To the editors of the Journal of Political Philosophy,
First, a primer: the idea ‘black lives matter’ and the political movement bearing that phrase represent something expansive but specific. The idea ‘black lives matter’ is an ethical demand calling for an end to the erasure of black lives and presence by systems of racist power anchored in a history of white supremacy. The movement puts this ethical demand into action by seeking to influence city, state, and federal policies through acts of protest and civil disobedience. In our current moment, both the idea and the movement are aligned against the notion that black experiences are irrelevant or negligible for organizing our collective view of civil society.
So, if you might – please do – try to imagine my distaste when it was brought to my attention that your journal published a philosophical symposium on ‘black lives matter’ with not one philosopher of color represented, without one philosopher of color to convey her or his contextualized sense of a movement that is urgently and justifiably about context. It certainly cannot be said there was no one to ask. I should know. I just published a book on the philosophical foundations of black lives matter.
Now, it might be the case that this particular symposium is merely unfortunate –the journal asked every black philosopher and political theorist it could find and was turned down. (Disclosure: I was not asked.) From an outside point of view, someone desiring to take on this more generous stance but not wanting to do so on blind faith would have only to do something simple: revisit the journal’s publication record and if it turns out that the topic of race or at least black philosophers, no matter the subject of their work, were decently represented in the journal’s pages, then we have some grounds to extend good faith. But things don’t look very good on this front, either.
Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman in the early months of 2012 and it was his shooting and the subsequent exoneration of Zimmerman in the summer of 2012 that sparked the movement. But we all know that. Right? Yes. So we are now five years on from that event, and since what is at issue is what appears to be a problematic mishandling of a symposium on the movement for black lives we can ask whether the journal has in these five years taken the political problem of race seriously as philosophically worthy. One might (or might not) be surprised to learn that at four issues a year, making a total of nearly twenty issues (including a special issue titled “Philosophy, Politics, and Society”), the Journal of Political Philosophy has not published a single article on the philosophy of race: voting, elections, immigration, global markets, and animals have gotten their time in the journal’s sun. But as black Americans, and the philosophers who study racial inequality – a political philosophical problem – have directly engaged one of our era’s most sinister moral and political quandaries, the journal has failed to represent race in its pages. Maybe more damning, so far as I can tell, not one black philosopher has seen her or his work appear in the pages of your respected journal, on race or any other topic.
You can see, then, how at this point the generous reading of the mishandling of the symposium comes under significant pressure. So much pressure, in fact, that it becomes compressed into something else: strained hope. The hope that intelligent and imaginative people can see the landscape of morality in its complexity and be sensitive to life-worlds beyond their range of experience. And the way we do this is to diversity the voices to which we listen. You see? – diversity really is an ethically important ideal. To be clear, I welcome the participation of non-brown voices in a symposium on black lives matter. It is important that there be a range of viewpoints on a matter that is democratically urgent – we are all involved in this problem. So my issue is not in the least with those authors whose papers were appropriated for the symposium. Rather I am directly challenging the editorial staff to account for their offense against a movement and community.
Sometimes in an instance like this, when a topic is mishandled, blame is quickly cast on something other than the insensitivity or short-sightedness that is really at the base of the problem. One kind of excuse usually points toward a lack of familiarity with a literature or area of specialization. Another kind of excuse, one that I suspect the journal may trot out, but I would caution against it doing so if saving face at all is important, is to indicate the symposium was modeled on a conference that it itself did not organize. In such matters, final responsibility rests with the editorial staff – it is their job to curate an intellectual experience that adequately and appropriately speaks to the issue at hand. And this is especially important as what we do – when we write and publish – contributes to the historical record. What is so deflating about the journal’s misstep here is that this contribution to the historical record is in fact a kind of replaying of history that the movement for black lives has dedicated itself to eliminating from a society struggling to be decent – the erasure of black presence when and where it counts and is needed.
[Chris Lebron is currently Assistant Professor of African-American Studies and Philosophy at Yale; he will be Associate Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins beginning this summer.]