Special Issue: Trump and the 2016 Election

Some Comments about Being a Philosopher of Color and the Reasons I Didn’t Write a (Real) Paper for this (Seemingly) Ideal Venue for my Work

by Sean A. Valles

ABSTRACT. This special issue conspicuously lacks work by Philosophers of Color (with the exception of this commentary). I have been given this opportunity to discuss the impediments that kept me from submitting my relevant work, offered as a small step toward recognizing the impediments faced by other Philosophers of Color. I highlight factors including direct and indirect consequences of a disproportionately White community of US philosophers, and some underrecognized risk-reward calculations that Philosophers of Color face when choosing an article project. I urge further discussion of the topic, starting with an exhortation to choose the right phenomenon and accordingly frame the right question: Why are White philosophers deliberating the “ethical and social issues arising out of the 2016 US presidential election” in a prestigious journal, while Philosophers of Color are deliberating the same issues in tense classrooms, closed offices, and on-/off-campus forums?

This is not a real article. But in this special issue on the 2016 US election and Trump it is, to my knowledge, the only contribution written by a Philosopher of Color. It is a commentary about the fact that it is the only contribution written by a Philosopher of Color.

After Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Kukla expressed consternation that the issue was full of excellent papers, but written by a roster of White philosophers, I offered to say something about why I didn’t submit any of my relevant philosophical work (on nativism, racism, health policy, Latinx health, etc.), and why it didn’t surprise me that almost none of the other well-qualified Philosophers of Color did either. Whether or not you, reader, agree with my account here, I contend that it is at least worth addressing these professional issues directly and explicitly. Though, to be clear, I am only willing to write this contribution to the issue because I believe Kukla made sincere and diligent efforts to recruit Philosophers of Color and that she was genuinely dismayed at having not succeeded.

This special issue is about a US election and I am a US philosopher, so I will constrain my comments to the US professional philosophy community. But, I am not a spokesperson for Philosophers of Color (reader: you know that’s not a thing, right?). I am a millennial Jewish-Chicano-Irish-Alsatian-Purépecha Indian applied philosopher of population health, happily employed as a tenured Associate Professor. But, I have the privilege of being relatively free to speak up since I happen to be ensconced in two wonderfully supportive academic units (I have the dual privileges of working in Michigan State’s Lyman Briggs College and its Department of Philosophy). In other words, I am at relatively low career risk compared to many of my Philosopher of Color colleagues, and risk is the first of several reasons why this issue ended up without any articles by Philosophers of Color.

Deciding to write and submit an article to a special issue requires a risk-reward calculation. For contributors to this particular special issue, it was a case of high risk and high potential reward. It is a prestigious venue, and publishing in it constitutes a major career success—if one’s article is accepted. Yet, applying to a narrow special issue like this one is an especially large risk since the more idiosyncratic a special issue is, the more it requires one to tailor an article to it. By contrast, a run-of-the-mill philosophy paper, if rejected, can usually be adapted with minor alterations for submission to any of several alternative journals. Early in my career, I reluctantly transformed a talk into an article and submitted it to another such relatively narrow special issue, after being persuaded by two senior colleagues editing the special issue. As I had originally suspected, the talk did not translate well into an article, so it was rightly rejected and I never found a good way to repurpose it. Writing and submitting that article was probably the most costly research failure of my career, and it happened during the pivotal period soon after I was hired for a faculty position. Every contributor to this issue took a risk by writing and submitting an of-the-moment article in a field that generally prizes timelessness over timeliness. But, Philosophers of Color must enter into each new risk-reward calculation while already weighed down by a disproportionate burden of career risks.

Philosophers of Color must make an unending series of risk management decisions on top of the ones faced by White philosophers. Philosophy is a hard profession, but things are different for Philosophers of Color. We are, to use the terminology of Frohlich and Potvin, “vulnerable” in the sense that we are “at risk of risks” (Frohlich and Potvin 2008, 216). Academics of color tend to get assigned to more committees and miscellaneous departmental service tasks, particularly being asked to “diversify” committees with our presence (Matthew 2016). Whether we like it or not, our days get filled with work other than the research output that is valued above all else by Academia. Perhaps most importantly, we disproportionately occupy untenured positions (Finkelstein, Conley, and Schuster 2016). Academics of color working without the protection of tenure (whether employed on short-term contracts or in pre-tenure positions on the track to tenure) are very much “at risk of risks.” Any new risk, from a vindictive department head to a racist tenure letter-writer can derail the career of a tenure-track Philosopher of Color; a displeased university donor or vocal parent of a student can lead to a contingently-employed Philosopher of Color getting laid off. Philosophers of Color can indeed have thriving careers, but our paths to success are narrow at best, and always beset by known and unknown pitfalls.

The plethora of risks facing Philosophers of Color have the additional cumulative effect of making us rather rare—there are just not that many article-writing Philosophers of Color out there, thanks in part to being forced to traverse a career gauntlet set on ‘hard’ mode. Rather infamously, Philosophers of Color remain vastly underrepresented at even the early stage of doctoral completion (Schwitzgebel 2016). The passage of time is not kind. For example, of 2,906 Regular Members of the American Philosophical Association (non-student, non-emeritus, etc.) who report their race/ethnicity, only 0.6% report being American Indian or Alaska Native (I am one of seventeen people in that category), but we make up 1.7% of the US population (Humes, Jones, and Ramirez 2011; American Philosophical Association 2016). It is hard to find article submissions from Philosophers of Color when around 85% of US philosophy PhDs are going to non-Hispanic White philosophers (Schwitzgebel 2016).

The underrepresentation of Philosophers of Color also has subtle psychological effects. Our small cohort works inside a profession permeated with racist and ethnocentrist inequities. I, for one, find it requires some serious mental exertion to get excited about the prospect of any endeavor officially or unofficially positioned as the effort of philosophers-in-solidarity against [insert social problem here]. I and other Philosophers of Color can and do routinely look out into the world and confront the covert and overt inequities in it. But I’m pretty sure almost all of us are acutely aware that we must do this—and all things—while looking over our shoulders in constant vigilance for misdeeds by our fellow philosophers. Our profession perpetuates many of the same explicit and implicit racist structures/biases that I and others critique in the Trump era (adulation of White men of dubious merit, dog whistle invocations of Western culture, blindness to structural racism/sexism/heterosexism, etc.). That makes it feel…different…to critique the Trump era from the position of a Philosopher of Color. My career has been at least as benign and charmed as that of any Philosopher of Color whom I’ve talked to about career matters, but even mine includes a string of macro- and micro-aggressions from my fellow philosophers, including: outrageous defamatory peer reviews of my (non-anonymous) submitted work, condescending White-splaining of basic points during Q&As, flat refusals to believe that I know even a little about topics in which I have well-documented expertise, and many other incidents I can’t even safely mention.

In this milieu, the prospect of banding together with fellow philosophers to boldly stand together and critique the Trump era for its faults is not tantamount to hypocrisy, but it makes it a hell of a lot harder to feel the team spirit. I even get (often unfairly) frustrated when I see my White colleagues appear to overestimate the novelty of Trump era inequities, since it reinforces my perception that they still vastly underestimate the breadth and depth of inequities before the rise of Trump. It can grow frustrating, as a Philosopher of Color, to be surrounded by White colleagues getting “woke,” even though their waking up to social inequities is obviously a change for the better. Much is new about the Trump-era rhetoric, policies, and zeitgeist, but much is not.

Taking stock, even if a Philosopher of Color were to be: 1) able to spare the time to write a paper for this special issue, 2) willing to risk dedicating that block of time to writing an article for the special issue, and 3) able to muster sufficient enthusiasm to complete the project in the allotted time, there are yet more obstacles. To put it bluntly, overt racist intimidation has become more normalized. I am a husband and a new father, and since the election I need to be all the more careful to filter my ‘Come at me, bro!’ instincts through the reality of my responsibilities. Most of my work deals directly with contemporary politics and policies (as a shorthand, I say that I research and teach exclusively offensive content). In the Trump era, I need to ask myself much more regularly, and more carefully, whether that day’s article/interview/blog is going to be the one that gets a swastika spray-painted on my door. I don’t pretend to know how many of my fellow Philosophers of Color have been effectively dissuaded from submitting to this issue by such considerations, but contributing to this special issue would be a pretty quick way of transforming oneself from a hate crime target into a hate crime prime target. (Note: if this commentary is the work that finally gets a swastika spray-painted on my door that would seriously add insult to injury—I don’t even get to count this as a peer-reviewed article in my annual review!)

None of the above factors was individually sufficient to dissuade me from submitting an article to this special issue. Rather, the net effect of all of them was that they dampened my resolve enough that I just let inertia carry me along on my current path. Like most professional philosophers, I lead a pretty busy life. I could have spared the time without sacrificing my book manuscript deadline and my various article revisions, but I’ve got plenty to do.

None of this is meant to downplay the risks and disincentives faced by other philosophers due to their identities, experiences, or social positions. Female philosophers entering into public sociopolitical discourse encounter dual threats, from the public at large (horrifyingly, rape threats are par for the course) and from the profession (female philosophers navigate career perils that are, in many ways, similar to those facing Philosophers of Color). Philosophers who are sexual and/or gender minorities live with not only de facto bigotry inside and outside the professional community, but also legalized discrimination (threats of dismissal by certain religiously-affiliated schools, etc.). Philosophers with a range of physical or cognitive conditions or disabilities face various impediments to contributing to this issue (e.g., a philosopher living with trauma after a sexual assault confronts the daunting task of commenting on the election of a man accused of multiple sexual assaults). Philosophers with fragile immigration statuses run into the unique risk of critiquing the very executive branch that has broad discretionary enforcement powers over immigration law (ojalá and inshallah, the judicial branch will protect my colleagues from executive abuses). The list goes on. Moreover, there are additional (but non-additive) intersectional dynamics between these factors for some philosophers, such as an undocumented queer philosopher imperiled by multilateral legal hazards. This commentary does not presume to speak expertly about the range of risks facing philosophers. Instead, I offer this rather personal commentary from my position as a Philosopher of Color and Ambiguously Swarthy American™.

So, I and my Philosopher of Color colleagues almost all let this opportunity pass by. But, it is absolutely vital that readers of this issue understand that Philosophers of Color are most definitely doing more than our fair share of untangling and addressing the “ethical and social issues arising out of the 2016 US presidential election and the transition to the Trump administration” (to use the language of the special issue’s advertisement). The difference is how we do it. As others have expounded at length, the job of an academic of color is filled with invisible labor (Matthew 2016). Philosophers of Color counsel the terrified students of color who pull us aside in hallways to whisper into (what they hope will be) an empathetic and wise ear. We share survival tips with fellow Philosophers of Color. We sacrifice our evenings to planning and participating in election-inspired campus panels, student organization meetings, and solidarity rallies. We serve as go-to resources for our well-intentioned White colleagues who seek a Philosopher of Color’s advice on whether/how to address the Trump era tragedy of the day. We do these things while knowing—somewhere between the backs and the fronts of our minds—that the next time we open the car/office/home door there might be a swastika and/or “TRUMP” painted on it.

The net result of the above reasons (and the many others I failed to mention) is that this special issue, which I indeed look forward to reading, only features White authors. In light of the preceding paragraph, I caution against trying to explain the whiteness of this special issue as an isolated phenomenon. In my previous research, I have argued that explanations hinge more than one might think on “phenomenon choice” and the corresponding questions they engender—we must be exceedingly careful when deciding exactly what ought to be explained (Valles 2010; 2016). In this case, I urge readers of this issue to not get sidetracked by a misleading question (Why is this issue so White when the concerns of/about people of color are especially relevant?). The question that needs answering is: Why are White philosophers deliberating the “ethical and social issues arising out of the 2016 US presidential election” in a prestigious journal while Philosophers of Color are deliberating the same issues in tense classrooms, closed offices, and on-/off-campus forums? Publishing an article in KIEJ garners praise from promotion committees; those other activities, not so much. Let’s please discuss the right question. I have tried to articulate what I think are some ‘upstream’ social and professional structures that allowed an outpouring of excellent work by White philosophers, yet failed to channel work by Philosophers of Color into the same pool. For philosophers to forcefully and effectively critique the Trump era, we must simultaneously do the hard work of addressing our own profession’s inequities.

 

Sean Valles is an Associate Professor with a dual appointment in the Michigan State University Lyman Briggs College and the Department of Philosophy. His research spans a range of topics in the philosophy of population health, from the use of evidence in medical genetics to the roles played by race concepts in epidemiology. He is currently completing a book on Philosophy of population health science.

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I owe immeasurable thanks to my wife, Margot Valles, for her comments on the text and most of all for fearlessly sharing the risks of my choices. I am grateful to Rebecca Kukla for the opportunity to write this, and for the feedback on the content.

 

REFERENCES

American Philosophical Association. 2016. “Demographic Statistics on the APA Membership, FY2014 to FY2016.” https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/apaonline.site-ym.com/resource/resmgr/data_on_profession/Member_Demo_Chart_FY2016_rev.pdf.

Finkelstein, Martin J., Valerie Martin Conley, and Jack H. Schuster. 2016. “Taking the Measure of Faculty Diversity.” TIAA Institute. https://www.tiaainstitute.org/publication/taking-measure-faculty-diversity.

Frohlich, Katherine L., and Louise Potvin. 2008. “Transcending the Known in Public Health Practice—the Inequality Paradox: The Population Approach and Vulnerable Populations.” American Journal of Public Health 98 (2): 216-221.

Humes, Karen R., Nicholas A. Jones, and Roberto R. Ramirez. 2011. “Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010.” Washington, D.C.: United States Census Bureau.

Matthew, Patricia A. 2016. “What is Faculty Diversity Worth to a University?” The Atlantic. November 23. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/11/what-is-faculty-diversity-worth-to-a-university/508334/.

Schwitzgebel, Eric. 2016. “Percentages of U.S. Doctorates in Philosophy Given to Women and to Minorities, 1973-2014.” The Splintered Mind, January 13. http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/percentages-of-us-doctorates-in.html.

Valles, Sean A. 2010. “The Mystery of the Mystery of Common Genetic Diseases.” Biology and Philosophy 25 (2): 183-201.

Valles, Sean A. 2016. “The Challenges of Choosing and Explaining a Phenomenon in Epidemiological Research on the ‘Hispanic Paradox’.” Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 37 (2): 129-148.

Comments

Well done! Thank you for taking your valuable time, in spite of all the real and perceived threats and risks, to offer up some education for us- it is a generous act when PoC take on the effort/burden to educate those of us in the dominant culture (i.e. white folks) or others, e.g. immigrants to the US, that are not versed (implicitly or explicitly) in the history of this country, and the racism that is a thread from its founding, and continues to be maintained..

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