Review of My Book

Joe Chuman’s Review of Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Criticism.

David Sprintzen’s Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Theory, is a workbearing a prosaic title with broad ambitions. Published in 2009, the book is a hidden gem of philosophical analysis that presents a blueprint for the reconstruction of contemporary society.

Sprintzen is a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Long Island University and a life-long political activist, who founded, and for many years, chaired the Long Island Progressive Coalition. In this work the philosopher-activist, brings his philosophical erudition to the fore while hinting at the practical applications of his philosophy for social policy.

Sprintzen, who has published two texts on the philosophy of Albert Camus, and is a scholar of the thought of the American philosopher, John Dewey, in this work is committed to nothing less than critiquing and reformulating the metaphysical underpinnings of modern society. His thought is wide- ranging, yet grounded in a unifying concept.  His thesis focuses on  the metaphysical mistakes that have shaped modern values and habits of thoughts. With the spirit of Dewey looking over his shoulder, Sprintzen contends that the cardinal error plaguing modern life is the atomization of things, ideas and experiences we engage. However differentiated and independent from one another phenomena appear, Sprintzen asserts that the fabric of reality is unified and all things at ulterior levels are interdependent.  

We live within the context of mistaken paradigms, and Sprintzen’s ambition is to radically transform how we assess reality at its foundation. He states,

“It is one of the central theses of this work that we are currently in the midst of a global cultural and metaphysical transformation at least equal in scope to that which began to transform the planetary culture four centuries ago. Our fundamental modes of thought and action, institutional structures, personal identity, economic development, and relation to nature, all require radical revision if human life on this planet (and beyond) is to survive and prosper…My task in this work will be both to critically evaluate the contours of that transformation and then to outline the structures of an alternative metaphysic and sketch a frame for the social and institutional order it suggests.”

This, to say the least, is a comprehensive task, and it is not surprising that the author begins his treatise with the conflict between religious and scientific worldviews. To his credit, Sprintzen affirms that religion has played the necessary function of providing human beings with a sense of meaning and place in an otherwise absurd reality. We are mythopoeic beings who find meaning within narratives. The scientific revolution, emerging in concert with Protestantism, is at stark variance with religious explanations of reality, and has replaced them with alternatives, that while creating the foundations of modernity, have radically alienated us from nature and legitimated a worldview of isolated individualism, competition, unbridled capitalism and dominion over others. Implicit in Sprintzen’s project is the need to reconstruct a narrative that is updated and fitted to the empirical findings of our age.

Though he does not use the term, underlying Sprintzen’s metaphysics is the notion that reality is an organic unity, and viewing its constituent parts as independent entities separate from each other partakes of a false understanding and misconception that leads to disastrous consequences.

Sprintzen applies this analysis to a very broad range of phenomena, inclusive of subject-object dichotomies found in Aristotelian sentence structure and logic, Cartesian dualism, and Newtonian determinism leaving us wanting for purpose. Of greatest moment to the author is the mistake we make in asserting ontological individualism that situates the person outside of society and is blind  to the thoroughgoing social dynamics which shape the person, including our subjective sense of individuality. Here Sprintzen finds an ally in  Karl Marx’s observation that the human essence is “… the ensemble of the social relations.” 

Individualism’s most powerful expression is deployed economically in the market, which by its own logic sees no higher gratification than the satisfaction of the isolated self. “To the extent that we view ourselves as essentially self-encapsulated individuals – the economist’s proverbial ‘economic man,’ for example, always looking out for ‘Number One’ – to that extent society is nothing but the practical instrument of a calculated strategy, of which other people are the present instruments and The Market the primary vehicle of social cohesion.” 

Individualism is a species of reductionism, which is the fallacious paring down of complex realities into  a single phenomenon or explanation. Sprintzen’s anti-reductionism takes him beyond the human realm into the field of quantum physics and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in which he finds validation for the emergence of new phenomena which a strict determinism or a notion of reality comprised of atomized parts cannot provide or explain. It is here that Sprintzen introduces the concept of “emergent phenomena” which are those “whose nature and operation cannot be completely explained by a description of the behavior of their constituent parts.” 

Reality is complex and multilayered. Different systems function and can be explained according to their own laws. Yet the laws that explain phenomena within systems cannot provide an exhaustive explanation when systems intermingle or overlap. So, as Sprintzen notes, “…emergent phenomena are best thought of as themselves elements of emergent structures that express the unique organizational properties and powers of distinctive fields or levels of reality.” For example, “…gravity conditions life, and no life can violate gravitational laws, but gravity does not determine what living things do.” Or, to provide another example, “Language…requires brain cells to transmit electrical signals, but none of those cells have or understand language.”

It is the relations of these disparate systems that create “fields,” and the concept of fields is pivotal to Sprintzen’s metaphysics. Fields give rise to the semi-autonomous reality of  emergent structures and also provide a resolution to what Sprintzen acknowledges as the so far intractable problem of the relation of freedom and determinism. To complete his analysis, Sprintzen discusses the complexity of consciousness, which also partakes of an analysis of fields. He notes,

“Self-consciousness involves the capacity of an organism to be at the same time – in one unitary act – both the subject and the object of its own awareness: to be an object “for itself.” 

We are thus confronted with a unique emergent field characterized by both irreducible subjectivity and sociality, neither of which furthermore, are reducible to the other. Consciousness is the subjective structure of that experience. Self-consciousness is the meaningful organization of that experience as it locates itself within its own meaning-field.”

Our experiences are objectively knowable by others from the outside, but subjectively they remain private and unknowable. The objective standpoint tells us nothing about the subjective meaning, intent, or even the likely behavior of the emergent experience viewed subjectively. 

The reality of systems in relation to each other gives rises to fields such that this broader reality is not explicable or reducible to the constituent elements in any system alone. This understanding opens us up to the emergent, the new and, in regard to consciousness, freedom. It also serves as the basis of a fresh metaphysical understanding that should guide our thinking as we move ahead.

With his approach that refutes determinism and reductionism across the entire range of phenomena – physical, social and cognitive – Sprintzen claims “…to suggest the fundamental inadequacy of that classical way of thinking – first systematized by Aristotle more than 2,300 years ago and which has dominated Western thought ever since – and to offer a conceptual frame for an alternative frame with which to replace it.”

Before hinting at the practical applications of Sprintzen’s metaphysical reconstruction, I think it is most useful to briefly return to his discussion of the fallacy of individualism and the contrasting social nature of the human person. Here the author is at his most demonstrative. He begins his chapter on “The Webbed Self,” with a virtual rallying cry, “By now one thing should be totally clear: individualism is a theoretically untenable and socially destructive doctrine. It might well be called the social disease of modernity, completely mangling any capacity to understand the process by which society produces and nurtures individuals into adulthood.” For Sprintzen, individualism is “…simply the atomism of the social world…” The target of Sprintzen’s ire is rendered transparent when he says, “It (i.e. individualism) serves as a narrow justification for a narrow self-seeking (often profit-maximizing) egoism.”

Despite the ontological fallacy of individualism, Sprintzen, nevertheless, acknowledges its profound historical role as a liberatory propaganda tool in transforming static, class bound, repressive societies and freeing persons from lives of perpetual misery at the hands of autocrats. Yet he claims that the historical function of individualism should not be mistaken for its theoretical adequacy. Nor should we deny its disastrous consequences as we move forward. 

In discussing the mistake of treating the individual as prior to and over against society, the author makes the critical distinction, as implied earlier, between individualism as an ontological category and the moral value of individuality as a quality of character. Here he explicitly borrows from the thought of John Dewey and invokes Martha Nussbaum’s approbation of human flourishing as among the most worthy of social goals. Indeed it is society that gives birth to individuality and is one of society’s most valued purposes.

Here I find an omission in Sprintzen’s treatment of individualism. As a student of human rights and a staunch defender of civil liberties it seems to me that Sprintzen’s critique of individualism would merit discussion of the rights tradition in the West. Liberal democracy, which no doubt he supports, requires both democratic elections as well as respect for rights held by individuals. Ontological individualism as a basis for rights has a long pedigree most powerfully articulated by luminaries of the Enlightenment such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant. In more recent times, there has been debate about the foundation of human rights including arguments demonstrating how humanity, possessed by individual persons, gives rise to rights. Sprintzen’s thesis, which denies the independent status of individualism removed from our social natures, would be strengthened by interrogating the position defended by these classic figures, a mainstay of political philosophy, which many maintain is a prerequisite for a free, democratic society.

As he moves toward conclusion, Sprintzen applies his metaphysical analysis to the state and future of American society. A commitment to individualism has lead historically to a belief in unbounded expansionism, especially of markets. But this dynamic has run its course has been exhausted. Among the consequences are the retreat into privatization, the erosion of community and its consequent loneliness. We suffer from a “celebration of commodities,” a narrowing of meaning,  purpose and hope, among other social ills.

Sprintzen’s solutions, as implied, are comprehensive. He provides the philosophical changes in vision that are necessary to provide for the survival and flourishing of the human future, without articulating specific policies. Again, his purpose is philosophical and only by extension political. He provides a map with the details to be filled in by others.

But his vision that emerges from his critique is clear, and there are hints of what society based on that vision would entail.  We need a transformation of beliefs, practices, social institutions and personal character. Among the elements of his vision are the following: Economic activity should always be subordinate to the provision of the collective human well-being. Health care and social services shall be a right. Ecological sustainability, equity in the provision of basic necessities and racial and gender equality are required. Invoking Dewey again, we must employ intelligence and eschew outmoded ways of thinking to address our problems. But central to Sprintzen’s aspirations is a revival of democracy, most organically expressed through a reconstitution of neighborhood life. We must move away from exclusive emphasis on the private sphere and come to appreciate how purported private interests need to serve the public and the common good.

In conclusion, Sprintzen does not posit utopia but does open us up to possibilities. We require a renewal of ideals, a commitment to the emergent and the new in concert with a naturalistic ethic and the deliverances of science. He provides an assessment of our condition which is far reaching, profound and wise. His critique is radical and his vision humane. 

David’s Sprintzen’s Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Theory lives up to its name. And those who choose to follow the thought of this very adept philosopher will be well rewarded. 

Socrates and Plato Reconsidered

I have long been quite upset by the prevalent reigning “official” philosophical and cultural treatment, might I say, idolization, of Plato and Socrates, more, i believe, a matter of successful propaganda than of historical or philosophical truth. And an idolization that I honestly believe has had quite unfortunate significant historical consequences. Let me all too briefly explain. 

A few apparently obvious facts. Socrates and Plato were two distinct historical individuals. Plato was an apparently devoted student of Socrates. Socrates wrote nothing. Plato wrote numerous dialogues in most of which Socrates is the lead character. In one of those dialogues, the “Apology,” Plato presents his report of the trial of Socrates before a jury composed of members of the Athenian democracy. (I do not think I am being unfair to observe that Plato despised that democracy. But let that point go for the moment.) 

Under what conditions would any reasonable person take the report of one person, especially one who clearly could not be seen as impartial, as an objective factual report of the truth? Even given the best of intentions. But Plato clearly had many more passionate reasons to bias his report: to justify Socrates to the wider society, as well as to posterity; to cover Socrates involvement with the oligarchy that had overthrown the democracy in 404, killing some 1,500 citizens, and tried again unsuccessfully in 401; to defend and promote the interests of the oligarchic faction, including his extended family, in 4th Century Athenian politics; and to undermine the popular forces and emerging social classes that found expression in the activities of the major Sophists and in the plays of Euripides. Note that the word used in the Apology for corrupting the youth is the same word used by Plato elsewhere for political subversion. Does not Aristophanes speak of the “Socratifed youth” that are “Sparta-mad”? And this trial coming directly on the heals of Critias’ 401 failed insurgency about which so little is often said. Plato’s membership in, relationship to, and continuing support for that oligarchy apparently continued throughout his lifetime. He clearly wanted to show the democracy in the worst light possible – that is obviously the pervasive theme of the “Republic” throughout!! — and this throughout his entire career. We must not forget that Plato features Critias in four!! dialogues, and Charmides as a beautiful youth with promise, in one. Both close relatives of Plato, and followers of Socrates. In fact, almost all of Socates’ followers except Chaerephon were members of the oligarchy. No wonder that it is the long dead Chaerephon who is presented as reporting the Delphic pronouncement. 

Why then take the Platonic portrait of Socrates as the historically “correct” one? There are also those of Xenophon, of Aristophanes, later of Aristotle, and apparently a quite different, and democratic friendly, report of the trial from an unfortunately long lost statement, probably by a Polycrates, all providing significantly different perspectives. 

And then consider Socrates’ purported noble love for Athens and its laws as presented by the Platonic Socrates in the “Crito” (as opposed to the actions of his students such as Critias, Charmides and Alcibiades). When throughout his long life do we have a report of Socrates participating in the Assembly? Did he object to the policies of Pericles? Of he demagogue Cleon? Of the war with Sparta? Of the disastrous attack on Melos? On the voyage to Sicily? Never. His only reported intervention, very late in life, was to critique the trial of the generals, whom we may even assume were members of the oligarchy. Then, of course, there are those later followers who claim the Socratic inspiration, eg. Antisthenes, Aristippus, Diogenes, Epicurus – all of which have at least one thing in common, they are all apolitical, if not anti-political. And we know of Socrates’, and then Plato’s, admiration for Spartan society. That is probably the context in which Plato develops his argument for the role of women. As it is also the probable context for his drastic and authoritarian removal of children from their parents. If you are convinced that you are “the one who knows”, what is to limit you from imposing your ”divinely inspired” will on the”herd”, at whatever human cost. That does seem to have been Critias’ view. 

I could go on but this would become an essay. Suffice it to say, I find it absurd that the sophisticated philosophical tradition treats the Platonic Apology as an historical account of the person/life of Socrates, when no court of even moderately informed jurors would be so naive. And with what consequences, for democracy, for respect for collective self determination, and representative government. Even providing a quite misleading and uncritical celebration of the so-called Socratic method.  

Once we recognize that in the dialogues we are dealing with a Platonic Socrates, only tangentially and, may I say, prejudicially, related to the historical person, then we can get on with the appropriate textual, philosophical, and historical task of addressing the life and thought of Plato, as well as evaluating its immense historical and on-going cultural significance. And here, being clear about these issue, will help us better appreciate the authoritarian and entirely undemocratic nature of Plato’s work, and even that of his immediate followers. And will contribute to framing a far more critical approach to his discussions of education, character development, and constructive political engagements. This perspective would also place in a clearer light Plato’s relation with such destructive figures as Alcibiades, Critias, and Charmides, among others, as well as his antagonism to the Sophists. 

Granted, these are all scattered pieces of an argument – but these are clearly issues that have concerned me, as a committed democratic activist in the Deweyian and Camusian tradition, for quite some time. Generally speaking, I do not like Plato or his philosophy, but I do prefer the”early” dialogues for their dramatic and thoughtful engagements among living people than the “later” dialogues in which all too often Socrates deals with “yes men,” as we in the last 8+ books of the “Republic.” (I do, however, like the challenge that Glaucon poses in Book Two.) But I must say, that the best treatment of Plato’s philosophy that I have ever seen, that makes the best defense for it and its constructible philosophical significance, is the work of Rebecca Neuberger Goldstein in “Plato at the Googleplex”. But enough. My thoughts on the historical Socrates, the Platonic Socrates, and Plato – for what it’s worth. 

Reflections on Received Comments on Race

There is no question that the concept of race is deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, so much so that we even speak, in these responses and in the larger society, as if we are talking about a coherent reality – something that is objectively there, and which we must not fail to recognize, acknowledge, and whose consequences we must take into consideration, for example, in addressing racial inequities.

But consider, what determines a race? It can’t really be one’s color. Many people from India are darker than many American “Blacks”, for example. And so are people of other ethnicities. Is it one’s parentage, then? How many, and how far back? I know that some racists have defined people as Black who have one great great grandparent who was “Black,” but does that make any sense? For one, do we want to let such racist definitions be determinative? What makes 1/32 of one’s parentage sufficient to define one’s race? Is this because so-called genetic “blackness” is contaminating? Why not as much say that it is powerful? But why, then, let others define one’s race?

And if 1/32 makes no sense, why should 1/16th, or 1/8th, or 1/4th, or even 1/2th make sense? It would make more sense to at least define such a one as biracial, or multiracial. Or even more, in most of those cases, given the proportions of “genetic parentage”, to define the person as “white”, or whatever the other majority of their parentage was? Or then again, why not allow one to choose their preferred “race,” since the racial ascription is essentially arbitrary, when it is not actually explicitly “racist?”

If we think we need to continue to organize people in accordance with color, in order to address individual or systemic injustice, we can, of course, do that, though the classifications will be somewhat confused – and perhaps even a bit arbitrary – as they are somewhat now, as, for example, when we speak of injustice to BIPOC groups, and even further, sometimes include Moslems, and others, such as LGBTQ, etc.

But this shows we don’t need the fabricated concept of race to address injustice. Why can we not, for example, consider the treatment given to African-Americans? To Haitian-Americans? To Latinos? To any number of ethnicities, nationalities, religions, or any other objective category that we feel the need to distinguish for understanding, appreciation, or equitability? These are all objective categories of personal identification, with which individuals are more or less free to choose to identify with, or not to identify with. But none of them are categories created to denigrate them, and with which one is identified by an essentially arbitrary determination that was established and maintained by their “racist” oppressors. I welcome further comment on these observations.

Should we abolish the category of race?

Should we abolish the category of race? If not, why not? 

Historical analysis makes a good case that the concept of races, bluntly defined by their skin color, and more abstractly by their “blood” lineage, was initially created in order to justify the brutal life-long enslavement of Africans. They were to be the perfect, entirely subordinated, effectively unlimited, labor supply for the highly profitable production first of sugar, then of tobacco, cotton, and other products of the developing new world plantation economy. 

Hence, the category of race – initially, primarily of blacks and whites – was socially constructed for the purposes of providing a pseudo-scientific justification of extreme racial exploitation and oppression. For several centuries, purportedly scientific theories were elaborated and developed, expanding racial categories, and building a hierarchical system of racial categories that inevitably placed the “white” European, or even Anglo-Saxon, as the pinnacle of human development, and the “black” African at the bottom of rung, just above the Apes or Orangutans. 

But modern the sciences of evolutionary theory, and particularly biology and its astounding advances in genetics, have shown these racist theories to be historical errors at best, ideological fabrications at worst. It is now patently clear that there is no natural scientific basis whatsoever for any such racial categories. They were created to justify the life-long enslavement and degrading treatment of the imported African workforce. And that socially created reality of race worked itself into the social institutions and individual consciousness of the citizens of the industrializing world, first in the Western world, and then spreading more widely.  

Since scientific investigation has fairly conclusively established that race is not a biologically significant category; and since it seems quite likely that the historically developed category of race was in fact created by the Europeans in the process of their settlement of the Western Hemisphere, and this was done in order to provide a justification for the complete enslavement of the African workforce, in addition also for the systematic displacement of the indigenous native population; and, further, since the very determination of what constitutes membership in a particular race results from an essentially arbitrary decision concerning the amount of pigmentation in the skin of one’s ancestors; therefore, why should we not work to abolish the very concept of race, and seek to deny it any official or legal recognition? And if not, why not? 

Is this a socially constructed category that has developed significant intrinsic value for members of some, or all, purported races? Or has it actually become politically useful for some? Or threatening to others? Has it become too historically ingrained in our minds or characters, institutions and practices, for good or ill consequences, to be completely replaced by more objectively substantive categories such as ethnicity, nationality, cultural or linguistic identity, and religion? 

I pose this as a serious question worthy of thoughtful exploration, for which I invite thoughtful comments. 

Some Reflections on Race, Racism, and Moral Responsibility

In a recent EHS Platform presentation on Anti-racism, the speaker made two central claims. First, she asserted that American society is systematically racist, with every institution having been shaped by racism; and that, therefore, the attitudes, values, and behavior of every person in our society, having been shaped by this racism, is therefore racist, whether he or she is aware of it or not. 

Second, each of us has only two possibilities. Either we are active anti-racists – purifying our attitudes and values, making amends for our past behavior, and actively challenging existing institutions; or we are racists, however well-intentioned we believe or claim to be. Our actions and interactions will be marked by racism, even at its best pervaded by racial insensitivity and micro-aggressions. It is, therefore, not morally acceptable to simply mind one’s own business, to devote one’s self to one’s career or business, attending to one’s friends and family, even if we conduct ourself in an apparently moral and normal manner. Because by so doing we are still engaging in, and thus reinforcing and reproducing structural racism, whatever our intentions or the personal quality of our daily actions.

This worldview is the perspective that undergirds the wider social movement that has also found expression in such popular best sellers as How To Be An Anti-Racist, and White Fragility. It insists that every person must make the personal choice to become an active Anti-Racist, or they are, whether by intent or avoidance, engaging in and perpetuating racism, and are there racists. Being born in this culture of pervasive structural racism, according to this view, there is no alternative. It’s an Either/Or. You can’t escape being either a racist or an anti-racist. It’s an overriding moral imperative.

That is why I posed the question for the recent April public forum: “Anti-Racism: Moral Imperative or Partisan Political Program?” Stimulated by this discussion, Arthur Dobrin developed the following general theoretical observations, followed by a series of questions as to what might actually be meant by racism, anti-racism, institutional racism and moral responsibility. Hopefully, these comments and questions will contribute to our thinking about these complex issues.    

Introduction by David Sprintzen.

Arthur Dobrin’s reflections.

The human species is highly social but individually weak thereby creating in-groups who cooperate for survival and out-groups, which are perceived as threats. The boundaries separating groups constantly shift as new alliances are formed and old ones dissolved. 

Everyone is born into an existing culture with its own history, values, assumptions and psychological pre-dispositions. Cultures define who is part of the in-group and who is not. History causes cultures to redefine themselves, as well as who is on the outside and who is now on the inside.

America is complex because it began by largely exterminating the indigenous people, then occupying the cleared land with people from different cultures either voluntarily as immigrants or with people who arrived against their will either in part or in whole, as indentured or enslaved people. 

Unlike more stable and homogeneous societies, from its very beginning America has been unstable and heterogeneous. Both major strands of America’s beginning, as a commercial enterprise in Jamestown, or as a religious retreat in New England, have both reinforced and challenged existing prejudicial norms. New York was founded as both a commercial venture and religious haven and historically it has been in the forefront of expanding the boundaries of social and religious tolerance and exhibiting some of the worst of its prejudices.

With these background sketches in mind, here are some of the things I’ve thought about after last night’s Meet Up. 

1. Does systemic racism exist?

         a. how do you define it?

         b. is racism defined only as it relates to Black people?

        c. can one group of people of color exhibit racism towards another group of people of             color?

2. If it does exist, in what way does it implicate those who are a person not of color?

         a. are all non-people of color guilty to the same degree, in the same way?

3. What is a non-people of color to do to overcome systemic racism?        

         a. is awareness sufficient?

         b. is calling it out sufficient?

         d. is acknowledging it in one’s own behavior sufficient?

4. If action is required, what should be done?

         a. where you live?

         b. where you send you children to school?

         c. where you shop?

         d. where you worship?

         e. where you recreate?

         f. where you work?

         g. who you associate with?

         h. political support?

                  1. is voting sufficient?

                  2. is letter writing/petition signing sufficient?

                  3. is lobbying sufficient?

5. how does racism rank relative to other social biases? 

         a. sexism

         b. classism

         d. LGBTQism

         e. anti-Semitism

         f. ethno-centrism

         g. ageism

         h. Abilism         

6. questions similar to #2-4 can be asked in relation to #5

Questions for further reflection.

1. A white medical researcher dedicates him or her entire career to medical research thus producing a vaccine for Covid that will be used by our medical system which is said to be pervaded by systematic racial bias. Is he or she racist? Are his or her actions racist?

2. A intentionally acclaimed cellist — such as Yo-Yo Ma — has devoted his or her life to the mastery of that instrument in order perform classical music that for the most part is performed before classical audiences that are primarily white and of more than average income. Is that cellist racist? Is his or her actions racist? Is he or she contributing to institutional racism?   

3. A white student attends a college with very few Black students but joins the Black Student Union. Is he being anti-racist?

4. A person donates 10 percent of her income to charitable causes, for example, National Public Radio, Green Peace, the local food pantry, her church, Amnesty International and the Human Rights Campaign. Should she divert some of her contributions to an organization devoted exclusively to a Black cause?

5. If a white person volunteers for Latino justice, does this qualify as anti-racist?

6. If a person patronizes Chinese, Mexican, and Mediterranean restaurants, where there is rarely a Black customer, should she consider eating elsewhere?

7. A person is committed to buying locally but none of the shops are Black-owned. Should she consider traveling elsewhere to shop?

8. Is it anti-racist to read books that examine racism if the books are written by white people?

9. If a white person attends folk music concerts but not concerts by Black performers, is she being racist?

10. Is a white person who acknowledges systemic racism but believes that racism is best addressed by changing individuals’ attitudes and behavior racist?

11. If a white person’s hair is naturally curly, is it racist to wear it as an Afro or in dreads?

12. If a Black and a white candidate are running against each other and the Black candidate admires Clarence Thomas and other Black conservatives while the white candidate is a liberal (and there are no other choices), what should a white person do in this election?

13. If a white person chooses to move to a Black neighborhood knowing that this could be the beginning of gentrification, is this racist?

14. Is it racist if a white person seeks out a Black person to befriend?

15. A physician rarely sees a person of color or has professional affiliations with persons of color because she specializes in Tay-Sachs disease, which affects mainly people of Jewish ancestry. Is her practice racist?

16. In the classroom of a white teacher who supports BLM and also believes in open discussions, two white students get into a debate about Black Lives Matter vs. all lives matter. Is she racist if she doesn’t state her opinion?

17. A white student rejects her local high school, which has many Black students, to attend a public school that is dedicated to his interest in science that has very few Blacks but many Asians. Is he racist?

18. If a wealthy Black person makes indisputably demeaning and disparaging remarks to a white delivery man who responds in kind, is it racist for a white person to sympathize with the worker?

19. Is it racist or anti-racist for a lawyer to quote verbatim before the jury and public the racist language used by a defendant?

20. A woman walking alone on a deserted street sees a group of young Black men on the sidewalk and continues after crossing to the other side of the street. Does her race determine whether the action is racist?

21. Is it racist for a white returned Peace Corps Volunteer, who lived three years in Africa, to wear Kente cloth dress?

22. A podcast series is dropped because the white host once opposed the formation of a union that was widely supported by Black workers. Several of the writers and directors of the podcast are people of color who have also lost their jobs as ‘collateral damage.’ Were those who canceled the podcast anti-racist or racist?

23. After hearing Mavis Staples and other Black singers’ rendition of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” a white entertainer covered the song. Was she racist for doing so because much of Foster’s 19th music was written for and performed in minstrel shows, although this particular song was not?

24. Is it racist for a white person to laugh at the jokes of a Black comedian whose performance, which is before a Black audience, centers around poking fun at the foibles of Black people?

25. A series of meetings “intended to give white people a space to learn about and process their awareness of, and complicity in, unjust systems without harming their friends of color” is for white people only. Is the program racist? 

26. A white person lives in a community that is more than 50% African American. Is this non-racist if the average cost of a house is $1 million-plus?

27. A white student attends an elite HBCU where tuition is about $50,000 per year. Is the student anti-racist?

Reflections on policing in An American City

Reflections on Policing in an American City

If you support Black Lives Matter you probably see the police as an oppressive occupying force unconstrained in its use of lethal force on the minority population, particularly its males. If, on the other hand, you counter by insisting that Blue Lives Matter, you no doubt see the BLM protesters as destructive radicals who insult “our nation’s finest” who daily put their lives on the line to serve America. And if you seek to avoid these antagonistic alternatives by asserting that All Lives Matter, the former will likely claim you are a hidden racist, flattening out their justified critique of the White oppressors, while the latter may similarly claim that you lack the guts to defend the police from those hateful and insulting attacks. At least, that’s the way current popular dialogue often seems to devolve into mutual incomprehension and name-calling. 

I don’t know if a more nuanced and constructive conversation about policing in America is possible these days, but if it is, Rosa Brooks’ recent publication strikes me as a remarkable contribution to its possibility. Tangled Up In Blue may not change anyone’s ideological predispositions, but, speaking only for myself, it gave me the feel of an honest, intimate, and very personal introduction to the reality of policing a minority community in a generally disadvantaged urban district. It was almost as if I was there, watching Rosa from a safe distance as she navigated her initial police training and then her patrolling the neighborhood. I don’t think i will ever look at the police and their relation to their community in the same way again.

What Rosa presents is a detailed, nuanced, personal account of her four-year experience as a volunteer police officer with the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington DC. In this context she went through the complete training of all new police recruits, and then functioned – for 24 hours a month – with all the responsibilities and capacities of a full-time MPD officer. One may wonder what a highly accomplished 40+ year old white woman, former human rights activist and official, and now a well respected Professor of Law at Georgetown University is doing signing up to serve as a volunteer police officer in one of the most dangerous minority areas of Washington DC, but one cannot but admire the courage, determination, dedication, and sense of decency she brought to her effort. As well as the intelligence, comprehension, concern for justice, and outrage at injustice, that pervades her reporting, and the conclusions and actions she draws from her four year police experience. 

Her writing is simple, direct, without complicated language or theories. She doesn’t try to oversell the significance of what she went through, encountered, or learned from her experience. She simply reports it directly, as it happened. And offers comments on how it seemed to her. I found myself totally engaged by her experience, and moved by the stories she tells, with their simplicity, honesty, directness, sometimes pathos, and occasionally humor. I think that everyone who is concerned about the issues of policing, and particularly, the role of the police in minority communities, regardless of their political or personal location in these contested debates, can benefit from reading this book. And we are all in Rosa’s debt for having undertaken, first the experience, and then the personal testament that is this engaging and revealing book. 

“Replacing Magical Thinking with Rational Discourse”:

a talk to the American Ethical Union’s national Sunday meeting on January 31, 2021.

(What is magical thinking? )

What is magical thinking? It is fanciful, associative, and

emotional thought. It is making mental connections by associations of images, elaborating dramatically engaging or emotionally satisfying stories. 

Its stories are often soothing, personally sustaining, even dramatically engaging. It is often psychologically encouraging, providing us with quite satisfying experiences. But it is thinking that Is neither empirically tested nor critical re-evaluated in the light of experienced consequences.

We all are tempted by such ways of thinking – and probably indulge in them quite often. We fantasize, we daydream, sometimes we even pray. And we certainly love dramatic stories, many of which are really quite imaginatively fantastic. We probably all want the world to be one that embodies our hopes, desires, and needs. To be a world in which we feel we belong, where we feel at home, and safe. In short, to feel that we are in a world that assuages our fears, and anxieties, uncertainties and powerlessness. How else are we to understand the pervasiveness of human beliefs in eternal beings, or in heavenly fathers who look out for our well being?

Of course, imaginative thinking can often take us out of our ordinary humdrum reality and our daily routines. It can not only contribute to flights of fancy, but even sometimes nourish our creativity, originality, and artistic innovation. 

But unless it is intelligently re- connected to the objectively existing social and natural world, it remains  nothing but a personal flight of fancy – magical thinking without constructive practical or social relevance. 

Even worse, however, it often invites identification, and even possibly infatuation, with its emotionally satisfying scenarios, thus presaging disaster when taken as an interpretation of reality and as a guide to action. For magical thinking is not empirically accountable, nor rationally coherent.

Rather, its associative imagery is fanciful, sometimes delusional, and thus not constrained by the need to take into account the real patterns of society and nature. As a guide to action, therefore, it almost inevitably leads us in inappropriate, self-defeating, and likely destructive directions. That’s why we need rational thought and critical thinking. 

So What then is rational thought?

It is thought that is internally coherent, and objectively attentive, and responsive, to the experienced consequences of events. The best way to understand the function of rational thought is to compare it to the using of tools. And thus to think of ideas as mental tools. 

(Ideas as mental tools.) 

Of course, We all know what a tool is? A material object a) made by someone; b) for a purpose; c)  with reference to a job to be done. 

If the tool is the right one for the job, it will facilitate our task.  

But If the tool is not well made, or is not appropriate or well designed for the job to be done, it will certainly make a mess of the work.

Now consider a map, which is a kind of tool to guide us around a terrain.  

To be useful, the map must be appropriate to the task: for example, a geological survey map would not be very helpful if we are trying to find what roads to take to get us to our destination. 

But the road map, or today the GPS, will only be helpful if it correctly maps the actually existing road patterns.  Otherwise it will be worse than useless. 

Similarly with thinking. 

All thinking involves some mapping of our world, and that means, some interpretation of how things fit together. We have to decide what part of the world we are concerned with, and what we want to do with it. To this end, we need ideas that accurately map that world, that is, that make sense of its structure, selecting the relevant causal interactions, and the likely practical consequences of different possible actions. 

That’s the very meaning of science. Empircal, experimental, self-correcting science, is clearly the most reliable way to map our world, and thus our best guide in successfully navigating our interaction with that world. 

If, on the other hand, in place of scientifically-based rational thinking, we were to rely on magical thought, and the associative emotional patterns that make us feel good, it would be just like using the wrong or poorly designed tools: we are almost certainly going to make a mess of whatever we undertake. 

Just briefly consider a couple of examples: 

[ Of criminals] 

If you think it is obvious that crime is simply caused by criminals – you will probably conclude that the best way to reduce crime is to focus your research on the criminals that create it. For example, what is it about these criminals that causes them to engage in crime? Have you noticed that every time there is a mass murder, we become so focused on understanding the nature and motives of the killer. Focusing on the criminal, we will look to their background, perhaps their genetic endowment, and we’ll probably increase law enforcement and even enhance legal penalties in order to repress crime and remove these criminals from society.  

But, of course, with such a criminal character based focus as your critical conceptual mapping, you are quite unlikely to even consider such possible social determinants of crime, as poverty, joblessness, community deterioration, inadequate education, lack of social supports, family disintegration, even economic exploitation, political oppression, or cultural dehumanization. Wrongly mapping the conceptual and causal terrain is like using the wrong tool to do a job – and with similar results. 

[Of Trump, race and deaths of despair]

Or consider the Trump phenomenon. If you neglect the significant role that race plays, you will certainly miss an important element. But, if you also think that race is the sole or central motive for most Trump supporters, you will completely fail to appreciate those “deaths of despair” that has devastated much of white middle America, so brilliantly diagnosed recently by Anne Case and Angus Deaton. 

Did you know, for example, that for the period since 2000, the average life expectancy for white Americans between 45 and 54 years of age has actually been declining — and that this is a pattern that is seen almost nowhere else on Earth, and that includes among people of all races or ethnicities?

It would thus be neither sensitive, nor respectful, to respond to the desperation of such people, as often too many well meaning people have done, to claim that they benefit from white privilege. Not only would that be personally insensitive, but it is almost certainly counter-productive, communicating one’s disdain for their suffering and driving them more firmly into the arms of those who do not insult them. 

(In Conclusion)

So let us take our humanistic values and our rational and scientific analyses seriously, but also self-critically, and with sufficient humility, always remaining on guard against the natural tendencies for self-reinforcing group thinking. We should recognize that our values and goals are never realities to be imposed upon the world as if they embody a perfected ideal, but rather we should treat them as continually révisable moral and theoretical guides in furthering our present undertakings. That is the path forward of a rationally responsible humanism. 

Sartre: Resistant or Collaborator?

A fabricated history of an anti-nazi resistance fighter has become the almost universally accepted truth about Jean-Paul Sartre’s activities under Nazi occupation during World War II. This history was primarily concocted by Simone de Beauvoir with Sartre’s support, in order to cover up the couple’s acquiescence and relative collaboration with the Nazi occupation of France. And it was only with the liberation of Paris, and with the assistance of Albert Camus, that the couple’s politics and public persona was completely transformed. To what extent the vitriol of Sartre’s later personal attack on Camus during their historic confrontation several years later was fueled by Sartre’s guilt and resentment directed at Camus, whose personal history was certainly not so morally compromised, is a legitimate matter for speculation.

These issues are addressed in my recently published controversial re-thinking of the historical relation of these key intellectual and cultural leaders in post-war European and American civilization. That article, “Sartre and Camus: a much misunderstood relation,” a brief excerpt of which is reproduced below, appeared in Brill’s Companion To Camus: Camus Among The Philosophers. For more information about, or to receive a complete copy of, the article, simply contact me at Questions, comments, and discussions of the continuing relevance of these issues are, of course, more than welcome.

The Excerpt.

“I think that it is also fair to say that the pre-wwii Sartre was essentially oblivious to political matters. He spent the academic year 1933–1934 studying philosophy in Berlin with no obvious reference to or effective realization of the significance of the rise to power of Adolph Hitler. We cannot know his actual thoughts at that time, because, quite remarkably, practically all of his correspondence from that period is missing. But Simone de Beauvoir does report on a trip that they took to Fascist Italy in 1936, for which they availed themselves, with no expressed misgivings, of a discounted train trip, which required them to visit a display of Fascist military equipment, and with no comment made on the political situation by either of them.

Then there was the war itself, for which de Beauvoir, with Sartre’s apparent approval, later concocted a series of fabrications of resistance activity that apparently did not exist. Contrary to their fabrications, Sartre did not escape from a German prison camp, but was freed by the Germans, probably upon the request of the notorious collaborator, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle. Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of the purported underground group, “Socialism and Liberty”, that Sartre was supposed to have created, nor for the purported French constitution that he was supposed to have written, even supposedly having sent a copy to Charles de Gaulle. In fact, what evidence there is suggests both his and de Beauvoir’s limited collaboration with the German occupation: Sartre writing a couple of articles for “Commoedia” and serving on an artistic jury for them in 1943, and de Beauvoir producing a series of brief programs for Radio Vichy as late as 1944. Thus the almost universally accepted version of a “Sartre of the Resistance” is a complete fabrication, apparently primarily concocted by de Beauvoir with Sartre’s approval.

 In addition, Sartre’s philosophical and dramatic writing up to that time shows no signs of any left-wing political consciousness. There is certainly none in Being and Nothingness. Sartreans often claim that Sartre’s mid-war plays, The Flies and No Exit, are expressions of his political commitment to human liberation, being hidden critiques of Nazi occupation and invitations to resistance. Of course, such interpretations fail to explain how the Nazi censors could have been so dense as to miss those meanings when they approved these plays for presentation under the Occupation. But I think that the reality is less confusing, because in fact both of these plays say nothing about political oppression and rebellion, but rather direct themselves only to the question of the human being’s ontological freedom. This is a position that perfectly represents the existential philosophy developed in Being and Nothingness.

 Actually, it is Camus who plays a major role in what we might understand as the beginning of Sartre’s political rehabilitation, specifically, in providing Sartre with resistance credibility by using his position as editor of Combat to assign Sartre the task of writing about the liberation of Paris, an article that in fact was probably written by de Beauvoir. It is only with the liberation of Paris and the consequent defeat of the Nazis that Sartre becomes politically engaged. While there is no adequate account of the nature of his conscious transformation, that transformation is announced with his call for the death penalty for collaborators, then with his creation of what becomes the premier journal of the French Left, Les Temps modernes, along with his subsequent articles on “Reflections on the Jewish Question”, and with his existential critique of Marxism in Materialism and Revolution. All this not only served to completely erase any knowledge of his ambiguous war-time activities, but also required him to begin theoretically to confront the profound tension that existed between the ontological celebration of unlimited human freedom that is existentialism and the historical materialism and apparent causal determinism that was central to Marxism, or at least to official Communist interpretations of it.

Thus begins a profound redirection that will thematically define much of the rest of Sartre’s life, playing a crucial role in the slow transformation of his relationship with Camus, and culminating with their definitive break following the publication by Camus of The Rebel in late 1951. Initiated by Francis Jeanson’s obviously polemical review of The Rebel in Les Temps modernes, the break was consummated by the responses of Camus, Sartre, and Jeanson a few months thereafter. While I will have more to say about that controversy shortly, what I want to note here is the divergent political paths that led from Camus’s and Sartre’s post-wwii personal, social, and political alignment—can I say “friendship”?—to their passionately ideological and political antagonism that endured until the end of Camus’s life in 1960.”

On the Sidelines: DSA’s Abstentionism on Biden vs. Trump

I think the following article critical of DSA’s position during the recent election deserves wider publicity – as it highlights a problem of a tendency toward destructive ideological purity in segments of the Left.

The heroes of this election victory are the thousands of grassroots political activists who busted their butts to defeat Trump by working for Biden, particularly in the key battleground states. Now we need to focus on Georgia and two Senate seats.

Not on the Sidelines: Bernie Sanders, AOC, and Illinois State Senator Robert Peters promoted a “Deep Canvass to Defeat Donald Trump” at a People’s Action forum last October. The results are in: Trump was defeated and Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president on January 20, 2021.

This victory is the product of a broad, popular united front. Popular, because there was an alliance of cross-class forces that opposed Trump. United, in that these forces agreed on a shared objective – electing Biden and Harris – to remove him from office. In such a broad front, the reasons for uniting to throw out Trump were varied. Many were offended and outraged by his anti-democratic rhetoric and conduct. He repulsed millions with his overt racist, jingoist and sexist behavior, and his cultivation and encouragement of white supremacists.Activists in the labor movement saw his attacks as weakening our already feeble bargaining power and ability to fight for our members. Regulations protecting everything from air quality and wilderness areas to labor and occupational health standards were gutted.

The left clearly understood that four more years of Trump and his deepening authoritarianism would make it nearly impossible to realize progressive reforms like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and the much needed labor law reforms proposed in the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.The heroes of this election victory are the thousands of grassroots political activists who busted their butts to defeat Trump by working for Biden, particularly in the key battleground states. Thousands of our comrades in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and other socialists worked side-by-side with leaders and activists in black and brown organizations, women’s organizations, and labor unions like UNITE-HERE and SEIU.

Because of our collective participation in this struggle to elect Biden and Harris we have forged new or deeper ties with organizations and individuals open to discussion and struggle over the way forward in the future Biden administration.Few, if any, of the comrades we campaigned with had illusions about the reality of who Biden actually is or what he represents. They can recite chapter and verse his personal flaws and long history of complicity with the neo-liberal project. Nevertheless, there was a broad understanding that Trump had to go — and that our efforts would be key to an electoral victory.


But where was DSA — the largest socialist organization in the U.S. — during this Presidential election? While many members individually were leaders in the work to elect Biden — as an organization, we sat on the sidelines. This was the result of a “Bernie or Bust” position requiring DSA to abstain from supporting Biden pushed through by a narrow majority of delegates at DSA’s 2019 convention. That puts DSA in the embarrassing position of now advancing a program and promoting actions for the first 100 days of the Biden administration, while as an organization it played no formal role in achieving that opportunity. Are we to understand that it would have been an equally useful result to be heading into the first 100 days of a Trump administration? Of course not!

As long time trade unionists, we view this refusal to come off the sidelines as analogous to a faction within the union deciding that they don’t like the leaders of a strike or their politics. The faction doesn’t participate in picketing, or the strike kitchen, or the mass demonstrations. Then, these “do nothings” who essentially sat out the strike, come to the union hall insisting on a major role in determining the terms of the strike settlement.


DSA’s formal abstention from the Biden campaign reflects a larger ideological issue that plagues the organization: a flawed understanding of the “special role of socialists.” The constant refrain from many members is, “We are socialists and we have a special role!” Yes, socialists do have a special role to play in leading popular movements by being the most active and dedicated fighters in the struggle. That dedication and commitment — not pontificating about the problems with the “misleaders/sheepherders” or the neo-liberal from Delaware — is what opens up the opportunity to win the “uninitiated” to our socialist ideas and class analysis.

If this simple concept needs political window dressing from the socialist liturgy, here is a quote from Karl Marx from 1875 in a letter to Wilhelm Bracke: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”Bernie Sanders’s entrance onto the national election stage as a Democratic Socialist in the 2016 Democratic primaries was one of the principal causes of DSA’s rapid growth. Instead of choosing a third party route, Sanders wisely jumped into the admittedly murky swamp of Democratic Party politics. And by doing so, his socialist message and working class perspective blossomed and flourished in the mainstream in ways that were hitherto unimaginable.

Again in 2020, Sanders ran as a Democrat in a much more complicated candidate field. Bernie’s campaign forced the other candidates to contend with his programmatic initiatives addressing a rigged economy and our broken democracy. After the Democratic Party consolidated its support behind Biden and Bernie withdrew, he clearly understood what was at stake. Facing “the most dangerous president in US history,” he actively campaigned to get his base to support Biden and Harris.DSA’s experience in the 2020 election can be a teachable moment.

It’s time to acknowledge that “Bernie or Bust” was a major tactical and strategic error. Now, with critical reflection, it can lead to a more mature approach to our electoral politics. That maturation should begin with a disavowal of the position taken by many DSA chapters in local races that they can only support self-proclaimed socialist candidates. This too has again led to the isolation of socialists from the actual struggle over the needs and interests of our class. Many candidates stand with us on the issues. They stand for positions that will benefit the lot of working people and people of color. Their successful election would result in policies benefiting the lives of the working class. Again, this abstention is contradictory to the needs and interests of the people we purport to fight for. It just isolates us from the potential to make gains, win reforms and win respect for our analysis and ideas.

Let’s learn from 2020. Now it’s time to fight for two Senate seats in Georgia to create the most favorable playing field on which to challenge — and push — the neo-liberal President-elect Joe Biden.…


Peter Olney is on the Steering Committee of DSA’s Labor Commission and a lifelong union organizer. In 2020, he volunteered with Seed the Vote (STV) to work on the Biden campaign in Maricopa County Arizona.

Rand Wilson, also a lifelong union organizer, has been a member of DSA since 1986. After Sanders declared for the Democratic nomination in 2015, Wilson registered as a Democrat for the first time. He was elected a delegate to the 2016 DNC convention and was a member of the DNC Credentials Committee for the 2020 convention.[Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →Rand Wilson has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator for nearly forty years and is currently an organizer and Chief of Staff for SEIU Local 888 in Boston. Wilson was the founding director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice. Active in electoral politics, he ran for state auditor in a campaign to win cross-endorsement (or fusion) voting reform and establish a Massachusetts Working Families Party. In 2016 he helped to co-found Labor for Bernie and was elected as a Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Wilson is board chair for the ICA Group and the Local Enterprise Assistance Fund; and a director of the Center for the Study of Public Policy. He also serves as a trustee for the Somerville Job Creation and Retention Trust.

“Reflections on Race in the United States”

  1. From practically the inception of the European settlement of North America the emerging societies have been marked by racial oppression, first of the indigenous population, and then of the imported and enslaved Africans. For almost the entire history of the United States, this state of affairs was taken as normal, and quite acceptable. Only slowly, over time, did white voices begin to be raised, first against the institution of slavery, and then more basically against the treatment as second class citizens of both of these oppressed races. But never has there been official public acknowledgement of these pervasive crimes, and the appropriate assumption of collective national responsibility for them. It is certainly long past time for such action, and the reparations appropriate thereto. 
  2. The challenge before us as a nation is, therefore, profound and historic. It is to build a public consciousness and consequent effective majoritarian movement for social and racial justice that will finally remedy these deep-seated and pervasive injustices.    
  3. But if we are to successfully address these challenges, we need to build the widespread social support that any such profound movement of public opinion and official policy directed toward such collective national healing requires. I have been troubled by the tendency of many progressive groups to speak in simplistic and ideological terms, while creating a climate of group think in which sensitive and thoughtful discussion of values, policies, and programs are effectively suppressed. But it is vital that we think and speak with the sensitivity, care, and appropriate nuance about issues as emotionally charged as those of race, of its intimate connection to our personal and social identity as “Americans”, and of the place of each of us within the unfolding drama that is the history of the United States. It is in that spirit of mutual respect, cultural sensitivity, commitment to human dignity, appreciation of historical context and the complexities of social and institutional development, and our determined and abiding commitment to advancing that inclusive vision of social justice, that I offer the following remarks. 
  4. It should be obvious that the US was founded for the most part by Europeans, primarily English, and then Scots-Irish, who effectively invaded North America – they didn’t “discover” it since it wasn’t lost, however new it was to them. They then proceeded to practically exterminate the indigenous population, and build a good part of their society on the enslaved labor of Blacks purchased from Africa. As they expanded across the continent, economic growth required a rapidly expanding population which widened the pool of primarily European Immigration, first from Great Britain and Northern Europe, then southern, and Eastern Europe. In addition, from the mid-19th Century on the US incorporated a significant number of Mexicans in the process of appropriating large areas of the now United States Southwest and Far West. Only in the later part of the 19th and early 20th centuries did the European transplanted civilization of the United States expand further to include significant numbers of people from Asia. 
  5. Nothing that I have so far said is particularly controversial. It is thus quite clear that the United States (and to a large extent Canada, also), was founded, controlled, and developed primarily by Europeans. Thus it was a civilization essentially created by white people, who, in the process, imported and enslaved Africans and drove the native population into ghettos, euphemistically called reservations. It is thus understandable and completely non-surprising that, as the book White Fragility correctly asserts, the United States established “a society in which all key political, economic, social, and cultural institutions are overwhelmingly controlled by white people.” Throughout human history, the politically primary, culturally dominate, and majority population have always determined the structure of normality in the societies they controlled. Thus, there was nothing exceptional about this state of affairs, in which “white control of society became … ‘normal’ or ‘standard’” in the United States.  
  6. What was probably exceptional, however, and certainly completely indefensible, was precisely the nature and extent to which the developing American society was built upon the systematic destruction of the culture of the indigenous population and the enslavement, systematic degradation and pervasive exploitation of its Black population. 
  7. As Peter Nabokov comments, reviewing Jeffrey Ostler’s carefully researched study, Surviving Genocide, “For the new republic and its pioneering settlers to thrive, the aboriginal citizens had to be displaced, removed, extirpated, eliminated, exterminated….(thus) during the formative years of our republic and beyond, there was a mounting, merciless, uncoordinated but aggressively consistent crusade to eliminate the native residents of the United States from their homelands by any means necessary ….” (NYR, LXVII, #11, p. 52, “The Intent Was Genocide”, Peter Nabokov). 
  8. A couple of illuminating examples of this attitude are provided by the notorious comments of two celebrated Northern Civil War Generals. Philip Sheridan’s statement that, “The only good Indians I know are dead,” was far from an unusual expression of prevailing sentiment. And similarly with General William Tecumseh Sherman’s directive that “his troops must confront the enemy Sioux ‘even to their extermination, men, women, and children.’” In short, the European invasion, conquest, and settlement of the North American continent involved the more or less explicit destruction of the civilization, and most of the people, that were native to the land. 
  9. Further, white political domination produced, once again in the words of White Fragility, “centuries of history during which people of color (especially black people) were systematically enslaved, expropriated, disenfranchised, segregated, and marginalized.” While the nature of that degradation in the pre-Civil War period could vary from the gang labor plantations of South Carolina to the possibilities of domestic servitude in some northern communities, it became increasingly clear that legally, in the words of the infamous Dred Scott Decision of 1857, the Negro “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Blacks were to be treated as legal non-persons, chattel property, whose owners could do with them as they wished. And, of course, that is precisely what they all too often did. 
  10. Then, after the Civil War, in spite of the legal abolition of slavery, and the constitutional guarantee of full voting citizenship for Blacks, racist attitudes continued to prevail, North and South, finding increasingly innovative and violent ways to institutionalize that racism, with Blacks treated, at best, as second-class citizens, when not further subjugated, exploited, oppressed, and even lynched. 
  11. No adequate discussion of the history of the United States can fail to address these profound injustices. And no comprehensive current political programs should be developed that do not seriously attempt to address their on-going consequences. 
  12. This sad history, nevertheless, should be seen as the United States’ unique development of slavery’s long history in the West. Even more, slavery is practically universal throughout all human history. It was certainly pervasive and accepted as normal in Africa long before the Europeans arrived. However, even though it is clearly approved of in both the Judeo-Christian Bible and the Islamic Koran, its racialization in early modern Europe is, to my mind, without historical precedent. With the possible exception of earlier suggestions in the development of Christian anti-Semitism, this racialization involved the claim that Africans were, somehow by nature, not only inherently inferior to whites, but not really fully human. Often, they were even identified with monkeys or orangutans, while the indigenous population of North America came to be viewed as nothing more than savages. Once you designate a group as less than, or even, non-human, it is not surprising that they can be considered as having no rights that humans need respect. Then you can feel free to treat them however you will. 
  13. American racism emerged out of this historic development in early modern Christian Europe, that had its initial roots in large part in the Spanish Inquisition’s concern to insure the purity of blood of true Christians. Racial slavery and the Atlantic slave trade followed in its wake, growing with European overseas expansion, and fueling early European capitalist development, particularly with the wealth generated by the fantastically profitable sugar plantations, initially in the Caribbean, but then migrating to include rice, tobacco, and cotton plantations in North America.   
  14. Here is not the place for an extensive discussion of the history of slavery and racial oppression. Rather, my concern is to understand the scope of the United States’ continuing struggle with racism, and its institutional operation, and to place it in its appropriate cultural context so that we may more adequately address its continuing significance. It is vitally important in discussions of race that we avoid falling into the trap of thinking that one race is inherently good, and another race is inherently bad. We must avoid viewing the world like the ancient Manichaeans, for whom the world was divided between the Forces of Light and the Forces of Darkness. A racialized Manichaeism of the good race and the bad race, endowing one race with intrinsic goodness or innocence, and another with intrinsic badness or evil, is just a reversed modern version of deplorable racist thinking. Such an either/or perspective is neither adequate nor constructive, but rather quite socially harmful, and in the long run politically self-defeating.
  15. Perhaps nothing makes this clearer than considering some key facts concerning the early history of the Atlantic slave trade itself. As historians have now well documented, “European[s] and [the] white Americans who succeeded them did not capture and enslave people themselves. Instead they purchased slaves from African traders . . . . 
  16. Sometimes African armies enslaved the inhabitants of conquered towns and villages. At other times, raiding parties captured isolated families or kidnapped individuals. As warfare spread to the interior, captives had to march for hundreds of miles to the coast where European traders awaited them. The raiders tied the captives together with rope or secured them with wooden yokes around their necks. It was a shocking experience, and many captives died from hunger, exhaustion, and exposure during the journey. Others killed themselves rather than submit to their fate, and the captors killed those who resisted….” (Hine, Hine, & Harold, The African-American Odyssey, 2ed., vol. 1, Prentice Hall, 2005, pp.27, 30)
  17. African rulers “restricted the Europeans to a few points on the coast, while the kingdoms raided the interior to supply the Europeans with slaves . . . . Tribe stalked tribe, and eventually more than 20 million Africans would be kidnapped in their own homeland….” (Drescher and Engerman, Historical Guide to World Slavery, pp. 370-375) 
  18. Historians estimate that ten million of these abducted Africans “‘never even made it to the slave ships. Most died on the march to the sea’—still chained, yoked, and shackled by their African captors—before they ever laid eyes on a white slave trader.” (Johnson, et al., Africans in America, pp. 69-70)   “The survivors were either purchased by European slave dealers or ‘instantly beheaded’ by the African traders ‘in sight of the [slave ship’s] captain’ if they could not be sold.” (Drescher and Engerman, p. 34)
  19. In sum, “the idea of European responsibility for disrupting an Eden-like continent” rests on promoting “the false impressions that Europeans had themselves gone ashore to kidnap Africa’s people . . . . Africans had themselves captured and sold nearly all the people that Europeans had bought as slaves along the coast.” (Finkelman and Miller, Ed’s., MacMillan Encyclopedia of World Slavery, vol. 1, 1998, p. 34) Thus virtually all Africans brought forcibly to the Western Hemisphere in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had been enslaved long before they left Africa. 
  20. Let me reiterate, however, so that there is absolutely no misunderstanding. I do not report these facts in order to justify the role of Europeans involved in the slave trade. Nothing can justify their actions, which are outrageous, and completely morally indefensible. I only wish to underline the complicity of many communities, and particularly in this context, of the contribution of African tribes in order to make quite clear how indefensible and unjustifiable is the use of racialized categories and simple “black and white” Manichaean thinking for understanding and addressing the issues of race in America. 
  21. In sum, as expert historical analysis makes quite clear, the history of the slave trade proves that everyone participated and everyone profited—whites and blacks; Christians, Muslims, and Jews; Europeans, Africans, Americans, and Latin Americans. Once we recognize the shared responsibility for sustaining and profiting from the Atlantic slave trade, we can turn our attention to what we must do together today to eradicate its corrosive legacy.
  22. While it is obviously true, therefore, that it was a white European society that essentially built its American empire in significant part through the enslavement of black Africans, there is nothing in European whiteness that by nature predisposes them to oppress and subjugate, any more than there is anything that by nature predisposes black Africans to be enslaved. Clearly, there were numerous theoretical and pseudoscientific efforts developed, particularly in the West in the 19th Century, to provide a moral justification of such enslavement. Modern scientific research has, however, quite convincingly, and I believe definitively, refuted all aspects of such racialized “science.” The human race is one race, tracing its evolutionary origin to the east Africa of some two million years ago. And there are no biologically fundamental differences among humans across the globe today.
  23. Nevertheless, in so far as racist attitudes continue to have a grasp on the minds and sentiments of far too many people, there remains a large receptive audience for such racialized propaganda. We have even seen it appear in the US in recent years in pseudoscientific studies of IQ and academic performance, to be used to justify racist policies. 
  24. Perhaps not surprisingly, but unfortunately, there have also been counter-movements, even spurred by humanitarian sentiments, that have tended to demonize all white people as racists and oppressors, while often romanticizing oppressed blacks and native Americans. Some quite recent examples of such Manichaean “reverse racism” can be seen in such popular books as White Fragility, How To Be An Anti-Racist, and Journeys of Race, Color, & Culture. Consider a brief example – which could be in essence replicated in the others – from the latter book, which speaks of “the sin of Whiteness,” claiming that all “White People” are inescapably racist; that all have a common nature and a common way of thinking, while people of color similarly have a singular opposed narrative. But whiteness and blackness are not essential characteristics that define the natures of two distinct races, as if they were distinct species. It is neither correct nor constructive to promote such black and white racialization, however well-meaning may be the intent. 
  25. Further, if we are to successfully address and redress this sad history of oppression, we need to maintain an historical perspective, one that does not simply demonize Western civilization, but also appreciates its accomplishments, particularly its continually expanding efforts on behalf of human rights and social justice. For example, it remains true, in spite of, and to some extent even because of, the indefensible exploitation of oppressed minorities, (even including at different times and places, Hispanics, Asians, and diverse Europeans) which I have described, that American society has been able to produce one of the wealthiest, most powerful societies, with one of the highest standards of living the world has ever seen. And that is true for practically all of its citizens, however unequally those benefits have been distributed. Using only one measure of that success, average life expectancy has essentially doubled since the founding of the United States. Currently that life expectancy, even for its generally and often systematically disadvantaged African-Americans, is significantly greater than that for the vast majority of people in today’s “Third World,” including sub-Saharan Africans. And I have said nothing of the effective institutions of representative government and official commitment to human rights, however flawed both of those are in their actual execution. I have further said nothing about the advances contributed by Eurasian civilization to: the scientific revolution, technological advances made possible by the quantum revolution in the natural sciences, as in communication and transportation, advances in industrial and food production, modern medicine, public health, and in the creative arts.
  26. In short, Eurasian civilization, and particularly its “American” offshoot, has contributed unprecedented and truly astounding advances in the quality of life of the human species. And yes, this has been primarily the work of “privileged white people.” Unfortunately, however, this development has a tortured legacy, as I have clearly said and continually underscored, involving completely indefensible subjugation and exploitation, most particularly of many non-European peoples, and non more heinous than the indefensible enslavement and oppression of the ancestors of our current African-American citizens. The consequences of that legacy are, of course, still with us, in both personal and institutional forms. Those unacceptable consequences are the legitimate target of today’s mass protests, on behalf of Black lives, the rights of indigenous peoples, on behalf of gender diversity, and in numerous, diverse, and contested efforts to insure the effective implementation of equal and fair treatment for all people, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or gender identification. 
  27. But it is important to note, however, that these struggles are undertaken in the effort to realize ideals and values which are themselves, for the most part, the product of that very same Eurasian civilization that gave birth to this United States in the first place. Those ideals were the product of centuries of political, social, economic, religious, and philosophical struggles. Struggles pursued by people of many nationalities, ethnicities, races, and religions, but who for the vast majority were also white people. However painful be our civilization’s legacy of indefensible historical oppression, its legacy of internal struggles against all forms of human enslavement, and for these higher ideals of human rights and equal justice before the law is truly unprecedented in the human history of all peoples. In what other civilization do you have such material advances in the quality of human life joined with such sustained and increasingly effective campaigns on behalf of the human rights and dignity of people of all races, religions, and ethnicities? 
  28. One of the greatest of all Americans, and a particular hero of mine, was Frederick Douglass. I will not repeat his astounding career, a self-educated escaped slave who became a brilliant advocate for American blacks. I know of no more brilliant and chilling indictment of American racism than Douglass’ 1852 address “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” And yet, through all his years of struggle, he never lost his faith in that promise of America, of its ideals, of what he called in an 1883 address “making the nation’s life consistent with the nation’s creed.” And he maintained his faith and trust in, and commitment to, the numerous forces and people in the US working with him for social justice to the end of his life. 
  29. We, residents of the US who were born in the late 20th or early 21st Centuries, are the inheritors of that complex and scarred tradition. We are responsible neither for its successes nor its failures, no more than are we responsible for who our parents were, nor for their economic and social position, nor for our genetic endowment, including the color of our skin. But as we mature, we do become increasingly responsible for what we do with the particular historical condition into which we find ourselves to have been “thrown,” to use the suggestive Existentialist expression. 
  30. Being so born, we are all among the truly privileged, in comparison with most all people that have ever lived, as well as with the vast majority of those alive today. And that is basically true for the vast majority of people living in the United States today, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or system of belief. But, of course, those privileges are not shared equally – far from it!! And that leaves much for all of us to do: to address and correct those continuing injustices, and to make real and significant progress toward the equitable realization of those ennobling American ideals. 
  31. But let me take a moment to talk about this notion of privilege, and particularly the increasingly popular discussions of “white privilege,” and the related notions of “white fragility” and “white supremacy.” Privilege means unearned benefit. Is there only one kind of unearned benefit in the world? Or many? For example, I feel blessed that I do not suffer from any debilitating inherited disease, from which many others unfortunately do suffer. There is nothing I did to earn that benefit, that privilege? What about you? Are you similarly privileged? Or are you one of the unfortunate in this matter? And if you are healthy, and black, are we entitled to say you are similarly privileged?
  32. But, of course, one can benefit from many privileges, and also many disadvantages at the same time. For example, I had the misfortune to have a father who died when I was six years old, a mother who was certified paranoid-schizophrenic, and ultimately institutionalized. I had no significant supportive extended family, and, around the age of ten, experienced being evicted from the house, and displaced from the community, in which I had grown up. In these matters, I was clearly disadvantaged, to say the least. But certainly, there are many, even in the US, who have had it far worse. And certainly many, of all races, who were more fortunate. I do not mention these events to bemoan my fate, but only to point out that privileges and disadvantages come in many forms, and are not simply aligned in accord with the color of one’s skin, however significant that certainly is in many contexts. 
  33. For example, is an unskilled white worker born and raised in an economically devastated former coal mining town in West Virginia, living amid the ruins of abandoned hills of coal slag, suffering the “deaths of despair” ravaging his community, privileged in comparison with an educated middle class black professional living in New York City? Does it make sense and is it humanely sensitive and personally respectful to claim that he benefits from “white privilege”? Of course, in most circumstances, all things being equal, even less qualified whites are likely to be treated better than more qualified blacks. That has certainly been true, even to this day, for example, in purchasing a house, in encountering the police, in dealing with the criminal justice system, in applying for a job – except perhaps in those few situations in which affirmative action requirements are at work. And all such examples of systemic racism must be brought to light and effectively remedied. But such wide spread and indefensible injustices do not exhaust, or simply define, American society. There are important counter movements, multi-racial and multi-ethnic, committed to rectify these injustices, and many social situations and groups in which all people are treated with respect and dignity.  
  34. Let me offer a simple – and possibly trivial – thought experiment on privilege in America, if only to suggest the diversity of its manifestations. Who is more privileged, a black Christian or a white Atheist? Of course, it may depend where in America you live, and who your neighbors are. But, can you imagine the Supreme Court upholding the right of Atheists to deny service to a religious Christian? Or, can you imagine America electing a white atheist as President? Or even a black Christian? But wait a minute, didn’t they just do that? What should we make of that? Who even thought a few years ago that that might be possible?
  35. As for the more recent views of White Fragility, they are still more dubious, making completely unsubstantiated claims about what all “white people believe.” The author claims “White people, … derive enormous material and psychological advantages from this racist organization of society—whether they believe they do or not.” I’ll leave you to apply this claim to the unemployed ex-coal miner possibly suffering from black lung disease, that I have described above. But the author further claims that “White beliefs in objectivity are closely related to the myth of individualism. Because white people believe that they are unique individuals unshaped by history or society, they also come to believe that their views of the world are entirely objective.” That claim is not only an example of that simplistic racialized thinking of which I have spoken, but actually reveals remarkable ignorance of some of the most obvious facts of American intellectual history. To quite briefly explain: 1) By all accounts, the premier philosophical movement in America is Pragmatism, and the foremost exponents of that movement, particularly C.S.Peirce, John Dewey and G.H.Mead, directed the brunt of their critical analyses against that very doctrine of Individualism. More to the current point, in a book I published more than a decade ago, I devoted an entire chapter to a critique of Individualism. No, all white people are not devotees to Individualism. 2) Concerning her claim that “objectivity” is the ideology of white “individualists,” we can observe that numerous complex and subtle inquiries have been undertaken over the last several hundred years to understand the possibilities and limitations of the intellectual ideal or goal of scientific objectivity. Increasingly, more and more thinkers (regardless of race) have come to understand the perspectival limitations built into every inquiry, while valuing objectivity as an ideal to pursue in the service of truth. Does the author of White Fragility, when she claims that objectivity is simply a white man’s ideal, not mean us to understand that what she is saying is objectively true because it describes the real situation of white people, or should we see it as simply her partisan perspective and personal racial stigmatization? Thus, 3) To claim that she knows what all “White People” believe, and that they have to believe what she says they do because they are “White People,” is to attribute to each and every “White Person” a fixed nature and a label, regardless of what they say or do. How does that differ in principle from what the Nazis said about Jewish nature, or what Racists or Eugenicists said about Black nature? No, it is pure and simple racism, even if coming from the ‘other side” of the political debate, and meant to be sympathetic to the condition of oppressed minorities. And no less faulty, and socially reprehensible for that. 
  36. The incoherence of the Manichaean reasoning of White Fragility was nicely pointed out by Carlos Lozada, the Washington Post’s nonfiction book critic, who noted that with Robin DiAngelo’s circular reasoning “any alternative perspective or counterargument is defeated by the concept itself. Either white people admit their inherent and unending racism and vow to work on their white fragility, in which case DiAngelo was correct in her assessment, or they resist such categorizations or question the interpretation of a particular incident, in which case they are only proving her point.”
  37. Then there’s the issue of “white supremacy.” Clearly there are racists who actively subscribe to that belief. And many who have joined in organized movements to promote their beliefs, and, if possible, to impose them on American society. But there are also many Americans, hopefully, including a significant majority of white people, who do not share those beliefs. Many of them are even deeply and personally offended by such beliefs, and have actively organized and mobilized in opposition to all forms of white supremacy. In fact, I personally know many individuals and organizations that are continuing to devote much time, effort, and emotion to this struggle. So it is both incorrect, even offensive, and certainly not politically effective, to claim that “white supremacy” defines American society. Further, it is wrong and self-destructive to say that white supremacy is in “the DNA” of America. DNA refers to the inherited nature of a person, or people. It would be racist to claim that that is the essential nature of all white Americans. But I think it is clear from what I have said, that such a description of an essential “white” human nature is false, and further, that we can, and many have been struggling for many years effectively to, change the prevailing patterns of race relations in America. The problem is not in our supposed DNA – where science has well established the essential biological unity of the human species – rather, the problem, and the possibilities for constructive change, are in our confrontation with our historic practice in the light of our historic ideals.  
  38. Turning, finally, to more practical political concerns. We have heard quite recently many claim that the 99% of Americans have been victimized by the 1%, that “Main Street” is being taken advantage of by “Wall Street.” That suggests a stark class divide in the US, in which a small quite wealthy few individuals and corporations have been “calling the shots” at the expense of the vast majority. That majority is quite diverse, racially, ethnically, religiously, even regionally and culturally. Clearly some are more privileged than others in many different ways. Yet all are seriously disadvantaged compared to the 1%, not to speak of the 1/10th of 1%. If the 99% are to effectively correct this situation, it will require the effective unification and mobilization of a significant majority of the 99%, not their racial division.
  39. There is no question that as a nation we have serious and often systematic injustices that have lasted far too long, and it is well past time for sustained efforts to rectify them. They must be recognized, publicly acknowledged, and wide public support generated on behalf of movements for systemic change. But we must, at the same time, not unnecessarily alienate and offend the broad public whose support is vital if our efforts are to succeed. We should appreciate and treasure those hard fought historic accomplishments and noble ideals that have made possible the profound enhancements of human living that have also been the result of European, and particularly of American, civilization. If we are to build that movement for deep and sustained progressive social change, we need to avoid all forms of racist, Manichaean, black and white thinking, and the denigration of people of any race, so many of whom can be, if they are not already, actually committed to working on behalf of the equitable enhancement of human living for everyone.