Justice as Failure

This is a guest post by Andrew Dilts. It is cross-posted at their personal website and available in a modified form in the Journal of Law, Culture, and the Humanities (behind paywall).

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This essay, in a slightly different form, is forthcoming in the journal of Law, Culture and the Humanities. I wrote this essay on and off in the years since the acquittal of George Zimmerman and sent it to the journal shortly before a Baltimore jury failed to arrive at a decision in the prosecution of Officer William Porter’s involvement in the death of Freddie Grey, and before prosecutors in Ohio decided not to charge Officers Timothy Loehmann or Frank Garmback for the murder of 12-year old Tamir Rice.

That, in the short time between when this short essay was finished and it could appear in print, two more instances of the criminal punishment system’s failure to hold police officers accountable for the violent deaths of two more black people in this country is itself too much to bear. [1]

I. “What we cannot not want”[2]

Rally in Oscar Grant Plaza, Oakland, CA, July 14, 2013

Rally in Oscar Grant Plaza, Oakland, CA, July 14, 2013

It took 16 hours for a jury to acquit George Zimmerman of responsibility for the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The speed with which the verdict was reached stands in sharp relief to the six long weeks it took the Sanford, FL police department to initially arrest and arraign Zimmerman the previous year. As protests in response to the verdict swept across the country, I found myself at a rally in Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland, CA where a disappointed, vocal, and angry crowd held signs aloft that read: “The Whole System Is Guilty,” “No Justice, No Peace,” and “Jail Zimmerman.”

Even as someone dedicated to prison and police abolition, I recognized in myself this desire to have Zimmerman arrested, tried, and ultimately punished for his actions. And the acquittal felt simultaneously like an indictment of the legal standards of criminal responsibility in Florida, a clear failure of the justice system, and above all, a powerful admission of what was only previously implied by the Sanford’s police department’s death investigation: the willful killing of a person is not a crime when that person’s very being is considered criminal or is always already presumed to be criminal.

But as a scholar of punishment, race, and political membership in the United States, it is likewise clear to me that Zimmerman’s arrest, trial, conviction, and punishment would have been entirely unable to produce something that could rightly be termed a “just” outcome. To even call the criminal “justice” system in the United States “broken” arguably ignores the ways in which it in fact operates quite successfully as an instrument of white supremacy in this country, creating far more harm than it repairs.[3] The nature of this dilemma was put eloquently on the blog low end theory: “[I]n appealing to the power of the police to arrest, and to the power of the courts to sentence Zimmerman, we also make heard a message that we might otherwise hesitate to send: namely, that we believe that these institutions—the police, the courts, the law—are institutions capable of delivering the justice we want.”[4]

My own desire to see “justice” done in the case of Martin’s murder is arguably an instance of what Spivak identifies as one of those things that “we cannot not want.” My desire to see justice done according to the radically insufficient terms available under the law cannot possibly be satisfied. And yet I continue to find myself, with alarming regularity, in the familiar position of desiring indictments, prosecutions, and punishment in case after case: Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO (killed by Officer Darren Wilson, but whom a grand jury refused to indict); Rekia Boyd in Chicago, IL (shot in the head by officer Dante Servin, and whose charges of reckless discharge of a firearm were dismissed by a Chicago judge); Eric Garner in New York City (choked to death by officer Daniel Pantaelo, but whom a grand jury refused to indict despite Garner’s death being officially ruled a homicide); Freddie Grey in Baltimore, MD (whose spine was severed while being transported to a police station by six officers, eventually charged with his death); Laquan McDonald in Chicago, IL (shot 16 times by officer Jason Van Dyke, and charged with first degree murder); Ezell Ford in Los Angeles (shot in the back by Officers Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas while Ford was pinned to the ground); John Crawford III in Beavercreek, OH (shot by Officer Sean Williams in a Walmart without warning while carrying a toy gun and talking with his mother on the phone); Sandra Bland in Prarie View, TX (violently arrested during a traffic stop by Officer Brian Encinia and subsequently found dead in her jail cell); or 12-year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, OH (who was shot by Officer Timothy Loehman two seconds after Loehman arrived on the scene and subsequently left Rice to die while his partner, Office Frank Garmback, tackled and handcuffed Rice’s 14-year old sister).

Again and again we find ourselves calling for justice from a system which, if it succeeds, would likely result in dangerous long-term incarceration in overcrowded and deplorable conditions primarily reserved for members of marginalized communities. And this success would further validate our criminal punishment system’s ability to provide a “just” outcome. Such a success would also be a failure, I contend: an injustice that reproduces conceptions of responsibility predicated on questions of narrow liability, a reinforcement of practices of policing and hyper-incarceration that target marginalized communities with concentrated harm, and a validation of the same prosecutorial practices that sent Marissa Alexander and CeCe McDonald to prison. [5] Zimmerman’s conviction, for example, would not have simply left these injustices in place, it would have reinforced them by shoring up popular support (especially from the political left) for practices that are integral parts of how white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and settler colonialism function in the United States as a political system, distributing rights and obligations along multiple hierarchies of difference. This is a problem not just for prison and police abolitionists, but for anyone whose desire to see Zimmerman punished marks a preference for the former injustice over the latter in such cases (i.e. preferring the injustice of hyper-incarceration over the injustice of acquittal). And each success/failure along these lines further blocks attempts to dismantle or disrupt that system and bring what W.E.B. Du Bois termed “abolition-democracy” into being.[6]

It is this concern—that the kind criminal justice available to us offers a Faustian bargain at best—that motivates my line of thinking here. The problem we face is not simply a failure of justice or a failure to be just, but rather that we live in a world where the possibilities for legal justice are too narrowly circumscribed in terms that measure justice in through procedural, distributive, or retributive “success.” We fail to have justice because we do not take seriously how justice is constituted and conditioned by failure. This is not to say that we ought to merely temper our expectations and not demand justice, but rather to heed the call of justice requires the abolition of these existing institutions along with ways of thinking about justice as something static, final, or which has (either along retributivist and distributivist conceptions of justice) a “correct” outcome.[7] Instead, we ought to think about justice as failure and as a practice of freedom conditioned upon such failure.

II. The Facticity of Failure and Queer Negativity

By marking failure as the condition and orientation of justice I am self-consciously drawing on Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist ethics as a point of departure and inspiration. In The Ethics of Ambiguity she writes, “[T]he most optimistic ethics have all begun by emphasizing the element of failure involved in the condition of man; without failure, no ethics; for a being who, from the very start, would be an exact co-incidence with himself, in a perfect plenitude, the notion of having-to-be would have no meaning.”[8] Failure is the condition of ethics in that it is part of the contingent facticity of the world. The disclosure of subjects as free subjects–as free creators–requires acknowledgment of a world that they did not create. The free disclosure of the subject occurs “only through the resistance which the world opposes to him. The will is defined only by raising obstacles, and by the contingency of facticity certain obstacles let themselves be conquered, and others do not.”[9] As such, not just the possibility, but the certainty of failure conditions existence.

Rather than face “the risk of coming to grief against the obstacle,” Beauvoir argues that we have created ingenious ways of avoiding our ambiguous condition as, on the one hand, “sovereign and unique subject[s]” and on the other, as determined objects.[10] “As long as there have been men and they have lived,” she writes, “they have felt this tragic ambiguity of their condition, but as long as there have been philosophers and they have thought, most of them have tried to mask it.”[11] The history of philosophical and practical ethics has worked to “eliminat[e] the ambiguity by making oneself pure inwardness or pure externality, by escaping from the sensible world or by being engulfed in it, by yielding to eternity or enclosing oneself in the pure moment.”[12] Ethics, as it has been expressed and practiced, turns out to be a paradigmatic instance of “bad faith,” of refusing either the possibility of transcendence, or the givenness of the world and its facticity. If ethical theory refuses to acknowledge the ambiguity of existence and the condition of failure that underwrites that existence, then it condemns others to static positions of failure and unfreedom, denying the possibility of the creation of meaning. Perhaps not surprisingly, Beauvoir points to punishment as an ultimate method for the denial of this creation: “There is no more obnoxious way to punish a man than to force him to perform acts which make no sense to him… Life imprisonment is the most horrible of punishments because it preserves existence in its pure facticity but forbids it all legitimation.”[13]

The facticity of failure is not something to be embraced per se, but neither can it be rejected, displaced, or disavowed. Instead of refusing to acknowledging the “fundamental ambiguity” of existence, Beauvoir insists that it is possible to “want this tension with the failure which it involves” and to approach failure as “assumed” for the sake of “conversion” rather than as something to be “surpassed” in a Hegelian sense.[14] Failure is itself the existential grounds of freedom, and insofar as one wills freedom necessarily in concert with others one must will it through failure.[15] The difficulty of acknowledging failure as a condition of human existence is that it appears that the acknowledgement of this condition forecloses action. Yet ethical freedom, on Beauvoir’s terms is a practice that points toward future action not despite, but because of the facticity of failure. “One does not exist without doing something,” she writes, “[I]t is a matter of reconquering freedom on the contingent facticity of existence, that is, of taking the given, which at the start is there without reason, as something willed by man.”[16] Such an ethics, therefore, is eminently political, eschewing accepted divisions between politics and ethics that have largely characterized Western thought, in which ethics refers to one’s relation to others, while politics (at best) attempts to generalize or formalize ethical principles into institutional arrangements, constitutions, and laws.

The key implication of this reading of freedom and ethics in relation to failure is that it orients practice to both the past (in terms of responsibility) and the future (in terms of action). Ethical action in the face of persistent failure–and by my implication, practices of justice–changes the goal: we do not (because we cannot) seek resolution or closure, but openness toward futures of wide possibilities. “Salvation,” Beauvoir writes, “is only possible if, despite obstacles and failures, a man preserves the disposal of his future, if the situation opens up more possibilities to him.”[17] Rather than leading toward resignation, acknowledgement of failure grounds a demand for further action in concert with others; that the world be otherwise than it is: “It is because there are real dangers, real failures and real earthly damnation that words like victory, wisdom, or joy have meaning. Nothing is decided in advance, and its is because man has something to lose and because he can lose that he can also win.”[18] Moreover, this means that any “reconquering of freedom” is “never finished; the contingency remains, and, so that he may assert his will, man is obliged to stir up in the world the outrage he does not want.”[19]

Reconceiving justice as a practice of freedom, conditioned by failure and directed toward a more open future, must not reaffirm the necessity for “success” on the currently available terms, however. Rather, following queer theorists who have turned to failure as something more than a condition of existence, we might embrace it as a strategy to challenge that current state of existence. As José Muñoz and Jack Halberstam have argued, because “success” is defined under the terms of capitalist heteronormativity, success is precisely the problem.[20] Halberstam goes further than a reappraisal of the terms, however, and argues that “under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.”[21]

Failure on this account is a practice to be pursued for sake of both critique and resistance. Despite its “host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment, and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life.”[22] Focusing on failure, and in particular the practices and ways of knowing of those who have been relegated to the positions of failure, those for whom justice has been “fugitive,” allows for a politics not focused on wining the game as it is played, but on changing (or refusing to play) the game itself. Once one reorients toward failure and its negative affects as resources, “the negative thinker can use the experience of failure to confront the gross inequality of everyday life in the United States.”[23]

This allows for a reappraisal of utopian thinking in a queer form that eschews both overly abstract forms and concrete arrangements (as heteronormative and liberal utopias tend to) in favor of “horizons.” As Muñoz puts it, “To see queerness as horizon is to perceive it as a modality of ecstatic time in which the temporal stranglehold … [of] straight time is interrupted or stepped out of.”[24] For Muñoz, such an interruption or disidentification with the current state of affairs is aided (if not made possible) by failure. It is here that queer theory’s affinity with Beauvoir’s ethics if clearest: if failure orients us toward a future that could be otherwise, it does so by interrupting the bad faith reading of the present that presumes that things had to be the way that they are. This means that refusals, rejections, and failures of the current state of affairs are not idle wishful thinking, but may be radical attempts to remake the world in a way that requires constant ethical practices of freedom. “Utopia can never be prescriptive,” Muñoz writes, “and is always destined to fail.”[25]

III. Hearing Failure, Resisting Closure

The mode justice offered by the white supremacist and hetero-patriarchal state is focused on verdicts, outcomes, states of affairs, and distributions as its measures of success. Even those theories of justice that focus on procedure and processes, especially in criminal proceedings, nevertheless point to stable outcomes as benchmarks of evaluation, and in doing so, insist that justice something can be “served.” Yet both moves are readable as “bad faith” on Beauvoir’s terms. When faced with an odious outcome (like the Zimmerman verdict, the dismissal of charges against Officer Servin, or the non-indictments of Officers Pantaleo and Wilson), our tendency is either to refuse that some other outcome was possible given the existing rules, laws, and procedures, or to blame the outcome the bad acts of those charged interpreting and enforcing those laws. In either case, more pressing critiques of law and justice are blocked. Yet even more dangerous is the possibility that these outcomes do not in fact call for more radical refusals or resistances. Such justice preys upon and exploits the desire for that which we cannot not want, using that desire as fodder for its own maintenance.

To conceive of justice as failure and as an ongoing practice of freedom conditioned by that failure, however, would force us to follow different lines of thought and flight. First, conceiving of justice as failure implies that justice must work against forms of finality and the desire for closure by recognizing the impossibility of such things. Any kind of justice that forecloses rather than opens possibilities for action—especially for those who have been relegated to nonbeing, abjection, and dismissal—both refuses to acknowledge the conditions of living in the world and re-creates the world in that image: foreclosed, static, and in deadly bad faith.

Second, justice as failure requires that we acknowledge the failures that are constitutive of “successes.” If the conviction and punishment of Zimmerman would have feed into and supported the current system of criminal punishment in the United States, partially (if not fully) vindicating the Sanford police department and the same prosecutorial system that typically targets marginalized persons, then that success must be measured against the injustices that constitute it. The indictment of officers for the death of Freddie Grey, or the charging of Jason Van Dyke in the death of Laquan McDonald are surely “successes,” (even if delayed, partial, and precarious), but they are also predicated on absolving the broader police forces and prosecutors’ offices of responsibility for the actions of a few “bad apples.” Insofar as justice is always already a failure, it escapes and disappoints. But such disappointment should spurn us to act in ways that are not already prescribed by systems or institutions, to move beyond and outside “judicial models of redress [that] often require that claims fit a legal paradigm of individual rights.”[26] Justice as failure means that heeding the call to justice must be conditioned on an explicit and unflinching statement of what must come next–of the horizon–at precisely the moment when we might otherwise claim that justice has been achieved.[27] This way of thinking about justice and about politics requires that we embrace the ambiguity and impurity of a “both/and” approach.

Third, to recognize justice as failure would be to refigure it as an ongoing practice of freedom always in relation to others and always in relation to the material conditions that shape concepts. Following Beauvoir, to will justice thus would be to necessarily will it for others. But because both freedom and justice are situated contingently, they are tied socially and politically as impossible debts to others. A complete repayment is not simply difficult but impossible. Justice, on this reading, is something with inexhaustible terms that require a lack of perfection or “success” and that are part of the production of a self in relation to others that starts from those debts and those contingencies and which must reorient us to a radical openness to claims of injustice from within practices of justice. This in turn requires a radical listening to others in the mode described by Iris Young as a “respectful stance of wonder.” Such a stance, she writes:

… is one of openness across, awaiting new insight about their needs, interests, perceptions, or values. Wonder also means being able to see one’s own position, assumptions, perspectives as strange, because it has been put in relation to others. . . . I cannot assume that because last week I understood her standpoint, I can do so today. Respectful listening thus involves attentive and interested questioning. But answers are always gifts. The transcendence of the other person always means that she can remain silent, or tell only part of her story, for her own reasons.[28]

Wonder for Young is not a matter of aesthetic practices and archives, but a prioritization of marginalized voices. If we are concerned with criminal justice, then the voices to which we should listen belong to the incarcerated, to those who are relegated to the non-being of solitary confinement, and to those whose political voice has been stripped under conditions of political and social disenfranchisement.

Lastly, because the material institutions of justice to which we have become accustomed (those which we cannot not want yet which promise us only successful failures) are now recognizable as institutionalized bad faith, it is precisely those institutions which must be abolished. We must not fall pray to the desire to perfect the jury, the judge, or the jail, but rather refuse their promises. Or, as CeCe McDonald puts it more eloquently (responding around the 23-minute mark in the video below to a question about how her case has been used to spotlight the conditions of transwomen incarcerated in men’s facilities):

I just want to say that all prisons are fucked up. It wouldn’t matter if I went to a women’s prison… you know, they’re talking about building a new trans prison in California? It’s like, no prison is safe for no one. You want to capitalize off of me through a fucked up system? And I’m not having it. … I would rather die than go to any prison. … There is no way that you can convince me that being in a men’s prison or being in a women’s prison, or being in a trans prison, being in a fucking unicorn prison, I don’t care. It’s not beneficial to anyone. It’s not beneficial me, it’s not beneficial to you, it’s not beneficial to our community.[29]

McDonald calls us to refuse the closure and finality of the prison and its promises of safety and justice through unfreedom, and redirect ourselves to a passionate and dedicated resistance to those very promises of absolute assurance that are caught up in the logic of, and the desire for, success.


[1] Thank you to Lisa Guenther, Robin James, Sina Kramer, Benjamin McKean, Austin Sarat, Jill Stauffer, Sarah Tyson, Perry Zurn, and the participants at the University of Minnesota Political Theory Colloquium for their thoughts and questions about this idea.

[2] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 110.

[3] See Angela Davis, “Race and Criminalization: Black Americans and the Punishment Industry,” in The House That Race Built: Black Americas, U.S. Terrain, ed. Wahneema Lubiano (New York: Pantheon, 1997); Angela Davis, “From the Prison of Slavery to the Slavery of Prison: Frederick Douglass and the Convict Lease System,” in The Angela Y. Davis Reader, ed. Joy James (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998); Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010); Ryan Conrad, ed., Prisons Will Not Protect You (Lewiston ME: Against Equality Publishing Collective, 2012).

[4] “Justice for Trayvon… but how?” Low End Theory, March 20, 2012. http://www.lowendtheory.org/post/19640906873/justice-for-trayvon-but-how.

[5] “Mass” or “Hyper” incarceration is characterized by two interlocking features: first, the sheer scale of incarceration, at present more than 1% of the U.S. population, and second, its concentrated social effects, i.e. this 1% is not drawn randomly or evenly from the population. See David Garland, ed., Mass Imprisonment: Social Causes and Consequences (London: Sage, 2001); “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008,”  (Washington, D.C.: The Pew Center on the States, 2008). The language of “mass incarceration” has quickly taken over popular discourse on the subject, and it does so with important costs, as Dylan Rodriguez has rightly described as the “Illiteracy of ‘Mass Incarceration.'”

Marissa Alexander was convicted of aggravated assault for firing a single warning shot at her husband, who had threated to kill her in Jacksonville, FL in the summer of 2010. She was originally sentenced to 20 years in prison, a sentence later overturned before a plea agreement was struck requiring Alexander to plead guilty to three counts of aggravated assault in exchange for time served and an additional two-year house arrest sentence. The prosecutor in the case, Angela Corey, was the same prosecutor who failed to convict Zimemrman. CeCe McDonald was convicted of second-degree manslaughter for defending herself against a racist and transphobic attack that occurred in Minneapolis during the summer of 2012. McDonald was sentenced to serve her imprisonment in a men’s prison, despite her gender identification as a woman. Her incarceration galvanized supporters who organized for her release in 2014 (through a plea agreement).

[6] See W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, ed. David L. Lewis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995); Joel Olson, The Abolition of White Democracy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004); Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005).

[7] See Bonnie Honig, “Rawls on Politics and Punishment,” Political Research Quarterly 46, no. 1 (1993).

[8] Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, trans. Bernard Frechtman (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1948), 10. English translations of Beauvoir typically render “l’homme” as “man” even when referring to “human” as a universal. In the introduction to The Second Sex she notes the gendered nature this and the epistemology it implies. I do not alter the translation in quotations, but note that Beauvoir (unlike most of her contemporaries, as well as our own) is arguably using “man” to refer to “human.” This is not an unproblematic usage, and it should be noted as such.

[9] Ibid.,  28.

[10] Ibid.,  28, 27.

[11] Ibid.,  7.

[12] Ibid.,  8.

[13] Ibid.,  32-31.

[14] Ibid.,  13.

[15] Ibid.,  73.

[16] Ibid.,  156.

[17] Ibid.,  30.

[18] Ibid.,  34.

[19] Ibid.,  156-157.

[20] Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 2.

[21] Ibid.,  2-3.

[22] Ibid.,  3.

[23] Ibid.,  4.

[24] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 32.. This view of a queer future stands in contrast to Edelman’s insistence that future is always heteronormative, c.f. Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

[25] Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, 173.

[26] Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman, “Fugitive Justice,” Representations 92, no. 1 (2005): 1-15, 8.

[27] This arguably means that justice as failure has a dialectical character in which negation, negativity, and despair are engines of movement. This is not to say that one ought not take pleasure in “successes” or “wins,” but rather that one need not see critique or negativity as blocks to action. See Robyn Marasco, The Highway of Despair: Critical Theory After Hegel (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

[28] Iris Marion Young, “Asymmetrical Reciprocity: On Moral Respect, Wonder, and Enlarged Thought,” Constellations 3, no. 3 (1997): 358.

[29] CeCe McDonald, “The Struggle for Trans Liberation: A Conversation with Cece Mcdonald,” YouTube video, 58:01, from a public lecture at the Socialism 2014 Conference in Chicago IL, posted by “WeAreManyMedia,” August 21, 2014, https://youtu.be/emx5iHwbPOg.

“Sexual Paranoia” and Trigger Warnings: Speech and Power

I have been watching the recent response to this Laura Kipnis piece in the Chronicle with knots in my stomach. Then I developed a sprain in my eyeballs from the rolling.

At the end of February, Laura Kipnis argued in “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” that new codes governing sexual conduct between professors and students exhibit a “feminism hijacked by melodrama,” a kind of hysterical feminism that exaggerates the vulnerability of students and constructs a “fiction of the all-powerful professor.” Against this dour picture of the current state of sexual affairs on campus, Kipnis reflects nostalgically on her own art college experience in the mid to late 1970s: “When I was in college, hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum… Lots of smart, ambitious women were doing the same thing, according to [Jane Gallop], because it was a way to experience your own power.” She argues that policies such as these – as well as trigger warnings – are part of a climate of sexual paranoia on campus that ill-serves students in preparing them badly for the “boorish badlands of real life” and treats professors as predators, making it far too easy to destroy their lives. Far from defending an antifeminist position, Kipnis argues that she herself would want to see sexual harrassers “chemically castrated, stripped of their property, and hung up by their thumbs in the town square.” She suggests that if universities want to deal with sexual assault, we shouldn’t ban professor-student relationships, but rather fraternities; and that if we want to deal with sexual favoritism, we should end spousal hires, “where trailing spouses are getting ranks and perks based on whom they’re sleeping with rather than CVs alone, and brought in at salaries often dwarfing those of senior and more accomplished colleagues who didn’t have the foresight to couple more advantageously” (too which – I’m just not even).

The center of this piece is a series of lawsuits and counter-suits surrounding a case of sexual assault between an undergraduate student at Northwestern University (where Kipnis teaches) and her philosophy professor. Obviously many of us from philosophy departments (present tense or past) know about this case, and the role that it has played – or the ways in which it has been used – to shape responses to activism within the discipline to create a better climate for the women who work in and study philosophy. So I think that we at xcphilosophy are in a particularly good position to think about this, and to parse what’s going on in this conversation about feminism, speech, sex codes, trigger warnings, etc., from the perspective of what’s going on in philosophy – rather than the perspective of a resuscitation of the culture wars of the 1990s, complete with an Andrea Dworkin v Wendy Kaminer cage match.

So, I just want to say a couple of things about this.

First, in this piece, Kathryn Pogin, a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Northwestern, points out that she contacted the Chronicle to address several misrepresentations about the Northwestern case in Kipnis’ piece. This includes the claim that the accused professor is also suing a graduate student that he previously dated for defamation, since the student alleges that he sexually harassed her. Pogin points out that it is the accused professor who claims that he was dating the graduate student as part of his defense; the graduate student herself says that they were not dating. Kipnis took this claim on its face; that is, she believed the claim the professor makes in his lawsuit against the graduate student. So, okay. Moreover, in email exchanges about Pogin’s request for corrections of these misrepresentations, she was referred to in an email sent to her by mistake as a “girl” “splitting hairs” in an “incomprehensible tirade.”

Also, as this piece points out, I have literally never heard students complaining about campus feminists violating their right to sleep with their professors? Like, never. I have more than once heard hysterically defensive claims from professors, like: “But what if the student in class is leading me on with what she is wearing?” and “We don’t need a sexual harassment policy. The pretty ones won’t mind and the ugly ones don’t need it.” If all of this worry about coddling and abridgments of free speech or whatever is truly all about affirming the agency of our students, then why aren’t we hearing much from them about protecting their rights to sleep with their professors, rather than hearing about professor’s rights to sleep with their students? The erotics implied between professors and students here are themselves a confirmation of the power imbalance: after all, do people in equal relationships often threaten each other, or feel threatened by, sexual blackmail?

These conversations are not merely theoretical for many of us in philosophy. We have heard the stories about how women in philosophy in generations before us were expected to sleep with their advisors. It was just how things were done. It’s not a big deal, really; we should be cool about it. We should in fact be so feminist about how not a big deal it is that we should prove it by sleeping with our professors (or so they said). Women who are successful in philosophy are as a result often hobbled by implications that what is valuable about them is not exactly their intellect. And many of us have  students who come to us now, crushed and filled with self-doubt, when they realize that their professors’ attention was grooming, not mentorship. Many of us therefore carry what Sally Haslanger refers to as a “deep well of rage” inside of us at the accumulation of these stories and experiences.

Kipnis’ piece generated several responses, including one from Michelle Goldberg in The Nation, and Judith Shulevitz in the New York Times. Shulevitz uses Kipnis’ piece as evidence of an overall trend towards coddling college students from scary ideas, alongside campaigns to designate certain areas or whole campuses as “safe spaces,” and the use of trigger warnings on syllabi and in classrooms. There is a lot to be said about trigger warnings – where they came from, what they have developed in to, what they do and don’t do – and some interesting and productive things said about them are here and here.

What I am most concerned about in all of this is the total lack of attention to the role played by the university’s neoliberal risk-management culture. That is, there is a huge difference between the origins of trigger warnings in online feminism – requests for warnings about content, discussions and arguments about what they mean and whether they are effective, the meanings of accessibility and difference, and the inevitable joke content warnings about Justin Bieber – and the adoption of trigger warnings or content warnings in syllabi or in the classroom as policy enforced by university instructors’ contracts.

Even further than that, my university – like many – has decided in the wake of the “new legal environment” following the “Dear Colleague” letter of 2011 addressing guidelines for compliance with Title IX and the Clery Act, to make reporting of “sexual misconduct” mandatory for all faculty on campus. We are designated “responsible reporters,” meaning that we cannot keep confidential any conversations about assault that may have taken place between university students, staff, or faculty confidential. This policy is one adopted wholesale from the Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA), a subsidiary of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, whose CEO, Brett Sokolow, has argued that such blanket reporting structures are necessary to ensure that there is no “confusion” about compliance.

This effectively means that my syllabi, my office, and my classrooms are not safe spaces for survivors (or “accusers,” if Kipnis prefers). And if a university with this policy provides a so-called “safe space” for those triggered by particularly graphic speech on campus (as in the Shulevitz piece), given the blanket “responsible reporter” policy, it is probably not a safe space for students who report that they have been sexually harassed or assaulted on campus.

What this means is that, in several respects, this conversation about coddling students and attacks on free speech on campus is using feminism as a front. While individual feminists might advocate the adoption of trigger warning policies, or safe spaces, or better policies for students who are victims of rape and sexual assault, I don’t know any feminists who begin from the presumption that we should take away choice from survivors, and put them through a process that is not meant to ensure their healing but rather the indemnity of the institution, whether they want it or not. Let’s not get confused about who is in charge here, and whose interests are at stake.

Beyond Shackling

The first time I saw a pregnant woman in prison, I immediately felt fear for her. My fear was quite specific; I feared she would be shackled.

The first time I saw a pregnant woman in prison, not only was I in a state that outlaws shackling pregnant women, I was in the prison as a volunteer for one of the main organizations that lobbied for the law against shackling. So, my fear found an apparently strange focus. But, of course, laws and policies banning shackling of pregnant women don’t guarantee pregnant people protection from shackling. New York, for instance, has a law against shackling pregnant women, and yet shackling still occurs there. Often.

Perhaps, then, my fear was not so strange. And knowing someone who may experience a torturous injustice can heighten one’s own sense of powerless. My regular movement in and out of prisons and jails has shown me how little there is I can do to keep these institutions from grievously harming those sentenced to time in them.

Nevertheless, I think my first reaction served as a bulwark. My initial fear and subsequent scrambling to pull together what resources I could to ensure that correctional officers would not shackle this woman gave me something to do that did not involve reflecting on a different practice she would certainly be subjected to. This woman, who wanted to keep her child, would not be allowed to do so. No matter how well the labor went, this woman would loose her child. And she would loose her child potentially forever if she could not remove the child from foster care within a year herself, or find someone who could do so for her.

And she is not alone; about 6% of women who are arrested are pregnant.

Prisons are technologies of social death. One of their key effects is the destruction of social relations, not just for those sent to them, but for the communities from which people are removed. This practice of removing children from mothers who would otherwise choose to keep them is just one way the prison produces social death through literal natal alienation. The kinship ties between women in prison and their children are perhaps most obviously severed when a newborn is removed from the mother minutes after she has given birth, but it is also just one way in which prisons interrupt and destroy social relations.

As I greeted the pregnant woman, distracted with fear for her, I distracted myself from reflecting on this other practice to which she would be subjected. I fear the current public attention to shackling could be serving a similar purpose on a bigger scale.

Shackling pregnant women is clearly wrong, and yet we struggle to end that practice. Given recent studies, we now know that if we succeed in passing laws against it, we have not guaranteed the safety of pregnant women in prison. But further, if we manage to end the practice of shackling – that is, if the current groundswell of moral outrage results in the modification of material practices by correctional officers in prisons and not just the passage of laws and policies – we should not rest easy that all is well for pregnant women or anyone else in prison.

As shackling receives more attention and public condemnation, we must keep the larger system in focus, along with its broader set of social death producing practices. And we must focus on what things are required to maintain it. We must ask: does the reform of one practice ameliorate the larger problems with the prison system? Is this system keeping us safe? Who do we mean by us?

Thanks to Andrew Dilts for comments on an earlier draft of this post.

On the Labor of Abolition

#surplusrepression #acab

The NYPD slowdown is over and I find myself dreaming of a police union general strike. If the NYPD slowdown taught us anything, I think, it is that abolition demands nothing less than the radicalization of the conditions of our collective labor. The organization of the NYPD’s labor power allowed them to instantaneously enact the largest criminal justice reform in over 20 years–despite their intentions.

There is something worth thinking about here. And I think it is something important for all those interested in the project of abolition. Particularly, two things stand out: 1) the labor power behind mass incarceration 2) the relationship between labor and abolition.

The Labor of Mass Incarceration is Surplus Repression

Two NYPD officers were murdered while sitting in their patrol car in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Enraged, Patrick Lynch, the head of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, blames DeBlasio and city hall for the murders. In response, the NYPD turned its back on the mayor and organized a work slowdown, which amounted to ending broken windows policing. This slowdown forces a few characteristics of police labor to the foreground.

A) The police are an organized productive force of labor. Trying to figure out what the police produce, as a laboring body, is downright difficult. It’s not immediately clear. The ready-to-hand answers are clear: safety, order, peace. But those answers don’t hold, especially in poor black and brown neighborhoods.

Whatever the police produce, it is a different kind of productive force than the labor of the working class. The historical tension between police unions and the labor movement makes that clear. In order to tease out what police labor produces we have to look at its role in a larger political economy (even a political economy of desire). I think Marcuse’s concept of #surplusrepression is helpful in understanding the role of police labor in society. In this light, we can view police labor as the super-structural repression needed to maintain the violent dominance of the current forms of capitalism. Like its Marxist counterpart surplus labor, #surplusrepression denotes the the repression beyond what is required to produce and maintain society. While society may, according to Marcuse, demand a certain level of repression if we are to live together at all–surplus repression produces the necessary forms of discipline to socially reproduce the present forms of capitalism.

B) Police labor is part of a larger political economy of mass incarceration. I am not referring to a political economy of prison labor, non-profits, tickets, or private industries. In other words, in making this claim, I am not referring to the theoretical model of the prison industrial complex. Rather, I intend this claim on two levels.

First, police labor is essential for the criminal justice system and mass incarceration more broadly. Moreover, the labor of mass incarceration relies on a whole network of workers from probationers, to correctional officers, to police, to social workers,to lawyers,to  judges,to school cops,to non-profit staff in alternative programming, etc. Here is an excellent resource for thinking about the of labor of Mass Incarceration

Second, in the structure of neo-liberalism, the labor of mass incarceration ensures the warehousing and prison cycling of the surplus population. The police, as some recent literature indicates, are a force of capture and social disorganization in this larger picture.  Aggressive policing strategies are targeted, some using the pseudo-science of predictive policing.This plays into the broader strokes of housing and urban planning in the neoliberal city.

Money circulates in the city, carving out neighborhoods and pushing people around. People get swept up in and are swept away by these forces. Homes are created; lives are destroyed. The police play an essential role in this circulation of money, bodies, homes. I think its important that the murder of the two NYPD officers happened in Bed Stuy–a fierce battle ground of gentrification in Brooklyn at the moment. Even Spike Lee was hip to the links between gentrification and police murder in Bed Stuy in  Do the Right Thing.

A Horizon of Abolition and the Labor to get there

We should not support police unionism. Police unions across the US are conservative, reactionary, and racist. We will get nowhere supporting them or trying to reform them. Nonetheless, what the slowdown did show was the power of labor in transforming our criminal justice system, a power that will necessarily underlie any concrete movement toward abolition.

What I want to do here is to make a seemingly contradictory claim: Police unions are inherently racist and conservative, but their slowdown demonstrated how necessary labor will be to the project of abolition. Not police unions,  but labor itself.  Inasmuch we want to radicalize the process of justice in the United States, then so too will we have to radicalize the conditions of labor. Putting the labor of justice into the hands of workers who democratically determine how to align their labor with the project of justice will be the mechanism by which Abolition occurs.

Inadvertently, the misstep of the PBA in New York loosened its grip on poor black and brown people in the New York and another world quickly came into sight, just on the horizon. Granted, this horizon emerged from the PBA’s petulant attempt to show they are the key to safety in New York City. And to some extent it worked, especially when you hear the fear behind the New York Times Op-Eds Here and Here. Nonetheless, compare those racist law and order tantrums, emerging from Midtown, to what it was actually happening in Bed-Stuy where the Marshall Project conducted interviews during the slowdown:

“This is how it’s supposed to be,” he says, referring to the “quiet” he’s been sensing, the “lower volume” of cops he’s been seeing on local corners. “I’m not talking about guys getting away with nothing, I’m talking about feeling safe. The police driving up on us, because of some hearsay, and jumping out, that don’t make us feel safe. The police smelling every drink I drink, looking in my bag every time I come out the store, that don’t make me feel safe.” “This is how it’s supposed to be,” he reiterates. “We feel safe. And for once, we’re not running late – usually we always be running late because of having been hassled”

What would public safety look like if it was collectively determined by those who protect and those who are to be protected? Would it show us that safety might not mean protection? What if that very question upset and disintegrated the distinction between safety/protection, between protector/protected? How would radicalizing the conditions of labor change the nature of surplus repression, and the labor to sustain it? What world would we choose to bring about, if only we organized the labor to do it?







Africana Pluralism and the Future of Philosophy of Race

This is a guest post by Chike Jeffers.

Hello all. I intend, in the first part of this post, to talk about how and why stylistic or methodological diversity in philosophy can be comparably comfortable from the non-mainstream perspective of those who are committed to bringing about more demographic and thematic diversity in philosophy. Specifically, I will talk about what I see as the necessity and naturalness of pluralism in the field of Africana philosophy. In the second part, on a very different note, I will raise the question of the need for those of us in the field of philosophy of race to become uncomfortable in relation to the question of how pluralistic and how demographically varied we can expect it to be in the future.

The first part of my remarks, on Africana philosophy, require me or at least give me licence to indulge in some autobiography. I began my undergraduate studies at York University in Toronto as a film production major but, by the end of my second year, realized I didn’t see myself going into that industry. Realizing my attraction to the academic side of things, I switched from film production to film studies and took on a minor in philosophy. Then two things happened during my third year (or my “junior” year, as they would say in the States) that made me see that philosophy was precisely what I wanted to do with my life. I bought George Yancy’s book, African American Philosophers: 17 Conversations, and I took a course on African philosophy from York’s Esteve Morera (an old grad school friend of the philosopher who would later become my dissertation advisor, Charles Mills).

Up until I read Yancy’s book, philosophy had seemed fun to me but it had never seemed like a way that I as an individual could contribute to the collective advancement of people of African descent. Given role models like Spike Lee, I had had a sense of how a filmmaker could be of service and I think I had a sense of how a film critic could contribute as well. But it was Yancy’s book that gave me black role models in philosophy, people doing work that seemed to me to be of fundamental importance given my identity, interests, and aims. The course in African philosophy also enthralled me and so I came to recognize myself as dedicated to philosophy, but please notice that what made me realize philosophy was for me was my exposure to Africana philosophy (i.e., philosophy as practiced by and as concerned with the thoughts and issues of Africans and people of African descent in the diaspora). Not only did I apply to graduate school feeling absolutely sure that I wanted a career in philosophy, I applied with no doubt about the area of philosophy to which I wanted to contribute: Africana philosophy.

Consider, now, the schools to which I applied: UNC Chapel Hill, UIC, CUNY Graduate Center, Michigan State, Purdue, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Depaul, and SUNY Stony Brook. Those of you familiar with philosophy in the US will notice that, of the schools I’ve named, some are very much analytic, some are very much Continental, and some count as pluralistic or other. I knew about the difference between analytic and Continental, by that point, but it was of pretty much no importance to me while applying because what I was looking for was a place where I could study the philosophizing of black people with a black philosopher. As it happens, that meant cutting across the divide and applying to schools in and between both traditions. When it came time to choose between the places I got into, I eventually narrowed it down to Chapel Hill or Northwestern and part of why I chose Northwestern was that when I visited as a prospective, I was struck and impressed by its pluralism – i.e., by the way it seemed to really cut across the divide.

To recap the above, I came into philosophy committed to the central importance of Africana thought and Africana thinkers and thus I came into philosophy committed to advancing its thematic and demographic diversification. That primary commitment happened to have as its consequence a sense of openness in terms of diversity in style or methodology. I saw myself as ready to fit anywhere on the analytic-to-Continental scale and as most comfortable where I could be equally exposed to both. It is useful at this point to consider something Lewis Gordon says in his Introduction to Africana Philosophy. He writes:

The designation “analytical philosophy”… poses some difficulty in the Africana philosophical context. This is because, although nearly all African-American philosophers have had some contact with analytical philosophy, many African-American philosophers consider what they do to transcend the analytical-continental rubric. Thus there are only a small handful who outright identify themselves as “analytical philosophers.” (111)

It is tempting for someone like me to strongly endorse the self-perception that Gordon speaks of here, not just for myself but for the field. It is tempting, that is, to idealize Africana philosophy as managing to transcend the nettlesome divide, as ultimately floating above Continental and analytic philosophy, happy in its purity and in its unity.

This, however, would not be accurate. The very section of Gordon’s book from which I have quoted not only describes a distinctively analytic tradition in Africana philosophy but it also goes on to sharply criticize Africana analytic philosophy. Gordon claims that “the analytical approach faces severe limitations… the most crucial of which is the presumption of the validity of interpretation within the dominant system” (119). In other words, Gordon believes that to work within analytic philosophy is to work within an area of philosophy that takes far too much for granted. When one reaches the subsequent section in which Gordon describes the existential phenomenological tradition in Africana philosophy, it is clear that one has come to the tradition that Gordon inhabits and which he is therefore invested in defending rather than criticizing. The section on existential phenomenology is, by the way, kept separate from an earlier section on Continental philosophy, but it is admitted in that section that the at-that-point-yet-to-be-discussed topic of existential phenomenology fits under the Continental umbrella (121, 122n80).

Gordon’s approach to writing an introduction to Africana philosophy is therefore enough by itself to falsify any depiction of the field as completely transcending the Continental/analytic divide, whether in the sense of its content not being categorizable in those terms or in the sense of Continental and analytic approaches co-existing in complete harmony within it. When I say there is comparable comfort in stylistic/methodological diversity for those for whom Africana philosophy is an entry point into the discipline, I am not intending to pretend that there are no tensions between those in the field on the two sides of the divide. What I am claiming is, for such people, it becomes natural and inevitable to engage with work on both sides of the divide. Africana philosophy is, I would argue, necessarily pluralistic because one cannot simply escape the tensions between the sides and pretend that the other side is not there, as is so very possible for many, perhaps most, who work in the traditional areas of analytic philosophy or the various lineages of Continental philosophy.

Consider, first of all, that the term “Africana philosophy” itself was created and popularized by Continental figures. Lucius Outlaw, with his roots in critical theory and hermeneutics, is generally credited as the inventor of the term. Gordon, the existential phenomenologist, is the only person to have written a book-length introduction to it. Yancy, whose book of interviews pulled me into philosophy, can also be seen as working within the Continental tradition and, when thinking about the development of Africana philosophy, one must also be careful not to omit the importance of a certain non-black philosopher working in the Continental tradition, namely, Robert Bernasconi. In addition to doing lots of work on Africana philosophy, he has famously worked to create a constant pipeline of black students into the discipline. These students have furthermore been mostly female and thus one can speak of the interesting fact that while the great majority of senior black philosophers in North America are male, black women are very well-represented among up-and-coming philosophers, so much so that a recent study found that there is gender parity among black graduate students in philosophy, in striking contrast with the situation in the discipline as a whole. This fact is directly linked to the high numbers of black women at places where Bernasconi has held positions and most of the black women who have studied at these places are both (a) trained in the Continental tradition and (b) have at least some interest in Africana philosophy.

On the other hand, it is not at all clear that one could call the Continental tradition more dominant in Africana philosophy than the analytic tradition. From pioneering figures still active, like Bernard Boxill, to stars who have emerged in the 21st century, like Harvard’s Tommie Shelby, there is no shortage of prominent analytic figures in the field. Indeed, the most famous practitioner of Africana philosophy working in a philosophy department today is probably Kwame Anthony Appiah, who began his career doing philosophy of language in the analytic tradition. One should also note important people coming up, like my good friend Luvell Anderson, who got his Ph.D at Rutgers and who had Appiah and the pioneering analytic Africana philosopher Howard McGary on his dissertation committee, and Vanessa Wills, an example of young black woman philosopher who did not study with Bernasconi but rather, like Shelby, was trained at the University of Pittsburgh.

With the mix that results from the above situation, it is impossible for anyone who takes Africana philosophy seriously to not take people from both sides of the Continental/analytic divide seriously. For a demonstration of this, consider the session at SPEP, on the same day as the session at which I first gave this post as a paper, that focused on the work of Charles Mills, who I am proud to call one of my mentors. Mills is an important figure in Africana philosophy and he is also clearly a representative of the analytic tradition within the field… and yet, there he was, the subject of a session at SPEP, featuring Kathryn Gines, who recently co-edited an anthology of Continental black feminist philosophy, and Derrick Darby, an analytic philosopher who studied at Pitt at the same time as Shelby. This is Africana pluralism in action and it is simply normal.

Let me switch now to saying something about philosophy of race, a field which is of course very closely related to Africana philosophy, although they are not the same thing. While pioneers like Boxill and McGary were exploring ethical issues involving race in the 1970s, the growth of philosophy of race as a field with not only ethical and political dimensions but also importantly a matter of metaphysics and philosophy of science is generally traced back to Appiah’s 1985 article, “The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race.” The subsequent development of the field in the first couple of decades following this essay is closely tied to the story of Africana philosophy, because most of the major participants were black and, as a result, we see in this early development the same pluralism I have described above. A vigorous debate emerged over Appiah’s interpretation of Du Bois and his declaration that there are no such things as races. Outlaw was the first and most prominent to push back against this and the Appiah-Outlaw debate became symbolic of the metaphysical controversy at the heart of philosophy of race. Note the pluralism in action here. In 2004, Paul Taylor published the first introductory text on the philosophy of race (entitled Race: A Philosophical Introduction) and he too, with his training at Rutgers but his Deweyan pragmatism and distinctly pluralist approach to philosophy, is symbolic of not only the Africana influence in philosophy of race but its initial inability to be tied clearly to one side of the divide or the other.

The 21st century has brought interesting developments. Philosophy of race has grown at an exponentially fast rate. As an example of this growth, consider the two special issues on philosophy of race that appeared in 2010 in the Journal of Social Philosophy and The Monist. As a philosopher of race, I am indebted to both issues for the exciting work they feature – I have especially spent time thinking about Josh Glasgow’s “The End of Historical Constructivism” and Lawrence Blum’s “Racialized Groups: The Sociohistorical Consensus,” both in The Monist, and in JSP, I have been fascinated by Ron Mallon’s “Sources of Racialism.” It is interesting to note, however, a certain demographic shift. While Boxill has an article in The Monist, he is the only black philosopher out of a predominantly white bunch. There is an even more striking pattern in the JSP issue, which was edited by Taylor and Ron Sundstrom. There are two symposia in the issue, the first called “New Thinking in Race Theory,” and then a 25th anniversary symposium on Boxill’s 1984 book, Blacks and Social Justice. Gines and Shelby comment on Boxill’s book and Boxill responds in the symposium that looks back toward an important work on race from the 1980s. In the first symposium, on the other hand, the one that looks forward to new thinking in race theory, all the authors are white. As I note that, let me also note how Taylor and Sundstrom begin their introduction to the special issue: “After some delay, critical race theory has arrived in analytic philosophy.”[1]

Indeed it has. Today we have prominent analytic political philosophers like Elizabeth Anderson and metaphysicians like Sally Haslanger doing cutting-edge work in philosophy of race. But how exactly should we feel about this growing whiteness and growing prominence of work in the analytic vein? There is reason to think we should simply celebrate. After all, philosophy of race, unlike Africana philosophy, is not an area defined by a particular racial/ethnic experience, but rather an area in which philosophers of all backgrounds ought to participate. The growing whiteness and analyticness of philosophy of race should perhaps be taken as a welcome sign that the area is now fully accepted as mainstream, the topic now appreciated for its importance.

I think there is nothing wrong and something definitely right in taking the growing whiteness and analyticness of philosophy of race as an at least partly positive sign of growing mainstream acceptance. It is not weird, however, to experience this development with a sense of ambivalence. It is not weird to be concerned that non-white voices could begin to be drowned out. It is not weird to lament the possibility – perhaps already an actuality – of analytic practitioners of philosophy of race becoming able to completely ignore non-analytic work while still being regarded as widely knowledgeable about the field.

In closing, though, let me say that I think there are at least two reasons to be optimistic that philosophy of race will remain pluralistic. The first is the California Roundtable on Philosophy of Race conference, the only annual conference focused on the field and one which is definitely pluralistic (to the extent that it leans one way or the other, it leans Continental). Secondly, there is the new journal, Critical Philosophy of Race, which is run out of Penn State. Given the nature of that department and the editorial board, there seems good reason to think that it will be a pluralistic journal. I think it has already established itself as a very important place to publish. With regard to the possibly overwhelming whiteness of philosophy of race in the future, though, it seems to me that this can only be avoided in two ways. The first is wholly undesirable, namely, a reversal of the increased interest in race among philosophers generally. The second is extremely desirable: a change in the overwhelming whiteness of philosophy generally. This is a hot topic these days and I leave it up to you, the reader, to decide whether that is a reason to be hopeful or whether all the talk is not yet enough to build up optimism.

[1] JSP

Diverse Practices, Diverse Practitioners: Philosophy, Identity, and Practices of Resistance

This is a guest post by Natalie Cisneros.

As a part of the 53rd annual conference of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy in New Orleans, the SPEP Racial and Ethnic Diversity Committee hosted a panel on “Making Philosophy Uncomfortable: Diverse Theory and Practice.” Along with the other panelists, Dr. Cigdem Yazici, Dr. Chike Jeffers, and Dr. José Medina, I was invited to address critiques of diversity from a perspective generated by my current work on race, gender, and contemporary functions of power. I was honored to join this group of scholars, each of whom offered important and timely insights into the meaning and possibilities of engaging in diverse philosophical praxis.

In preparation for this conversation about diverse theory and practice—and about comfort and discomfort— within the culture of professional academic philosophy, I had the occasion to reread and reflect again on some of the vast and rich work that has been done by people of color inside and outside of the discipline of philosophy on this very topic— work by philosophers including Linda Alcoff, Anita Allen, Donna Dale Marcano, Kristie Dotson, Kathryn Gines, Eduardo Mendieta, Mariana Ortega, and many, many others. This work not only informs and grounds my reflections, but also makes them possible—and makes possible my own existence and work within the discipline of philosophy more generally.

With this in mind, I focused my brief comments and questions on the possibility of diverse philosophical practice, and what the precariousness of particular modes of philosophical praxis means for the survival of diverse practitioners within the spaces of professional philosophy. I am currently working on a project that draws on a variety of traditions, including Women of Color feminisms, to analyze what I am calling “normalizing racism,” a strategy of racism that operates in the contemporary context through the policing of specific norms. These include norms surrounding language, ethnicity, and culture (what language(s) we speak, how we speak them, and what kinds of cultural practices are socially acceptable, for example) as well as norms about what it means to be a good, productive, and virtuous citizen. On my account, as it functions in the contemporary context, normalizing racism is both productive and eliminative. That is, it produces ways of being and knowing at the same time that it silences, marginalizes, and violently eliminates others. I am particularly interested in how and why practices of producing and policing racist norms are in many cases not identified as functions of racism even as they enact violence on racialized bodies– how normalizing racism produces its own erasure. That is, I am concerned with how and why contemporary strategies of normalizing racism don’t appear or aren’t understood in the dominant discourse as racist at the very same time that they are mobilized in the symbolic or literal elimination of people of color.

My current projects focus on how this eliminative function of normalizing racism operates through practices surrounding immigration, criminalization, and mass incarceration in the U.S. Here, though, I want to focus on how the production and policing of norms surrounding philosophical practice are caught up in strategies of normalizing racism in ways that call into question the survival of diverse practices and diverse practitioners in the discipline. This theme of survival—both within spaces of white supremacy in general and within academic spaces specifically— has been taken up critically and productively for decades and in many different ways within Women of Color feminisms in particular. I can’t do justice to this long and rich tradition in my comments here, but I want to call our attention to two moments in this genealogy. By focusing on what I’m calling the eliminative function of normalizing racism, I hope that these two moments will help us to continue a critical conversation about how various kinds of philosophical practice function to threaten or support the survival of diverse practitioners within the discipline.

The first moment is from Gloría Anzaldúa’s 1992 essay “The New Mestiza Nation,” where she describes the painful and perilous experience of the faculty members of color as that of a “Trojan mula”:

It is hard to get through the gate, and many do not make it. But once she passes through that gate, she becomes a sort of Trojan horse, a Trojan mula who has infiltrated in order to subvert the system, bringing new ideas with her. But the academy starts chipping away at her walls as she rams the academy’s walls with her head to make room for others like herself; she ends up on the floor with a bloodied head as she comes up against classrooms where she and her communities are completely invisible.[1]

The second critical reflection on survival that I’d like to highlight comes from Kristie Dotson’s essay “Concrete Flowers: Contemplating the Profession of Philosophy,” published in Hypatia in 2011. In it, Dotson speaks to the issue of survival of Women of Color in the discipline of philosophy in particular, by employing the powerful metaphor of a concrete flower:

 They give the impression of being strong, survivors. After all, they, and often they alone, have managed to grow through concrete. On closer inspection, however, many concrete flowers are fragile and clearly starved for basic nutrients. In fact, a concrete flower grows in spite of its environment. Malnourished and threatened on all sides by the concrete that would indifferently snuff the life from them, concrete flowers exist on grisly ground. If they were to flourish, they would produce a different landscape.[2].

For both Anzaldúa and Dotson, what it means to be a person of color (and Woman of Color in particular) in traditional academic spaces is to exist amidst—and despite—the constant threat of elimination. What these metaphors show is that this threat of normalizing racism isn’t accidental or conditional, but is a foundational feature of the systems they critique; it is embedded in the very walls of the ivory tower that the Trojan mula infiltrates, and it constitutes the concrete ground in spite of which flowers attempt to survive. That is, the very structures and norms that ground and contain our philosophical practice function in silencing and visiting violence upon persons of Color.

I think it is important to emphasize here that, though white supremacy in this context operates in preventing particular bodies from entering these spaces, both Anzaldúa and Dotson powerfully call our attention to how violent elimination happens within the spaces themselves. That is, while as Anzaldúa notes,“it is hard to get through the gate and many do not make it,” the eliminative function of normalizing racism in the context of philosophical practice functions not only in terms of who is let in. Though, as the demographics of professional philosophy forcefully make clear, this is certainly the case, racist violence is also embedded in the norms of academic philosophy itself, even for those who do, in fact, make their way in. The Trojan mula’s head is “chipped away at” and “bloodied” even within the walls of the Ivory tower she has infiltrated. Similarly, after poking its head through the concrete, the flower must attempt to survive while starved of basic nutrients. The norms that animate the institutions to which the mula and flower have gained provisional admittance threaten their very survival. These norms determine what kinds of texts and discourses count as philosophy, what kind work, both in terms of style and content, counts as philosophical, and what among this work is seen as important and significant. And the norms that animate and are maintained by the structures of the discipline itself are can be found in the quotidian practices, politics, and spaces of academic philosophy– in the ways and languages in which we speak, and in our bodily practices. As George Yancy has pointed out, within the structures of the overwhelmingly white discipline of philosophy, “white bodies move with ease, they complement and complete eachother, they bond with eachother,” and many philosophers of color are thus made to feel ill at ease within philosophical spaces; at the same time that the norms of professional philosophy function in making white people–and, more precisely, white cisgendered men–feel safe, at-ease, and at home in professional philosophy, they function in making others feel alienated and unsafe. In this way, Yancy, Anzaldúa, Dotson, and others ask us to reflect critically on what we mean when we talk about and call for “diversity” in the context of academic philosophy. By focusing our attention on the theme of survival, these critiques center our reflection on the precarious positions of bodies of color in the spaces of academic philosophy, and in doing so on how particular conceptions of diversity can perpetuate rather than resist normalizing racism. Indeed, these accounts suggest that calling for and inserting “diverse” bodies into the various spaces of professional philosophy without calling into question—and transforming—the norms that ground and contain these spaces perpetuates a kind of violence that is itself a function of racist elimination.

But what is entailed in such a transformation? This is one of the questions at the center of the conversation about survival inside of the academy and within philosophy in particular. The transformative movements called for in–and enacted by–this conversation have shown how norms that we many not take to have anything to do with race, or in fact recognize as norms at all, function in excluding diverse practitioners from the discipline of philosophy. This means, of course, that policing what counts as philosophy is a function not only of silencing perspectives, but also of eliminating particular bodies from philosophical practice. This elimination also occurs through the politics of citation: who gets cited and who doesn’t get cited reinforces norms of white supremacy, and reproduces particular forms of philosophical praxis at the same time that it marginalizes others and threatens the survival of diverse practitioners. Understanding the functioning of normalizing racism in this context calls us to rethink what kinds of practices should count as philosophical work. Such a critique suggests that practices of survival, including activism, community building, and other modes of resisting racist institutional norms, should not be understood as extrinsic or even merely complementary to academic philosophy. Indeed, the function of normalizing racism within the academy means that practices of survival are themselves modes of transformative philosophical praxis.

[1] Gloria Anzaldua, The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader (Duke University Press, 2009), 207.

[2] Kristie Dotson, “Concrete Flowers: Contemplating the Profession of Philosophy,” Hypatia 26, no. 2 (May 1, 2011), 408.


Next week we will publish Chike Jeffers’s paper from this SPEP session. 

A rock. And a hard place. And damn, can’t breathe.

The following is a guest post by Michelle Smith, an assistant professor at Barnard College. This essay originally appeared as a public post on Facebook, and it is reprinted here with permission.

The longest facebook status update ever but I couldn’t breathe by the regular means and I had to force it out.

Over on a friend’s Facebook page is a thread about Khadijah Lynch, a black Brandeis University student who has attracted the ire of the right, quite a few white supremacists and a large percentage of everybody else by tweeting provocatively about the deaths of Officers Liu and Ramos. And that discussion is making my head spin and my heart hurt and my soul ache. Actually, it’s doing that on top of everything else that has been spinning, hurting and aching me now for a long, long time. And you know, when your head is spinning and your heart is hurting and your soul is aching, it can be hard to critically reason in a public forum. It is not just that another young black man was gunned down by police in MO last night or that his mother’s keening wail when she found out he was dead keeps replaying in my head. It is not that I am still reeling from De Blasio’s aggressive statement of purpose after the murder of two NYPD officers this past weekend, which stands in such sharp contrast to the vague emoting of his post-Garner decision speech. It is not even that I had to hold my tongue and my fists repeatedly as various NYPD officers put their hands on my body to “kettle” me back on various sidewalks at the night before last’s protest march up 5th Avenue. I can’t catch my breath, in either sense of the commonly used phrase. I cannot stop to breathe. I have not been able to pause to let my body rest and reset. It is like I have been on a treadmill that won’t stop rolling long enough for a breather, much less a protein bar or a sip of Gatorade. [And it’s Christmas.] Worse, if my breath should just…catch (yet again), stick in my throat out of sheer terror, rage, gut-rending sadness but I nevertheless force myself to exhale (and scream and cry and wail and get adamant) all out in the open on some public forum, such is the source of my arrested breath—black lives seem to matter less and less—that I will likely face another gut-punch. Not everyone will respond with an “I feel you” or a “me, too.” Perhaps as in the case of Ms. Lynch, my scream will go “viral” and I will have to run and hide. (“Why can’t you,” an ex-lover once asked, “just enjoy yourself? Just go with it and enjoy it. You stop to think too much.” I could never explain that I wasn’t always thinking. Sometimes, I simply could not breathe. “You have condoned violence, Khadijah Lynch. That is wrong. Period. It was thoughtless, immature, immoral for you to do so no matter how you feel.”)

I want to think out loud, so to speak, about all of this, especially Khadijah Lynch’s tweets, the murders of officers Liu and Ramos and most especially, compassion. I want to think out loud about the ethical/moral force of events and persons. What stokes outrage and arouses ‘our’ compassion? For whom and about what are ‘we’ inclined to be enraged or to feel pity? Who is this ‘we’ to whom I keep referring? Are we an association defined by egalitarian relations, wherein each receives the benefits of outrage and compassion from others when events demand it just as each is obligated to be concerned about others? Or are ‘we’ a group of motley and pitiless antagonists, whose rivalry results from individual failures of virtuous thought, action and communication? (To the non-theorists among my Facebook friends, I am escaping into theory while trying really hard to retain a grasp of current events that I’d just as soon let go. Even before I was trained as a political theorist, I had a real affection for ‘abstract’ thinking. Also, I love Aristotle almost as much as I love Kant. I’d add “to my very great shame” to that but I’d be lying. I love them both like I love Tolkien fantasies, with a kind of pure and unadulterated “I-don’t-careness” that ought to embarrass but doesn’t because only 7 year olds feel it. This is me holding on. To my theory friends, yes, there are other sources. Of course, I’m painting with too broad a brush. Naturally, my interpretations are indefensible. I am whistling in the dark but I am doing so in a theoretical key.)

In “Poetics,” Aristotle famously differentiated between what would strike audiences of tragedy (of the sort performed on a stage) as “pitiable” (or, we might say, compassion evoking) and “terrible” (or we might say, monstrous and spectacular) occurrences. Aristotle believed that the emotional impact of an event, whether audience members are likely to judge it “pitiable” or “terrible,” depends on the affiliation of those it affects. Philosopher Stephen Salkever illuminates the complexities of Aristotle’s thinking about affiliation.

“From the definition of ‘pity’ given in [Aristotle’s] Rhetoric (1385b), i.e.: pain arising from the spectacle of undeserved suffering, we might expect the answer to be that calamities wrought by an unjust person upon a just person are the truly pitiable events. But this is not what he says here; instead, the answer given is that a destructive act (a “pathos,” as defined in 11.1452b) is pitiable only if it occurs among “philoi,” rather than among enemies or persons indifferent to one another. The tragic thrill or frisson (“phrittein;” 1453b) that captures the spectator or reader of a tragedy must be brought on by an unexpected break in a relationship of “philia,” a relationship defined here in a precise and uncommonly narrow way by Aristotle’s examples: events are pitiable when ‘calamaties occur among “philiai,” such as when brother kills brother, or son father, or mother son, or son mother.’ The “philia” intended here is not the broad ‘friendship’ that is the ordinary meaning of the word, but is clearly and uniquely a family or blood relationship…[Tragedies] concern only a few families or households (“gene” or “oikiai”)… Tragedians discovered it was the stories of these families—stories of the fatal disruption of the “philia” of the household—that were most likely to produce a sensation of pity, of serious and unmerited suffering, in the minds of their audience. This use of “philia” is unusual and worth noting. The term occurs frequently in [Aristotle’s] Politics, where it is used to describe emotional ties among citizens that are necessary for the survival of the “polis;” political “philia” is thus said to be ‘the greatest of goods for cities’ (Politics 2.1262b). There we are told there are two causes of “philia:” the sense that another person is in fact one’s own (to idion), and the shared sense that something is truly lovable; the first form of “philia” being familial and the second political.”

Let us put aside the political sense of affiliation given in Aristotle’s Politics for a moment. For Aristotle, a tragedy (again, the sort performed on a stage) was not merely an entertainment. Rather, as Salkever points out, tragedies served a didactic purpose. A good tragedy would warn an audience against the seduction of unjust action. Instead, we should “act with caution…resist the tendency to identify freedom and happiness with power” and understand that “the familial order is as fragile as it is precious, and so requires the support of institutions such as the laws if it is to be maintained.” By arousing pity (i.e., evoking compassion), tragedies could transform an audience by “focusing concern.” An effective tragedy produced catharsis… “neither that of purgation nor of purification, nor yet of direct teaching or enlightenment, but is part of the process of transforming a potentially good democracy (with proper land distribution, economic regulations, and so on) into one that is actually such…”

I am no great student of Aristotle. His work is not the subject of my political theoretical research and writing. Still, I always enjoy teaching Aristotle in my Intro to Political Theory class. Concepts like friendship, family, democracy and virtue that we are accustomed to using in certain off-hand ways become unfamiliar when we read and discuss him. My students and I are sometimes left reeling by how complex a concept and how difficult an ethical/political possibility affiliation actually is even without perhaps foolish attempts to ‘apply’ Aristotle to contemporary events. And indeed his writings are not so easily ‘applied’ here. Recent events contain and stage so many real life tragedies whose audiences are multiple, with divisions among them so sharp and so visceral and indeed, often so willful, as to suggest that shared transformation is impossible. ‘We’ are not often riveted by the same events. Some of us are much more likely than others to play leading roles from which we will not walk away. Current events suggest that those of us most unlikely to be assigned the most difficult part in a tragedy, that of ending up as the event, are just as unlikely to willingly sit quietly in the audience and allow our viewing of the event to focus our concern and to transform us in the fashion Aristotle described. Were he to read this post, Salkever might say, but even if his account of tragedy is not precisely applicable to us today, Aristotle nevertheless can teach us a lesson! Though by focusing the concern of its audience, an effective tragedy might push ‘us’—a series of families and households— toward democratic transformations, the efficacy of a tragedy, i.e.: its capacity for stoking compassion, derives precisely and only from the kind of relationships violated by the tragic event. Only poetic representations of “violations of a certain order of ‘philia’” that of the family and not the “order” of political community generate compassion and catharsis. It would seem that each of us recognizes that “the most important goods are those that are connected with their homes and families” and thus can experience and express transformative compassion.

One might object that the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Yvette Smith, Rekia Boyd and so many others at the hands of police, as well as the murder of officers Liu and Ramos by Ismaaiyl Brinsley are not ‘tragic’ in the Aristotelian sense because they are not events explicable as pure “familial disruptions.” Surely, police and populations subject to their authority are not “philoi” in the sense implied by Aristotle’s Poetics. Apparently, police/community relations are at best indifferent and at worst antagonistic. In many ways, both Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Ethics offer more fitting accounts of “philia” to address the emotional effects and political possibilities of contemporary events. To be dangerously general [sorry, theorists] in Rhetoric and Ethics, “philia” refers to the constitutive actions and intentions of friendship, such as reciprocal regard, cherishing and the like and stand in contrast with those of “misein” or hating. Here “philia” is not a feeling in response to an event as is compassion, but instead an animating objective or motive toward an Other. Reciprocity—shared regard or attention to the well being of another—define relations of “philia” in the context of the Ethics and Rhetoric. Both Ethics and Rhetoric are ‘practical’ (empirical/applied understanding) as opposed to purely ‘theoretical’ bodies of knowledge, “scientific knowledge, combined with intuitive reason, of the things that are highest by nature” (Nicomachean Ethics, VI, 1141b) with the former directed at moral dilemmas and the latter at the theory and practice of persuasion. When effective, both seek justice: Rhetoric because it can help arrive at truth and just outcomes in political assemblies and courts of law and Ethics because it can assist in our attempts to envision happiness, to exercise virtue and to articulate the most appropriate forms of government for a given people.

Many anti-police brutality activists dream of replacing militarized and murderous police departments with community police, whose objectives and methods are animated by reciprocal regard. And thus, when the NY Daily News shouts at us, “Have you no shame?” for continuing to protest after Mayor De Blasio asked us not to, we get on Facebook, Twitter, personal blogs and everywhere else and do our very best to persuade by illuminating the misunderstandings (both willful and accidental) animating such shouting. And yet, despite the obvious objections I raised above and others, chief among them that these are not effective and didactic entertainments but real life events, I want to return to the Aristotelian notion that the tragic representations of events are rife with political potential. But I want to think out loud about the dangers of the blood borne “philia,” which is the only one form of human relation to evoke compassion when violated and to thus spark democratic catharsis.

But first: our lives are at stake. The black and brown among us are at enormous risk of becoming real life/death events at the hands of police. We can’t breathe. And we can’t catch our breath. When we DO exhale in outrage at being exploded or at watching others like us blown up and out from the wholeness of human being that we, like everybody else, were struggling to put and keep together (all the pedestrian and all the grand, all the holy and all the profane) into a life/death (mostly death, though, mostly death) event, as Khadijah Lynch did on Twitter, we get an audience. But when that audience coheres, it does not signal that catharsis or reciprocal understanding has been achieved but instead that a kind of bad translation has congealed. And so, our cortisol and adrenaline-laden breath stinks like ozone. And so, shame on us for we are a nasty and perennial pollutant, a danger to the body politic. And so, instead of all of that, we feel obligated to do better and thus assemble to force out our caught up breath together to convert it from stress hormones into words, actions, demands and we take to the streets. Last night, we caught our breath together and said, “Mayor De Blasio, we are not things that happen. These police don’t just stop and frisk us, knee-to-the-throat-us (to death), shoot-to-death-without-cause-us. Their violence and your opportunism converts us from emergent constellations of human being—moments and choices and assignations and loves and angers and fashions and favorite-songs and faulty-memories and bike rides and photographs and hatreds and successes and attempts and failures and vintage-clothes-we-try-to-wear-but-boy-are-they-wearing us and that- time-I-made-a-perfect-vindaloo and that-next-time-when-I-didn’t and whoa-that-unexpected-in-1994-Q-tip-lead-acid-jazz-hip-hop-cipher-at-den-of-thieves [when the Village was kind of still the Village] and my-first-trip-to-Berlin-when-I-heard-“einsteigen, bitte-and-then “zuruck-bleiben, bitte”-on-the-subway-platform-and-didn’t-know-what-it-meant-but-it-sounded-so-pretty-that-I-had-to-learn-a-whole-other-language [also, I was in love] and cross-country-drives and skiing-downhill-at-Peek&Peak-in-Walmart-ski-clothes [I got WET] and the-Lullaby-Baxter-Trio’s-ever-so-apt-song/description-of-mostly-everything,“The Chatterbox Chronicles” and reading-Margaret-Atwood-the-first-time and asking-Dad-to-pay-my-rent-because-yes-i-did-buy-a-plane-ticket-to-Berlin and too-many-drinks-that-one-night-after-several-nights-of-far-too-few and so-many-break-ups and unwise-facebook-status-updates [like this one] and obligatory-family-dinners and runaways and and and—into things that just happen and are happened upon. Their violence and your opportunism convert us from a series of episodes becoming us to the usefully episodic. You make us minute-by-minute recordable moments like Comstat pocket searches, lifted up shirts (gun check), profane commands that we submit (“get the fuck out of the street!!” These are unrecorded, it turns out, by Comstat) and unwieldy bodies to be “kettled” onto the sidewalk or jailed until whenever. Or you make us life-long but only in memory, like Michael Brown’s bloodied and bleeding, lifeless and dead body lying in the street for four hours after the now no-billed Darren Wilson shot him six times. I am starting to wheeze.” So, we assemble to peacefully and in a constitutionally protected fashion force out our breath in words and signs and actions. Yes, we did hear you tell us not to, but it is an emergency-we cannot breathe so we dutifully force out our breath and shape it into a clear account of the public problems at hand and how we would like to see them resolved but then you join the NY Daily News to ask “have you no shame?” I cannot speak for all of us but I have plenty of shame: seven-different-all-white-but-for-me-and-my-sister-and-maybe-a-couple-of-others-Catholic-schools-in-seven-different-states will do that for you. And yes, I know that’s not what you meant.

Okay, I’ve caught my breath for the moment. But even breathing I am still caught up, stuck between a theoretical rock (or a practical one?) and its practical hard place (or is the hard place theoretical?) Dunno. Aristotelian Poetics and the light it shines on tragedy induced “philia” appeals to me. In the Poetics, “Philia” results not from an already existing and reciprocal intention of regard for others, which while lovely in theory is rare in practice, but instead from an event, an occurrence which with the right kind of poetic/aesthetic representation can potentially scare us into such a powerful feeling of compassion that we become new—freshly oriented towards democratic transformation. And yet, Aristotle immediately forecloses an event-qua- event’s theoretical boundlessness and thus its cathartic-democratic potential by insisting it be recognized as a fouling of a familial (and only familial if you believe Salkever) relations. Only those events affecting familial relations are effective and rife with potential. Those events represent the right kind of dirtying of the right kind of human relations. As such, they become worthy of (or conducive to) recognition. The right kind of event can occur only among those already connected by kinship. [Perhaps Aristotle would like to issue an apology to Toni Morrison, who wrote in “Beloved,” “That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.” Dirty you so bad that you can’t catch your breath. Can’t breathe.]

We might be tempted to simply deduct the kinship part from Aristotle’s logic and, through some sleight of theorizing, substitute political relations. Consider for example, the stated demands of the national‪ #‎blacklivesmatter‬ movement. These demands evince no optimistic or hopeful expectations about anyone’s sentiment or the idea that the events at hand will catalyze reciprocal regard, love, friendship or an intentional orientation to the well being of Others. Instead, precisely because the members of BLM have witnessed repeatedly that police murders of unarmed black and brown folk rarely attract the compassionate recognition that might inspire Aristotelian reversals entered the political fray and proposed to create a “network of organizations and advocates to form a national policy specifically aimed at redressing the systemic pattern of anti-black law enforcement violence in the US.” BLM’s proposals were originally articulated in response to the murder of Michael Brown, whose death was one example of the “systematic pattern of anti-black law enforcement violence in the U.S.” BLM demanded 1) “the immediate arrest of officer Darren Wilson and the dismissal of county prosecutor Robert McCullough” 2) “that the federal government discontinue its supply of military weaponry and equipment to local law enforcement” 3) that Eric Holder “release the names of all officers involved in killing black people within the last five years, both while on patrol and in custody, so they can be brought to justice – if they haven’t already” and 4) “that government decrease…law-enforcement spending at the local, state and federal levels and a reinvestment of that budgeted money into the black communities most devastated by poverty in order to create jobs, housing and schools. This money should be redirected to those federal departments charged with providing employment, housing and educational services.” (Of course, if you’ve been watching or reading the so-called “news,” you probably didn’t even know that BLM has demands, what with all the “kill a cop” chanting and so forth going on.)

No such substitutions of political for familial relations are possible. Indeed, even non-event driven “ethics” fail. For white supremacy is damned talented at foreclosing reciprocity. Sitting in the national audience and letting an event play out in the hopes that it will “focus [our collective] concerns” into an ethos that inspires democratic change has never worked for black and brown people in the United States. To cite one example, as 19th century anti-slavery activist-intellectual Martin Delany pointed out, for black folks in the US whether slave or free, faith in ethics/morality was very dangerous indeed. The socio-economic, political and ‘ethical’ system of white supremacy was so powerful that it infected all interracial relations, whether extant or emergent. Referring to white Abolitionists who attended black organized uplift “conventions” during the antebellum period, Delany wrote:

“[white Abolitionists] exhorted the Convention to cease; as they had laid on the burden, they would also take it off; as they had obstructed our pathway, they would remove the hindrance. In a word, as they had oppressed and trampled down the colored people, they would now elevate them.”

Delany’s description of the black participants’ response is instructive. Upon hearing this argument,

“…the colored men stopped suddenly, and with their hands thrust deep in their breeches-pockets, and their mouths gaping open, stood gazing with astonishment, wonder and surprise at the stupendous moral colossal statues of our Anti-Slavery friends and brethren, who… promised a great deal more than they have ever been able half to fulfill.”

But it was not just that (white) Christian ethics was not enough to condition measurable change. The problem was that ethics, however gorgeously Christian (or wonderfully ancient Greek), was still predicated on the notion that, even if freed from enslavement, black people could never be more than objects for the ethical action of others. A rock. And a hard place. And damn, can’t breathe.

But that was the 19th century. Here we are in the 21st, unable to produce or sustain any faith in “ethics” or to rely upon even the very best “rhetoric” but still confronted with apparently tragic events and thus trying our damndest to transform them into democratic reversals. But just look at how they dirty us! Mayor De Blasio says we should “shut down” our protests until after the funerals of officers Liu and Ramos. In doing so, he explicitly suggests that the righteous outrage and the accompanying demands of anti-police brutality activists like those belonging to the #blacklivesmatter movement resulted in the deaths of those officers! “We have to get everyone to move away from anger and hatred,” De Blasio insists, indicating that protestors trying to breathe are not in fact just trying to breathe again but instead full of non-regard, non-love and no concern for the well-being of the immediate families of officers Liu and Ramos or the NYPD ‘brotherhood,’ now conveniently treated as though they are merely ‘our’ brothers (armed to the teeth). “It’s time for everyone to put aside political debates, put aside protests, put aside all of the things that we will talk about in due time,” he said. “Let’s accompany these families on their difficult journey. Let’s see them through the funerals … then the debate can begin again.” And so, the deaths of officers Liu and Ramos are identified as eventful tragedies in the Aristotelian sense, tragic “disruption(s) of the household.” At the same time, our canny Mayor De Blasio did not just insist that this event—this tragedy—violated the unity and sanctity of ‘our’ household and should thus evoke “compassion” from us. In the same press conference, he suddenly ‘invited’ us all into relations of political “philia,” too, hoping against hope that we’d mistake the obligations of familial sentiment for political duty. He said, “when a police officer is murdered, it tears at the foundation of our society. It is an attack on all of us. It’s an attack on everything we hold dear.” We should suddenly recognize that we are a “family” of every important sort—not just kinfolk but citizens. Now that, my friends, is an extraordinary representation of an event! Aristotle would be stunned to find the “tragic” impact of an event so enlarged—recognizable as a pitiable occurrence among “family” AND among citizens. De Blasio has demanded total silence in every sector when we already cannot breathe.

Khadijah Lynch couldn’t breathe. And then she forced the caught up breath out of her throat where it was doing things to her that she perhaps could not survive. She tweeted “lmao. I just really dont have sympathy for the cops who were shot. i hate this racist fucking country.” That’s so mean. So cold. So immature. So unwise. So unethical. So hateful. So racist. So not pragmatic. Right? But when you already can’t breathe and they put something else heavy on your chest, like a sudden invitation to a family you didn’t belong to just before and that you know you won’t belong to just after and that you thus cannot trust, you breathe out whatever it is in you that you have left.

On the Lynching of Mike Brown and too Many Others


#ACAB #wechargegenocide

In the wake of the failure to indict Darren Wilson there has been a week of civil unrest. This is includes, but is not limited to, blockaded highways, mass transit interruptions, buildings burned, and large mobilizations of protesters. In light of this unrest, and the knowledge produced by organic intellectuals (see report below), the following claims should be taken in earnest:

First, Mike Brown was lynched

Second, police terror in the United States is genocide.

I am not being dramatic; I’m not just trying to grab your attention. I don’t mean these claims metaphorically or rhetorically. If only I was. Rather, I mean these phrases sincerely and I think it is time for academics and philosophers to use them earnestly too. It is time for all of us to use them unapologetically and without equivocation. It is time to use them as the framework for our analyses  unapologetically and without equivocation.

Mike Brown was lynched. The fact that his murderer was an officer of the law does not work against the claim of lynching. Indeed, it the essence of the claim.

After the civil war slavery was abolished in the public realm and ushered into criminal law and punishment. We can thank the 13th amendment for that. The fallout of this sleight of hand is complex, breaking off into many different areas like the rapid forming cracks of a dropped mirror. But for the sake of clarity, let us trace one of those cracks.

It is, in some sense, a historical metonymy. The slave catcher hunts down the fugitive slave. The deputy and police officer hunts down the unemployed black freeman for convict labor. The semi-legal vigilante hunts down the black citizen to violently enforce both community mores and laws. The police occupy economically devastated neighborhoods, hunting down suspected criminals using “stop and frisk” techniques and “predictive policing models.” In all of these instances, the law has the absolute right over the life and death of the black community and wields it without fear of reprisal. This is the essence of any racist state.

The march of history does not negate what comes before. Rather, it builds on it otherwise. It iterates and moves by vicissitude. Darren Wilson’s function in the community of Ferguson is that of the slave catcher, the vigilante, and the police all at once. His murder of Mike Brown is extra-juridical because the law disavows it. Mike Brown’s murder is invisible to the law as murder and as such outside the law. The deed of his murder becomes legally erased. His murderer is freed from even the possibility of guilt of that deed. It is a second life for Wilson; it is a second death for Mike Brown.

This is not because of the particular circumstances of the case. Rather, this is true because it was a lynching. Lynching is outside of American law because it is its unacknowledged center. The law cannot put itself on trial, especially when addressing the race making violence that founds it. Everything else follows from that.

The fact that this violence has moved into the bureaucratic caverns of the criminal justice labyrinth does not make it less racist. Rather, it only demonstrates the racist nature of the criminal justice system, and the brazenness with which the institutions in the this country have embraced the logic of dehumanization.

Police terror in black and brown neighborhoods is genocide. Yes, genocide.

This claim does not originate from me. Rather, it was the basis of a report presented to the UN by the Chicago youth organization We Charge Genocide. This report centered on police brutality in Chicago. For those who do not know, Chicago is city marred by a history of redlining and police torture (Jon Burge). It is a city beset by the same rust-belt problems as St. Louis. And its segregated and economically devastated neighborhoods often act as open air prisons for those who cannot afford transit fare. Many youth I work with have barely been out of their neighborhoods, for example. It is a city where black youth protest by calling out the names of those lost to police terror. It is a city where the youth actively call for the abolition of the police.


Here are some facts from the report they presented to the UN. In 2011 there were 25,111 youth arrests in Chicago. 77% of the youth arrested were Black. In 2012, it was 79%. Black citizens are 10 times more likely to be shot by a police officer than a White Citizen. From 2009-2013, 75.3% of all police shooting victims were black. Add to this the fact that the youth sent to the  Juvenile Temporary Detention Center for 2013 were 97% black and brown. Chicago Public Schools are 90.8% Black and Brown. This is to say nothing of the numbers of youth and adults subjected to the degradation of stop and frisk policies in poor black and brown communities.

Also from the report:

“Three police cars arrived on the scene, and police jumped out of their cars with guns drawn, and Roshad ran. Police chase Roshad through an alley onto the back porch of a house. Several people heard Roshad say, “Please don’t shoot, please don’t kill me, I don’t have a gun.” People saw him with his hands up when the police shot Roshad 5 times and killed him…[P]olice said Roshad had a gun and had pointed it at officers from the second floor of the porch. Yet people who saw it said he did not have a gun, and told police he didn’t have a gun. Furthermore, police only claimed they found a gun 3 hours after killing him. When people gathered to protest afterwards, police were cruel, violent and threatening.”

There are hundreds of “Mike Browns” a year. These lynchings occur in a context of police terror. Yes, terror. These occupations are part of a low intensity warfare against poor black and brown communities, also known as the “war on drugs.” This occupation is racially motivated and results in the extra-juridical murders of black and brown youth, many of whom experience a second death. Their names only kept by those close to them and the radical youth who revive their names in protest.

This is neither the first time the charge of genocide has been made, nor the first time it has been presented to the UN. In 1951:

“Out of the inhuman black ghettos of American cities, out of the cotton plantations of the South, comes this record of mass slayings on the basis of race, of lives deliberately warped and distorted by the willful creation of conditions making for premature death, poverty and disease.,  It is a record that calls aloud for condemnation, for an end to these terrible injustices that constitute a daily and ever-increasing violation of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide…

…We shall prove that the object of this genocide, as of all genocide, is the perpetuation of economic and political power by the few through the destruction of political protest by the many.  Its method is to demoralize and divide an entire nation; its end is to increase the profits and unchallenged control by a reactionary clique.  We shall show that those responsible for this crime are not the humble but the so-called great, not the American people but their misleaders, not the convict but the robed judge, not the criminal but the police, not the spontaneous mob but organized terrorists licensed and approved by the state to incite to a Roman holiday.”

Black and Brown communities are occupied by a violent force. This occupation reduces the opportunities of their life course, employment, housing, education, their life expectancy, and sense of physical safety. It increases their chances of incarceration, forced separation from family and community (diaspora), extra-legal murder, mental illness, unemployment, involvement in child welfare agencies, and eviction.  This is not partitioned out equally. It is starkly distributed along the axis of race. It is time we called it what it is.

The lynchings and terror, which are enacted in areas of extreme segregation, are part of the project of Mass incarceration. Mass incarceration is a historical form of trauma. It is a both a repetition of the nation’s founding in the violent dehumanization of black slaves for the absolute extraction of surplus value and it is also a source of traumatizing violence in the present.  As Michelle Alexander and Angela Davis, among others, have demonstrated, Mass incarceration is the latest iteration of the new world project of racism. It is the newest form of controlling, incarcerating, and retaining the right over life and death of the Black population in the United States.

The question that emerges clearly, for me at least, is which side are you on?

Thoughts on Cosby, Mike Brown, and Respectability

I haven’t got much to say. Much that makes any sense, anyway.

I keep looking for words that will make sense. Or make things make sense. I have yet to find them. What I have instead is the following.

Back in February, while researching the dynamics of the politics of respectability for their applicability to the situation of white women and women and men of color in the discipline of philosophy, I discovered a story that Bill Cosby had been accused of sexual assault. In fact he was accused of serial rape: at least thirteen women were prepared to testify in the suit Andrea Constand brought against Cosby in 2006 that he had drugged and assaulted them in the same manner as Constand in 2004. In the last six weeks, several more women have come forward telling similar tales, 18 so far, stretching from the late 1960s to the mid 2000s.

A child of the 80s, I didn’t grow up watching episodes of the Jeffersons or Good Times or Sanford and Son. Black life on TV was the Cosby show, followed by the spinoff A Different World, which followed Denise Huxtable as she went to college. The Huxtables’ lives were, as the kids say, ‘relatable’ – it reflected the kind of aspirational upper-middle class life that bouied much of middle america as we watched other people enjoy the rising tide of the 80s.

That the Cosby show, along with Cosby’s humor itself, made black life relatable to whites is a testament both to his skill as a comic and to the white desire for an alibi. As Mervan Osborne said in the New York Times, “There was a time when white people used to claim, ‘I watch “Cosby” ’ as their bona fides.’”

That desire for an alibi renders racism a matter of what’s in your head, a place that conveniently can never be accessed, while you complain that, despite your live of hip hop, you are forbidden as a white person from using “the n-word.” It leads to the requirement that the NAACP denounce black-on-black crime, while expressing their hope that an agent of the state will be held accountable for the murder of an unarmed 18 year old. It leads to the belief that state violence against black people can be prevented by just being better people – presumably, being more like Cosby himself.

This is where the logic of respectability politics takes you. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his excellent mea cupla (for failure to adequately report on the accusations of rape in his piece on Cosby) in the Atlantic, reminds us that “[o]rganic black conservatives (like Cosby, for instance) are traditionalists, but they hold no such illusions about America’s past. They believe this country to be racist, perhaps irredeemably so, but assert nonetheless that individual effort can defeat trenchant racism. The organic black conservative vision is riding high at the moment… The author of this moment is Bill Cosby.”

Bill Cosby’s first performance in the aftermath of this latest, much stickier round of allegations took place in Melbourne Florida in front of an “almost exclusively white” audience. A reporter for LA Times interviewed members of the audience: “‘I think what you have is a lot of people on the left who don’t like him,’ said Ray Harker, a white resident of the nearby town of Grant who owns an air conditioning and heating business there. Harker came out to the show with his wife, Eleanora, who nodded in agreement with much of what her husband said. ‘They don’t like what [Cosby] says about black people taking more responsibility, and this is their chance to beat up on him,’ Harker added.”

I would like to hold open a space between what Coates calls organic black conservatism and the white desire for an alibi. To say that the latter determines the former is certainly much too reductive, and has the effect of reifying all black politics as a merely effect of white supremacy. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the politics of respectability unites both sides into a single logic. It is a logic of inclusion, a way of making a claim to citizenship on the terms of citizenship as already established. And to that extent, it works: inclusion can be gained, can be bought with success, can be achieved if you are twice as good, if you are never weak or never fail, if you are never marked by the phenomenon of error, that which is said to make us human. You can achieve inclusion, by being something more than human.

I began writing this piece while waiting for the indictment of officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was murdered for appearing to be something more than human: according to Wilson’s testimony to the grand jury, after already having been shot, Brown fought with Wilson for control of the gun like “Hulk Hogan” and “bulked up” in order to run into more bullets; according to Wilson, “it”s face appeared to resemble a demon.

I argued last winter that while the politics of respectability might be a reasonable response to liberalism, it re-produced another set of constitutively excluded others, and that those who could not be included under the old paradigm – the poor, the queer – found out that they were on their own. What are the costs of respectability? Who is required to pay it?

Last week, when Ta-Nehisi Coates expressed regret for not doing more reporting on accusations of rape against Cosby, writer Ishmael Reed accused Coates on Facebook of joining a lynch mob. Reed said that, given his identity as a black man, he was loathe to join a lynch mob since he himself would be most vulnerable to it. Novelist and Vassar professor Kiese Laymon pointed out the logic at work here: Reed is willing to think of 18 women as liars because he might himself be accused of assault one day. Perhaps it would not even be necessary that they be liars. All that is necessary is that the overwhelming actuality of sexual assault not matter as much as the slimmest possibility that Ishmael Reed be someday accused of it.

Today, in a breathtaking piece, Kiese Laymon wrote the following:

My Vassar College Faculty ID affords me free smoothies, free printing paper, paid leave, and access to one of the most beautiful libraries on Earth. It guarantees that I have really good health care and more disposable income than anyone in my Mississippi family. But way more than I want to admit, I’m wondering what price we pay for these kinds of ID’s, and what that price has to do with the extrajudicial disciplining and killing of young black human beings.

Is the price of respectability politics Cosby’s ability to rape 18 women with impunity?

How respectable could Mike Brown have been in order to survive?

What is the price of white desire for an alibi?

CFP Beyond Bars: The Future of Prisons

Here is the CFP for the University of Memphis’s upcoming conference on prisons, sponsored by the Philosophy Department and Philosophy Graduate Student Association. We’re posting it here because it is exactly the kind of work we here at XCP support.

Keynote Address: Andrew Dilts, Loyola Marymount University
Plenary Panel: Lisa Guenther, Vanderbilt University; Kym Maclaren, Ryerson University; Joshua Dohmen, University
of Memphis
Punishment has featured prominently in the development of Western political thought as a vital component of developing and maintaining a polity. Philosophers ranging from Aristotle to Mill to Foucault have engaged the use of disciplinary and punitive practices. In the public sphere, debates have been waged over the purpose of prisons, the morality of capital punishment, and the political status of incarcerated persons both during and after incarceration. Over the last decade, in particular, there has been an explosion in the number of discourses surrounding incarceration practices, capital punishment, and criminal law in the United States. Debates about the wars on drugs and terror, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the moral and legal status of capital punishment have featured prominently in the media and in the political landscape. Recent demonstrations in response to police violence have drawn attention to both the militarization of police forces and the disproportion of this violence directed at communities of color. In intellectual circles, solitary confinement practices, felony disenfranchisement, and the proliferation of the prison-industrial complex have all been scrutinized. This conference seeks to provide a forum for these discussions on the status and meaning of prisons, incarceration, and punishment. Particular questions of interest include but are not limited to:
• What do figures in the history of philosophy have to say about punishment and what can we learn from them?
•How does imprisonment, or any practice associated with the prison, affect our understanding of notions like
the self and subjectivity?
• What moral issues are raised by the prison or incarceration?
• What epistemological issues do practices relating to the prison raise?
• Does prison reform or prison abolition provide the more satisfactory or useful response to criticism surrounding prisons? What do these terms even mean?
• What broader historical trend might the rampant use of imprisonment as a means of punishing criminal behavior signify?
• Are there more just alternatives to current incarceration practices?
• What does imprisonment punish?
• Are the stated goals/ends of imprisonment aligned with its practices or effects?
• What responses to imprisonment practices can we get from critical race, feminist, queer or trans*, disability, or intersectional approaches?
• What do philosophical or theoretical treatments of these questions have to offer more practical pursuits like activism or prisoner’s rights advocacy?
• What value does the practice of philosophy have for incarcerated persons?
Location: University of Memphis (Memphis, TN)
Conference Dates: February 27-28, 2015
We welcome contributions from philosophers working from any orientation, as well as contributions from scholars in a variety of disciplines and contexts.
To submit, please prepare a proposal (500-700 words) for blind review in either .pdf or .rtf format. Send the file as an attachment to memphispgsa@gmail.com with a body containing the title and the author’s name, contact information, institutional affiliation and status (graduate student, faculty member, independent researcher, etc.) If accepted, final
papers need to be suitable for a presentation approximately 20 minutes in length (roughly 3000-3500 words).
The deadline for submissions is November 22, 2014.
This conference is sponsored by the Department of Philosophy, the Lillian and Morrie Moss Chair of Excellence, and the Philosophy Graduate Student Association at the University of Memphis.