What is This Thing Called IR? A View from Howard U

This is the fourth post in our symposium on Vitalis’ White World Order, Black Power Politics. Naeem’s post is here, and Nivi’s is here. Further responses, including from the author are to follow…


It was a party for DAAD-funded scholars from all over Germany and our hosts at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg invited to us a historical costume play.  It was childish, and therefore well-suited for us international Stipendiat/inn/en, many of whom still struggled with basic German: some students and faculty dressed up as famous scholars from various periods in the university’s 500-year history and said a few things about themselves.  I have now forgotten all of the names but one: Anton Wilhelm Amo. A West African slave of a German duke who in 1734 successfully defended a dissertation in Halle’s philosophy department. The (black) guy who played Amo spoke loudly and clearly, but I recall turning to the (black) DAADer sitting next to me, a fellow poli sci student from France: “1734?” “That’s what I heard, too”, she said, “1734.”

Since this was in the era of the (dial-up) Internet, a few days later I was able to learn more about this Amo fellow, including the details eluded in the university play. Vitalis’ latest book, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Cornell, 2015) is a powerful reminder of another lesson I learned then: that work by non-white scholars tends to be “denied”–that is, ignored, temporized, ornamentalized and outright purged [1]. How many students of international law or of the German Enlightenment today know anything about Amo’s “On the Right of Moors in Europe” (1729)?  Not many given that the essay has been lost to history, probably because its copies were deemed unworthy of those meticulously maintained rare book collections.  And this is a huge loss given the relevance of historical “rights of Moors” debates for the constitution of “Europe.”


Vitalis’ White World Order, Black Power Politics shows what is lost when histories of International Relations (IR) are “about white political scientists teaching in white departments and publishing in white journals” (p.13, italics his).  For one, ongoing debates on the nature of order and stability; of power and hierarchy; of dependency and interdependence; and of territorial sovereignty and transnationalism can be related to their mid-twentieth century classics—Aron, Butterfield, Carr and other ABCs—only by ignoring, wilfully and otherwise, the path-breaking scholarship of what Vitalis calls the “Howard School of international relations theory,” a group of extraordinary African American IR-ists who operated between the late nineteenth century and the middle years of the twentieth century.

The debate on the field’s racist past —has it passed or not?—is even more important.  By throwing the archives wide open and moving through them so fluidly, Vitalis shines a vivid spotlight on how in this time period “mainstream” IR-ists provided no shortage of tools explicitly designed for conducting real-world, real-time international practice—that is, for protecting and privileging the American empire and white world supremacy as a whole.  The story of how Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, E. Franklin Frazier, Rayford Logan, Merze Tate, and Eric Williams resisted, as well as failed to resist, the orthodoxies, hierarchies, and dominant theory-policy nexuses of the then-new discipline contains valuable clues on why so many subsequent power/knowledge debates and perestroika movements changed so little.


The present book is admonitory and cautionary at once.  In the first instance, the readers will learn that only a “truer” disciplinary history—make no mistake, this is a radical revision of the history and sociology of (American) IR as a “mongrel social science” (p.9)—can open up space for different types of conceptual and theoretical contestation and, ultimately, to “truer” accounts of the world (the adjective is borrowed from p.14-5).  At the same time, the book is written in the spirit of the “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” motto, whereby the reader will be exposed to a large dosage of skepticism about the prospects of IR’s “truth turn.”

From “Races of Empire” to “States under Anarchy”

Skepticism is warranted. The experience of nearby scholarly communities shows that guilt-tripping does not cause revolution—note the year of publication in the titles like The End of Political Science (1970) or The Death of White Sociology (1973), for example [3]. Back then, one could argue, truer accounts of the world were not possible because scholars either consciously subscribed to white supremacy (the case of the “militant right”) or found dependable, unspoken ways of denying, disregarding and de-politicizing the reality of racial discrimination (“as if every department, center and institute heads all had received the same strategy memo”).

But what about 2016? “[I]ternational relations today remains a white, mainly male rampart that exhibits routine anxieties about the various threats beyond the walls” (p. 180). Since there may well be some who think this is an overstatement, let’s review some freshly pressed evidence on the “white, mainly male rampart” bit first.  To begin with, Consider a couple of posts over at the Duck of Minerva. Exhibit A is Steve Saideman’s survey-based observation that “there are damn few role models/mentors in US/Canada IR for women who are not white,” and none whatsoever teaching either in the U.S. South or between the coasts [3]. Exhibit B relates to the now notorious tweet & delete APSA fiasco: Wendy Wong’s thoughtful reflection on being “visible minority”/“a token Asian female on panels” and on how racialization captures “lived realities” in today’s political science. For Exhibit C, on this blog, take a look at Laura Shepherd ‘s “quick react” about (the lack of awareness on) “the Angelina Jolie Pitt appointment at LSE” as a manifestation of white privilege in the academy.

Piece together these and similar exhibits that are around you right now, and Vitalis’ characterization of the field starts to rings very true. While views of humanity have been deracialized, in most places and dramatically so, the fact is that many communities, including IR, suffer from a collective epistemic disorder known as the “race blindness,” or as Vitalis prefers to call it, the “norm against noticing”—a systematic failure to appreciate the fundamentally racialized nature of the modern world.


One does not need an agnatologist to explain this phenomenon. Yes, probably every white IR-ist today would agree that racist oppression exists in the world and even that the lack of disciplinary knowledge circulation on this subject hobbles efforts to achieve a more just world.  The problem is that the majority of disciplinary institutions and practices never press those white IR-ists for thinking about these things at all, much less writing and teaching about them.

Vitalis’ discussion of “International Relations 101” is a true teachable moment—the author’s inimitable sarcastic style is in full force in this section. His point here is that one important function of IR lecture courses, field seminars, and comprehensive exams is to socialize students into certain rules of the game—the main concepts and theories, such as those revolving around the “states under anarchy” model; their founding fathers and mothers; the basic facts of world history; and so on. Could it be that this game is rooted in, and shot through with, Eurocentrism and  whiteness? If we agree that nothing comes from nothing, including theory and theorists, then the answer must be “yes.”

Carr, one of the putative fathers of the field, argued that IR was a little more than “an ideology of control masking as a proper discipline” (from the epigraph in White World Order, Black Power Politics, p. 1). Carr could have easily added that this ideology was inscribed in a system of white world supremacy, and not just in the national and imperial histories of particular English-speaking states. What is more, as we now know, this ideology is amplified through racial habits and cognitive biases. These operate everywhere and can go a long way in explaining both the norm against notice and many of those beyond-the-disciplinary-wall anxieties that Vitalis talks about.  All being equal, the claim that IR is or should be about “states under anarchy” rather than “racial justice” is more likely to resonate, unconsciously, with the experience of students racialized-as-white than the experiences of students and scholars identified by themselves and others as visual minorities.  If you agree that Vitalis would have faced fewer difficulties in raising money for his project (preface) if various grant selection committees where less white, then you will probably agree that shared ideas about what constitutes “good”, “innovative,” “useful” and “promising” research are racialized, too.

Love IR, Leave It

A combination of unconscious forces and long-standing institutionalized formations that benefit the disciplines “traditional owners” certainly curbs optimism on the likelihood of IR’s self-exculpation. That said, Vitalis gives two pieces of advice. The first, outlined in the intro to the symposium, is to shake up your curricula or, if the those are controlled by the department, at least some of your classroom teaching practices. One way to do so is to address the racialized ontologies behind many of IR’s master concepts, starting with “anarchy.” (Bonus points for those who change the default setting of International Relations 101 and begin with, say, Du Boisian perspectives on hierarchization in international political life rather than the storied lessons of the Peloponnesian War).

Vitalis’s other piece of advice is akin to the Lonely Planet motto: if you love your IR, leave it. A panel held at Howard University’s Founders Library during the 2014 APSA convention, which the association classified as “off-site,” captures the essence of this practice (Laura, again, has a good blog post on this, too).

Supported by Howard’s Departments of African Studies, Political Science, Afro-American Studies, and History, plus the Office of the Dean and the Office of the Provost, the panel also brought together Professors Dianne Pinderhughes (Notre Dame), Charles Henry (Berkeley; he appears in Vitalis’ book as Bunche’s biographer and is the originator of the term Howard School), Pearl Robinson (Tufts; also in the book and another biographer of Bunche), Barbara Savage (Pennsylvania), Robert Edgar, Krista Johnson, Lorenzo Morris, and Greg Carr (all Howard). The panel’s stated aim:

[to] name, re-claim, and re-position the contributions of Howard University-based African American scholars in the 1930s and 1940s on Race and Empire in International Relations. It will introduce critically important new scholarly work on the African American internationalist tradition within the Historically Black Academy that, at the time, was the only sustained critique of the hierarchy of the international system and the role that race played in buttressing it.

(For a video recording, follow this link; Vitalis’s talk, “The Fate of the Howard School”, which is also the title of one of the book’s latter chapters, begins at the seven minute mark, and is used here with permission. Howard U may have uploaded the recording of the entire panel somewhere, with far better quality video and audio).


Indeed, the names of the six individuals who make up the Howard School in the book are familiar commodities in Africana or black or African American Studies today, whether at Howard and other HBCUs (which in the U.S. higher education-speak stands for “historically black colleges and universities”) or elsewhere. When Vitalis first discovered the existence of a counter-tradition of American IR, he did not simply refer these back to an IR audience (see his 2000 Millennium piece) but he also made an effort to pursue inter(-inter-)disciplinary collaboration with historians such as Janette Greenwood, Nell Painter, Kevin Gaines, and Adolph Reed Jr. (p. x).

Other than serving as a revisionist history of American IR, White World Order, Black Power Politics is therefore also a check on disciplinary parochialism. In fact, what Vitalis suggests is that resistance to disciplinary hegemonies requires extra-disciplinary alliances, which, ideally, should always be a two-way street. The “vast gulf [that] divides international relations from Africana studies” (p. 18) is a case in point:

None of today’s premier public intellectuals and leaders in the discipline Du Bois is said to have inspired—Michael Eric Dyson, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cornel West—writes for Foreign Affairs. It is not a criticism. It is an observation that helps explain the large gaps in the posthumously revised curricula vitae of the members of the Howard school (p.19).

In other words, to save IR you must not only leave it, but also hope that critical scholars outside IR will be willing to make their expertise available and help develop new ways of asking and addressing questions about the international.

 “Please, sir…”

The argument that IR is marked by its colonial and imperial origins and/or inscribed in racialized ideologies can be, and has been, made via concepts like Foucault’s power/knowledge or Derrida’s doxography. What revisionist disciplinary histories (“truer histories”) like this one show is that the post-, anti- and de-colonial critiques are all in fact both fundamental and “foundational” to the (American) IR; in other words, rather than emerging in one of the latter “great debates” for the first time, “dissident IR” appears to have been simultaneously articulated and mutually constitutive with “the mainstream” since at least the early decades of the twentieth century.

This is where the book turns me into an Oliver Twist-like character: more please.  To begin with, what would be the most important substantive contributions of the book’s protagonists?  Vitalis is meticulous in documenting the evolution and contradictions in the thought of each one of his Howard School figures, yet he shies away from engaging with the concepts, theories and analytical accounts his protagonists left behind and their afterlife.  For example: What did Marxist analysis by early Bunche do that other Marxist analyses at the time did not? To what extent did Du Bois or Tate unpack the intersection between racism and militarism? And did their ideas influence the thought of Martin Luther King, Jr on the same issue?


If I could chose one among such follow-ups, this would be about the meanings of race.  Vitalis observes that both Locke and Bunche blasted apart the idea of race as a natural (read: biological-genetic) category in their writings long before this became de rigeur in most constructivist (read: liberal-progressive) corners of the social sciences (p. 97, n. 18). Logan’s 1940s-vintage thoughts on “inter-minority oppression” exhibit similarities with contemporary theoretical systems on race and ethnicity, too. In light of by what historians and philosophers are telling us about the history of race thinking, these findings are truly remarkable.  We know that the twentieth century saw the emergence of multiple broadly constructivist positions on race: there is no such thing as race, period; race is an ideological construct; race as a social fact, etc. What we do not know is when these positions emerged, how, and in relation to what [4].  Where does the the Howard School stand in the history of the idea of race? For instance, using today’s philosophical argot, Bunche’s effort to substitute race with class parallels the so-called eliminitavism. Was this is a standard Marxist argument at the time? Was he talking primarily to the folks in the “black radical tradition”? What was this argument’s intellectual trajectory, especially in latter Bunche? [5].

Similar follow-up questions arise from Vitalis’s finding that Howard School IR-ists were alone in their dissidence—white allies never showed up. Here is one particularly startling passage:

As far as I have been able to determine, however, in the 1920s and 1930s no white international relations scholar argued on either principled or pragmatic grounds for the restoration of black citizenship rights, the dismantling of Jim Crow in the United States, and self-governance, let alone independence, for the colonies. Chicago’s Fredrick L. Schuman and other so-called fellow travelers might have taken such a position had they been pressed, but Schuman did not take such a position in his published work (p. 10-1; also see p. 175).

This fully supports Du Bois’s idea of double consciousness, which refers to the ability of African Americans to situate themselves both on their own terms and to look at themselves through the eyes of their white oppressors. This positionality is unenviable for many reasons, but it can and does produce critical appraisals of the world that can and do counteract the assumptions and histories that perpetuate social injustice. This adds to the above discussion of the causes of IR’s race blindness: to those who spent their professional lives living under the conditions of racial segregation in America and fighting myths of racial inferiority were of course much better positioned to see racialized hierarchies in world politics for what they were than those who faced no such challenges [6].

With all this in mind, is the “rise of the rest” and the concomitant changing demographic tone of the global academia a possible source of change, then?  Do we have reasons to think that a more multicultural, more cosmopolitan and, indeed, more global IR could induce a shift in disciplinary attention away from concepts, theories, and methodologies developed by and for the West and towards alternatives framed by the concerns of the heretofore marginalized and excluded? One can probably say that new technologies and IR’s expansion from Anglo-America to the rest of the world have already deprovincialized IR–or at least had a dramatic impact on the way resources  mobilized against the field’s disciplining.  Most junior IR instructors I know in these top U.S. schools (and their many satellites) that Vitalis writes about do not have the power to ignore their department’s “mainstream” course blurbs, textbooks and reading lists. That said, none of them still sell the discipline’s interwar origin myth to their students.  Extending on this, a lot of IR teaching and learning for the “current generation” takes places on social media where cannot help but be exposed to “why is my syllabus so white?” and related critiques of the old ways. Last but not least,  more and more historians and IR-ists are now offering alternative stories of IR’s origins, many of which are reconstructed from archival materials. Palgrave Macmillan, for example, has a good History of International Thought series where one can readily learn valuable lessons about the approaches to world politics made in the 1920s and 1930s Japan or India.

Certainly, one could counter all of this by saying that greater epistemic diversity and greater decolonial reflexivity are two very different things and that adding global perspectives and stirring is not going to change the racialized ontologies in contemporary knowledge on the international. One could even add that IR will not be decolonial so long as it remains predominantly anglophone, bourgeois etc.  All of this may be true, but that’s the intellect speaking. The will, in contrast, says that the ongoing global shake-up, such as it is, is opening up more and more space for a study of world politics in which the imperialist epistemologies will finally be relinquished  rather than merely re-packaged.



[1] Disclaimer: mine is a long non-review review. Vitalis, who is a friend, has already responded to everything I ever had to say about the manuscript that became the present book. I am also forever in his debt: intellectually, for his eye-opening work, starting with that 2000 Millennium piece; and professionally, for the fact that he sacrificed more than a few quality hours to help me better explain the structures and processes of race and racism in world politics as I identified them in my own work.

[2] Or, read what Ta-Nehisi Coates recently said in The Atlantic, magazine that once introduced Du Bois to the white audience: a historian interested in truth about white supremacy should not “do” hope.

[3] To the extent that this is below the average relative to US academia as a whole, then IR is a good candidate for carrying the label, to paraphrase Charles W. Mills, of “one of the very ‘whitest’ of the social sciences.” I don’t have good links for other countries except the UK, where the current grand total for black female profs seems to be 17 (also see Robbie’s 2014 post on this blog).

[4] Similar questions have long been raised about Du Bois: to what extent was his critique of white supremacy grounded in the natural (biological) understanding of race? See Paul Taylor (2000), “Appiah’s Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Reality of Race,” Social Theory and Practice 26: 1, 103–28.

[5] I think I know what Vitalis will say here: “Each one of the book’s protagonists has a biographer or, in the case of Tate, will soon have one (p. 14).” Go look it up.

[6] That the link between the personal and the intellectual-professional can be powerful should not be news to those familiar with the argument that IR discovered gender only once the field opened up to female scholars. So viewed, standpoint feminists might prefer the term “triple consciousness”, which parallels aspects of intersectionality and thus shines bright light on the fate of Tate, “the first tenured woman to teach international relations in the United States” and  “a second-class citizen among second-class citizens.” By the way, for an excellent new statement on the value of standpoint theorizing, see Julian Go, Postcolonial Thought and Social Theory (Oxford University Press, 2016).


3 thoughts on “What is This Thing Called IR? A View from Howard U

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