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Defining DifferenceReview - Defining Difference
Race and Racism in the History of Psychology
by Andrew S. Winston (Editor)
American Psychological Association, 2003
Review by Marilyn Nissim-Sabat, Ph.D., M.S.W.
Mar 5th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 10)

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 bibliographical resources.

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 book.

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.

 

REFERENCES

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: Routledge.

___________(1995) Fanon and the Crisis of European Man: An Essay on Philosophy and the Human Sciences. New York: Routledge.

Hannaford, Ivan. (1996) Race: The History of an Idea in the West. Baltimore: Johns   Hopkins University Press.

Nissim-Sabat, Marilyn (2004) Forthcoming: Culture and Race. In: The Oxford Companion to Philosophy of Psychiatry. Ed. by Jennifer Radden. Oxford: Oxford University Press.         

___________(1991) The crisis in psychoanalysis: Resolution through Husserlian Phenomenology and Feminism. In: Human Studies, v. 14, pp. 33-66.

__________ (1989) Kohut and Husserl: The Empathic Bond. In: Self Psychology: Comparisons and Contrasts. N.J.: The Analytic Press, chap. 8, pp. 151-174.

 

© 2004 Marilyn Nissim-Sabat

 

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


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