, somebody needs to ask why – is this really a matter that no submission passed muster? Maybe that is the case as I’m sure it sometimes is, but as of now there is not enough serious inquiry as to why certain journals’ issues look the way they do sociologically; it is simply presumed that the peer review process more or less works and that’s just how it goes. There’s been a good deal of turmoil lately in the field where men accused of behaving badly in a number of shameful ways have been called out publicly and brought to account – these are the kinds of incidents that used to be somewhat beyond the reach of reproach and action. Those days are over, of, if they are not fully over, we need to keep doing what we can to make sure the field is brought into accordance with fully reasonable norms of acceptance and inclusion.
3:AM:And what five books can you recommend for us here at 3:AM to go further into this philosophical world of yours?
- The Streetby Ann Petry
- The Genealogy of Moralsby Friedrich Nietzsche
- Anything and everythingby James Baldwin (sorry – I had to cheat here)
- The White Boy Shuffleby Paul Beatty
- Medicine for Melancholy(a film by Barry Jenkins)
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshallis still biding his time.
Buy the book hereto keep him biding!