Philosophy: Answers to the really big questions

Barack Obama’s election has not altered structural racism in the US. Dorothy Counts was harassed at a US school in 1957 and many schools are now more segregated than then. (AFP and Jason Reed/Reuters)

Barack Obama’s election has not altered structural racism in the US. Dorothy Counts was harassed at a US school in 1957 and many schools are now more segregated than then. (AFP and Jason Reed/Reuters)

What use is philosophy in transformation? As a philosopher, I have to deal with this question all the time. Sometimes it’s undergraduate students wondering what good a philosophy major is going to be, or people you meet at parties who are surprised to find out what you do. After all, isn’t philosophy basically just dead white guys in ancient Greece – really dead white guys – talking about stuff with no practical relevance to anything?

Well, no. And I speak as a black guy (a live one).

Another challenge: Isn’t philosophy as an academic subject really a luxury, maybe OK for countries of the global North that are rolling in money, but not what countries from the former Third World focusing on development can afford?

Well, no, again. And I speak as a Jamaican (from a country with all kinds of development problems).

Philosophy as conceived of in the Western tradition was supposed to be very relevant to practical issues by encouraging us to reflect on how we should live. It was asking very basic questions about the good life and what should be really important for us, about justice and what a just society would look like, about how to think critically and not accept the conventional wisdom. And such issues are eternal because they still face all of us every day.

The picture of the gender and racial exclusivity of philosophy as a discipline is (a bit) dated. In the United States, admittedly, it’s still heavily male (about 80%) and overwhelmingly white (about 98%). But the good thing is that the problem is at last beginning to be recognised at the official American Philosophical Association (APA) level.

More representative
Progressives in the profession in various lobbying committees – on the status of philosophers who are female, indigenous, black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian and Asian-American – have long been agitating for a more representative discipline, and the APA is finally taking measures to address this imbalance.

Feminist philosophy has been established for some decades now and critical philosophy of race is emerging as a field, with a new journal having been launched at Pennsylvania State University in 2013.

Philosophy is increasingly dealing not merely with the eternal issues of the human condition but also with the concrete problems of specific societies. And that brings us to contemporary South Africa. Where are we, 20 years after the formal end of apartheid?

Obviously, the ending of formal white domination was immensely liberating. But as the experience of the US has shown, it’s one thing to end segregation by law and another thing to end de facto segregation. One can take down the “whites” and “coloureds” signs but still have a society that is deeply racially divided.

So, what would a just South Africa look like, and how do we achieve it? If we’ve inherited a legacy of racial injustice, what does racial justice demand of us now?

Different government policies may have radically different impacts on people’s lives. So the issue needs to be discussed as fully as possible in all sections of society. And philosophy can make an important contribution to clarifying what is at stake.

One obvious solution is that we should strive for colour-blindness. After all, apartheid South Africa was a racist society built on making race central. So shouldn’t post-apartheid South Africa break with the past by making race irrelevant?

But there’s a problem with this recommendation – actually several – and here’s where philosophy can help to clarify concepts and adjudicate normative disputes.

To begin with, we need to distinguish between colour-blindness as a goal and colour-blindness as the best way for achieving that goal. Everybody can agree that, in a modern democratic country, the ideal should be to make race irrelevant. But whether that’s also the best way of getting there is a separate question.

Second, we need to distinguish between racism as derogatory racial views of people and racism as a racially structured social system. Even if racism in the first sense diminishes considerably, the system may still remain intact.

People of the privileged race who insist that they’re not racist are missing the point. Even if they’re sincere (and cognitive psychologists have documented that implicit bias and unconscious racism are far more prevalent than previously recognised), they’re still advantaged by the system.

Systemic unfair racial advantage does not need racist motivation to reproduce itself. It may be a simple function of where people live, where they go to school, what social networks they’re a part of, whether their family owns a home, how much wealth they get passed down, and how that wealth advantages them.

If the legacy of the past racist society is one in which members of one race have inherited systemic unfair advantages, and members of other races have inherited systemic unfair disadvantages, then colour-blindness as a policy is not going to bring about a society where race is irrelevant.

Entrenching disadvantage
Rather, it’s just going to entrench the system of racial advantage and disadvantage that already exists.

As we all know, the US elected its first black president in 2008. It might have seemed at the time that we had finally reached the goal of a colour-blind society.

But today many US schools are more segregated than they were in the 1950s; the wealth gap between median white and median black and Latino households is higher than it’s ever been since the government started to collect data on it (20:1 and 18:1); and the percentage of people of colour in the prison system has reached record numbers.

Yet despite such racial disparities, the white backlash against desegregation and affirmative action has in effect terminated these corrective social policies. So having a black man in the White House is not going to make that much difference if the system of unfair structural white advantage is not dismantled. And that’s a lesson that South Africa needs to learn from the US.

The University of Chicago’s Robert Gooding-Williams and I have just co-edited a special issue of the journal Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, on the subject of race in a post-racial epoch in which philosophers and political theorists weigh in on these questions.

The conclusion of all the contributors is that we are going to need colour-sensitive/colour-conscious policies to undo the legacy of the past – and only then, when a more racially egalitarian society has been achieved, will we be able to be colour-blind.

I believe this also applies to contemporary South Africa. All South Africans, but perhaps white South Africans in particular, need to ask themselves: What can I do to help to bring about a more racially just society? And believe me, that’s a philosophy question.

Charles W Mills, professor of philosophy at Northwestern University in the United States, is the author of pioneering texts in the critical philosophy of race, including Blackness Visible, The Racial Contract and, most recently, Radical Theory, Caribbean Reality. He will give a keynote talk on racial equality at the University of Cape Town’s Social Equality conference, which takes place from August 15 to 17. Email [email protected] for details



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