Why are black people being killed by the police? What does it mean?
At root is the assumption of the black person’s intellectual darkness. In America blacks are experienced by many whites and others as basically non-intellectual beings, as not carrying within them the light of reason and enlightenment, as animalistic.
Frantz Fanon captures this phenomenon in a colonist framework as follows:
The colonist turns the colonized into a kind of quintessence of evil. Colonized society is not merely portrayed as a society without value. The colonist is not content with stating that the colonized world has lost its values or never possessed any. The “native” is declared impervious to ethics, representing not only the absence of values but also the negation of values. He is, dare we say, the enemy of values. In other words, absolute evil. (The Wretched of the Earth, Chapter 1)
This is the pervasive, still lasting influence of slavery in our society. The slave owner doesn’t think the slaves are intellectual beings with whom he might discuss arguments for God’s existence or play chess, but who just happen to be his slaves. To affirm total power over the slaves, it is essential to see the slaves as beings who, left to themselves, would degrade themselves and the world. Slavery then is a burden, a kindness taken on by the slave owner to improve the world and improve the slaves. It is seen by the slave owner as his gift to the slave.
That is how blacks were looked at unremittingly in America for 250 years from the early 1600s to the 1860s when slavery was ended. It was 250 years of unrelenting, constant affirmation of the supposed intrinsic depravity of the blacks, repeated at every turn, in every glance, in every interaction and social structure.
Since the end of slavery, for the last 150 years, this assumption of intrinsic darkness was affirmed in a new light: that blacks must indeed be intrinsically depraved because they need the help of the white man (the yankee, the do-gooding southerner, the child Huck Finn) to become enlightened, to recognize their own moral worth. So began the project of educating blacks in European culture so that through such education they can become self-luminous beings. That it was only European culture which could provide that, since after all, left to themselves, black culture wouldn’t do it for them. After all, how has their black culture helped them until then? They needed, the story went, the white man’s Christianity and then the white man’s rational discourse to be intellectual at all.
The story continues: this European and white American education of the blacks reached its height in Barack and Michelle Obama. Two blacks educated at Princeton and Harvard, who sound as sophisticated as any white person – sophisticated enough even to make it to the White House.
This is the root of the racial anger of many whites against the Obamas: As blacks, they couldn’t have done it on their own! They had to use white resources – white, intellectual culture – to walk and talk like intellectuals and politicians. But look what has happened! They are using all that white culture to get ahead even as many whites are being left behind and are not having a chance to take advantage of the white, intellectual culture which is their natural due. And the Obamas want to make the white intellectual culture more available to the backward blacks in the ghettos, as if they hadn’t already taken too much. Those backward blacks are cutting in line! They need to be put in place, regulated, policed. And look how they protest: greedy for more of what they didn’t earn, what is not theirs to have. A clear sign of their depravity: they take, guzzle, steal what is not theirs! Thank god we have the police to put them in their place.
This assumption of the black person’s intellectual darkness is so pervasive in our society that one can find traces of it every where. But is there a place which is the root of the assumption? A place which perpetuates the assumption and keeps it alive even now?
Well, given that we are talking about the intellectual life of our society, a relevant place to look would be academia. Where in academia? Which subject speaks to the grandest visions of human kind, the biggest questions, the meaning of life? What is the kind of subject which would make us think, “Yes, any people who can do that must indeed be intellecually luminous“?
There are 5 history courses, all of which cover European philosophy.
There are, by my count, 13 courses in general metaphysics and epistemology, ethics and political philosophy, which are oriented around philosophical problems and not traditions. This gives them a sense of universality, even though most of the contemporary authors read in these courses will be white, and especially white men.
There are 2 courses in logic. And 5 courses in various forms of meta-science: philosophy of science, philosophy of cognitive science, and so on. The topics seem universal, concerned simply with trying to understand this or that science. Still, most of the authors read will be, yes, right…white.
There are 2 courses in Ethics and Political Philosophy which say, in their course description, that in them some non-white authors will be read. So that is 2 out of 27 courses.
What is the main takeaway from this philosophy course catalog? It is obvious: that supposedly the philosophical life of humankind is a fundamentally European and white person’s affair. That it is white thinkers – especially of 6th century ancient Greece, 18th century Enlightenment Europe and 20th century Europe and America – who are at the cutting edge of philosophy and that other cultures, traditions and races have not much to offer. No more than 2 classes worth at most.
Academic philosophy is so marginalized in our society that most Americans don’t even know or care what is happening in the philosophy departments. But that doesn’t mean the philosophy departments don’t matter. They matter a great deal.
Because the philosophy departments are keeping alive the entrenched, pervasive sense that it is whites who are the most intellectually luminous. That they are intrinsically intellectual, whereas all other cultures and races can only hope to be so luminous through their engagement with European thought. A white supremacist who feels that intellectual culture is synonymous with white culture, that a self-propelled black intellectual is an oxymoron, that blacks can be intellectual only through learning from white culture – such a person would feel entirely at home in most current philosophy departments.
A philosophy professor who stands with Black Lives Matter protesters but is content with his department mainly teaching European philosophy is like a gardener who bemoans why the flowers are not being watered even as he has his foot on the hose and is blocking the water from coming out.
As long as the assumption that blacks are not intrinsically intellectual is pervasive in our society, many people will feel that blacks have to be policed. The only long term solution is to disrupt this entirely false assumption by seeing how black intellectuals and philosophers have managed not merely to learn European philosophy, but to critically evaluate it, highlight its limits and are helping us to move towards a broader philosophical perspective.
The effects of slavery in America won’t end just by blacks going to college. Not when the philosophy courses they and everyone else are taking in college reaffirm the myth that rationality is the achievement of white culture. The effects of slavery will only end when we as a society know and respect the vast intellectual achievements of blacks, and non-Europeans more generally. When we as a society can see the light of intellectuality in every person, irrespective of their skin color or their economic standing.
The black lives matter protesters in the picture at the top of this post were marching through New York City. I don’t know where they were marching to. But the destination of their march should have been the NYU philosophy department (shown at right). Then they would have confronted one of the intellectual spaces in our country, along with so many other philosophy departments, which is perpetuating the sense that white, European culture is the pinnacle of human intellectual powers.
Want to find the intellectual foundation of the sense that American is essentially a white country? Go to most philosophy departments, especially the most well known ones, which affirm, even now, clearly and in broad day light that philosophy for the most part is synonymous with European intellectual culture. Philosophy departments’ silence about black intellectual life is directly responsible for our societal understanding of blacks, and so directly responsible for the tensions between blacks and the police.
To heal these tensions, we need to go to the source and root out the assumption of the intellectual darkness of blacks. We need to recover and learn the great philosophical achievements of blacks and non-whites more generally. We need to see that all cultures and races – whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos and more – have struggled with, and contributed to, the grand questions of human life. That we are all equally luminous.