Of the humanities, philosophy is one of the whitest. In the United States, blacks make up just 1 percent of the professional philosophical population, according to Charles Mills, distinguished professor of philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center. He said this field has been dominated by “busts of dead guys going through the ages” from Aristotle and Plato to Immanuel Kant and John Locke. This overwhelming “whiteness” has been seeping into philosophy’s theories for generations.
The UW is not immune to this problem as its philosophy department is predominately white, as well.
In the final iteration of the yearlong “Capitalism and Comparative Racialization” lecture series hosted by the Simpson Center for the Humanities, Mills argued for a retrieval of liberalism in front of a sold-out crowd at Kane Hall Wednesday. The liberalism he discussed is not that of Bernie Sanders. In fact, according to Mills, nearly everyone in the United States is a liberal, whether Democrat or Republican in party affiliation.
Mills is a renowned and influential thinker and author of six books, including “Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism,” which was published in 2017. Philosophy students at the UW have likely encountered his work at some point in their classes.
While Mills calls for a recapturing of liberalism, he also believes that it must be rethought. He notes that throughout history, this leading political ideology has been incredibly exclusionary.
“‘Liberalism’ has basically been ‘illiberalism’ for all but a minority,” Mills said.
The speaker showcased four ways of redeeming liberalism. First, the exclusions throughout the history of liberalism should be “highlighted rather than marginalized.” Second, illustrate the role of liberal theorists in justifying said exclusions. Third, look at how group privilege has shaped values. Finally, Mills calls for “self-consciously rethinking all of these to achieve genuine liberal justice.”
Mills uses the arena of racial justice to illuminate the entrenched exclusions of liberalism. This area is important for a number of reasons, according to Mills.
“On a global scale, a case can be made that racial injustice has significantly affected the fate of the majority of the world’s population,” Mills said.
That being said, racial justice has long been overlooked in philosophy because of the whiteness of the field.
“The absence of people of color has tended to foster a neglect of this subject,” Mills said.
While liberalism perceives society as having rid itself of divisions, Mills argues that the contemporary world is still full of categorization, rather than the individualism adored by liberals.
“Today’s liberalism is nominally purged of such racist exclusions,” Mills said. “But the problem is that in assimilating the nonwhite to the white population, it perpetuates the legacy of this history.”
In his lecture, Mills offered a set of principles that he believes can dismantle a racialized society: end racially unequal citizenship, end racial exploitation, and end racial disrespect. Mills thinks that if these ideals are followed, then it would be similar to “tearing up the ‘bad’ contract that has created the world we live in.”
Those that weren’t able to make the lecture can watch a video recording of the event at simpsoncenter.org.
Reach reporter Jake Goldstein-Street at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet