“But What On Earth Is Whiteness That One Should So Desire It?”

This is the fifth post in our symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics, which will be followed shortly by a response from the author. Earlier responses are here from Naeem, Nivi and Srdjan. This piece expands on, and in some senses muddies, a short review I wrote of the book for a symposium in Perspectives in Politics.


This book is an indispensable and provocative account of the genesis of International Relations in the US as a discipline expressly concerned with the maintenance and expansion of global white supremacy. It is an enormously significant contribution to the understanding of the past, present and future of how we study world politics, which has thus far ‘disappeared’ racism and racial politics from its foundational narratives. [1]  It seems, this time anyway, that people are paying attention – the book is receiving wide acclaim and attention in the roundtables, symposia and review sections of the very journals, conferences and institutions that constitute the historical objects of its narrative. Does this mean that the ‘rising tide’ of calls for the discipline to deal with its racist foundations are being answered?

We will have to wait and see. Vitalis’s book makes some important headway in that direction but the rearguard is already being mobilised. Gideon Rose’s capsule review for Foreign Affairs, the journal once named for Race Development, perfectly captures precisely how this rearguard can function, in the process re-inscribing the ‘norm against noticing’ the operation of racism and white supremacy in both world politics and the discipline (IR) that claims to study it. Marking the book as ‘flawed’ and ‘political’, Rose accepts that the origins of the discipline were racialized and characterized by discussions about race relations. However, his rhetoric effectively consigns the analytic case that there are continuities in these ideas to a conspiratorial form of politics (attributing to Vitalis, bizarrely, a rather childish view of the US as ‘evil’).

Matt Wuerker, The Military Industrial Complex

Matt Wuerker, The Military Industrial Complex

The most prominent of these linkages in the text is Vitalis’s juxtaposition of Lorthrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color, which foretold of coming race wars in the twentieth century, with Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations which does the same for the twenty-first (4, 62-4, 177).  It is true that Vitalis does not work through a point by point analysis of the two texts; however, it is also equally demonstrated that there are clear overlaps in form and content between the arguments. Both are grounded in the belief in coherent civilizations existing in fundamentally antagonistic relations, of which the white (or Western) is the most advanced and against which others will attempt to rise. For Rose to refuse to acknowledge the argumentation at all, even in a capsule review, seems odd until one reads the same reviewer’s graceful, generous assessment of Huntington’s famous work in the same journal in 2013, commemorating the 20th anniversary of its publication:

The origins of “The Clash of Civilizations?” lie in the conjunction of a special scholar and a special time. By the beginning of the 1990s, Samuel P. Huntington was already one of the most important social scientists of the second half of the twentieth century, having authored major works in every subfield of political science. The hallmarks of his efforts were big questions, strong answers, independent thought, and clear expression. The end of the Cold War, meanwhile, had ushered in a new era of international relations along with a host of questions about what would drive it. Drawn, as always, to the major practical and theoretical questions of the day, Huntington set himself the task of limning this new world.

The more he thought about it, the more he decided that most existing analyses were heading in the wrong direction. The future was not likely to be an easy run toward democracy, peace, and harmonious convergence, nor was it likely to be a return to the old games of traditional great-power politics or ideological rivalry. “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural,” he concluded; “the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. [Rose, Foreign Affairs, The Clash at 20]

What can we make of this? On the one hand, the red carpet is laid out for a work which, as many pointed out at the time, turned on a series of self-evidently false assumptions about how people, culture, politics, history and global order operate, in order to essentially invite the Western powers to re-affirm their commitment to one another and their own specialness. Note that the systematic refuting of Huntington’s analysis across the spectrum has not diminished its standing in the eyes of Foreign Affairs. On the other hand, a book which indicates the widespread institutional racism of a field, grounded in a rich seam of original historical research (Big questions? Strong answers? Independent thought?), making uncomfortable claims about academic heroes, is greeted by the same author with cold, grudging toleration and then undermined by scholarly mudslinging.

Those familiar with forms of structural discrimination will recognize this pattern well, because structures of privilege are all about structures of recognition and entitlement – not about name-calling, and only a bit about the removal of legal barriers to equal treatment. Rather, what liberal orders generally pretend not to see or to be able to do anything about is that power in our field (and all the others) operates in part through a systematic favouritism on the one hand to those who flatter and resemble it, and a ruthless, niggardly scrutiny of those who challenge and oppose it.

This is ‘science’ under conditions of political hegemony. To return to the book, this also seems to be the story of those in the Howard School, for the most part. Vitalis’s work is less a conventional intellectual history than it is a political biography of interconnected black and white scholars in the first half of the twentieth century. The narrative weaves multiple strands: the work and careers of these scholars, the values and ideas expressed in public policy debates, the content of textbooks and journals, the funding and leadership of professional associations, centers and institutions and the involvement of government agencies and private foundations. Much of this has been achieved through extensive archival work in long-undisturbed repositories, also featuring the private correspondence and unpublished work of many protagonists.

Even to the initiated, the findings are arresting. Some of the nuggets thrown up are becoming known through Vitalis’s earlier work – as already mentioned the original incarnation of Foreign Affairs as the Journal of Race Development, or the existence of a sub-discipline of Colonial Administration within APSA for many years – but others will surprise even the more well-read scholars of the early discipline. One stand-out example of this is the use of the term ‘complex interdependence’ by Raymond Leslie Buell in his 1925 textbook International Relations to refer to the nature of the world order created by ‘Caucasian peoples’ which turned on relations of imperialism, hierarchy, the search for cheap labor and racial tensions within and between territorial bounds (57). That the discipline now regards this as a term of art associated with state-centric rationalist neoliberal theory emerging in the 1970s pithily expresses the intellectual losses that have been made over the twentieth century in the attempt (however unconscious) to ‘disappear’ race from the interpretation of global politics. The recent ‘hierarchies turn’ literature is a case in point; although it seems to want to re-articulate some of these forgotten dynamics, it is extremely hesitant to frame these in terms of race and racism.

However, pithy and arresting examples are not themselves a fully worked out analysis, and if there is one frustrating aspect of the book it is that its multiple lines of argument do not always receive systematic and structured treatment. This should be seen as an opening for other scholars to pick up the threads of a timely and important research program. Three overlapping strands stand out as worthy of more sustained inquiry in IR.

First, and as other contributors to this symposium have noted, although Vitalis engages with black scholars in ‘the Howard School’, there are only tantalizing snippets of their actual analysis on show. Embedded as they were in the Harlem Renaissance, the pan-Africanist movement, anti-colonial movements and workers’ movements as well as American political science networks, the question arises as to exactly whether and how their intellectual engagements produced alternative (and indeed more insightful) accounts of world politics than their contemporaries. Intimations of this are given regarding the work of Du Bois, Bunche, Locke and Tate, but none receive a full treatment. Yet, doing so would present the opportunity to investigate the central claim of standpoint theory in a particular context: that those who are disempowered by a particular form of oppression have distinctive – indeed privileged – insights in to the nature and operation of that structure of power. Du Bois makes this claim himself in his understanding of ‘the veil’ in black experience, and Errol Henderson makes a good case for Alain Locke being well ahead of the curve in terms of rejecting socio-biological and cultural interpretations of race. If it is the case that those who are linked to structural disadvantage can see those structures better than others, what are the implications for how we practice ‘science’? Moreover, if this is the case, how should we understand debate and disagreement? Vitalis gives us only small glimpses into the intellectual controversies between the black conservatives, black ‘nationalists’ and the black Marxists, but not enough to answer these questions definitively.

Second, there is more to be written on the interaction of domestic and international race relations as a condition for knowledge production in IR, and in particular the ways in which US Cold War anti-communism shaped it (and vice versa, notwithstanding recent work by Richard Seymour). Vitalis makes clear that the broad political suppression of the left in the US shut down various lines of research and public debate available to international relations scholars – particularly black scholars – with families to feed. The premier example offered is Bunche, who appears to have an intellectual about-turn following political interrogation, allowing him to ascend to the APSA presidency and receive the Nobel Peace Prize. What was the effect of this across the board? To follow the possible historical continuities, how has the simultaneous rise of diversity politics with the neoliberal political turn contained or co-opted claims for racial justice in the present?

Third, there is a need for theoretically informed deliberation in IR on the substantive co-ordinates of what is called ‘global white supremacy’ in the book, both for understanding its historical dynamics and its contemporary presence in the global system. Here, I am struck by the implicit research question that is provoked by Rose’s liberal defensiveness. What does it mean to say that we live in a world, or work in a discipline, still structured by the defense of white supremacy? It seems that the wider research program needs a good answer to this question if it is to persuade sceptics of the substance of its claims (excellent work by Henderson and Vucetic amongst others notwithstanding).

Vitalis might have turned more explicitly to one of his protagonists, W.E.B. Du Bois, for a sketch of white supremacy as a global political issue. In his essay The Souls of White Folk, first written in 1917 and published as Of The Culture of White Folk, Du Bois puts together a historical-sociological account of whiteness that locates it as the expression of various transhistorical tendencies towards oppression and exploitation, in the context of the desire and ability to project this globally, and an epistemic dispensation in the specific form of racism that legitimized this global projection across political, legal, cultural and intellectual spheres.  This has nothing to do with genetics and environmental determinism, but everything to do with the politics of systematic entitlement buttressed firmly by political institutions (both ‘imperial’ and ‘democratic’), scholarly theories of science and history, claims to cultural exceptionalism, systems of wealth accumulation and dispossession, class tensions and geopolitical rivalries. That this essay does not form part of recognized ‘IR theory’ explaining the distribution of power and authority in the world is another marker of the ways in which the ‘science’ of IR has been intellectually impoverished by its attempts to avoid questions of race.

Any future research program however has to combat the unwillingness of a vast number of IR scholars to admit that the discipline, its origins, its theories and its present are heavily racialized, and this requires us to continue to demonstrate and elaborate its systematic character. This is not a problem that can be addressed by nominally ‘diversifying’ or ‘pluralizing’ the discipline – a mild, palliative form of counter-insurgency which leaves the core undisturbed – but rather demands a transformative ‘decolonizing’ attitude to be collectively adopted regarding the politics of knowledge production in our field. If Vitalis’s book energizes a historically complacent intellectual community towards such a moment, its work will have been done.


[1] Of course, there are the exceptions – well known to TDOT readers, probably – of Doty, Krishna, Shilliam, Vucetic, Hobson, Vitalis, Henderson, Jones, Ling, Thompson, Nair and Chowdry, Persaud and Walker, and the recent volume by Anievas et al.

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One thought on ““But What On Earth Is Whiteness That One Should So Desire It?”

  1. Pingback: “But What On Earth Is Whiteness That One Should So Desire It?”  | syndax vuzz

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