Critical Philosophy of Race

Kimberly Ann Harris

Department of Philosophy
Marquette University


September 16, 2021

Recent debates on race and the #BlackLivesMatter movement have pushed scholars within the social sciences and humanities to reconsider the contested category of race. Such debates would seem to demand for a more nuanced analysis of current forms of racialization and the experiences of racism. These developments have not only shaped how race/racism circulates in the social world, but also gained traction among philosophers working on questions concerning race and adjacent matters. ‘Critical Philosophy of Race’ is such an emergent subfield of philosophy, considering the theorization, epistemologies, and new directions within philosophy of what race constitutes and often unsettles stable terrains such as the genre of classics/canons. Whereas ‘Critical Race Theory’ and ‘Philosophy of Race’ are more familiar since they are the established subfields that address race, ‘Critical Philosophy of Race’ is perhaps a curious addition. While they are not equivalent, ‘Critical Philosophy of Race’ draws inspiration from ‘Critical Race Theory.’ In comparison it is less established, and much work remains to be done to formalize it. However, there is a useful starting point for understanding its general orientation. To my mind no one has yet improved upon the account the philosopher Charles W. Mills offers. He defines it as being “distinguished from traditional—uncritical—philosophy of race in being multiply ‘critical’” (2016, 709). Because the phenomenon existed long before it had a name, its name is a matter of historical convenience. Critical philosophers of race, in addition to Mills such as Linda Martín Alcoff and Robert Bernasconi, condemn various forms of racism in their work. Moreover, they criticize naturalistic understandings of race. At the same time, they rebuke the dismissal of race for considering our modern condition. But, in my view, there is also an important political emphasis.

A critical approach to the philosophy of race has a research program that aligns with contemporary social movements. That is to say that the framework of said program identifies with organized efforts to achieve particular social and political goals. The questions it asks are informed by that identification. An important example is Christopher J. Lebron’s presentation of the history of the aims and activities that gave way to the movement for black lives. In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin in 2013, the #BlackLivesMatter has become a powerful campaign demanding redress for the brutal and unjustified treatment of black people by law enforcement in the United States. Lebron clarifies what “Black Lives Matter” means in light of seemingly endless contemporary instances of anti-black law enforcement. He distinguishes the problem signaled by the social media hashtag and how we ought to address the problem. If one struggles insisting that “Black Lives Matter” figure among the most significant, then a critical philosophy of race would, among other aims, elucidate its meaning. 

Mills deems “mainstream” ‘Philosophy of Race’ naive because its practitioners do not explicitly condemn forms of racism. For him, the primary agenda of ‘Philosophy of Race’ is to question both the logical coherence of race and its ontological status. The term “race” merely signifies the division of humanity into groups using some criteria. The debate concerning the ontology of race has taken up a lot of the intellectual space. Some do not think race exists, racial skepticism, which has led to racial eliminativism, and some think it exists, racial realism, which has led to racial constructionism. Racial eliminativists, such as Kwame Anthony Appiah and Naomi Zack, argue that the race concept is incoherent, does not point to anything real in the world, lacks a biological foundation, and therefore should be abandoned. Racial realists insist that lived experience—such as that of racism—make it both real and significant. Paul C. Taylor and Lucius Outlaw are racial realists. The problem of racism has not received nearly enough attention. There is a great urgency to better understand it. For instance, a quick google search shows that racialism, the view that humans can be sorted into a small number of races based on heritable characteristics, is erroneously used interchangeably with racism. 

An inordinate amount of attention has been allocated to individual(ized) racism when racism is taken up at all. In contrast, systemic racism has been given very little attention despite the public awareness of it. Even US President Joe Biden mentioned “the sting of systemic racism” in his inauguration speech. In general, there is still a great need to clarify systemic racism. It is often conflated with institutional racism. It seems to be the case that systemic racism is taken to mean that racism broadly affects society. Systemic racism points to a hierarchy that privileges one race above another. It arises when that hierarchy and those privileges are infused into the systems that govern life. The existence of systemic racism, its consequences for the structures of the societies in which philosophy is done, and by whom has implications for philosophers working in all areas. 

Mills claims that criticizing naturalistic understandings of race is characteristic of ‘Critical Philosophy of Race.’ Race has only come to be recognized as a proper philosophical concern in very recent times and many still simply refuse to acknowledge it. But the recognition of race as a philosophical concern has all to do with Appiah’s criticism of W. E. B. Du Bois’s account of race in “The Conservation of Races” (2000). Du Bois criticized what he referred to as the scientific conception of race. The short address generated an incredible amount of secondary literature mainly attempting to defend Du Bois from Appiah’s criticism. The debate about how to interpret the definition of race in the address had the effect of establishing the philosophy of race as a subfield and giving the subfield cohesion. Du Bois is a very important figure in ‘Critical Philosophy of Race’ not only because he made race a matter of philosophical inquiry and developed a fascinating and dynamic theory of race as Chike Jeffers has pointed out but also in doing so managed to make some claims about the nature of philosophy itself, as Kimberly Ann Harris (2019) argues. The relation here is important because it dispels this notion that questions surrounding race belong to a narrow subfield. 

Mills points out that critical philosophers of race think that race is essential for understanding our modern condition. It is the indictment of the discipline that makes Mills’ account so appealing. ‘Critical Philosophy of Race’ is specifically concerned with the discipline of philosophy and its history.

There are two noticeable failures in philosophy. The first is the ongoing failure for more philosophers to interrogate the racist ideas of canonical philosophers. This is why the reading list below is in large part historical. Because these ideas have been destructive, there is a need for this interrogation. These ideas do not just belong to the past as they influence thinking today. For example, Lucy Allais, Bernasconi and Jameliah Shorter-Bourhanou have called attention to Immanuel Kant’s racism. Many philosophers consider themselves Kantian ethicists and yet there has been no major treatment of the evil of slavery no less Kant’s part in its justification. This indicates that there is a serious disconnection. Whether the dispute about labeling Kant a racist or not can be solved is a shortsighted goal. The acknowledgement that Kant had an idea of race and it has a relationship to his philosophy is more important. Bernasconi, Andreja Novakovic,Alison Stone and Rocío Zambrana, have investigated the complexities around G. W. F. Hegel’s ideas on race, its connection to slavery and its political aftermath, and support of colonialism. As perhaps the most systematic thinker, there is much more work needed to show how these problematic ideas inform Hegel’s most recognizable ideas such as the dialectic itself. 

The second failure concerns how philosophers have decided to treat race, which is worth emphasizing. The narrow treatment of race as either a question of moral status, its relationship to justice, or ability to evaluate other things has limited the approaches to it. Recently a lot of skepticism has developed around the possibility of any stable race concept and for this reason, some think it ought to be disentangled from the problem of racism altogether. Racial skeptics want to make them separate inquiries. Michael O. Hardimon argues for what he calls “deflationary realism.” The narrow approaches have major blind spots and the desire to minimize race alone ignores the idea that it is constitutive with other identity categories. The idea that race intersects with other categories––a key claim among Black Feminist philosophers, like Kristie Dotson––has not registered at all in these debates. There are simply tendencies in the ‘Philosophy of Race’ that discourage complex and critical analyses of race altogether. 

Kimberly Ann Harris is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Marquette University. She is also an Associate Editor of the Critical Philosophy of Race Journal.

Reading List/Works Cited

Appiah, Anthony. “The Uncompleted Argument: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Illusion of Race.” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (1985): 21-37. 

Appiah, Kwame Anthony and Amy Gutman. Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. 

Alcoff, Linda Martín. Visible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 

Allais, Lucy. “Kant’s Racism.” Philosophical Papers 45, no. 1-2 (2016), 1-36.

Bernasconi, Robert. “Hegel’s Racism: A Reply to McCarney.” Radical Philosophy 119 (2003): 35-37. 

Bernasconi, Robert. “Kant as an Unfamiliar Source of Racism.” In Philosophers on Race: Critical Essays, edited by Julie K. Ward and Tommy L Lott, 145-166. New York: Blackwell, 2002.  

Bernasconi, Robert, ed. Race & Racism in Continental Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. 

Bernasconi, Robert. “Will the real Kant please stand up: The challenge of Enlightenment racism to the study of the history of philosophy,” Radical Philosophy 117 (2003): 13-22.

Bernasconi, Robert. “With What Must the Philosophy of World History Begin? On the Racial Basis of Hegel’s Eurocentrism,” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 22, no. 2 (2000): 171-201.

Bernier, François. “A New Division of Earth.” In The Idea of Race, edited by Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott, 1-4. New York: Hackett, 2000.

Blumenbach, J. F.  “On the Natural Variety of Mankind.” In The Idea of Race, edited by Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott, 27-37. New York: Hackett, 2000. 

Cooper, Anna Julia. A Voice from the South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. 

Cugoano, Quobna Ottobah. Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery. New York: Penguin, 1999. 

Darwin, Charles. “On the Races of Man.” In The Idea of Race, edited by Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott, 54-78. New York: Hackett, 2000. 

Dotson, Kristie. “Word to the Wise: Notes on a Black Feminist Metaphilosophy of Race.” Philosophy Compass 11, no. 2 (2016): 69-74. 

Du Bois, W. E. B. Dusk of Dawn. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Du Bois, W. E. B. “The Conservation of Races.” In The Idea of Race, edited by Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott, 108-117. New York: Hackett, 2000. 

Fanon, Frantz. Toward the African Revolution. Translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove Press, 1994.  

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skins, White Masks. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2008. 

Hardimon, Michael O. Rethinking Race: The Case for Deflationary Realism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017. 

Harris, Kimberly Ann. “W. E. B. Du Bois’s ‘Conservation of Races:’ A Metaphilosophical Text.” Metaphilosophy 50, no. 5 (2019): 670-687.

Hegel, G. W. F. “Anthropology.” In The Idea of Race, edited by Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott, 38-44. New York: Hackett, 2000. 

Herder, J. G. “Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Humankind.” In The Idea of Race, edited by Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott, 23-26. New York: Hackett, 2000.

Huxley, Thomas H. “On the Geographical Distribution of the Chief Modifications of Mankind,” The Journal of the Ethnological Society of London 2, no. 4 (1870): 404-412. 

Jeffers, Chike. “The Cultural Theory of Race: Yet Another Look at Du Bois’s ‘The Conservation of Races’,” Ethics 123, no. 3 (2013): 403-426. 

Kant, Immanuel. “Of the Different Human Races.” In The Idea of Race, edited by Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott, 8-22. New York: Hackett, 2000. 

Lebron, Christopher J. The Making of Black lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 

Mills, Charles W. “Critical Philosophy of Race.” In Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Methodology, edited by Herman Cappelen, Tamar Szabó Gendler, and John Hawthorne, 709-732. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 

Montague, Ashley. “The Concept of Race in the Human Species in the Light of Genetics.” In The Idea of Race, edited by Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott, 100-107. New York: Hackett, 2000. 

Novakovic, Andreja. “Hegel’s Real Habits.” European Journal of Philosophy 27, no. 4 (2019): 882-897. 

Outlaw, Lucius T. On Race and Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1996. 

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate. Translated by George J. Becker. New York: Schocken, 1995. 

Sikka, Sonia. Herder on Humanity and Cultural Difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 

Stone, Alison. “Hegel and Colonialism.” Hegel Bulletin 41, no. 2 (2020): 247-270. 

Taylor, Paul C. Race: A Philosophical Introduction. Second Edition. New York: Polity, 2013. 

Ratzel, Friedrich. “Lebensraum: A Biogeographical Study.” Translated by Tul’si Bhambry. Journal of Historical Geography 61 (2018): 59-80. 

Zack, Naomi. Philosophy of Science and Race. New York: Routledge, 2002. 

Zambrana, Rocío. “Hegel, History, and Race.” In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Race, edited by Naomi Zack, 251-260. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.