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On Race and Racism in America: Confessions in Philosophy


reviewed by Terrance MacMullan - December 20, 2010

coverTitle: 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
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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 Martinez’s request for a confession. One of the most personal pieces in the book, Caputo’s 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 Martinez’s 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 Husserl’s 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 Martinez’s 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. I’m 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 Martinez’s question. While Sullivan responds most directly to Martinez’s 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 can’t 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 McWhorter’s essay “Racism and Biopower” is, in equal measure, a keen but fair critique of continental philosophy’s 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 Foucault’s theory of biopower, which alone should make it required reading for any Foucault scholar.


Hoy’s 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 McWhorter’s: Hoy argues in favor of Foucault’s post-structural paradigm over Sartre’s 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.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 20, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16265, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 5:50:47 PM

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About the Author
  • Terrance MacMullan
    Eastern Washington University
    E-mail Author
    TERRANCE MACMULLAN is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Honors at Eastern Washington University, where he was named Undergraduate Teacher of the Year in 2008 and was elected by the faculty to serve as the President of the Faculty Organization for the 2007-2008 Academic Year. His essays on Dewey, the philosophy of race and the relationship between public intellectuals and democracy have been published in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Philosophy and Social Criticism, and Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society. His book, The Habits of Whiteness: A Pragmatist Reconstruction, was published by Indiana University Press in May 2009.
 
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