Friday, July 09, 2021

The Varieties Of Black Political Philosophy

sootyempiric  |  In circles I run in one will often see people advised to read black authors or engage with black thought. I take it the reason I see this so often is that in the bits of philosophy I mix in it is i) seen as good to be broad minded and well read in one's thought, and especially to be in touch with wha people from marginalised groups are thinking -- and ii) rare to actually be as much. This got me thinking about what this means, what sort of tendencies of thought or theory one might expect to encounter upon doing so.

For that reason I decided to categorise some of the tendencies of black political thought that I often encounter, and share that here. Each group is not much more than a loose affinity group, united by a theme. But I tend to think I can recognise instances of members of these groups when I see them - by what they stress, how they argue, what sort of things they think possible or impossible, or relevant or irrelevant. So I have tried to briefly summarise the thematic links I am picking up on, and then link some examples of each tendency to give the reader an idea of the sort of work or theorising I would expect from each group.

To be clear, the following is highly idiosyncratic. I am not - not - claiming that this in fact exhausts what's going on. In fact, I think there are ways in which my experience is clearly going to be unrepresentative, most obviously because I am not a political philosopher or theorist of any sort, and so am not going to be properly tapped into the right channels.  This is a very me-centric look at things, no pretences to the contrary. Nor am I claiming that these categories are neatly distinct, lots of people I will mention could fairly be said to participate in another of the named traditions. All I am claiming is that here are some distinctive currents of black political philosophy that I sometimes find myself interacting with or responding to. 

I don't want to delay the main event any further, so below is my taxonomy and after that I will reflect a bit on what I would take away from it.


Before closing I really do wish to stress that there is a lot of very interesting work that does not fit neatly into this categories, that wasn't just a disingenuous disavowal of responsibility I can think of specific instances of good work outside this. There have been a few things exploring ideas about or around the notion of "post-racialism" (e.g.) or interpersonal relationships (e.g.). There continues to be work from some of our leading scholars on abiding issues related to colonialism or police racism that I do not think can be neatly categorised, and likewise with up and coming scholars working on whole new issues. Further, plenty of the people listed above cross categories - I mentioned the case of the elder Táíwò already, but I could also add that Cornell West, Angela Davis, and Brittney Cooper all do public intellectual work that could reasonably fit them in the liberal tradition. Likewise Nikole Hannah Jones, Appiah, and Chris Lebron have done work that would fit in the culturalist tradition. I couldn't and wouldn't want to circumscribe black political philosophy in any silly little list - there's a lot out there that this doesn't purport to include, and one should not be too rigid about things.

Rather, I see the value gained from the exercise to be this: there is a tendency, even among friends, to treat black thought as monolithic. Having a ready to hand taxonomy, along with some exemplars and notes about the different habits of mind that characterise them, will help one discern sources of difference, disagreement, and debate, internal to black political thought. One should not insist upon everyone fitting into all and only one box, but one should be on the look out for how different authors lay emphasis on different themes and where that is likely to pull them apart from other black political thinkers.