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…


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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.”

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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. Continue reading

No Less A Scream For It Being Artful

Naeem InayatullahAnother guest contribution from Naeem Inayatullah to our symposium on Vitalis’s White World Order, Black Power Politics. Naeem’s research locates the Third World in international relations through history, political economy and method. With David Blaney, he is the co-author of International Relations and the Problem of Difference (Routledge 2004), and Savage Economics: Wealth, Poverty, and the Temporal Walls of Capitalism (Routledge 2010). He is the editor of Autobiographical International Relations: I, IR (Routledge 2011), as well as Narrative Global Politics: Theory, History and the Personal in International Relations (Routledge, 2016) with Elizabeth Dauphinee. His writing, research and talks can be discovered and devoured at his academia.edu page.

*Update* Nivi’s response is here, and Srdjan’s is here.


When I finished reading White World Order, Black Power Politics, I made three decisions.  I would read the book again.  Not because it is theoretically difficult or jargon heavy.  It’s not.  But because I want to absorb its details, re-orient my body through its revelations, savor Bob’s story telling skills, and anticipate his scarce but nevertheless Pharoah Sanders-esque screams.

In addition, I immediately designed a course titled “Race and IR” around Bob’s book.  The course has been approved and I am scheduled to teach it in September.  Third, I’ve suggested Bob’s name to my best students as someone they might consider as a future mentor in graduate study.  So, boom!  Immediate impact.  Could a book and an author want more than this?  Perhaps not.  Still, I suspect Bob has larger ambitions for this book.  It could change our field, if we are lucky.  Count me in for this project as well.

The importance of Vitalis’ book is easy to articulate.  It demonstrates the racist foundations of our discipline (IR).  Bob recounts the narrative as two sides of one tale.  There is the account of those who theorized and practiced white hegemony.  And there is the story of those who rejected it.  Our origin story is not about the three great debates, not the mythical line of realism going back to Machiavelli and Thucydides, not the immaculate conception of a Cold War politics, not anarchy as the founding condition, and not abstractions concerned with statics or dynamics of inter-state relations. Rather, Vitalis demonstrates, it is racist theories and institutions of imperialism constitute the actual origins of our discipline.

Here is how Bob puts it:

What is new and important in this book is the discovery that the intellectuals, institutions, and arguments that constituted international relations were shaped by and often directly concerned with advancing strategies to preserve and extend [the theory and practice of white hegemony against those struggling to end their subjection.  (2)

But also:

…we can’t understand the history of the early decades of the discipline without understanding the long and globe-spanning freedom movements that are central to its intellectual, social, and institutional development. (9)

Each part of the tale is told in equal measure: the ying and the yang, the force and counter-force, imperialism and liberation. Continue reading