Lines of Descent: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity

Posted in Biography, Books, Europe, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Philosophy on 2015-04-16 19:29Z by Steven

Lines of Descent: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity

Harvard University Press
February 2014
240 pages
4-3/8 x 7-1/8 inches
Hardcover ISBN: 9780674724914

Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Law and Philosophy
New York University

W. E. B. Du Bois never felt so at home as when he was a student at the University of Berlin. But Du Bois was also American to his core, scarred but not crippled by the racial humiliations of his homeland. In Lines of Descent, Kwame Anthony Appiah traces the twin lineages of Du Bois’ American experience and German apprenticeship, showing how they shaped the great African-American scholar’s ideas of race and social identity.

At Harvard, Du Bois studied with such luminaries as William James and George Santayana, scholars whose contributions were largely intellectual. But arriving in Berlin in 1892, Du Bois came under the tutelage of academics who were also public men. The economist Adolf Wagner had been an advisor to Otto von Bismarck. Heinrich von Treitschke, the historian, served in the Reichstag, and the economist Gustav von Schmoller was a member of the Prussian state council. These scholars united the rigorous study of history with political activism and represented a model of real-world engagement that would strongly influence Du Bois in the years to come.

With its romantic notions of human brotherhood and self-realization, German culture held a potent allure for Du Bois. Germany, he said, was the first place white people had treated him as an equal. But the prevalence of anti-Semitism allowed Du Bois no illusions that the Kaiserreich was free of racism. His challenge, says Appiah, was to take the best of German intellectual life without its parochialism—to steal the fire without getting burned.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • 1. The Awakening
  • 2. Culture and Cosmopolitanism
  • 3. The Concept of the Negro
  • 4. The Mystic Spell
  • 5. The One and the Many
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index
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Reconstructing Race: A Discourse-Theoretical Approach to a Normative Politics of Identity

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Philosophy on 2012-02-08 04:30Z by Steven

Reconstructing Race: A Discourse-Theoretical Approach to a Normative Politics of Identity

The Philosophical Forum
Volume 43, Issue 1 (Spring 2012)
pages 27–49
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9191.2011.00409.x

Andrew J. Pierce
Loyola University, Chicago

The claim that race is “socially constructed” has become something of a platitude in social science and philosophy. At a minimum, such a claim means to reject the notion that conceptions of race have some biological or “scientific” foundation and suggests instead that the notion of race is a purely human invention—a conventional way of ordering societies rather than a natural fact about the world. But the political and normative implications of this basic agreement are far from clear. Some have taken it to mean that we ought to stop talking about “races” as though they were real and work to develop other kinds of identifications to replace so-called “racial” identities. Others have suggested that though race may not be ontologically real, political structures that take races as basic make race an unavoidable social reality, such that as a matter of political practice, it is unwise to eliminate talk of race. And others still have argued that racial identity can be reinterpreted in such a way as to shed its deterministic connotations, but retain important features that have come to flourish under the oppressive force of, say, black identity. In short, the fact that race is “socially constructed,” important an insight as it is, tells us relatively little about what role, if any, race ought to play in a more just social order and in the construction of healthy collective identities. This paper aims to get clear on the normative implications of the “social construction” thesis, not just for political practice in nonideal societies where racial oppression remains, but in “ideal” (presumably nonracist) societies as well. That is, I am interested in the question of whether race and/or racial identity would have any legitimate place in an ideally just society, or to state it another way, whether the concept of race can be extricated from the history of racial oppression from which it arose. The position I defend is a version of what has come to be called a “conservationist” view. I argue that racial identities could be normatively justified based upon modified principles of discourse (which, I argue, are appropriately applied to contexts of collective identity formation), though I do not endorse the stronger claim that racial identities are an inevitable feature of any form of social organization that societies now structured by race could aspire to, as some other conservationists claim. Moreover, I do not take conservationism to imply that future racial groups would be the same as current racial groups, a point I illustrate through an analysis of whiteness.


The social construction thesis has led some to argue that since the concept of race has no real referent (and moreover, since “race-thinking” is often morally problematic), it should be discarded altogether. Kwame Anthony Appiah, one of the most fervent proponents of this kind of eliminativism, argues succinctly that “there are no races. There is nothing in the world we can ask race to do for us,” in short, that race “refers to nothing in the world at all.” Given, in other words, that modern science has failed to identify any discrete entities called “races,” use of the term lacks a referent and so is, strictly speaking, meaningless. Continued employment of the term rests on a conceptual mistake, one that is frequently morally pernicious besides.

But one may wonder, does the lack of a scientific foundation for race really mean that our everyday race terms lack reference? After all, do we not know who we mean when we talk about blacks, whites, Latinos, etc.? Perhaps not. Naomi Zack shares Appiah’s skepticism about the existence of races, and in Race and Mixed Race, she provides similar arguments to show that race has no scientific foundation and further, that folk criteria of race, which attribute racial membership based primarily upon heredity, fail to achieve their purported goal of completeness (such that all persons would have a designated racial membership) since mixed-race persons do not fit within their classificatory scope, and further, since there is no defensible way to distinguish mixed race persons from “pure” race persons. For example, there is no logical reason why a person with three white grandparents and one black one should be considered black, while a person with three black grandparents and one white one should not be considered white. And insofar as most if not all persons in racialized societies like the U.S. (not to mention Latin American nations) are “mixed” to some degree, then folk criteria of racial membership are fatally flawed as well.

But there are good reasons for hesitating to make the leap from this ontological claim (that races do not exist) to the normative claim that we should retire racial categories from our vocabulary, and so, presumably, from our laws and policies as well. This hesitance is based on the recognition that racial categories are useful for picking out, for example, “persons whose ancestors were victims of American chattel slavery,” and who might have legitimate moral claims based on that ancestry. That is, one intuitively plausible answer to the question, “why continue to talk about ‘races’ if there are no such thing?” is that, though race is not “real” in any ultimate metaphysical sense, it is still an important concept for understanding contemporary social reality, given that racial categories still structure the experiences of individuals and the functioning of institutions in “racialized” societies. One need not believe in God to understand the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition (or to use Appiah’s example, one need not believe in witches to understand the functioning of the concept of witchcraft in early colonial New England). One can continue to hold that such concepts have a social reality, even if one denies that they are real in the deeper senses above. In relation to race, such a position has come to be called constructivism. Racial constructivists accept that race has no biological foundation, yet they argue that as a result of human action and the widespread, consequential successes of pseudoscientific and folk theories of race, race has come to be inscribed in the institutions and practices of contemporary societies in ways that cannot be illuminated without recourse to some conception of race. Accordingly, they hold that race does have a sociohistorical reality, even if it cannot be linked to biologically significant “racial” differences…


Is it the case, one might wonder, that whites, when confronted with a confusing array of diverse racial identities, might simply “shrug and call themselves white?” That is, could whiteness continue to exist as an option for racial identification under nonracist conditions, and if not, what options does this leave for persons traditionally considered white? The question is an especially pressing one if collective identity is of the kind of constitutive importance that many have argued it is, and since one might think that the lack of a positive reconstruction of white racial identity leaves a void that is too often filled by traditionally racist, white supremacist conceptions of whiteness. The answer, I believe, is that white identity is not discursively justifiable, mainly because it is inherently coercive and exclusionary, failing, at least, the first and fourth conditions of discourse. Yet, I will argue this lack of justification need not cause too much worry since white identity lacks the intersubjective resources and benefits of other kinds of collective identity, such that, in the absence of other, illegitimate kinds of benefits (i.e., all of the economic, political, psychological, and social benefits associated with being in a position of relative dominance) one would not expect it to remain of much value to those it purported to describe anyway. That is, in precise opposition to the standard view that sees whiteness as the norm and nonwhiteness as the deviation or exception, I will argue that white identity is actually the anomalous identity, one that, when uncoupled from the system of racial oppression in which it formed, fails to provide the benefits typical of collective identity. If this is true, then one should expect that white identity would eventually be replaced by more useful and democratic forms of collective identification. The outlines of such alternatives are already visible even in our own society and demonstrate that the illegitimacy of white racial identity does not leave white people “marooned” without any resources for collective identification.

In order to begin to understand why white racial identity is illegitimate, one must understand its history, and the conditions under which it formed. Presumably, white racial identity stands in some relation to European heritage, though one should be cautious about equating the two. Previous to the eighteenth century, the idea of race as denoting specific lines of descent still marked a division between the “noble races” of European stock and their ignoble, though nonetheless similarly pigmented, countrymen. At its most general, this idea of race allowed for a commonality among nations or peoples, circumscribing the membership of the French, German, or English “races.” It was only in the New World, where English and other Europeans were confronted with the reality of slavery, that whiteness came to denote a commonality among Europeans of different types. Putatively setting aside old and deeply ingrained internal inequalities, the express purpose of such an identity was to distinguish the free European from the enslaved African, based upon the latter’s supposedly inherent dependency. In this way, slavery could be reconciled with the nascent values of liberalism. This opposition of slave and freeman is at the root of the U.S.’s binary racial system, a system into which successive waves of immigrants would be forced to assimilate…

Read the entire article here.

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Reflections: An Anthology of African-American Philosophy, 1st Edition

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Law, Media Archive, Philosophy, Politics/Public Policy, Religion, Social Science, United States, Women on 2012-02-06 05:26Z by Steven

Reflections: An Anthology of African-American Philosophy, 1st Edition

Cengage Learning
464 pages
Paperback ISBN-10: 0534573932  ISBN-13: 9780534573935

Edited by:

James Montmarquet, Professor of Philosophy
Tennessee State University

William Hardy, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion
Tennessee State University

This anthology provides the instructor with a sufficient quantity, breadth, and diversity of materials to be the sole text for a course on African-American philosophy. It includes both classic and more contemporary readings by both professional philosophers and other people with philosophically intriguing viewpoints. The material provided is diverse, yet also contains certain themes which instructors can effectively employ to achieve the element of unity. One such theme, the debate of the “nationalist” focus on blackness vs. the many critics of this focus, runs through a great number of issues and readings.

Table of Contents

  • Preface.
  • Introduction.
    • 1. W.E.B. DuBois: From The Souls of Black Folk.
    • 2. Molefi K. Asante: Racism, Consciousness, and Afrocentricity.
    • 3. Kwame Anthony Appiah: Racisms.
    • 4. J. L. A. Garcia: The Heart of Racisms. Contemporary Issue: Views on “Mixed Race”.
    • 5. Naomi Zack: Mixed Black and White Race and Public Policy.
    • 6. Lewis R. Gordon: Race, Biraciality, and Mixed Race-In Theory.
    • 7. Martin R. Delaney: The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored Peoples of the United States.
    • 8. Frederick Douglass: The Future of the Negro, The Future of the Colored Race, The Nation’s Problem, and On Colonization.
    • 9. Marcus Garvey: From Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey.
    • 10. Maulana Karenga: The Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles): Their Meaning and Message.
    • 11. Molefi K. Asante: The Afrocentric Idea in Education.
    • 12. Cornel West: The Four Traditions of Response. Contemporary Issue: “Ebonics”.
    • 13. Geneva Smitherman: Black English/Ebonics: What it Be Like?
    • 14. Milton Baxter: Educating Teachers about Educating the Oppressed. Feminism, Womanism, and Gender Relations.
    • 15. Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman?
    • 16. Patricia Hill Collins: The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought.
    • 17. bell hooks: Reflections on Race and Sex.
    • 18. Angela P. Harris: Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory.
    • 19. Charles W. Mills: Do Black Men Have a Moral Duty to Marry Black Women? Contemporary Issue: Women’s Rights and Black Nationalism.
    • 20. E. Francis White: Africa on My Mind: Gender, Counterdiscourse, and African American Nationalism.
    • 21. Amiri Baraka: Black Woman. Violence, Liberation, and Social Justice.
    • 22. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
    • 23. Malcolm X: Message to the Grass Roots.
    • 24. Howard McGary: Psychological Violence, Physical Violence, and Racial Oppression.
    • 25. Laurence M. Thomas: Group Autonomy and Narrative Identity. Contemporary Issue: Affirmative Action.
    • 26. Bernard Boxill: Affirmative Action.
    • 27. Shelby Steele: Affirmative Action. Ethics and Value Theory.
    • 28. Alain Locke: Values and Imperatives.
    • 29. Michele M. Moody-Adams: Race, Class, and the Social Construction of Self-Respect.
    • 30. Laurence M. Thomas: Friendship.
    • 31. Cornel West: Nihilism in Black America.
    • 32. Katie G. Cannon: Unctuousness as a Virtue: According to the Life of Zora Neale Hurston. Contemporary Issue: A Classic Question of Values, Rights, and Education.
    • 33. Booker T. Washington: Atlanta Exposition Address.
    • 34. W.E.B. DuBois: The Talented Tenth.
    • 35. Patricia J. Williams: Alchemical Notes: Reconstructing Ideals from Deconstructed Rights.
    • 36. Regina Austin: Sapphire Bound!
    • 37. Derrick Bell: Racial Realism-After We’re Gone: Prudent Speculations on America in a Post-Racial Epoch.
    • 38. John Arthur: Critical Race Theory: A Critique. Contemporary Issue: Racist Hate Speech.
    • 39. Charles Lawrence and Gerald Gunther: Prohibiting Racist Speech: A Debate. Aesthetics.
    • 40. James Baldwin: Everybody’s Protest Novel.
    • 41. Larry Neal: The Black Arts Movement.
    • 42. Angela Y. Davis: Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”: Music and Social Consciousness.
    • 43. Ralph Ellison: Blues People. Contemporary Issue: Rap Music.
    • 44. Crispin Sartwell: Rap Music and the Uses of Stereotype.
    • 45. Kimberle Crenshaw: Beyond Racism and Misogyny: Black Feminism and 2 Live Crew. Philosophy and Theology.
    • 46. David Walker: David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United stated.
    • 47. James H. Cone: God and Black Theology.
    • 48. Victor Anderso: Ontological Blackness in Theology.
    • 49. Anthony Pinn: Alternative Perspectives and Critiques. Contemporary Issue: Womanist Theology and the Traditionalist Black Church.
    • 50. Cheryl J. Sanders: Christian Ethics and Theology in a Womanist Perspective.
    • 51. Delores Williams: Womanist Reflections on “the Black Church,” the African-American Denominational Churches and the Universal Hagar’s Spiritual Church.
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