The Black Absence in Academic Philosophy

Jason Stanley recently posted the following interesting status message on his Facebook page:

The first sentence of this article is “Nationwide, just over 5 percent of all full-time faculty members at colleges and universities in the United States are black”. If that is so disturbing as to give rise to this headline, what are we to say about the fact that fewer than 125 members of the 11,000+ members of the American Philosophical Association are black. If *just over 5 percent* is disturbing, what about *1 percent*?

I’d call that statistic disturbing several times over. It’s not a new one to me, but its capacity to induce deep discomfort does not go away. There’s no two ways about it: philosophy, as an academic field, does not seem up to the task of accommodating black students or faculty.  A problem as severe as the numbers indicate is not amenable to easy solutions either.

At Brooklyn College, our department has twice played host to black professors–Lewis Gordon and Tunde Bewaji–for visiting positions that lasted for a year. The enrollment of black students in their classes–Philosophy of Culture and African-American Philosophy–was through the roof; we had never seen as many black students register before for a class. This suggests one immediate step: the hiring of black faculty.  (Brooklyn College has failed to hire a black philosopher, so we aren’t doing too well in his regard.)

But black faculty will have first been black students earning Ph.Ds, which brings us to the problem of the lack of black students in philosophy graduate programs. During my graduate school years, I can only remember seeing one black student in the twenty or so graduate level courses I took; he simply disappeared after a while. All the usual suggested solutions still seem worth a shot: aggressive recruitment, careful, close mentoring. I have no idea, honestly, what steps major graduate programs nation-wide are taking in this direction.

Just getting black students into philosophy programs will not help if they find their curricula to not be of interest.  One possible way to get black students interested in philosophical curricula–at the undergraduate level for starters–is to bridge it for them somehow. For instance, Brooklyn College offers a class called ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature’ which is taught as a Upper-Tier core course. A variant of this could be ‘Philosophical Issues in African-American Literature’; it would serve to introduce black students to epistemic, ethical, metaphysical, and political issues through that canon. (Philosophy departments, of course, would have to get over their uptightness about philosophy only being taught from ‘classical texts.’) Given this introduction they might then be inclined to see what the ‘regular’ or ‘mainstream’ philosophical tradition has to offer them.

Of course, as Stanley noted, philosophy departments also could and should:

 [T]each the extremely rich tradition in African-American Philosophy, especially in Political Philosophy. Start with David Walker‘s *Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World*, go through to Du Bois‘ *The Souls of Black Folks*, and Alain LockeCLR James‘s *The Black Jacobins* is a brilliant way to think about the contradictions of liberalism. There is tons of great political philosophy and aesthetics there. [links added]

These changes to curricula and hiring and retention practices are still just scratches on the surface. What is perhaps needed is a deeper and more fundamental change, a reconceptualization of the nature of philosophical inquiry and practice. For that, Kristie Dotson‘s paper “How is this Paper Philosophy?” (Comparative Philosophy 3:2) makes for very useful reading. I hope to write more on it soon.

13 thoughts on “The Black Absence in Academic Philosophy

  1. Here is a summer institute, at Penn State, attempting a multi-dimensional approach to the “pipeline problem.” “If you know promising undergraduate women or men from underrepresented groups such as African Americans, Chicano/as and Latino/as, Native Americans, Asian Americans, LGBT persons, economically disadvantaged communities, and people with disabilities, please call this program to their attention. In addition, please consider serving as their “sponsor.” Faculty sponsors mentor students, helping them to prepare their applications, and, when possible and appropriate, work with the students after the Summer Institute to help further the gains the students have made.”

  2. I should add only about 1 percent of philosophers are Latino. Part of the pipeline has to do with blacks and Latinos having about half of the college graduation rate as the national average. So the task is doubly hard to begin with. It doesn’t help that philosophy as a profession is attrocious at fostering diversity. We should try all of the techniques you mention and several more besides. And this should be a unified project aiming at improving diversity in the discipline, not aimed at any particular group.

    1. Carlos,

      Thanks for pointing that out. Yes indeed, the problem is even bigger than I might have indicated. And you are right too, about the kind of solution required.

  3. Samir, both of your suggestions are about changing philosophy to make it more interesting. But there should be a way of getting everyone interested interested in the usual philosophical problems. Some of the topics suggested are covered in African American Studies Departments.
    Nice post.

    1. I find responses like this very frustrating. First of all, black philosophers have been writing and responding to “usual” problems for hundreds of years, it’s just been marginalized. Second, the term “usual” just sounds like a call to the entrenchment of the “white” cannon of philosophy. To reiterate Carlos’ point, 5% involvement in academia is dire but 1% is a systematic crisis that probably calls for us to rethink not just our methods of teaching the “usual” stuff but to completely rethink what we are teaching.

      Third, and what I found most problematic, I cannot begin to understand what you mean by “Some of the topics suggested are covered in African American Studies Departments.” This seems again some kind of gate keeper like statement of what falls into the category of philosophy or what doesn’t. Not too long ago (and even now) there was/continues to be talk of the solution to women’s inclusion in philosophy. Oh well we don’t need to change the cannon of philosophy for it to be more interesting to women, the topics suggested are already covered by the women’s and gender department. The most charitable reading I could give this was to say that hey, philosophy has something unique to say particularly about the black experience, separate from the conversation going on in African American studies departments. Maybe, but it seems bizarrely ahistorical not to at least to converse and continue topics that just happen to originate in African American departments (probably because they could be started no where else!)

      We do not leave political philosophy to the political science department nor Hegel to the German department no matter how much overlap there is.

  4. I believe that if there is only an effort to increase diversity, someone will get left out. It’s possible for things to remain exactly as they are if the effort is about diversity and not specifically to bring Blacks into Philosophy or Native Americans into Philosophy or Latin@s into Philosophy. I suspect that when you begin to look internationally you may see some of the same problems. How many Philosophers of African descent are on faculty at universities in Brasil, or Venezuela or Colombia? I think that universities in New York would be a perfect fit for bringing in a Philosophy faculty member from the Caribbean.

    In your opinion, what do you think is lost by not having diversity in academic Philosophy?

  5. Pingback: Filippo Contesi

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