On Race and Racism in America: Confessions in Philosophy
reviewed by Terrance MacMullan - December 20, 2010
Title: On Race and Racism in America: Confessions in Philosophy
Author(s): Roy Martinez (ed.)
Publisher: Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park
ISBN: 0271036397, Pages: 161, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com
On Race and Racism in America: Confessions in Philosophy is a powerful and timely anthology. Much of its unique gravitas stems from the fact that its exceptional editor, Dr. Roy Paul Martinez of Spelman College, succumbed to cancer before this work was in print. The fact that this collection of essays opens with the clarion voice of a recently-departed thinker lends this already emotionally powerful work an even greater poignancy. We scholars should hope to end our lives with such brave and insightful work.
This short (145 page) anthology is composed of sharp essays by excellent scholars, but it is also a very unusual work at the intersection of continental philosophy and critical race theory. First, as the subtitle announces, these essays are not meant to be theoretical analyses of race and racism, but instead philosophical confessions on race, racism, and philosophy. The second feature that makes this anthology unusual, even controversial, is that Martinez invited only white philosophers to contribute. As Martinez explains, the distinctive feature of this anthology lies in the fact that it alone dares to ask distinguished white philosophers why they have not hitherto addressed publicly the urgent issue of race and racism (p. xxvii). While a great majority of philosophical work on race and racism is written by philosophers of color, Martinez hopes to balance the discussion by calling out white philosophers to answer why most influential white philosophers have not addressed the issue of race, its social construction and myth, and the problems it raises on a daily basis? (p. x).
The anthology delivers on its promise; each of its eight essays by prominent white philosophers, four women and four men, explores some facet of the absence, or willful evasion, of race within professional philosophy generally, and the work of white continental philosophers in America in particular. While only a few of the essays engage in the kind of personal reflection that could fairly be called a confession, they all reward the reader with insights into the problems of racism in America as well as the limits and promise of continental philosophy. While space prohibits an equal engagement with all eight essays here, please know that all of the contributions are well-written, well-reasoned and worthwhile. A sampling of the contributions will hopefully present a faithful thumbnail of this challenging scholarly collaboration.
The first essay by John Caputo takes most seriously Martinezs request for a confession. One of the most personal pieces in the book, Caputos essay is a slightly tongue-in-cheek confession to the crime of omitting race, per se, from his scholarship. Caputo writes that when summoned before Martinezs merciless Inquisition he immediately cops the specific crime of ignoring questions of race within his prodigious scholarly corpus, but he is also quick to offer exculpatory evidence, specifically noting his commitment to Levinasian notions of alterity and the concreteness of life that in turn motivated his famous unmasking of Heidegger and Husserls transcendentalist conceits as thoroughly and dangerously Eurocentric.
The second essay by Joseph Margolis continues the intimate theme of the first as it uses the language of witness to respond to Martinezs challenge. Again, we find the author marshaling exculpatory evidence, in this case Margolis recollection of the severe ostracism he experienced for publishing in the 1950s a short piece that criticized segregation. This is perhaps the most controversial essay for at least two reasons. First, Margolis gives an account of what he sees as positive gentrification whereby he and his wife bought a property in South Philadelphia and changed the neighborhood forever (p. 31). Second, Margolis attitude towards his own racism or lack thereof, differs greatly from the other contributors and might give the readers pause. While he has clearly been a careful witness of racism over his life, he writes, I myself have never worked at eliminating racism from my own soul. Im simply not racist at any level of spontaneous or reflective life (p. 35).
The third contribution by Shannon Sullivan is less personal than the earlier contributions, but offers the clearest response to Martinezs question. While Sullivan responds most directly to Martinezs question, she, in many ways, does not belong in this anthology. First, the problem presented by Martinez is the silence of prominent white philosophers of the continental tradition on the issue of race, but Sullivan has already written two books and nearly a dozen articles on the issue of race and racism. Second, Sullivan here writes like a good continentalist using Sartre, Fanon and Kristeva but she cant hide her pragmatist stripes. Hers is the essay most concerned with concrete action: fully half of the essay is a response to the question [w]hat then should white continental philosophers do ? (p. 42). Also, her answer to this question is deeply meliorist: she forces white people to give up the dream of perfection, purity and mastery in favor of concrete and thoughtful action that will be both imperfect and open to wide critique but nonetheless the best possible course of action (p. 51).
Ladelle McWhorters essay Racism and Biopower is, in equal measure, a keen but fair critique of continental philosophys attempts to understand race and address racism as it is a call to see how Foucaultian genealogies are tools we can use to create a nonracist future (p. 81). The longest essay in the anthology, this piece offers the greatest depth of analysis regarding the history of racism both in America and Europe. It includes an exceptionally lucid explanation and application of Foucaults theory of biopower, which alone should make it required reading for any Foucault scholar.
Hoys chapter transitions from a backward-looking assessment of why continental philosophy has neglected race to a forward-looking remediation that uses resources from continental philosophy (p. 103). He offers an assessment of continental philosophy and race similar to McWhorters: Hoy argues in favor of Foucaults post-structural paradigm over Sartres phenomenology, though he is ultimately less concerned with picking sides than he is with demonstrating why a meta-philosophical quarrel should not stand in the way of productive critical resistance (p. 111).
This anthology is highly recommended and is essential reading for any thinker interested in continental philosophy and race as well as anyone who wants to better understand racism or philosophy generally. It would be a valuable addition to an upper undergraduate or graduate syllabus for any class that addresses issues of race, ethnicity, identity or continental philosophy.