An African-American Social Science: International Relations

This is the third post in our book symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics. The opening post by Bob is here, and the earlier response of Naeem is here. Further responses will follow.


White World Order, Black Power Politics (WWOBPP) was on my reading list before it was released; it had come highly recommended by my supervisor who was then reviewing it for Cornell, it was a on a topic that was close to my heart, and it was written by Bob Vitalis, whose work had been an inspiration to me for years.

And yet I was unprepared for the full emotive and intellectual force of the book. WWOBPP is a genealogy of American International Relations, which it turns out is essentially an enterprise in systematic forgetting, in the writing out of and over an already established body of scholarship in the ‘discipline’ pioneered primarily by a cohort of black academics including Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, Rayford Logan and Merze Tate from the 1920s to the ‘50s that ultimately coalesced around Howard University in the US.

The Howard School were veritable trailblazers in all their scholarship as Bob painstakingly documents, but two of their insights stand out for me in particular: (i) that imperialism was the core problematique of IR, that is, the “central problem for scholars seeking to grasp the nature of and threats to the existing world order” (86) and (ii) that racism and imperialism were mutually implicated, that there was an “elective affinity between the concept of race and empire” (87). Together these two insights revealed that international relations were essentially inter-racial relations, and IR a racial science that served as steadfast handmaiden to empire.

So, Bob compellingly tells the story of how white supremacy did more than lay the foundations of International Relations with its foundational myths that invoked abstract concepts of sovereignty, anarchy and the balance of power. He also excavates the ways in which supremacy and hierarchy became encoded in the university, just as it was slowly (and purposefully) disappeared from the official narratives of the discipline. In Bob’s own words IR’s originary concern was with the dynamics of “domination and dependency among the world’s superior and inferior races” and not with the “consequences of the anarchical structure of the world order” as it is currently understood (106).

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But this is equally a story of the dulling of the critical sword that the Howard School theorists had once brandished with gusto. With the dawn of McCarthyism and red-baiting in the US, these erstwhile stalwarts of left-wing thought distanced themselves from Communism and became muted in their critique of capitalism at home. So, for instance Bunche, author of “Marxism and Negro Question”, went from arguing (in the 1928) that Black liberation would come only “as an integral aspect and as inevitable consequence of the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system,” and indeed that the mission of communism was to “weld together the masses of the Negro people,” tear down “the barriers between the Negro and white workers,” and “break the hold of the capitalist political parties” over black people to dissociating himself completely from the cause in 1954. He posited firmly that he had never once endorsed the Communist Party or espoused its revolutionary ideology. In fact, he had always found the Party, its philosophy and objectives positively “repugnant”.

We see a similar watering down of the socialist commitment of the other Howard School scholars including Logan in the face of investigations, persecutions and threat. As the book progresses, there also appears to be a concurrent distancing from the more ardent allegations of American imperialism that defined the “early” Howard era. I would have been interested in exploring this further and getting more information on what the driving triggers of this were. Was it a similar fear of persecution? The threat of being branded an anti-nationalist? The danger of further marginalisation and silencing? Or was it more simply driven by the funding agendas that determined academic research combined with the inexplicable conservatism that invariably rears its ugly head just as we are getting lulled into complacency about any radical potentiality?

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WWOBPP is also a sagacious account of history repeating itself, simultaneously as tragic and farcical. Bob disinters the defence of eugenics wrapped in the language of globalisation, a precursor to the narrative of implicitly racist “liberal values” insidiously repackaged in the discourses of assimilation and cosmopolitanism popular today. Distinct, but related, the fate of Merze Tate, quite possibly the first tenured female academic to teach IR in the US, is an excellent presaging of sexism in the academy even and sometimes especially in critical spaces. Her harrowing ordeal at the hands of our “heroes” serves as chilling testament that oppression takes place in multiple registers and that even acute cognisance of one “type” of subjugation (racism) does not necessarily lead to awareness or empathy with another (sexism). Scholars of intersectionality have their work cut out for them…

If all of this seems like heavy going, it is. However, the import, depth and gravity of the work do not come at the price of readability. Bob’s social history of IR is imminently readable and is littered with fascinating accounts of characters such as William Ripley. Ripley, an MIT economist and leading figure in the American Economic Association was apparently equally famous for his work in racial taxonomy and railroad regulation. He claimed that the colonisation of the tropics was impossible because no race ever acclimated to a different climate. I wonder if there’s some sort of parallel logics of rationality running here or a freakish coincidence in the British claim that the railroads was their greatest gift to the (brown) Indians…

Which brings me to my final point. Bob does indispensable service to American IR by exhuming the history of racism with which the discipline is inextricable intertwined. He shows how the founding figures in American IR have now been ghettoised as African studies specialists or siloed into disciplines that did not exist. The time is ripe to take up the challenge and dig up the skeletons of UK IR and foreground the racial amnesia that we know continues to structure the discipline in Britain today.

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One thought on “An African-American Social Science: International Relations

  1. Very interesting, particularly on the “taming” of radical black intellectuals. The split from leftism presumably presages the wider rise of identity politics. Enjoying the forum!

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