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Disciplinary collaboration with
racism is one of the major scandals of academia. Defining Difference, which
deals exclusively with academic psychology, is an excellent addition to the
literature of self-criticism of disciplinary collaboration. Though not the
first critical historiography of academic psychology and race, this volume has
some unique characteristics, not the least of which is its contemporary
provenance. For, as the editor points out, "Although many historical
accounts emphasized the demise of race psychology, the work of the contributors
to this volume suggests a more complex history in which racial research does
not disappear but survives and resurfaces with changes in the social landscape"(p.7).
The importance of this remark cannot be underestimated, especially in the light
of academic psychology's long history of influence on public policy.
Foundations of Psychology and Race
Before 1900, the lead-off section, is comprised of two essays. The first these,
"Type and Essence: Prologue to the History of Psychology and Race"(pp.
21-47) by Fredric Weizmann, is of unusual interest in that the author advances
ideas that could motivate change not only in the social sciences, but in the
humanities as well. Though this possibility is not pointed out in the chapter,
Weizmann's ideas call into question crucial aspects of the contemporary
postmodern paradigm, in particular the view of Plato that permeates it.
Postmodern philosophers have maintained that many of the greatest evils of
Western culture, e.g., racism, colonialism, misogyny, and totalitarianism are
directly related to the alleged contamination of culture by Platonist
metaphysics, grand narratives, presentism, apriorism, and the legacy of these
in the history of philosophy, including the impact of philosophy on other disciplines
and culture at large. Relying heavily on Hannaford (1996), Weizmann maintains
that 1) the historical provenance of Platonic and Aristotelian ideas, as well
as those ideas themselves, in particular ideas regarding essences and types,
are far more complex and more interwoven with socio-political and cultural
movements than heretofore they have been understood to be; and 2) that the
empiricism of the seventeenth century English philosophers, e.g., Hume and
Locke, arch-enemies of the rationalist, i.e., Platonic, tradition, provided an
epistemological rationale for much of the racist ideas promulgated under the
guise of science, including psychological science, in subsequent centuries
(not to mention the explicit racism of Locke (p. 39). Of course, postmodern
theorists have also negatively critiqued philosophical empiricism, but far
greater emphasis has been placed on alleged Platonic roots of error. Weizmann's
essay makes for interesting and challenging reading and it sets the critical
tone for the volume as a whole.
"The Historical Problematization
of 'Mixed Race' in Psychological and Human-Scientific Discourses" by
Thomas Teo leads off the second section, Psychology, Science, and 'Race Mixing'
(pp.79-108). The sense of this essay, as suggested in its title, is to show
that people of mixed race were constituted as a problem by psychological and
human-scientific discourse; that is, that this discourse was created by
researchers who viewed mixed race people as a problem and then created
quasi-scientific rationales to justify their beliefs. Teo provides a history of
the problematization of human "hybridity" from Kant to the present,
and including many of the most 'illustrious' figures in the history of the
human sciences, e.g., Gobineau, Davenport, Reuter, Park, Broca, Spencer, Le
Bon, Hall, Shapiro, etc. All of these men contributed to the problematization
of mixed-race people by pseudo-scientific claims of the inferiority of such
people. Teo concludes, forthrightly and courageously, that "Academic
discourses on hybridity must be analyzed in terms of their ideological
function. It is clear that many discourses for which examples were
given...served oppression… [and]….were part of discursive violence... The human
sciences…contributed to the degradation, subjugation, and humiliation of
multiracial people and…to their sterilization and death" (p.103).
The third section of the book, Cultural
Contexts and 20th-Century Psychology, is comprised of three essays on:
differences between American and British views on the race and intelligence
controversy; the history of the race and intelligence controversy in South
Africa (discussed below); and the way in which difference has been constructed
in textbooks. All three articles provide important insights and excellent
The fourth section, Confronting
Racism, provides two essays which describe and interpret the anti-racist
careers and consequent vicissitudes of Kenneth Clark and Horace Mann Bond.
These contributions will be discussed below.
Defining Difference is
highly recommended for anyone, academic, activist, or other interested person
who wishes to expand her or his historical background and conceptual resources
regarding the persistence of racism in academia and in our culture as a whole.
However, it is not without some very significant caveats that I recommend this
First, as I mentioned above, the
final section of Defining Difference focuses on the anti-racist
struggles of two social scientists: Kenneth Clark (well-known for his work on Brown
v. Board of Education, and Horace Mann Bond. In the introduction to the
volume, the editor states that, "Unfortunately, these histories were
rarely noticed by psychologists, who also neglected the foundational work of
W.E.B. DuBois and other black scholars from earlier in the 20th century"(p.5).
While it is true that both Clark and Bond were African-American psychologists,
it is also true that Defining Difference continues the neglect of "the
foundational work of W.E.B. DuBois." Though DuBois was not technically a
psychologist, he was certainly a sociologist, a social scientist who did "foundational
work." Yet, DuBois is discussed only in the last two chapters of the book,
the chapters on African-American psychologists Clark (who was referred by DuBois
to Frantz Boas) and Bond. Moreover, and most importantly, DuBois did
foundational work on one of the most important methodological ideas at work in Defining
Difference, and that is the idea of "problematization." Indeed,
the anti-racist attitude that permeates the book (and the book has a high
degree of internal unity) is generated in and through the insight that blacks
have been made into, in the racist conception, a "problem". Yet, it
was in fact DuBois who first described the process whereby blacks in the United
States were transmogrified from people who have problems to people who are the
problem! For example, on the first page of the first chapter of his 1903
masterpiece, The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois wrote: "Between me and
the other world, there is an ever unasked question…instead of saying directly,
How does it feel to be a problem?, they say, I know an excellent colored man in
my town…To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom
a word." Nowhere in the book is DuBois credited as the social scientist
whose work described and profoundly analyzed and interpreted the phenomenon and
process of problematization. A masterful analysis and interpretation, from an
existential sociological and philosophical perspective, of DuBois' work on problematization,
the conversion of blacks from people with problems to people who are the
problem, can be found in chapter four "What Does It Mean To Be A Problem?
W.E. B. Du Bois And The Study Of Black Folk" in Lewis R. Gordon's (2000) Existentia
Africana. That the work of DuBois is confined to a brief citation in the
Introduction, and a few lengthier citations in the last two chapters, both
written by African-Americans, is troubling in a book whose methodology is,
whether known or acknowledged or not, derived from the work of one of America's
and the world's greatest social scientists.
The second caveat is in regard to
the manner in which "knowledge" is characterized in the book. Two
citations will illustrate my point. First, above, regarding Teo's essay on the problematization
of mixed race, I quoted Teo to the effect that this problematization is a
function of "discursive violence." However, I did not then quote the
last sentence of the cited paragraph, which reads as follows: "Knowledge
produced in these discourses, in which hybrids were viewed as objects and not
as subjects of research, is violent knowledge" (p.108). And what is not "violent
knowledge"? According to Teo, it is "ethical knowledge" garnered
in the light of "a rational ethical consensus [author's emphasis]",
according to which "studies that exploit and abuse groups of people should
remain part of the human sciences' past" (p.108). But, if "knowledge"
is obtained on the basis of construing black people as a problem, with the
presupposition, that is, that black people are the problem, and if
rational ethics eschews such presuppositions, in what sense can the "violent
knowledge" be construed as knowledge at all? If prejudice permeates the
experimental design, what credibility do the results have qua knowledge?
Though Teo is opposing human scientists who argue that "knowledge is
knowledge regardless of the context of discovery', his refusal or failure to
state that studies with racist presuppositions that are not rationally ethical
cannot be held to have produced knowledge indicates that there are still
deep-seated methodological problems in the human sciences. Some of these problems
flow from the legacy of positivistic attempts to imitate the natural sciences
and some from residual institutional racism, and these problems are not
unrelated. These problems, in my view, cannot be resolved until the human
sciences are reconceived from the ground up.
The second citation regarding the
nature of social-scientific knowledge is from Louw and Foster, authors of
chapter 6, "Race and Psychology in South Africa" (pp. 171-197):
The knowledge produced by
psychology in the nearly 100 years of the discipline's existence in South
Africa shows clear linkages with the language of apartheid. But a better
question remains: could psychology have contradicted apartheid solely on the
basis of its knowledge? On the basis of evidence surveyed here, it seems unlikely.
Psychology could be and was used to offer resistance to the unfolding of
apartheid, but it was also used to provide support for the regime. (p.193)
Aside from obvious questions that can be raised regarding
the author's conclusions about the role of psychology under apartheid, the
question as posed: "Could psychology have contradicted apartheid solely on
the basis of it knowledge?" clearly manifests the same methodological
difficulty discussed above: in what sense are the results of studies performed
on the basis of racist presuppositions to be deemed to be "knowledge"?
Today, social scientists, including some of the authors in Defining
Difference, use postmodern theorists, to justify knowledge relativity, but
nowhere is it more clear than in this book that knowledge relativity conflicts
with the self-understanding of the humanistic disciplines as sciences and that
this conflict leaves the practitioners of these disciplines with an uneasy
conscience. The solution, in my view, is not to abandon self-understanding as
science, but to turn to a philosophical perspective that can ground the
humanistic disciplines as sciences without requiring absolutistic claims of
knowledge, yet at the same time obviate knowledge relativism. That perspective,
which will be found both in my own writings (Nissim-Sabat, 2004, 2003, 1991,
1989) and those of Lewis Gordon (2000; 1995), is the perspective of the
phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.
DuBois,W.E.B. (1961) The Souls of Black Folk (orig.pub.in
1903). Grenwich,Conn.: Fawcett.
Gordon, Lewis R. (2000) Existentia Africana. New York:
___________(1995) Fanon and the Crisis of European Man:
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© 2004 Marilyn Nissim-Sabat
Ph.D., M.S.W., Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy,
Lewis University, Romeoville, IL , Clinical Social Worker, private practice
in psychodynamic psychotherapy, Chicago, IL, Member Executive Board, Assoc. for
the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry