Liberalism – Seeing Beyond the Veil: Race-ing Key Concepts in Political Theory

Liberalism – Seeing Beyond the Veil: Race-ing Key Concepts in Political Theory


JULIET HOOKER:
I’m Juliet Hooker. I’m a professor in the
Department of Political Science, and it’s my
pleasure to welcome you to Seeing Beyond the Veil– Race-ing Key Concepts
in Political Theory, which is an effort of
many people on campus. It was conceived
in collaboration with my colleague Melvin
Rogers in political science and a number of people in
political science in the Center for the Study of
Race and Ethnicity, and as well as the Pembroke
Center have provided immense support in making
this possible, and, of course, the first day we’re
here at the Pembroke Center for the Study of Women. And I’ll be thanking people
in much more detail later, but I just want to note
that nothing like this happens without tons of
effort from lots of folks. So I just want to
say a little bit before we begin with our
first panel about what we are hoping the conference will do. And we begin with the
following premise, which is that for political
theorists working on race, the present moment is
somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, we’re
witnessing the success of avowed white supremacist and
xenophobic political projects in the political arena. While on the other
hand, scholarship on race in political theory
is not only thriving, but is one of the
areas producing some of the more exciting
critical theoretical interventions in the field. So how does work on race push
us to reformulate or abandon established concepts
in political theory? And we hope that
the participants in this conference,
many of whom draw on the archive of
black political thought to make powerful
interventions in how we think about key philosophical
concepts, such as justice, freedom, democracy,
et cetera, will help us to think
through that question because they, in many
ways, challenge us to think these concepts anew. And we’ve brought together
some of the folks who have been doing this
work for a long time, some new and exciting voices. And we think this is a very
exciting group of people to have convened, along
with the folks here at Brown who are
also doing this work to think about how work on
race and political theory might be reshaping the field. At dinner last night,
a couple of people pointed out that they
do not actually consider themselves political theorists. We have adopted them
anyway, but, obviously, this is not a conversation
that’s happening only in political theory, but
also in many other fields. And in many ways, I want to note
that this question corresponds to a provocation
that was actually prompted by Charles Mills’ own
reflections in his recent book Black Rights/White Wrongs on the
impact of his ongoing project, to borrow the felicitous
phrasing of his that prompted the title of the
panel, to occupy liberalism. In evaluating the impact
of this project in terms of the success of
his bestselling The Racial Contract,
which appeared in 1997, Mills has a rather
pessimistic assessment of the success of the
project, observing that the effect of the
racial contract on quote, “mainstream political philosophy
in general and social contract theory in particular has been
close to zero,” end quote. While we can debate whether
Mills’ assessment is accurate, it raises questions
about the relationship between black political
thought and political theory. Are we using black
political thought to speak to political theory,
or are fundamental concepts in political theory being
transformed by the greater attention thinkers and texts in
that tradition are receiving? Should this be one of the
aims of our collective work, or is this formulation
of the question itself a philosophical
and political trap? So these are some of
the background questions that we hope we can think
about over the next two days as we listen to fascinating work
by the brilliant folks we’re delighted to have been able to
convene to think collectively in this event. Thank you for coming. [APPLAUSE] SHARON KRAUSE: Welcome
again, everybody. I’m Sharon Krause from the
political science department. I’m delighted to be
chairing our first panel– Can We Occupy Liberalism? I’m going to introduce
our two speakers. They’ll each go for
about 20 minutes, and then we’ll have time
for lots of conversation. Charles Mills is distinguished
professor of philosophy at CUNY Grad Center. He’s the author of
many books as you know, including The Racial
Contract, Blackness Visible, From Class to Race,
Contract and Domination, and most recently, Black
Rights/White Wrongs. His paper is called “Blackening
Blackened-Up White Liberalism.” And Chip Turner is
associate professor of political science at the
University of Washington. Among other things, he’s the
author of Awakening to Race– Individualism and Social
Consciousness in America, is co-editing with Melvin the
soon to be in print African American Political Thought– A Collected History, and now
is working on a book called Existential Democracy– Death and Politics
in Walt Whitman. We’ll start with Charles. CHARLES MILLS: OK,
so just with respect to that last comment
that Juliet made, I’m happy to report
to this audience that recently I was invited
to the 50th anniversary of A Theory of Justice in 2021. So if that’s not respectability,
I don’t know what is. So as I approach my retirement–
oh, that guy Mills– [INAUDIBLE] make
a token appearance before he exits into the sunset. OK, no, I mean, I was
actually serious about that. That’s actually true. I was not making that up. So let me begin by
thanking the organizers in general and Juliet
Hooker and Melvin Rogers in particular for inviting me
to this important conference. As I don’t need to tell
anyone in this room, events of the past
few years should have definitively dispelled the
widespread delusion at least among white Americans
that Barack Obama’s 2008 election signaled that
we had at last become a post-racial society. Race and white supremacy
remain enduringly central to the nation as, of
course, they have always been. And any successful
political project to bring about a more
egalitarian society, a more perfect union, must begin by
acknowledging, rather than evading, this reality. This has, of course, been the
mission of the Afro Modern political tradition
from the beginning, both in the United
States and elsewhere, unsurprisingly so,
since there could hardly be a greater gulf between
Western modernity’s pretensions and Western modernity’s
actuality than that manifest in racial
chattel slavery. From [INAUDIBLE] to
Black Lives Matter, we find an overriding concern
with the key questions of how best to erase
racial subordination, and the obvious
related question, how best to overcome it. As the opening program
statement well summarizes, this has inevitably required
an engagement with the master’s tools, whether through
direct adoption, modified adaptation,
or outright rejection, whether in Black Abolitionism,
Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism,
Black Anti-Colonialism and Anti-Imperialism,
Black Liberalism and Black Marxism,
Black Feminism and Black Conservatism. So my title, “Blackening
Blackened-Up White Liberalism,” indicates my own
line of argument, that we can and should
try to occupy liberalism, bring into bear on this task
key theoretical insights and resources of the
Afro Modern tradition. Though it is increasingly
coming under challenge, Liberalism is
generally recognized to be the most successful
political ideology of modernity. And it has, of course, been
the dominant political ideology in the United States. So as I point out in
one of the two essays I am submitted for
people to skim over, the [INAUDIBLE] in Occupy
Liberalism, and as we all know, it has been a very
illiberal Liberal theory, a liberalism of exclusion
and particularism rather than inclusion
and universalism. This has been true, not just for
race, but for gender and class also. Liberal democracy, a term
we now take for granted, would have been seen
as close to oxymoronic for the classic
Liberal theorists, for whom the need for
restrictions on the franchise was obvious. Even white women
don’t get the vote until the 20th century for the
most part, hundreds of years after what is
normally taken to be the birth of the modern epoch. So Liberalism has been both
Bourgeois and patriarchal, a liberalism of class
and gender privilege. So the obvious question
is, why has this been so? So for those of you
who had the time to skim over Occupy
Liberalism, you’ll have seen that I
suggest there are two main kinds of
explanation– sorry, two main kinds of answer, an
internalist explanation or an externalist explanation. Then internalist
explanation attributes this exclusionary dynamic
to intrinsic features of Liberalism itself
as an ideology. the grounding
assumptions, key concepts, and crucial frameworks
are so constructed, it is claimed, that
oppression of some subset of the human population,
perhaps even the majority of the human population,
is inevitable. Liberalism as an ideology
would then itself be the classic exemplar of
what Audre Lorde indicted as the master’s tools. And no reclamation, no positive
engagement is possible. And emancipatory
politics will have to set up its theoretical house
elsewhere and be anti-liberal in its guiding assumptions. By contrast, the
externalist explanation, which is the one
I favor, locates the problem in what we could
think of as “material factors.” I did my dissertation
on Marxism, but I am trying to keep quiet. So every now and then,
it sort of resurfaces. So the particular
social groups who were coming to dominance at the
time of Liberalism’s formation in the 18th Century
in Western Europe and who have continued
to be dominant today, their particular group
interests and their success in carrying out their
group political projects– from this perspective,
Liberalism should be seen as
plural rather than singular, as diverse
rather than monolithic, and above all as all, as
open rather than closed, lending itself to
different possibilities. So the claim of externalist
folks, such as myself, would be that we find it hard
to recognize these alternatives because our cognitive
horizons have been so shaped by the
existing dominant forms of Liberal theory. But this constriction
of the social imaginary is not due to an objective
apprehension of Liberalism’s supposedly insufferable
limitations, but as a consequence of the
hegemonic conceptual grip the ruling group’s
power exercises over us. Different liberalisms
are possible. So within the academy, given
its overwhelming whiteness, the best known examples of
this revisionist exercise are Left Social
Democratic Liberalism and Feminist Liberalism. Social Democratic
Liberalism, inspired in part by the Marxist
critique, argues that unconstrained capitalist
class domination is inconsistent with
Liberalism’s pretensions to safeguard an
individual freedom and that curbs on
the power of capital are necessary with material
realization of this promise. Feminist Liberalism
argues that the continuing caste inferiority
of white women is inconsistent with Liberalism’s
pretensions of rejecting descriptive hierarchies of
the pre-modern social order, and that achievement
of genuine equality requires elimination
of male domination. So in both cases, the project
of retrieving Liberalism requires a remapping of the
topography of the polity, a revisioning of official
social epistemology, and a rethinking of
the social ontology. Above all, the central
normative issue is shifted from the question
of our political obligation to the state to the
question of social justice, whether in its more restricted
incarnation as class justice or as including gender justice. So what I’m now
suggesting, that we need to see Afro
Modern political thought, in at least
some of its strains, as raising a parallel challenge. I am not of course
claiming that everybody under this broad umbrella can
be categorized as a Liberal, and certainly not
that they necessarily thought of themselves as such. As the British political
theorist Duncan Bell has pointed out in an important
recent art in political theory, Liberal has very much
become a term of art, used retrospectively, and in
a sense anachronistically, to characterize people by virtue
of their location in what we are now after the fact
constructing as a coherent several-hundred-years’-old
political tradition. So I am in effect invoking
these relaxed norms, and saying that,
by these criteria, we can reconstruct a long
tradition of Afro Modern Liberalism, Black
Liberalism that is radically different from the
mainstream one, and which is in fact oriented
in significant measure by the imperative of critiquing. From this perspective, the
problem with Liberalism has never been its
putative abstractness or its concrete shaping by
white racial domination. It is not at all
that what we are now calling Classical
Liberalism ignored race, but that for the most part it
took white racial superiority for granted,
thereby being what I have been calling in my
work a Racial Liberalism, or what the political
theorist Jennifer Pitts calls an Imperial Liberalism. So that the metaphor I’ve
used of blackening up from the racist American
tradition of the Minstrel show serves as a metaphor here,
in that White Liberalism is predicated on racist
representations of Blacks, and more generally,
people of color, so it is already racialized. And the Black Liberal
critique is not trying to introduce race
into a non-racial discourse, but urging that we recognize
in multiple ways in which that discourse is
already a racial one, and prescribing accordingly a
reconstruction of Liberalism on a foundation
of racial equality rather than racial hierarchy. So [? blackening ?] means
rejection of blackened up, i.e., the purging of racist
frameworks and assumptions from existing dominant
Liberal theory, whether overt or covert, and the re-imagining
of Liberalism’s mapping of the polity, its
social epistemology, and its social ontology. So what would this
come to in practice? Well, to begin with,
I am suggesting it would require the
acknowledgement of the White supremacist nature of
the polities created by Western modernity, not
just in the United States, but far more broadly. Liberal Democracy,
to the extent that it has been promoted as a
description in these countries, is, at best, aspirational. The reality has been, in
the phrase of Pierre van den Berghe, Herrenvolk democracy. As David Theo Goldberg argued
in more than a decade ago in his book The Racial State,
the modern state in general is a racial state. And in fact, Michael’s
presentation later on and recent interesting
work in classical studies, in medieval studies,
is making a case that the racial state
goes back to antiquity. There is a book I
haven’t read yet that I have ordered on
Amazon by Geraldine Heng. Argues that the
first racial state– she thinks it’s really
in the Medieval period, in the Classical period. But she argues for the British
State in the 11th, 12th Century as being a racial state
vis-a-vis the Jewish population there. So it means that
part of what you’d be doing in this reconstructed
Afro Modern tradition, and sort of Liberally
in a section of it, is to say, societies
calling themselves Liberal Democrat in
the Modern period have really been racial states. And as such, it
means that there has been a huge gap between
their self-conception and their actual
sort of reality, in terms of all the
things I mentioned before. So the example I use,
not in the two papers that I sort of sent to you
guys, but in a recent long essay I did for the University
of Kentucky Press Political Companion Series– so
this year, it was one, appeared both on WEB Du Bois. And Neil here edited one
on Frederick Douglass. And I made a case in my essay
in the Du Bois collection, though this might
seem outrageous, for Du Bois as a
Black radical Liberal. So that’s a term
I have been using, that you can have a
liberalism that incorporates the crucial radical insights
of the Black tradition, whether from the Black
Nationalist and Pan-Africanist traditions, Black Feminist
traditions, appropriation of Marxism by the
Black tradition, and you can nonetheless
do that within a radically modified Liberal framework. In the case of Du Bois, I make
a case for his intervention in four crucial areas. First of all is social
ontology of Liberalism, standardly we sort of
had it represented to us, is an ontology of abstract,
atomic individuals. And that’s quite false,
because to begin with, even within the
mainstream tradition, if you think of Locke,
Locke’s individuals are actually already social. So before you have the
creation of the state in Locke, you have individuals
as in social relations, so extensive in fact
that you have money. You have trade. You have all kinds of stuff. So even in Locke,
mainstream guy like Locke, in the tradition of
liberalism inspired by Hegel, TH Green,
the British Hegelians, this is made even more explicit. And the liberalism you have
is one in which individuals are very much shaped by
social memberships, community, and so forth. So Liberalism’s sort of atomic
individualist representation really represents just
one strand of Liberalism. And there is no
inconsistency, as we’ve seen in a more 20th century
reference, American reference, John Dewey, there is no
inconsistency in talking about a Liberalism that is
social which sort of realizes the extent to it sort of
shape their social forces. So the specifically
Black input into this, as I say, using Du Bois as a
sort of key representative, is to argue that the social
ontology of modernity is very much shaped by race. And you can see Du Bois’s sort
of taking up this theme, decade after decade over his
career working out a social ontology of race,
from the sort of original 1897 essay, The Conservation of
Races, where it’s somewhat ambiguous and there is both
sort of social construction and biological factors,
and then his later famous aphorism, a black man
is a person sort of forced [INAUDIBLE] Jim Crow and his
more sort of constructor’s analysis, but the crucial point
being that we need to recognize races as crucial constituents
of the sort of ontology of the modern world, which then means that we also
need to take into account how this group membership shapes
us from a psychological point of view and how it constitutes
an obstacle historically to whites signing on to
a racial justice agenda. And then his second
point sort of coming out of that is that the social
ontology is not merely an ontology of differential
positioning from a material point of view as you find in
Marxism, where, of course, the Marxist critique
is that we need to recognize the class ontology
in the White working class. Even though they’re nominally
equal in terms of morality and legal system,
they are materially subordinated by the
forces of the class order. And the Du Boisian critique,
the Afro Modern critique is, I’m suggesting, a deeper
critique than that, because the Afro Modern
critique is saying, not merely is it
the case that Blacks and other people of color
are materially subordinated, but that they have a
lower moral status. So Marx emphasized the
White working class are normatively equal. How then are they exploited? Well, of course,
Volume I of Kapital is trying to explain
that, that you can have exploitation
even though you have a seemingly exchange of equals. The crucial point of Du Bois
and the Black radical tradition is that people of color
are not normatively equal in the first place. So in terms of
social recognition, in terms of how they’re
sort of seen in the society, they represent a
morally degraded group. And the point then is that,
in narrative of modernity that we tell, I mean, we
tell our students when we’re being careless and sloppy, that
modernity brings into existence the equalization
of the population by comparison with sort
of pre-modern inequalities of the ancient or
the medieval world. That narrative is
radically false. It really only
works for White men. White women do not become equal. And people of color
do not become equal. And what that means,
if you think about it, the majority of
the population are unequal in Liberal modernity. And it then means that,
any serious attempt to sort of bring into
realization Liberal ideals is going to have to take
this inequality into account. OK, I also argue
that in Du Bois, you also find a concept
of exploitation that’s different from the Marxist
concept, that does not rely on the labor theory
of value, which as you know has become very
contested, and that most Marxists, in fact, have stopped
endorsing it, and of course was dismissed in mainstream
economic theory from way back in the 19th
Century, but that you can make a case within
a Liberal framework for racial exploitation
that does not rely on such dubious
Marxist assumptions. You can just use the
respectable Liberal concept of unjust enrichment. And once you do that, and once
you sort of broaden the scope of your theoretical lenses,
you can then see that racial exploitation has been central
to Western modernity from the start, not merely the
obvious cases of chattel slavery, and colonial forced
labor, and indigenous– oh my god, two minutes– expropriation, but
continued exploitation in terms of the ghetto,
and the fact that people don’t get an equal
education, don’t get a chance to sort find
out where the jobs are, et cetera, et cetera. So that huge body of work which
mainstream philosophers have utterly ignored which you can
find in sociology, in terms of the gap in wealth between
White and Black households and how it’s getting larger
rather than small, all of that then needs to be seen. This is what a racialized
Liberal polity, a White supremacist polity,
this is what it rests on. So what we’re calling
White privilege, focus tends to be
on things that are sort of less significant in
terms of everyday interaction, and so forth. There is a huge
material basis for it in terms of racial exploitation. And then finally, Du
Bois also argues that one of the manifestations of
a racial polity will be the violation of the Liberal
norm of transparency, because you cannot admit,
if you’re basically adhering to nominally Liberal
Democratic norms, you cannot admit that the
polity is based on the systemic subordination and exploitation
of this population of color. So you are then going
to have a set of norms, a set of overarching
concepts, and set of practices in which
what is entrenched is going to be social opacity. So the central Liberal
value of social transparency is going to be
systematically violated. And this has been, of course,
a central theme of Africana tradition in terms
of trying to expose to the public view what the real
conditions of the polity are. And you have in Du Bois’
numerous works, in a book he reads– sorry, in the book
that my former colleague, Aldon Morris in sociology
at Northwestern did in terms of
pointing that Du Bois is the real father of
American sociology, this huge body of work,
what you’re trying to do is sort of bring into
the public sphere the reality that the
society is a racialized one. So I’ll stop there. But the idea is, this is how
you can sort of bring the Afro Modern critique
into Liberal theory, and sort of take these
norms, and then show how the are systematically violated. So Black Liberalism is
start from that point, and then say, how
can we realize them once you take the
actuality into account? Thank you. [APPLAUSE] SHARON KRAUSE: And
now Chip Turner. Chip’s paper is called– let’s see– “African-American
Individualism: From the Heroic to
the Relational.” JACK TURNER: Is it on? OK, my voice is pretty– I tend to project, so I
think we’ll be all right. First, I want to thank Julia
and Melvin for having me here. It’s a real honor
to be in this room with so many scholars who– I’ve read and admired
for a long time. I especially want to
acknowledge what a thrill it is for me to be on a panel
with Charles Mills and Sharon Krause. I was reading them in graduate
school with great admiration. And– CHARLES MILLS: These are not
things one wants to hear. [LAUGHTER] Just say vaguely, I was
reading them some years ago. JACK TURNER: And to be
on a panel with them is something of a
dream come true. So Melvin, could you
take a picture of me with Charles and Sharon,
because I think my career goes downhill from here. So the question
before this panel is, can advocates of Black
liberation and racial justice occupy Liberalism? My answer will be a
partial yes, but it’s the partial nature of this yes
that’ll prove most interesting. The basis of this answer
will be an analysis of what I am calling
African-American Individualism, a tradition of ethical
and moral individualism extending from Frederick
Douglass, to Ralph Ellison, to James Baldwin, a tradition
specifically addressed to the struggle for racial
justice in the United States. Over time, this tradition
moved from being Liberal to post-Liberal. And I should have said,
from Frederick Douglass, to Ralph Ellison, to James
Baldwin, to Audre Lorde. Over time, this tradition
moved from being Liberal to post-Liberal. Baldwin and Lorde
especially turned the energy behind Liberal commitments
to life and liberty against the Liberal
commitment to property. And in so doing, they moved
the spirit of Liberalism into a more Democratic
Socialist direction. Though based on previous
work, my paper today extends and revises that
work in substantial ways. Let me begin by summarizing
the previous work and then internet the
extensions, the revisions, and their implications. In 2012, I published a book
entitled Awakening to Race: Individualism and Social
Consciousness in America. That book argued that there
are two main traditions of individuals in the United
States, an atomistic tradition and a democratic tradition. The atomistic tradition
insists that success in life is mostly the result
of individual exertion. It opposes mass collective
action and government interference in the market. This is a privatized
individualism criticized by Tocqueville in
Democracy in America, the laissez-faire individualism
espoused by conservatives, ranging from William
Graham Sumner to Ronald Reagan, the
individualism that underwrote William Bennett’s statement
on Election Night 2008, that, after the election of
the first Black president, there are no more excuses. This is the individualism that
says that racial inequality is the result of unequal
exertion and that the solution to that inequality is not social
and economic reconstruction, but rather Black and Brown
Americans pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. The second tradition is
democratic individualism. As opposed to atomistic
individualism, democratic
individualism is keenly sensitive to the
social preconditions of its own realization. Political theorists George
Kateb and Nancy Rosenblum identified its presence in the
work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. And in Awakening to Race,
I extend their account by focusing more intensely
on the relationship between Emerson’s and Thoreau’s
theories of individuality and their contributions to
the antislavery movement. Furthermore, I examine
the individuals of three major African-American
political thinkers, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison,
and James Baldwin. On the basis of the historical
and textual analysis, I conclude that
democratic individualism entails two civic
obligations that both resist racial injustice. The first is a
non-exploitation obligation, requiring that democratic
individuals ensure that their pursuit
of self-reliance does not directly or indirectly
abridge that of others. On the basis of this
obligation, Emerson and Thoreau determined that they were bound
by self-reliance to contribute to the anti-slavery struggle. The second is a democratic
egalitarian obligation, requiring democratic
individuals to help ensure that all of society’s
members have self-reliance as material prerequisites. On the basis of this
principle, Frederick Douglass concluded after the Civil War
that the federal government was obligated to provide
educational and economic assistance to freed slaves,
though for a variety of reasons, Douglass’ support
for this principle came slowly. And even when it came,
it was far too inhibited. In addition, Awakening
to Race claimed that, within the democratic
individual’s tradition, there was a distinct
African-American configuration, one distinguishable from
of atomistic individualism and White democratic
individualism of Emerson and Thoreau. Based on my reading of
Douglass, Ellison, and Baldwin, African-American
individualism or– Afro-American democratic
individualism, or African-American
individualism for short, had four distinguishing
characteristics. First was socioeconomic
realism, that sensitivity to the social
material prerequisites of self-development, of belief
in a communal obligation to guarantee them. The second was
sensitivity to dialectics of identity and difference,
deep awareness of the ways personal identities are
forward through articulations of difference and the dangers
of converting difference into otherness. The third is historical
consciousness, emphasis on the ways of
historical self-understanding as a precondition of both
self-awareness and effective action– and fourth, appreciation
of relinquishment as a virtuous act, a
belief that giving up unjustifiable advantage is not
only a moral duty, but also a personal excellence, one
that performs commitments to the universalization of
democratic individualist capacities. For the most part, I am still
committed to the argument of Awakening to Race. At the same time, there
are elements of it that dissatisfied me even
at the time of publication. And my dissatisfaction
has only grown since then. I won’t enumerate all these
points of dissatisfaction. Instead, I will focus
on perhaps the most major, the all-male
cast of characters. The all-male cast have been
pointed out to me several times since I wrote the book. I resisted the
inference made by many that this implied that
democratic individualism was intrinsically masculinist,
though it struck me that a variety of
feminist intellectuals, from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to
Pauli Murray, to Audre Lorde, expressed democratic
individualist sensibilities and ideals. The tenure clock did not allow
me to spend one to two more years researching
and writing a chapter on one of these figures. I, through [INAUDIBLE],,
wrote an apologetic end note and published the
book as is, yet I came away from the
process determined to make good on a
claim that there could be a feminist
democratic individualism. I spent the next
several years writing the chapter on
Audre Lorde that I wish I could have included
in Awakening to Race. It turns out I was right. There is no way I could
have completed the chapter by the end of my tenure clock. It took three years of research,
writing, and rewriting, including a week in
Audre Lorde’s papers at Spelman, to produce
an account of Lorde I could stand behind. This chapter is now forthcoming
in the African-American Political Thought of
Collected History Anthology that Melvin and I are
editing and submitting this month to the
University of Chicago Press. In the course of
doing this research, I discovered that the
only responsible way to approach a question
of individuality in Lorde was through a
comprehensive analysis of the key-word difference
in our political thought. The difference is the
Lorde’s conceptual lodestar. And she uses the word in
four distinct senses– first, difference as a pretext
for division and domination, second, difference
as differentiation in group experience
and perspective, third, difference as a site
a personal and political growth, and fourth, difference
as a marker of individuality. So I’m going to spend some
time talking about the four senses of difference,
but I really want to emphasize in my
analysis of the fourth sense of difference is nested within
my analysis of the first three senses of difference. If you would like me to
talk about the first three senses of difference, I’m happy
to do so within the Q and A. The fourth sense of difference
appears in several texts where Lorde emphasizes a
need for political and social movements to respect
members’ individuality. You do not have
to be me in order us to fight alongside
each other,” Lorde reflects in
Learning from the 60s. “I do not have to
be you to recognize that our wars are the same. What we must do is
commit ourselves to some future that
can include each other and to work toward that future
with the particular strengths of our individual identities. And in order to do this,
we must allow each other our differences at the same time
as we recognize our sameness.” “Difference,” in
the final sentence, refers unmistakably to
individual-level variety. Distinctions
between individuals, Lorde argues, are
ethically salient and require careful
attention and acknowledgment. Lorde frames individuality, not
as an obstacle to coalition, but rather as a source
of creative power. She calls on her audience
to commit themselves to a shared future of
egalitarian inclusiveness that treats a plurality
of individual identities as a political resource. Lorde’s fourth
sense of difference also comes through in
an on-camera interview and a documentary film,
A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work
of Audre Lorde. “One of the lessons that I
think the ’60s needs to teach us is that liberation is not the
private province of any one particular group. We are individuals. We are particular people. And we have
differences that we can use that we need to
recognize, identify, and use in our common goals,
in our common struggles.” On the one hand, the primary
subject of the statement is liberation, which
we should understand as a coalitional project among
multiple overlapping groups– women, Black people, gays and
lesbians, the poor, the ill, the disabled. In this respect, the statement’s
emphasis is trans-individual. On the other hand,
Lorde’s language of individuals, in particular
people, is emphatic. So when Lorde says, we have
differences we can use, we may confidently infer that
she means not only differences between identity groups,
but also differences between individuals. The two in fact are
mutually constitutive. And one way identity
groups emerge is when individuals who
share a common oppression come together, communicate
about that oppression, and forge a language
expressing their identity as an oppressed group. In an address entitled Survival,
delivered at a Black writers’ conference at Howard
University in 1976, Lorde defined peoplehood in
these individualistic terms. She said, quote, “a people
is a group of individuals who share some part of their
mutual self-definition,” end quote. Individuals of course draw
on inherited traditions and surrounding
cultures to forge new articulations
of group identity, but though these
new articulations are indebted to
the old, they still reflect the agency of
the individuals who transform the old into the new. So analyzing and identifying
Lorde’s individualism augmented my
argument in Awakening to Race that there is an
authentically democratic tradition of individualism in
American and African-American thought. At the same time, identifying
that individualism forced me to revise
my previous conception of democratic individualism in
important and even surprising ways. What is most striking
about Lorde’s defenses of individuality is
that they preponderantly occur in her discussions
of the ethics and politics of coalition. It is a commonplace that
Lorde never fit comfortably into any of the social movements
in which she participated. She was too womanish for
the Civil Rights movement, too Black for second-wave
feminism and gay rights, too old for the Combahee
River Collective. She embodied the problem
of intersectional isolation before intersectionality
was even a word. She used a large repertoire
of rhetoric weapons to combat this isolation,
but one of these was individualist discourse. Employing that
discourse to carve out space for nonconformity
within identity-based social movements, she brought
into sharp relief the relational
dependencies that attend the struggle for not just
individuality, but integrity and survival. Coming to terms with
the way that Lorde’s relational individualism
exceeded my previous conception of democratic individualism
also dovetailed with a criticism of my
interpretation of Baldwin offered by Black feminist,
pragmatist, and critical race theorist Denise James
at a 2013 roundtable on Awakening to Race at the
Annual Meeting of the Eastern Division of the American
Political Philosophical Association. Though generally
favorable toward the book, James argued that Baldwin’s
emphasis on a relationality bursts the frame of
democratic individualism. Quote– this is Denise James– “the relationship of
self to others in Baldwin has a level of importance. And I am not convinced Turner’s
democratic individualism can permit Baldwin’s work signals
a form of humanism that centers relational life at the
core of human fulfillment,” end quote. Reflecting on Lorde’s
distinctive individualism together with James’ criticism
of my reading of Baldwin, it occurred to me that
African-American individualist tradition contained
two different strands, a heroic individualist strand
and a relational individualist strand. It’d be tempting to say that
Douglass and Ellison represent the heroic and that Baldwin and
Lorde represent the relational, but that would be an
oversimplification. Though predominantly
heroic individualists, Douglass and Ellison
have relational moments. And though predominantly
relational individualists, Baldwin and Lorde
have heroic moments. All four thinkers contain
mixtures of the heroic and the relational, though
in different ratios. So roughly, if we
can say that Douglass is six parts heroic and
two parts relational and Ellison five parts heroic
and three parts relational, then Baldwin is five parts
relational three parts heroic and Lorde is six parts
relational, two parts heroic. That’s a vast
oversimplification, but I want to just give
you the general idea. And though ethical commitments
can’t be, of course, quantified, it’s
still helpful to think of heroic and
relational strains of African-American individualism
as inversely related. And so if he were to try–
this is the first time I’ve ever used a graph. But in this instant,
it seemed appropriate, just so it could
demonstrate or show the inverse relation
between the heroic and the relational element. And one thing I think is
also interesting about this, it helps us see the way
in which individualism within the
African-American tradition moves from a Liberal
configuration in Douglass and Ellison to a post-Liberal
configuration in Baldwin and Lorde. So the question is, does the
textual evidence bear out is new conceptualization of
African-American individualism as a two-stranded tradition? In the paper, I offer
a brief comparison of some passages from
Douglass to Lorde in order to show that the textual
evidence does largely– although, indeed
it’s going to require a much longer paper for me
to fully bear out that claim. And so one of the
things I do in the paper is I analyze a few
passages from Douglass that I analyzed in
Awakening To Race, but one of the things
that comes into clearer view through this prism is the
Liberal capitalist aesthetics of Douglass’ configuration
of self-making as making productive value. And then I then contrast it
with Lorde’s essay, Man Child: A Black Lesbian
Feminist’s Response, which is discussing about
her relationship with her son Jonathan and the way in which
Jonathan’s self-formation, how it comes into focus
through opposition, through a productive opposition
to her own maternal practices. And so it focuses on
the relational setting of individual self-formation. So I am going to conclude
with this so-what question. Even if there is an
African-American individualist tradition, and even
if it is comprised of competing heroic
and relational strands, why is this politically
interesting? First, identifying
African-American individualism as a two-strand
tradition interweaving the heroic and the
relational helps clarify that tradition’s vexed
relationship to Liberalism. Though Douglass and Ellison
are widely and justifiably seen as Liberal thinkers,
Baldwin and Lorde are widely and justifiably
seen as critics or even enemies of Liberalism. It may be that the different
ratios of the heroic and the relational
in their thought helps explain why the
first two are unmistakably Liberal and the latter
two post-Liberal. It may be that the
different ratios generate different orientations
toward property rights, as well as toward the spirit
of possessiveness and exchange relations that property
rights generate. Douglass was a fervent
defender of the natural right to property. Ellison was a
Cold-War Liberal who accepted both provisions
for and limits on property set by Roosevelt’s
New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society. Baldwin is a critic
of property, not just as an economic
institution, but as a form of political
relationship. He attacked the legally,
violently, enforced exclusion at the conceptual
heart of property, writing that, “freedom
is not a matter of keeping everyone else out
of your backyard,” and quote. Lorde was an ambivalent
Marxist, who, though she valued hard
work as a sign of virtue, endorsed revolutionary
socialist politics. If the holy triumvirate
of Liberalism is life, liberty, and property,
Douglass, Ellison, and Baldwin are united in life and liberty,
but divided on property. Could it be that there
are elective affinities between heroic
figurations of the self and Liberal property
relations on the one hand and between relational
figurations nations of the self and democratic
socialism on the other? Second, clarifying the existence
of relational individualist tradition may help answer
a question that has long vexed democratic
individualism– what are democratic
individualist politics? It has been held by many that
democratic individualism may be fine as ethics but that it
is insufficient for articulating a politics adequate
to the problems of late-modern democracy,
largely because it is so inhibited about
mass democratic action and political solidarity. Lorde provides
democratic individualism a way out of this impasse. Whereas Emerson, Thoreau,
Ellison, and Baldwin all practice literary
forms of citizenship and engage in various forms
of consciousness raising in public exemplarity,
none forthrightly answer the question of what
a positive mass democratic politics looks like. Lorde, however, does, in her
essay “Learning from the ’60s.” She writes, “Militancy no
longer means guns at high noon, if it ever did. It means actively working
for change, sometimes in the absence of any surety
that change is coming. It means doing the
unromantic and tedious work necessary to forge
meaningful coalitions. It means recognizing which
coalitions are possible and which are not. It means knowing the
coalition, like unity, means a coming together of
whole, self-actualized human beings, focused and believing,
not fragmented automatons marching to prescribed step.” The mass politics
of individuality is a politics of coalition,
forging political solidarity across individual and
group differences, but doing so in ways
respectful of the autonomy of individual members. Lorde’s ethics and
politics of coalition provides a bridge between
claims of individuality and the demands of mass
democratic politics. Finally, African-American
Individualism offers a window into both the virtues and the
limits of Liberalism itself. Douglass, Ellison,
Baldwin, and Lorde are all committed to
ideals of self-development and nonconformity central
to the Liberal tradition, yet they part ways on
questions of property, as well as on
questions of what is necessary to form a free self. As we move from the
heroic to the relational in African-American
thought, love and care take on increasing
political significance. It may be that the
balance of the heroic and the relational elements
in Douglass’s Ellison’s, Baldwin’s, and Lorde’s
respective individualisms play a decisive role in
orienting them toward property, care, and love, and that
decides whether they are Liberal or
something more radical, something post-Liberal. In so far as Baldwin
and Lorde however are models of the more
radical, more relational, more socialist politics
that Americans need, we must at the same time observe
how much this politics is still grounded in the traditional
Liberal commitment to freedom and equal dignity
of individual selves. Post-Liberal relationally
individualist politics only achieved its identity
by occupying Liberalism. The question is, where does
the occupation go from here? How will it take Liberalism
further beyond itself? Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *