In Defense of a Colleague Facing Racist Attacks

Whenever an academic enters the public arena, his or her work may be critiqued, but he or she should not be subjected to vile personal attacks, argue 68 leading scholars.

February 25, 2016

On Dec. 24, our valued colleague George Yancy published a piece in The New York Times’s “The Stone” column. Its title was “Dear White America.” It was the culmination of 19 interviews with distinguished thinkers on the subject of race. The interview series brought philosophers into discourse with real-time political events, as a new social movement took form bringing international attention to the racial injustice of the U.S. criminal justice system.

Yancy’s column resulted in a storm of hate mail and calls directed his way. The emails he received included violent threats, such as “Someone needs to put a boot up your ass and knock your fucking head off your shoulders,” and included threats to his family. These messages were filled with racial invective and meant to frighten and intimidate him into silence.

Social movements by their nature raise controversies that go to the heart of a society, whether they are social movements for women’s suffrage or against abortion. They seek, by their nature, fundamental normative change. Discussing them therefore elicits strong emotions. But we will have no way to digest either their merits or their excesses if we do not have spaces to discuss social movements in a reasoned and respectful way. George Yancy’s interviews provided a way for philosophers to do this. His culminating column is a call for white America to face the structural facts of injustice and to recognize the ways individual attitudes are shaped by and contribute to the racism in our society.

In the media, scientific experts are regularly brought to bear on public debate. But scientific experts do not play the role of philosophers; the role of scientific expertise is often to put an end to debate, rather than incite it. Since its inception, “The Stone” has not shied away from fundamental moral and political controversy. Its participants do not pretend to be experts who resolve questions once and for all, but rather to incite debate and challenge. By bringing philosophers into public engagement, “The Stone” attempts to add something novel to American media engagement with events.

Yancy’s interview series embodies the founding ideal of “The Stone”: open philosophical discourse and debate about the challenging moral and political struggles of our day. Yancy’s “Dear White America” piece was his own personal message, lessons learned during the process of navigating almost two dozen philosophers through an engagement with what may very well turn out to be an iconic and historically important social movement.

Radical social movements in their time are always viewed as disturbances of the moral order. It is only retrospectively that social movements are viewed as speaking truth to power in ways that make moral sense. In the United States, for example, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is universally celebrated, including by citizens who share the ideology of those who despised him in his lifetime. This may be used as evidence of their success. But given persisting failures of equality in the United States, a more plausible explanation is that they have been assimilated into a rhetoric that views the polity as ever more just, the society progressively more fair and decent. The fact that social movements make retrospective moral sense does not mean that the practices that accompany them change in materially significant ways.

We can see in the example of the response to Yancy that the Black Lives Matter movement, too, is viewed by some as a disturbance of the fundamental moral order, in much the same way as the civil rights movement was. That the reaction to Yancy’s challenge has taken the form of vicious personal racism is, one may think, good evidence of the need for the message and the movement.

But one need not endorse the aims and goals of the Black Lives Matter movement in order to deplore the reaction to Yancy’s piece. We hold that, whatever side one takes on this or other debates, free philosophical discussions on matters of profound social and political importance are a central function of “The Stone.” We authors of “The Stone” believe that discussions of the sort we have in its pages are a vital component of a healthy democracy. We stand together in support of our colleague George Yancy and strongly repudiate these attempts to silence him.

Sincerely yours,

  1. Colin Allen
  2. Louise Antony
  3. Kwame A. Appiah
  4. Stephen T. Asma
  5. Nancy Bauer
  6. Seyla Benhabib
  7. Jay Bernstein
  8. Anat Biletzki
  9. Simon Blackburn
  10. Omri Boehm
  11. Michael Boylan
  12. Costica Bradatan
  13. Judith Butler
  14. Tyler Burge
  15. John Caputo
  16. Noam Chomsky
  17. Tyler Curtain
  18. Hamid Dabashi
  19. Firmin DeBrabander
  20. William Egginton
  21. Joe Feagin
  22. Benjamin Fong
  23. Alexander George
  24. Robert Gooding-Williams
  25. David Haekwon Kim
  26. Espen Hammer
  27. Sally Haslanger
  28. Carol Hay
  29. bell hooks
  30. Joy James
  31. John Kaag
  32. Sean Kelly
  33. Philip Kitcher
  34. Frieda Klotz
  35. Joshua Knobe
  36. John Krakauer
  37. Emily Lee
  38. Joseph Levine
  39. Judith Lichtenberg
  40. Michael Lynch
  41. Kate Manne
  42. Andrew March
  43. Michael Marder
  44. Gordon Marino
  45. Joel Marks
  46. Todd May
  47. John McCumber
  48. Jeff McMahan
  49. Barbara Montero
  50. Eddy Nahmias
  51. Peimin Ni
  52. Peg O’Connor
  53. Christine Overall
  54. Avital Ronell
  55. Alexander Rosenberg
  56. Roy Scranton
  57. Nancy Sherman
  58. Falguni Sheth
  59. Peter Singer
  60. Justin E. H. Smith
  61. Amia Srinivasan
  62. Jason Stanley
  63. Galen Strawson
  64. Shannon Sullivan
  65. Christy Wampole
  66. Vesla Weaver
  67. Jamieson Webster
  68. Naomi Zack

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