An Interview with Harvard Professor Tommie Shelby: Racial Identities and Contemporary Politics

The following is a transcription of an interview between Jonathan Derbyshire and Tommie Shelby provided by The Prospect .  On their website, they have also posted an interesting interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher, cultural theorist and novelist. Dr. Appiah is the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University.

5th November 2008
Conversation between Jonathan Derbyshire and Tommie Shelby

Tommie Shelby is a professor of philosophy at Harvard University, author of We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity and co-author of Hip-Hop and Philosophy: Rhyme 2 Reason

JD: In your book, We Who Are Dark, you try to articulate a non-essentialist conception of black racial identity as the basis for political solidarity. Is it plausible to try to understand Barack Obama’s campaign in these terms?

TS: In my book, I claim that we should think of black political solidarity as resting not on a common black identity, but on the common experience of racism and the joint commitment to work together to combat it. Despite the diversity within the black population in the US, Obama received overwhelming black support, not just in the general election, where as a Democrat he could expect to get at least 88 per cent of the black vote, but also in the primary against Clinton, where
a number of blacks thought he was unfairly criticised because of his race. I think this black support, especially in the south, reflects in part the historical commitment of blacks, despite their many internal differences, to stand together in the fight for racial justice. Obama is seen by many blacks as a symbol of the successes of our collective historical struggle, and he gives us hope that further progress lies ahead. Moreover, Obama received overwhelming black support despite the fact that his mother is white and his father is not a descendent of black American slaves. Because he is generally
regarded as black (given the one-drop rule) and strongly identifies as black, he is accepted as an equal member in the black community and can lay claim to the legacy of the historic African-American fight for justice. The fact that he attended a black church, is married to an African-American woman, and has mastered elements of traditional black oratory also helped to solidify his black support.

JD: Does an Obama victory also herald the end of a particular way of doing politics? Specifically, identity politics or the “politics of recognition”?

TS: Many whites are weary, and have long been weary, of black claims of grievance. Most whites are impatient with black claims about the continuing significance of racism. They don’t think there is a serious race problem anymore, and they will point to Obama’s election as proof that racism does not affect black life chances, at least not in any serious way. They think that black political solidarity is no longer necessary and that blacks should stop suggesting that America is a racist society and reconcile with their fellow white citizens, dropping all talk of “black America.” For some whites, this is the
significance of Obama’s victory-it undermines black claims of grievance and puts the last nail in the coffin of black identity politics. The fact that Obama ran on a platform of racial reconciliation, did not specify any concrete proposals for how to combat racial discrimination in employment and housing or segregation in public schools, and did not make any overt racial appeals to black voters only seems to buttress the legitimacy of this “post-racial” stance. As this stance becomes more entrenched, and I expect it will, blacks will find it even more difficult to put problems of racial injustice on the public agenda.

JD: Do you, as some African-American intellectuals have argued, think that substantial political costs are incurred when black politicians try to reinvent the political language of race as Obama has? Glen Loury, for instance, argued that Obama’s presuming to “renegotiate the implicit American racial contract” threatens to throw away something valuable; it threatens to obliterate the moral legacy of the black struggle for freedom.

TS: Insofar as Obama has communicated to whites, whether intentionally or not, that what we most need now is interracial unity and racial reconciliation, rather than a concerted effort on the part of government to ensure that no one’s basic rights and opportunities are attenuated because of racism (past and present), then he has made a bad bargain. I don’t think that this was his intention, but some may interpret him this way.

Of course, what I am hoping is that his racial rhetoric was simply pragmatic. He needed to gain significant white support- I think he got about 45 percent nationally-to win, and knowing that most whites are tired of hearing about racism and the black plight, maybe he avoided talking about such things and instead emphasised interracial unity. But he may govern in a way that takes problems of race seriously-for instance, with respect to appointments to the judiciary, to the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, and to Housing and Urban Development.

JD: Finally, what do you think will happen when, as is almost unavoidable, disappointment with a President Obama sets in Is there anywhere for the black political enthusiasm that this campaign has awakened to go?

TS: I don’t think that blacks are expecting Obama to do all that much to help their cause for racial justice. Many of us just liked the idea of having a black Democratic president, recognising that we’re electing a pragmatic left-of-centre politician who will likely govern in much the same way that Bill Clinton did, as a moderate. So while blacks may be disappointed by this or that decision, I don’t think they will be deeply disillusioned by the way he governs.

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