Paul C. Taylor: "What is Philosophical Race Theory?" – Response by Alex Jong-Seok Lee

[On October 25, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “What is Philosophical Race Theory?” as part of the Fall 2016 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Paul C. Taylor, Associate Professor of Philosophy and African American Studies and Head of the Department of African American Studies at Penn State University. Below is a response to the lecture from Alex Jong-Seok Lee, Anthropology.]

“Racial Formation Theory Revised (with Semi-hostile Amendments)”
Written by Alex Jong-Seok Lee (Anthropology)

Towards the end of his lecture, Paul C. Taylor described his analytical approach as rooted in U.S. pragmatism, a philosophical tradition pioneered by John Dewey in the early 20th century. Broadly speaking, U.S. pragmatism challenges any sharp distinction between theory and practice, holding that truth and knowledge are obtained through a process of context-specific experimental inquiry rather than merely reflecting on the world through passive observations.

Taylor returned to this point after being asked by an audience member how he reconciled what he humorously dubbed the “weird sort of dance” between noting the “peculiarities” of people like Hegel and Kant (e.g., the latter’s legitimizing of racial differences he deemed natural) while also crediting the things that they “got right.” Uneasy with providing overly general answers to context-specific questions, Taylor instead advocated a case-by-case approach situated within the discrete aims and interests guiding a single inquiry. (Consequently, we can still appreciate W.E.B. Du Bois’ pioneering scholarship on race despite his traditional silence on gender and sexuality). Tacit in this example is an admonition to any scholars who are tempted to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater when discussing theories deemed past their analytic sell-by date.

Taylor situated this appeal within the context of Omi and Winant’s pioneering hypothesis, racial formation theory (RFT). For him, RFT treated race as a processual affair while also presenting a middle ground between the view that race was both illusory and essential. This latter point emerged from the historical context of the late twentieth century from which RFT emerged. The familiar maxim, “race is neither real nor an illusion,” espoused by the likes of David R. Roediger, revealed RFT’s “groping for a metaphysical vocabulary.” The discipline of philosophy (albeit reconfigured), Taylor hoped, potentially could provide an alternative theoretical language on the matter.

Racial Formation in the United States(1992) by Michael Omi and

Howard Winant

A protégé of the pioneering philosopher of race, Lucius Outlaw, Jr., Taylor expressed delight at discovering as a graduate student Omi and Winant’s magnum opus, Racial Formation in the United States. This was a time when the 1990s Appiah debates and widespread commodification of African American culture put the question of race on continual trial. For Taylor, RFT was a social construction thesis that considered race “real” insofar as social realities grounded in social conventions were real. The theory’s true merit was its ability to make this argument in the context of a view that was painstakingly political. However, more recently, RFT has come under fire within scholarly works, such as Conceptual Aphasia in Black: Displacing Racial Formation and Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century. Increasingly having to orient himself in relation to these commentaries, Taylor viewed his talk as a participatory process for rethinking RFT as less tethered to orthodox critical race theory (à la Derrick Bell) than widely allied with all scholarly fields aimed at understanding the meanings and mechanisms of race.

Do the Right Thing (1989) by Spike Lee. From

As Taylor noted, quoting from Barnor Hesse’s introduction to Conceptual Aphasia in Black (2016): “[RFT’s] exemplary social construction thesis has dominated the critique of race in the intellectual landscape of the U.S. academy since the late 1980s and made the critique of race thinkable only in a liberal multicultural idiom that presupposes a decisive liberal-democratic rupture with the racial ontology of the United States’ settler colonialism and its white supremacy nation-state” (ibid). Chief among Hesse’s disapproval of RFT was its supposed failure to foreground the centrality of violence to the constitution of race in the U.S. This, wrote Hesse, hindered our understanding of race as a deep, constitutive feature of Western modernity.

Conceptual Aphasia in Black: Displacing Racial Formation (2016) by
Khalil Saucier and Tryon P. Woods
Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century (2012) by
Daniel Martinez HoSang, Oneka LaBennett, and Laura Pulido

Seeking further perspective, Taylor drew on an earlier critique of RFT, this time from Roderick A. Ferguson’s contribution in “Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century (2012). Ferguson took greatest issue with the obstructing effect of historiographical assumptions behind RFT. Resting on a “declension hypothesis,” Ferguson wrote, Omi and Winant’s theory “tells a story of bold and transformative anti-racist movements during the 1950s and 1960s becoming fractured and destabilized in the face of an insurgent New right in the 1970s and 1980s” (2012:2). However, this periodization, Ferguson explained, “occludes anti-racist movements that were no less significant than the social formations around civil rights and national liberation… [movements that were] initiated by women of color and queers of color within the United States” (ibid).

Taylor later turned his attention to Nikhil Pal Singh’s work within Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century. Like Ferguson’s critique, Singh complained that RFT focused too narrowly on a particular, historical and national context. RFT also undertheorized the concept of race, in part because of its narrow focus on this particular, historical and national context. Finally, in accordance with Hesse’s assessment, RFT prioritized a certain a kind of normative politics over deployments and resistances to sovereign violence. More specifically, Singh was referring to how these limitations have blinded RFT from “a racialized law-and-order project [that] was introduced during this period as the opening wedge in a broader reorientation of the very forms and dispositions of governance” (2012:280).

Taylor attended to these criticisms one by one. In terms of Hesse, RFT was viewed as an obstacle to thinking productively about race today. However, Taylor questioned the value of such an uncompromising view. Regarding Ferguson’s comments about RFT’s problematic periodization, Taylor reiterated the essential merits of Omi and Winant’s theory from a philosophical standpoint. It still offered a much-needed social constructivist answer to what for so long principally was thought of only as an abstract metaphysical question (i.e., the question of what constituted race). Taylor claimed that when engaging with historical theories philosophers generally were less sensitive to the kind of historical contextualization other disciplines might deem compulsory. Thus, being a philosopher allowed him certain license to interpret RFT in a looser fashion, namely the ability to effectively distinguish epistemic worries (concerns over RFT’s logic or grammar) from political ones over knowledge production. Lastly, Taylor suggested that Singh’s critiques might have had more to do with differing notions over what constituted the “political” than a fundamental flaw with Omi and Winant’s theory.

Ultimately, the recent attacks of RFT might have had less to do with the latter’s theoretical failings than with other factors occurring in contemporary academia. According to Taylor, criticisms of the theory could have been the effect of a certain neoliberal logic within higher education wherein RFT was deemed obsolete in an innovation economy. Another possibility was what Lewis Gordon called “disciplinary decadence” or how the popularity of certain academic disciplines permitted only their proponents to dominate professional spaces over less powerful ones (e.g., the “decline of Black Sociology”).

Taylor closed his talk by reiterating his training as a philosophical pragmatist. As such, he was less interested in the historical context of RFT’s development than in the theory’s analytic efficacy, especially as it related to social-justice aims. Consequently, the basic argumentative structure of RFT still worked in accommodating the anti-racist story that race scholars wanted to tell. Why not simply attach such criticisms (or “semi-hostile amendments,” Taylor joked) to a suitably revised account of RFT? For all scholars interested in how to think productively about the meanings and mechanisms of race in 2016 this is a question to consider.


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