Race and racism in political theory


I’ve just finished my half of a new undergraduate course on Race and Racism in Political Theory. I’ve covered ‘Western’ thinkers; in the second half of the course, my colleague Humeira Iqtidar will be covering ‘non-Western’ thinkers.

I’ve found the material tremendously stimulating, and I learned a great deal, both from the literature and from my students. To my shame, I haven’t addressed these issues until a couple of years ago: I have definitely been guilty of what Robert Bernasconi calls the “sanitising” of Western philosophy, by sidestepping racism or by treating it as not central to (some) philosophers.

(And incidentally, if your first instinct – as mine was – is to reply that race and racism were not central to these philosophers, please read the Bernasconi article linked to above and see if you still agree. Very few articles have changed the way I think as much as Bernasconi’s has.)

Here are the thinkers I covered:

  1. Kant.
  2. Locke, Hume, Jefferson.
  3. Frederick Douglass.
  4. John Rawls, Charles Mills, Tommie Shelby.
  5. Mirander Fricker, Charles Mills, Linda MartĂ­n Alcoff, Katrin Flikschuh.

I’ll change several things next year. In particular, the Jefferson seminar will probably be replaced with something on different types of racism.

The picture for this blogpost marks the theme of my half of the module – the racism underlying much Western political theory. It’s a fantastic painting by Titus Kaphar, called Behind the Myth of Benevolence. As regards my teaching on this course, the painting represents Behind the Rhetoric of Liberty and Equality For All.

Rawls without glasses

Rawls without glassesI just found this unusual picture of John Rawls, without the glasses he typically wore.

The photo, provided by Mardy Rawls, his wife, is from the book Justice, Political Liberalism, and Utilitarianism: Themes from Harsanyi and Rawls, edited by Marc Fleurbaey, Maurice Salles, and John Weymark (Cambridge University Press, 2008, ix).

P.S. Can anyone point me to a video or audio recording of Rawls speaking? I realise I’ve never seen/heard him in action.


Rawls (from van Parijs) smallUPDATE (same day): I just found another picture of Rawls without glasses (c. 1969), courtesy of his wife and his son, this time on the front cover of Philippe Van Parijs, Just Democracy: The Rawls-Machiavelli Programme (ECPR Press, 2011).



Would John Rawls have been submitted for the REF?

Since the mid-1980s, UK university departments have undergone periodic reviews of research quality. The current process is called the Research Excellence Framework (REF), replacing the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). As part of these reviews, academics submit four pieces of published work (fewer for early career researchers), to be graded by members of an expert subject-panel.

One complaint I’ve often heard at conferences is that the great political philosopher John Rawls didn’t publish enough to have been submitted in the RAE or REF, if he’d been at a UK university. The implication is that (a) if Rawls couldn’t make the REF, then the REF is a joke, and (b) the REF undermines our ability to write pioneering, systematic studies.

Now, there may be some truth in (b). But I don’t think that (a) is right. I’m attaching a list of Rawls’s publications, from Samuel Freeman, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Rawls.

It shows that Rawls produced an entirely respectable number of books and journal articles.

'Look at how much I wrote last year.'

‘Look at how much I wrote last year.’

True, Rawls might have had a few difficulties if there’d been an RAE covering the years 1978-84, when he ‘only’ published one article and two book chapters. But the article was in the Journal of Philosophy, a leading philsophy journal, and one of the book chapters was a Tanner lecture, an extremely prestigious publication.

And we shouldn’t ignore the counterfactual: if Rawls had known that he was required to submit four articles by 1984, it wouldn’t have been hard for him to amend his publication strategy accordingly. Might this have slowed down his efforts to write pioneering, systematic studies? It’s possible, although from his list of publications I can’t see that the effect would have been too troubling.

To use the ugly language of UK academia, then, John Rawls was eminently ‘REFfable’.