Other-Reification and Racism

In his article, “Racist Variations of Bad Faith:  A Critical Study of Lewis Gordon’s Phenomenology of Racism,” Bart van Leeuwen argues that the racist not only reifies him/herself but also reifies the other.  The racist of course sees him/herself as belonging to the essentially “good” or positive group (the ingroup); whereas the outgroup is a member of the essentially “bad” or negative group, whose essence is inherently flawed.  As van Leewen explains, “other-reification” characterized the “antiblack racism that defined the historical context of slavery and racial segregation during the Jim Crow era in the United States” (58).  Not only was the black slave “invisible to the white person,” his or her very subjectivity was denied, refused, unacknowledged.  Sallie Bingham offers a vivid description of the way in which African Americans were treated as mere objects:   they were “invisible to most white people, except as a pair of hands offering a drink on the silver tray” (58).[1] This objectification and reduction of black individuals to mere tools in the service of whites exhibits the refusal on the part of whites to acknowledge blacks as genuine, human subjects.  To illustrate how whites endeavored to destroy black subjectivity, van Leeuwen turns to a phrase coined by bell hooks, “white control of the black gaze.”  In many if not most instances, a black person was not permitted to make eye contact with a white person while serving him or her.  In fact, “black slaves, and later manumitted servants, could be brutally punished for looking, for appearing to observe the whites they were serving.”[2] A second example, comes from Jean-Paul Sartre, who reflecting on the condition of African Americans after his visit to the United States in 1945, observed:  “they serve you at the table, they shine your shoes, they operate your elevators, they carry your suitcases … they attend their tasks like machines, and you pay no more attention to them than as if they were machines.”[3] As van Leeuwen points out, this reduction and dehumanization of blacks to a mere “pair of serving hands” or functional “machines,” was intimately connected to hooks’ notion of “white control of the black gaze.” Blacks were forced to develop a habitus of avoiding direct eye contact with whites.  This other-reification by the ingroup (in this case the antiblacks) has the potential to foster a third reification wherein the victims begin to view themselves as objects.  Here van Leeuwen turns to a passage from Frantz Fanon’s, Black Skin, White Masks,

I came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain the source of the world, and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects […] The movements, the attitudes, the glances of the other fixed me there, in the sense in which a chemical solution is fixed by a dye.[4]

This sense of being fixed by the other was so overbearing that it produced in Fanon a desire to be invisible, to exist as the anonymous one (59).  “I slip into corners, I remain silent, I strive for anonymity, for invisibility.  Look, I will accept the lot, as long as no one notices me!”[5] All of this leads van Leeuwen to conclude that the racist does not view the other as an absence or empty place in being, but rather as a “surplus of being.  So the basic dynamic of racism must be understood as an escape from the human lack of being (le néant) to the order of things (l’être), a solidification of freedom into total ethnic security” (59-60).  If I understand van Leeuwen here (and I may not given my lack of knowledge of Lewis Gordon and Sartre, so I welcome correction), the “human lack of being” is not absence for Sartre, rather nothingness (néant) is a constitutive element of a human consciousness.  As van Leeuwen explains, “nothingness (néant) as a technical concept denotes a lack of properties, and is opposed to being (être)” (53).  Nothingness is thus closely tied to freedom or what Sartre calls “transcendence,” whereas being speaks of fixity, in Sartre’s vocabulary, “facticity.”  In our human existence and being-in-the-world, we struggle to embrace and live authentically within the constant interplay of freedom and facticity, and this freedom/facticity ambiguity is unbearable for the racist.  In viewing him/herself as well as the other as having fixed essences (where each essence possesses certain inherent capacities and limitations defined by the ingroup-e.g., the racist’s essence is perceived as good and the other’s essence bad, flawed or deficient), the racist in effect is engaged in a flight from freedom, from transcendence, from the néant that cannot be fixed, determined, and controlled.

As I mentioned, I haven’t read Gordon’s work yet (but I look forward to doing so), so I cannot evaluate van Leeuwen’s claims concerning Gordon’s use of Sartre; however, I did not sense that van Leeuwen failed to appreciate the many insights of Gordon’s work.  Rather, his focus was on Gordon’s use of Sartre’s categories in his explications of the phenomenology of racism.


[1] Cited in bell hooks, Black Looks:  Race and Representation (Boston:  South End Press, 1992), p. 168.

[2] hooks, Black Looks, p. 168.

[3] Cited in van Leeuwen, Jean-Paul Sartre, “Return from the United States,” in Gordon (ed.), Existence in Black, pp. 83-89, p. 84.

[4] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 109.

[5] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 116.

Philosophy of Race: Which Texts?

I am seeking texts and articles on the Philosophy of Race.  If any of you have either completed a graduate course on the topic (or even and excellent undergraduate course) or taught a course along these lines, please send me the names of the texts and articles assigned for the course and the reasons why you recommend those particular works.  Also, if you do not fit into the “either/or” above but have done research in this area, please send me your suggestions as well. It would be extremely helpful to know which texts are more of an introductory nature and should be read first and which are more advanced and presuppose a basic acquaintance with the issues.  (I realize that I am leaving things overly general with the category “Philosophy of Race,” but at this point my thinking about the topic is underdeveloped and I am unsure as to the specific direction I might take).

Part II: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Way of Love, Not Hate

In the final three sections of his speech, Dr. King reaffirms his commitment to non-violent activism, reiterates the structural changes that must occur in American society, and concludes with a clarion call to hope in the midst of the on-going struggles for justice.

Dr. King’s Christian faith and vision fortified his conviction that genuine, enduring change could only come through a non-violent strategy.  In King’s assessment, the 1965 Watts riot and other similar acts of violence failed to produce results reflective of a genuine transformation of hearts and minds with regard to the dignity, worth and just treatment of African Americans.  As King explains,

At best, the riots have produced a little additional antipoverty money allotted by frightened government officials, and a few water-sprinklers to cool the children of the ghettos. It is something like improving the food in the prison while the people remain securely incarcerated behind bars. Nowhere have the riots won any concrete improvement such as have the organized protest demonstrations. When one tries to pin down advocates of violence as to what acts would be effective, the answers are blatantly illogical. Sometimes they talk of overthrowing racist state and local governments and they talk about guerrilla warfare. They fail to see that no internal revolution has ever succeeded in overthrowing a government by violence unless the government had already lost the allegiance and effective control of its armed forces. Anyone in his right mind knows that this will not happen in the United States. In a violent racial situation, the power structure has the local police, the state troopers, the National Guard and, finally, the Army to call on-all of which are predominantly white.

King is aware not only of the inability of violence and hate to create authentic change, but he is likewise cognizant of the way in which the power structures in society were (and in many ways still are) stacked against blacks (e.g. the police and military were “predominantly white”).  King adds,

It is perfectly clear that a violent revolution on the part of American blacks would find no sympathy and support from the white population and very little from the majority of the Negroes themselves. This is no time for romantic illusions and empty philosophical debates about freedom. This is a time for action. What is needed is a strategy for change, a tactical program that will bring the Negro into the mainstream of American life as quickly as possible. So far, this has only been offered by the nonviolent movement. Without recognizing this we will end up with solutions that don’t solve, answers that don’t answer and explanations that don’t explain.

King’s admonitions are wise, demonstrating his knowledge of the complexities involved in attempting to dis-lodge unjust power differentials (what Foucault might call large-scale “asymmetrical power relations”) caused by deeply embedded ways of thinking about blacks and whites.  For King, a man so evidently gripped by Christ’s transforming love and concerned with true reconciliation between blacks and whites, non-violence is

the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for justice in this country. […] And I say to you, I have also decided to stick to love. For I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love.   I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. And I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we are moving against wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who has love has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.

King was in no way blind to the violent crimes and injustices carried out on a regular basis by whites against blacks.  However, he chose to love, not hate.  His volitional decision to refuse to retaliate in kind, to refuse to be consumed by bitterness, to refuse to hate all or most white people (when he had every reason to do so), is in my view one of the most potent evidences to the reality of Christ at work in this world.  Of course this does not “prove” in some airtight mathematical way that Christ is God; however, it communicates and incarnates the gospel message in a concrete way that causes both Christians and non-Christians to take note.

In the next section, King raises questions about the economic structure of American society.  While explicitly stating that he is not advocating communism, he challenges us to re-evaluate our economic system and the disparity of wealth and poverty it allows.

[O]ne day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Employing Hegelian dialectical structures of discourse, King stresses that his vision is that of a higher synthesis, a “Kingdom of Brotherhood” [which I’m sure includes “Sisterhood” too].

What I’m saying to you this morning is that Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.

Here I believe King’s Christian faith allows him to speak to the heart of the matter regarding these “triple evils,” namely, sin and the need that all human beings have-whatever the color of our skin happens to be-the need to be liberated from our hatred, greed, bitterness, and self-absorption, and liberated to love, generosity, forgiveness and a sense of solidarity and communion with all human beings. For King, Christ alone, who endured hatred and suffered on behalf of all human beings, can bring about this transformation-or as King puts it, paraphrasing Jesus’s words to Nicodemus, “you must be born again,” “[y]our whole structure must be changed.”  No people group should be seen as objects or property to be used, manipulated and consumed for the furthering of those in power.  For, as King expresses in prophetic and kerygmatic tones,

[a] nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will ‘thingify’ them – make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, ‘America, you must be born again!’

The concluding section of King’s speech simply cannot be summarized without losing something of its passion and rhetorical impact.  So read it for yourself, read it out loud, allow the words to live in you, and pray that God will restructure your own (and my own) thinking about race and how we might participate in and live out of the love for which King fought and died.

So, I conclude by saying again today that we have a task and let us go out with a ‘divine’ dissatisfaction.” Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.  Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity. Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character and not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol houses a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy and who will walk humbly with his God. Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. Let us be dissatisfied. And men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout ‘White Power!’ – when nobody will shout ‘Black Power!’ – but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.

I must confess, my friends, the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. We may again with tear-drenched eyes have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil-rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. And as we continue our charted course, we may gain consolation in the words so nobly left by that great black bard who was also a great freedom fighter of yesterday, James Weldon Johnson:

Stony the road we trod,

Bitter the chastening rod

Felt in the days

When hope unborn had died.

Yet with a steady beat,

Have not our weary feet

Come to the place

For which our fathers sighed?

We have come over the way

That with tears hath been watered.

We have come treading our paths

Through the blood of the slaughtered,

Out from the gloomy past,

Till now we stand at last

Where the bright gleam

Of our bright star is cast.

Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us the courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

Let us realize that William Cullen Bryant is right: ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ Let us go out realizing that the Bible is right: “Be not deceived, God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’ This is our hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow with a cosmic past tense, ‘We have overcome, we have overcome, deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome.’

Part I: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Way of Love, Not Hate

In honor of the upcoming national holiday celebrating the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I offer a brief (and sorely inadequate) summary and commentary of sorts on Dr. King’s 1967 speech, “Where do we go from here?”  I must state upfront that I am in no way an expert on Dr. King’s works and have only a basic acquaintance with his writings; however, I share Dr. King’s Christian faith, his vision for racial equality, and I greatly admire the way in which he integrated his beliefs and his actions.

In the first section of his speech, Dr. King gives a number of examples-from job opportunities, to housing, to education-highlighting the ways in which African Americans, when compared to whites, are treated unjustly. After his piercing and brutally honest assessment of the failures of what the civil rights movement had hoped to attain, King then shares a vision, a trajectory for the future in light of the inequalities that still remain.

Where do we go from here? First, we must massively assert our dignity and worth. We must stand up amidst a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values. We must no longer be ashamed of being black. The job of arousing manhood within a people that have been taught for so many centuries that they are nobody is not easy.

As a white person, I believe that King’s vision is not only for blacks but is also a vision that ought to be embraced by whites, Asians, Hispanics and every other race and people group on our planet.  Until we see all people as having inherent dignity and worth (qualities, which the Christian believes result from the human person’s creation in God’s image), we will not be able to authentically adopt and begin to live out King’s vision.  Continuing his thoughts above, King encourages African Americans to recognize their inherent dignity, beauty and personhood-in spite of the unjust, demoralizing ways in which white culture has tried to reduce them to white sameness and de-value (if not, eradicate) their history, worth and contributions-.  As King exhorts,

No Lincolnian Emancipation Proclamation or Johnsonian Civil Rights Bill can totally bring this kind of freedom. The Negro will only be free when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive manhood his own Emancipation Proclamation. And, with a spirit straining toward true self-esteem, the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abnegation and say to himself and to the world, ‘I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history. How painful and exploited that history has been. Yes, I was a slave through my foreparents and I am not ashamed of that. I’m ashamed of the people who were so sinful to make me a slave.’

In the third section of his speech, King emphasizes the very legitimate need for blacks to have political power and an organized, unified societal voice.  The lack in these areas was part of the problem of the past, as it allowed the whites in power to keep African Americans voice-less and power-less, thus perpetuating injustices which of course benefited whites.    King defines power as “the ability to achieve purpose.  It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change.”  As King explains, power in itself is not bad or evil so long as it is used properly.   However, King is well-aware that both philosophers and political leaders have misconstrued and abused power.  In particular, they have set love and power against one another, as “polar opposites so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.”  Here King mentioned by name the German philosopher, Nietzsche, who so vehemently attacked what he (wrongly) understood as the Christian notion of love.  Rather than a dichotomous or adversarial view of the relation between power and love, King calls us to harmonious view of the two wherein we understand

that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on. What has happened is that we have had it wrong and confused in our own country, and this has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through power devoid of love and conscience.

King goes on to criticize those who advocate pursuing equal rights by any means necessary, which in essence is to re-introduce and utilize a distorted, perverse notion of power.  Such a view is fueled by the same hate that motivated the white agenda, and as King notes, it “led a few extremists today to advocate for Negroes the same destructive and conscienceless power that they have justly abhorred in whites. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times.”

In the fourth section of his speech, King proposes what I imagine was and still is a controversial program, “a guaranteed annual income.”  Here I offer very little commentary, as I do not feel qualified to engage the issues sufficiently.  I will say that I agree with King’s rejection of simplistic characterizations of “the poor” as lazy, lacking in moral fiber and initiative-such a generalization is blind to the oppressive structures built into the framework of our society, structures that are not easily re-configured.  Likewise, I concur with King that an individual’s worth should never be based solely on his or her economic status. Nonetheless, when a person’s ability to work and earn a living for him/herself and/or provide for his/her loved ones is taken away, or the opportunities to do so are few and unjustly distributed, that person’s self-esteem and self-worth suffer and tensions in familial relations tend to increase significantly.  King doesn’t attempt to spell out how this annual income might be implemented (which of course would be out of place given the genre); however, he is confident that something more than what was being done at the time to improve job and other opportunities for blacks could in fact be done.  Whether one agrees with King or not on this point, the way he ends this section, has a powerful rhetorical punch:

John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth.

Heythrop Journal Article

For those interested, my recent article published in the Heythrop Journal (Vol 50, issue 1, Jan. 2009) is currently available online at the following website.  I believe the essay will be posted until the end of this month.

Here’s a brief synopsis:

The first section of my essay highlights a number of significant encounters with texts and persons at different phases of Augustine’s life. In the final section, I bring Augustine into conversation with Hans-Georg Gadamer in an attempt to draw attention to certain hermeneutical continuities shared by premoderns, Gadamarians and postmoderns.   After briefly comparing premodern and modern hermeneutical orientations, I conclude that Augustine’s approach to Scripture contrasts sharply with a (strict) modern grammatico-historical methodology (as instituted by Spinoza), whereas premodern hermeneutics share a number of continuities with Gadamarian and postmodern emphases.  Lastly, in light of Gadamer’s famous statement, “all of life is hermeneutics,” perhaps one could read Augustine’s life as affirming this claim.  In other words, a close look at Augustine’s life reveals the decisive ways in which pre-judgments, interpretative traditions, and a dynamic rather than a static understanding of text (and reality) affected Augustine’s spiritual and intellectual vision.

Part III: Begbie on Re-Sounding God’s Truth in the World of Music

[This is the concluding post for this series:  click on the links for Part I and Part II].

Lastly, turning to a section entitled, “Anticipating,” (chapter 10), I highlight some of the more constructive ways in which Christians might re-sound God’s truth.  Having just discussed how the cross of Christ alone is able to meet three very legitimate postmodern suspicions-escapisms of various flavors, a naïve optimism in human nature, and violent domination-Begbie helps us to see how music can express and embody an already-not-yet, authentic Christian hope.  The hope that Begbie envisages is decidedly not a future only, other-worldly nay-saying hope, but hope “of a future tasted now:  the remaking of this world and of our own humanity, previewed in the raising of Jesus from the dead, and to be enjoyed now through the Spirit” (263).  Following the lead of Russian theologians such as Berdyaev and Bulgakov, Begbie contends that the arts possess the ability to make manifest a proleptic taste of a fully redeemed, re-created cosmos.  Here the picture is not of music transporting us to a world wholly unrelated to our present world, but of music functioning iconic-ly, enabling us to experience now something of the beauty and harmony of the new creation.  There are of course countless possibilities as to how music might grant us such a foretaste.  The very structure of a piece is, for example, one such possibility.  As Begbie explains, “[t]he phenomenon of a future anticipated can also sometimes be found in the way a piece is structured, creating a sort of parable in sound of Christian hope-as when, for example, an ending comes ‘too soon'” (266).  Just as Jesus’s resurrection is a proleptic picture of the final resurrection of God’s people at the end of the present age (wherein the future irrupts into the present), so too music can reflect this “ending-in-the-middle” aspect of the Christian narrative.   For example, in the third movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony no. 41 in C major, we find a “perfect cadence,” which is typically a signal for closure, after the end of the minuet section (266).  However, the piece continues and the presumed ending functions as a transition to something new, to the trio section.   By structuring his piece with a surprise perfect cadence, whose ending turns out to be a new beginning, Mozart communicates the basis of an authentic, Christian hope:  “[t]he resurrection of Jesus is the ending, but found in the midst of history, generating a new beginning” (267).

In sum, my overall impression of Begbie’s book is extremely positive, and I highly recommend his book to anyone interested in engaging theology and music in a refreshing, imaginative way.  Although one might have hoped for more space given to non-Western music, Begbie shows sensitivity to such concerns and is careful not to exalt Western tonal music as the standard for Christian music or music in general.   Begbie has helped us to see the fruitfulness of bringing music into conversation with theology, and we are thankful for his fresh reflections, which have, no doubt, stirred our imaginations “by setting every aspect of music in the context of the breathtaking vision of reality opened up by the gospel of Jesus Christ” (308).