Varieties of Black Political Philosophy

In circles I run in one will often see people advised to read black authors or engage with black thought. I take it the reason I see this so often is that in the bits of philosophy I mix in it is i) seen as good to be broad minded and well read in one's thought, and especially to be in touch with wha people from marginalised groups are thinking -- and ii) rare to actually be as much. This got me thinking about what this means, what sort of tendencies of thought or theory one might expect to encounter upon doing so.

For that reason I decided to categorise some of the tendencies of black political thought that I often encounter, and share that here. Each group is not much more than a loose affinity group, united by a theme. But I tend to think I can recognise instances of members of these groups when I see them - by what they stress, how they argue, what sort of things they think possible or impossible, or relevant or irrelevant. So I have tried to briefly summarise the thematic links I am picking up on, and then link some examples of each tendency to give the reader an idea of the sort of work or theorising I would expect from each group.

To be clear, the following is highly idiosyncratic. I am not - not - claiming that this in fact exhausts what's going on. In fact, I think there are ways in which my experience is clearly going to be unrepresentative, most obviously because I am not a political philosopher or theorist of any sort, and so am not going to be properly tapped into the right channels.  This is a very me-centric look at things, no pretences to the contrary. Nor am I claiming that these categories are neatly distinct, lots of people I will mention could fairly be said to participate in another of the named traditions. All I am claiming is that here are some distinctive currents of black political philosophy that I sometimes find myself interacting with or responding to. 

I don't want to delay the main event any further, so below is my taxonomy and after that I will reflect a bit on what I would take away from it.


Afropessimism - Afropessimism can be hard to pin down, but roughly speaking it is orientated around the following themes. From the work of Orlando Patterson a notion of `social death' is arrived at. Persons in this state are treated as beyond the concern and rights and protections of the living, though evidently they may still in some sense participate in society. This is the condition that slaves were put in, and Afropessimists will further claim that this status is now indelibly linked to blackness. The supposed victories of the advance of human rights and so on over the past few centuries were in fact simply some persons or groups managing to successfully differentiate themselves from blackness considered as such. But as a matter of abiding conceptual necessity blackness itself is the negative pole against which what is good is defined. And at this point anti-blackness is so thoroughly and globally woven into our cultures and psyches that in essence what we desire from life is (for something to appear as desirable it must appear to us as) distance from blackness. Those whose bodies inescapably mark them as black in their social milieu are, therefore, forever cut off from the possibility of achieving anything good, and we are not even capable of formulating a desirable state of affairs freed from anti-blackness or in which black people are not socially dead. The most we can hope for is a total destruction of the present world order, and we cannot conceptualise what might come next.

It is relatively rare to find people who will entirely agree to the above. But I hope none the less to have done some justice to the ur-narrative that lies at the heart of Afropessimism. Wilderson's latest book is an obvious place to start if one is looking to read more on the matter. Sylvia Wynter is also a major theorist for people in this tradition, so her work (e.g.) is worth reading in this regard. These essays may also help (and see here for a nice blog post that raises some trouble for what I say). Some of these themes have now become popular even outside of circles wherein people might explicitly self-identify as Afropessimist, so see e.g. Harris' work on racism or some of the themes in Coates' best selling book.

Liberalism - probably the largest tradition in the American academy and thereby the academy of the English speaking world, black liberals are people who wish to secure for black people the rights, liberties, and benefits of full participation as an equal, that are theoretically due to citizens of a liberal polity. The rather obvious problem with this proposal is that the history of liberal polities has included much accumulation of wealth stolen from black people or their exploited labour. One naturally wonders just how desirable a thing it could be to integrate into a system that would do this to us. The task of the black liberal theorist is thus to not only make it clear what a properly run liberal society would offer black people, but to explain why this has historically been so far from the case. And to do all this in such a way that liberalism still seems like an attractive philosophy all things considered.

For some prominent examples of black liberalism one can see the recent work of Charles Mills on ways in which liberal ideals have historically been oppressive to black people but admit of change for the better (e.g.). Yolonda Wilson has work on the same theme, and also work on how the healthcare system should respond to racial injustice. Chris Lebron has a related yet distinct analysis of the failure of liberal norms to be properly applied in the case of black people. There is work from Tommie Shelby on persistent ghetto poverty, giving an egalitarian Rawlsian analysis of what is wrong here and what must be done. There is work from Anita Allen looking at anti-racist legal reform and Boxill on reparations.  Somewhat controversially, but I think the plain reading of what she says, I would say that Nikole Hannah-Jones' work on the 1619 project very clearly fits within this black liberal tradition of attempting to get liberal democracies to live up to their stated ideals. The odd thing about the 1619 project is that it takes on board a historical analysis that seems conducive to Afropessimism, but then tends to reach for optimistic conclusions or wishes for the future. Michelle Moody-Adams writes on how a liberal subject ought relate to their racial identity and Kwame Appiah thinks about similar issues. And so on. This is a huge area!

Black feminism - people in this tradition place special emphasis on the struggles, achievements, and theoretical productions of black women. Work in this tradition has really driven the discourse in many places in recent times, it has some claim to be at the forefront of much political and social discourse that people orient their sense of political selves around. The idea of intersectionality, paying especial attention to the ways in which being oppressed along multiple axes can cause sui generis difficulties, has been especially influential. However, black feminists have also been at the forefront of thinking about ideas around epistemic oppression (ways in which one can be harmed or oppressed in one's role as a knower and transmitter of information) and standpoint epistemology (ways in which one's social location affects what one is in a position to know). What links these features together has just been that the circumstance of living in societies that are both sexist and racist (and other things besides!) can help generate insights that may otherwise be lost, but that those very same circumstances lead to these insights being under-appreciated and ignored.

Crenshaw's work and Patricia Hill Collins's work on intersectionality is probably some of the most famous stuff coming out of this tradition. Philosophers like Kristie Dotson (e.g.) and Briana Toole (e.g.) have done important work on the epistemological ideas mentioned above. There is also work done on an associated political ethic, with Myisha Cherry's forthcoming book and Brittney Cooper emerging as an important public intellectual in the US. Perhaps especially relevant to me and my life, black feminists have also been very influential in metaphilosophy and methodology, with this essay by Kristie Dotson being agenda setting, and this text by Oyewumi causing many feminists to rethink their way of going about things.

Conservatism - there is a long tradition of black intelligentsia thinking that the poverty of black communities or nations results from insufficient adoption of productive and pro-social norms that are found in other more economically or politically successful groups. I am calling this "conservative" because thinkers in this tradition tend to de facto operate within the political right, but it should be clearly understood that there is something a bit misleading about that. First, these thinkers are often actively arguing against conserving cultural practices that are long standing in black communities. Second, very often the norms or patterns of behaviour these thinkers would like to be adopted are recognisably those of participants in a liberal capitalist market society, leading to non trivial overlap with the liberal tradition. None the less, what is distinctive about this tradition as opposed to the liberal tradition is that thinkers here tend not to think it is the norms of liberal societies themselves that have been wrong, and do not think that (at least contemporary) liberal institutions should be the primary target for reform. Rather, it is the behavioural patterns and customs of black people ourselves, it is claimed we must better adapt ourselves to ways of life that can bring peace and prosperity to our communities. Very often this is tied to a critique of other black intellectuals, who thinkers in this tradition tend to see as promoting patterns of behaviour that allow them to perpetuate their own personal position as "race spokespeople" for a group that they are in fact ensuring stay impoverished. A curious split in this group is whether the attitude is motivated by something like a universal humanism that wishes to see black people better participate in the general concord of peoples and nations, or a pessimistic particularism that wishes to see black people do what it takes to be strong, that we may better protect and advocate for ourselves. Both views are represented.

No doubt the most "pure type" of this sort of tradition alive nowadays is Thomas Sowell, whose work on the intelligentsia and things like Affirmative Action programmes have been very influential. Shelby Steele (e.g.) and John McWhorter (e.g.) are also influential proponents of this view. Glenn Loury's work can also be counted in this tradition, though he comes very close to being straightforwardly in the liberal tradition. It is perhaps ironic that Patterson's work sometimes has this vibe, given how diametrically opposed to Afropessimism this tradition is. Trevor Phillips in the UK represents something like this tradition, and Coleman Hughes seems to be upcoming voices in the USA representing this line of thought. There has been an interesting argument to the effect that the US supreme court justice Clarence Thomas is something of a melding of this tradition, a nationalist tradition, and even elements of Afropessimism. 

Culturalism - another case where I struggled to think of the right name, I almost went with "nationalism" but decided that had slightly too strong a historical connotation - none the less much black nationalist work would belong here. What is important in this tradition is not so much particular political designs or policies, but rather a stress on the importance of keeping valuable aspects of black or African cultural traditions alive that are at risk of being lost. It is something of a testament to the unusual situation the modern world puts black people in that these thinkers are rarely conservative, since in many ways it might seem like a natural expression of a conservative frame of mind. But as it stands to value black cultural output often requires an actively counter-cultural mindset, and is often paired with somewhat liberal or leftist sensibilities. What is crucial here is stressing the importance of not losing intrinsically valuable cultural practices that colonialism, racism, or other forms of oppression, may erode or sweep aside. This and Afropessimism are very different perspectives, but seem to me among the most distinctive strands of thought in black political life, and it is typical for members of all groups to at least have some reaction to this strand of thought. 

For people doing the sort of work I have in mind here there's very often interesting political work focussed on black aesthetics (see also this or this). There's work reflecting on the nature of modernity, and pieces arguing for cultural preservation and against a presumption in favour of integration. Often particular styles or genres or artists are reflected upon and celebrated. My sense is the phenomenal global success of black cultural production - reggae, rock'n'roll, rap, jazz, swing, ska... so on... being the most popular forms of music in the world for much of the 20th and 21st centuries, for instance - has made this an area of unusually intense focus. We're so often looked down upon, it's curious that none the less our art should be so enormously popular.

Socialism - there is likewise a long tradition of black thinkers who see an intimate link between the exploitation of black people in particular with the wider patterns of exploitation and domination that capitalism sustains. Such thinkers therefore tend to try identify how it is that the way we have arranged production and distribution produce or exacerbate racism or anti-black prejudice. Having identified the relevant causal levers they then try to outline and advocate for a non-capitalist mode of organisation that would avoid the identified problems. This group tend to be universalistic in their ethos, and there is a tendency towards a materialistic outlook, with heavy focus on causally detailed accounts that emphasise institutional structures and incentives along with class position or power over the means of production.

Probably the most famous example of such a thinker is Angela Davis, and so her classic work Women, Race, and Class is a good place to start. Vanessa Wills' recent essay, along with this from Cornell West, provide good examples of how it is that people in this tradition think capitalism and the racial oppression of black people are connected. These fit into a broader tradition of work thinking about racial capitalism and attempts to envision a better world. Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò (the lesser) has also worked on materialist analysis of propaganda. For an example of how one sees detailed institutional analyses in this tradition Ruth Gilmore's Golden Gulag is a good instance, and Angela Davis' introduction to prison abolition is an example of what comes next. Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò (the greater)'s work on legal naturalism may also be related here. In fact Táíwò (the greater) is a rather interesting example of how these traditions can interrelate, in that I gather from some of his recent work that he is such an orthodox Marxist as to essentially be arguing that African states should adopt liberal capitalist institutions and norms. No short cuts in the dialectic! Wiredu's work advocating for widespread direct democracy based on updated forms of traditional African governance, on the other hand, represents a decidedly non-Marxist socialisty (maybe verging into anarchistic) sort of idea. The American public intellectual Adolph Reed is associated with this tradition, and is often sharply critical of the other strands mentioned above.

These then are the strands I most often encounter. My sense is that black liberalism is very much dominant in the academy, but there are pockets where it would be highly unwelcome. The strand I have labelled conservative, on the other hand, is by and large unpopular in both the academy and broader black life - but it is an old and very well established vein of thought in black political thought, and the persistence of its base of support suggests it is not going anywhere. I would have thought the socialist tradition is moribund, but perhaps the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns will in the long run breathe more life into it. The culturalists will always have their place, given what I mentioned about black arts. But vim, such as it is, belongs to the black feminists and the Afropessimists.  That's where youth energy is found right now, and they are the ones shaking up the wider cultural dialogue.

Before closing I really do wish to stress that there is a lot of very interesting work that does not fit neatly into this categories, that wasn't just a disingenuous disavowal of responsibility I can think of specific instances of good work outside this. There have been a few things exploring ideas about or around the notion of "post-racialism" (e.g.) or interpersonal relationships (e.g.). There continues to be work from some of our leading scholars on abiding issues related to colonialism or police racism that I do not think can be neatly categorised, and likewise with up and coming scholars working on whole new issues. Further, plenty of the people listed above cross categories - I mentioned the case of the elder Táíwò already, but I could also add that Cornell West, Angela Davis, and Brittney Cooper all do public intellectual work that could reasonably fit them in the liberal tradition. Likewise Nikole Hannah Jones, Appiah, and Chris Lebron have done work that would fit in the culturalist tradition. I couldn't and wouldn't want to circumscribe black political philosophy in any silly little list - there's a lot out there that this doesn't purport to include, and one should not be too rigid about things.

Rather, I see the value gained from the exercise to be this: there is a tendency, even among friends, to treat black thought as monolithic. Having a ready to hand taxonomy, along with some exemplars and notes about the different habits of mind that characterise them, will help one discern sources of difference, disagreement, and debate, internal to black political thought. One should not insist upon everyone fitting into all and only one box, but one should be on the look out for how different authors lay emphasis on different themes and where that is likely to pull them apart from other black political thinkers.

Comments

  1. This is super helpful and fascinating. It was also great to get your perspective on which tradition is most active and influential right now. But I can’t help wanting to ask the very reductionist question: Which Tradition do you think is hewing closest to the truth?

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    1. Ha, a fair question! I suppose I am most comfortably within the Socialist tradition, that at least is the only place where I have linked my own work. But I have tried to learn from all. Oh, and thank you for the kind words :)

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  2. Apropos of this interesting categorisation, (assuming you have time, which is a hilarious assumption) it'd be amazing to be able to integrate these various categories's thoughts on the nature (and value) of work into onwork.edu.au. Or, if you're interested in expanding the above to their own citation-labeling-infrastructure, happy to share my code and infrastructure design. Happy to unpack any of this more if you're interested.

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    1. Ah thank you for the kindness, but I am certainly too busy for a new project. New term amidst COVID, not fun!

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  3. Very interesting stuff. I don't have any significant complaints, but would say that Anita Allen could be put in the "feminist" camp too - she crosses the border on this pretty well, I think. Naomi Zack's more explicitly political philosophy probably falls in the "feminist" camp as well, I guess.

    Where would you put Robert Gooding-Wiliams? In the "cultural" group? I've read only a handful of his papers, but found them really interesting.

    On "socialism", Bernie Sanders actual policies are just basic new-deal liberalism, slightly updated, so despite the label I wonder if it's plausible to see him as a path to socialism in any strong sense. (I don't necessarily see this as a bad thing about Sanders.) The actual policies Sanders has proposed are certainly less "socialism" than anything Rawls would support, for comparison.

    Finally, are the two Táíwòs related? (I have realized that I have no idea how common a name this is in the relevant community - if it's the regional Nigerian equivalent of "John Smith", or if it's more unlikely than that that two philosophers would have this name.) I had had the pleasure of working with Táíwò the elder for my first semi-professional publication (when he edited the APA Newsletter on International Cooperation, and I co-authored a piece for it on philosophy in Russia) and then was confused by the appearance of Táíwò the younger, not yet realizing that they were distinct people, and so wondering why/how they were doing the things they were doing. Thankfully, the confusion didn't last long.

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    1. Thanks for this Matt! I agree re Bernie's actual policies, but I just think it's possible a downstream effect of his campaign may end up being interesting a generation of younger people (some of whom go on to talk or write or theorise somehow) in socialism as an ideal, which may then lead to people reading into this tradition. In fact I already think there has been an uptick of interest in Angela Davis' work for basically this reason.

      Robert Gooding-Williams - that's a good question! I really love his "Shadow of Du Bois"; I guess he'd be somewhere between the liberalism and the culturalism categories, I think he can do both. Shadow is more in the liberal tradition - it certainly sides with Douglas over Du Bois in thinking that the constitution should have been argued to be an anti-slavery document, for instance. That seems like the sort of argumentative move the liberal tradition would prefer.

      The two Táíwòs are not related. I am good friends with the younger one so was just teasing him! Thanks for commenting, hope this helps :)

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    2. Thanks, Liam - that's helpful. It's good to know about the two Táíwòs. I knew of the Elder's book on Marx and the law, but not his "Africa must be modern" book, which looks really interesting, so I'm glad to learn about it.

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  4. This is super helpful to me as I'm about to dedicate a few weeks of my political economy of Latin America and the Caribbean class to race and racism in the Americas (and it's the first time I'm doing this and I will borrow this categorization and list [with attribution of course] if you don't mind). I'm assigning some law review articles along with sociology and political science stuff -- where would you put Critical Race Theory in this list? Separate category? Does it depend on the theorist?
    (Also, your responses to commenters on Twitter about this made me laugh out loud. You take self deprecation to another level.)

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    1. Thank you for the kind words, glad it helped! Of course I don't mind you borrowing, I share in the hope that others will gain something from it :)

      I think critical race theory can end up appearing in multiple of the categories. These are grouped by something like - what sort of changes do they wish to see made in the world, since that is what I tend to think significant in a political philosophy. Critical race theory is consistent with lots of different types of changes being thought desirable, and I think it is more a methodological style than a direct theory of what is to be done.

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  5. Great piece, Liam--you're far too modest! Let me recommend to you the work of Michael Hanchard, a black political theorist whose writings do raise deep "philosophical" questions. (See PARTY/POLITICS and his more recent THE SPECTRE OF RACE. I'll forward you his essay on Black Political Thought from a decade ago or so.) And did you reference Michael Dawson, again a very prominent black political theorist? It might be interesting for you to compare your taxonomy with one he did nearly 20 years ago in BLACK VISIONS. P.S. Don't reply (if you do) to the gmail address, which is filled with junk mail.

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    1. Thanks Charles! Great recommendation. (He asked me via email to "sign" this comment - so for the record this is Charles Mills!)

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  6. So where would you put Ibram X. Kendi, author of "How to Be an Anti-Racist"? I'm not sure he fits and maybe you need another category.

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    1. I haven't read Kendi so cannae comment on him specifically. I think there's a sphere of authors which I suspect he's a part of (just from general reputation) whose basic mission is to render the people in liberal capitalist democracies less racist and better able to fulfill liberal norms. They won't put it that way (self describing as "liberal" signals different things in American politics as it does to philosophers) but thats how I think that would fit in here. So on that account he'd be a liberal thinker, if he's in that group.

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  7. This is a great list by the way very helpful. I was wondering if you're familiar with African political philosophy if so is it possible for you to do a similar taxonomy but for African political philosophy.

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    1. Ah thank you for the kind words! I am somewhat, but less, familiar with work from the Continent especially. There are specific authors (e.g. Wiredu and Gyeke) I am quite familiar with, but I don't think I know the contemporary scene well enough to do something equivalent to this blog post.

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