White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Author’s Response

Bob’s response to Naeem, NiviSrdjan, and Meera completes our symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics.

Four critical IR theorists have taken time away from other tasks to read my book carefully, generously, and thoughtfully. What a gift. The brevity of this response will appear stingy by comparison, but I don’t mean it to be. Rather, I am typing with my wrist in a splint, and it hurts, while I am also due to leave in the morning for a two-week vacation. Perhaps there will be another chance to show my gratitude. Many of the questions that Nivi, Naeem, Srdjan, and Meera raise have to do either with the book’s and my relationship to theory or with the limitations of my research strategy, as I anticipated and sought, self-servingly, to head off.

In launching the symposium I wrote that White World Order “isn’t primarily concerned with theory.” Instead it is a history.  I might have added that it differs from the kinds of histories that historically-oriented IR theorists typically write, where “cases” are culled mostly from the already existing secondary literature (books by historians), although sometimes a document or two is cited thus allowing the author to increase the tally of “multimethods” by one.[1] I like to think that its contribution is the way it brings together historiographical fields that do not speak to each other much: imperial and international history and its American variant, U.S. and the World, the history of the social sciences, and the history of the “long” U.S. civil rights movement. One can scan those footnotes that do not reference primary or archival sources to see who has shaped my understanding of the past and with whom I imagine myself in conversation. I knew that the more reflective cadres of international relations scholars would be drawn to the book, particularly given its main claims about racism and imperialism, but also that readers of and contributors to the Disorder of Things value more and think more about theoretical schools and frameworks—securitization, postcolonialism, feminism, neo-Marxism, and so on—than about historiographical fields, and that the more controversial claims I make, say, about how different generations of scholars understand the “pre-professional era” of their fields wouldn’t matter. I foresaw the source of frustration in Naeem’s, Srdjan’s, and Meera’s responses, but I didn’t worry about it much.


I did try to ease the pain for readers of a book that makes such a big deal about bringing disparate fields together. For instance, when I wrote the introductory chapter and discussed it with colleagues at a workshop at Penn, one of them asked why I had bothered to include a discussion of African American studies if the book was about the disciplinary history of international relations. I am sure there are many places where I might have made the book more user friendly. Take Naeem’s frustration with my discussion of Bunche, who rejected the Communist Party’s (USA) line when for a few years in the 1930s it advocated self-determination in the so-called Black Belt for the “Negro Nation.”  The issue is widely discussed by Bunche’s biographer and in histories of black Marxism and of the party’s role in the civil rights movement. I tried instead to shed new light on that era given the degree to which later critics such as Stephen Howe both mocked the later Afrocentric variants on the idea and imagined an unbroken past with the earlier debates.[2] I showed, first, that white racists had versions of black communal rights of their own, which have since been forgotten. Second, I underscored Nikhil Singh’s important point about how we do injustice to the past by our reductionist readings of the concept of “self-determination,” a point that I made a more general one in the conclusion.  I am sure that there are other places where I try my readers’ patience.

barkanNivi, Naeem, and Srdjan want to know more, the first two, about the discipline’s conversion in the cold war and, the third, about the Howard School’s place in what Elezar Barkan called the “retreat of scientific racism.”[3] I do too. Answering these questions would require more research. The best I am able to do about the first puzzle is to head off any explanation in terms of developments “internal” to the discipline, say, to the outsized influence of émigré thinkers such as Hans Morgenthau.[4] Why? Because multiple disciplines and subfields in the cold war American academy all moved in the same direction at the same time. As for development of the social constructivist understanding of “race,” no one who reads my book will be surprised to find that the conventional intellectual histories leave black thinkers out of this particular story, among many others.

My wrist is throbbing and the Jersey Shore is calling. Thanks again Naeem, Nivi, Srdjan, Meera, and the rest of the thinkers who make The Disorder of Things essential reading.

[1] See Robert Vitalis, “The Past is Another Country,” in Ellen Perecman and Sara R. Curran, eds, Finding a Method in the Madness: A Bibliography and Contemplative Essays on Method in the Social Sciences (New York: Sage, 2006): pp. 5-17.

[2] Stephen Howe, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (London: Verso, 1999).

[3] Elezar Barkan, The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts or Race in Britain and the United States Between the World Wars (London: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

[4] See Nicolas Guilhot, “Imperial Realism: Post-War IR Theory and Decolonisation,” International History Review 36: 1 (2014) 698-720.


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