Do We Need More Black Philosophers And Anthropologists
(And Fewer Black Scientists)?

According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, leaders of the American Philosophical Association and the American Anthropological Association are worried about cuts in their fields at Howard University because “such moves at the historically black institution would harm attempts to bring black scholars into their disciplines.”
In a letter to Howard president Sidney Ribeau, Peter J. Markie, chair of the APA’s Committee on the Status and Future of the Profession, declared ponderously that “[t]he future of Philosophy depends on the development of minority scholars [and] the expansion of philosophical research into new or long-neglected areas of inquiry….”
In a separate letter to president Ribeau, Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher at Princeton and Chair of the Board of Officers of the American Philosophical Association, was also almost exclusively concerned with race, beginning at some length with his own apparently race-based qualifications to discuss race:

My bona fides in addressing you on this subject are these: I have played a role in developing the modern philosophical study of race and in shaping the field that is now called Africana philosophy. I have worked hard my entire career to make sure that there is a more welcoming place for African-Americans as students and colleagues in the field of philosophy. And, as the first person of African descent to receive the PhD in philosophy from my own alma mater, Cambridge University, and (so far as I know) the first black President of the Eastern Division of the APA and the first black chair of its Board of Officers, I have every reason to be conscious both of the progress that has been made over the years in integrating our field and of the fact that we still have a distance to go.

Philosophy, Appiah wrote, “continues to have a relatively small proportion of black scholars,” and “[s]hutting down Howard’s department … would undermine the effort to recruit talented black students to philosophy.” The American Philosophical Association, he continued, “through the Committee on Black Philosophers and the Committee on Inclusiveness, has made strenuous efforts over the years to do something about that problem.”
Like Markie, Appiah simply assumes that it is a “problem” if blacks choose other fields over philosophy. Neither author explains why the “future of Philosophy” depends on “the development of minority scholars.” Like any field, academic philosophy depends on developing new scholars, but why does it matter what color they are? Can only minority scholars pursue “research into new or long-neglected areas of inquiry?”
The anthropologists’ arguments were also fixated on race. In an argument posted on an American Anthropology Association website, four Howard anthropologists assert that

[t]he consequences of a closure … will also have a bearing on the discipline of anthropology overall, the African American community, and other peoples of African descent. This decision will affect our abilities as a discipline to recruit minority students and give students of African descent exposure to current anthropological research.

Finally, there is an obvious question that neither the philosophers nor anthropologists address: Wouldn’t every black philosopher or anthropologist produced by Howard by definition mean one less black in another field?
One would have thought this question would have required attention, since, as Inside Higher Ed reports, the changes proposed at Howard are a result of president Ribeau’s vision that

[g]raduate studies and, in particular, doctoral research will grow more central to Howard’s mission…. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics will become areas of emphasis, as will the health sciences.

A few months ago I argued, here, that

it seems as though the most heavily researched, richly funded area of American science today involves studies of why there aren’t more women [and minorities] in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and efforts to induce, recruit, and retain more of them.

And a few weeks later, here, I noted again

that every month or so (or so it seems) a new report appears pointing with alarm to the “underrepresentation” of women or blacks or Hispanics or Aleuts (or usually all of the above) in the STEM fields….

I argued in those two pieces that the push for STEM “diversity” is misguided, for many of the same reasons I think the arguments discussed here about why philosophy and anthropology at Howard should be immune from cutbacks are misguided. But it strikes me as unusually presumptuous for leaders of academic professional associations with disciplinary axes to grind to lecture the president of a leading HBCU about, in effect, what is good for blacks, and to do so without arguing that Howard’s decision to produce more STEM graduates is misguided.

John S. Rosenberg

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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