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Kant’s Ideas Shaped Human Rights Theories. How Do We Contend With His Racism?

The anti-Black ideas within Immanuel Kant’s philosophy show how liberalism and racism are closely intertwined.

An undated file photo shows the bust of German philosopher Immanuel Kant in his museum in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

This year, the 300th anniversary of the birth of German philosopher Immanuel Kant was commemorated. Born on April 22, 1724, Kant was a significant philosophical figure of the Enlightenment. Three centuries later, Western formulations of freedom, dignity and equality are still inseparable from his name and work.

But on this anniversary, we cannot ignore the legacy of racism that Kant’s liberal humanism engenders. An objective lens on Kant’s racism means looking not just at what is known as his critical philosophy, where he draws the limits of what can and cannot be known, but also at how racism and Enlightenment philosophy remain fundamentally intertwined. What becomes clear are the deeply problematic additional limits drawn by Kant regarding who constitutes the “human.”

Kant’s conception of the Enlightenment is captured by the Latin phrase, “sapere aude,” which means, as human beings we should “dare to know” — dare to use our courage to break free from our self-imposed immaturity. After all, the Enlightenment emphasized reason and autonomy over the weight and dogmatism of tradition.

Yet notably, reason has historically been associated with whiteness.

Reflecting on the color symbolism of light and whiteness, philosopher Charles Mills argues, “Whiteness is light; whiteness is all-encompassing; whiteness is the universal; whiteness is Euro-illumination.” For Mills, “whiteness becomes the identity of both enlightenment and of the human bearers of enlightenment.”

As a Black philosopher, I came to discover that philosophy obfuscates its explicit and implicit investment in whiteness, which means that philosophy often resides in the space of ideal theory. For Mills, ideal theory abstracts away from the messiness of social injustice. On this score, ideal theory refuses to come to terms with the ways in which white philosophers perpetuate whiteness within philosophy and the world.

Provocatively, Mills quotes a Black American folk aphorism in the opening epigraph of his well-known philosophical 1997 bestseller, The Racial Contract: “When white people say ‘Justice,’ they mean ‘Just us.’” While the profession of philosophy is predominantly white and male, which is in itself a problem that must be addressed, Mills places an emphasis on “the conceptual or theoretical whiteness of the discipline.” One central feature of this conceptual or theoretical whiteness of philosophy is that its moral ideals and principles were never meant to apply to Black people. Mills reminds us that the “real principles were the racially exclusivist ones.”

As I witnessed Kant’s birthday come and go, I wondered whose version of Kant was being celebrated. Part of my worry was generated after reading philosopher Susan Neiman’s article, in which she argues, “Some of his [Kant’s] remarks are undeniably offensive to 21st-century ears. But it’s fatal to forget that his work gave us the tools to fight racism and sexism, by providing the metaphysical basis of every claim to human rights.” Rather than “offensive,” I would describe his philosophy as fundamentally and profoundly anti-Black. Moreover, I’m not sure what is “fatal” about forgetting that Kant supplies tools to fight against racism when in fact Kant himself was racist, and thereby belied those tools.

Black people reside outside Kant’s understanding of full legal and moral “personhood.”

In fact, Black people reside outside Kant’s understanding of full legal and moral “personhood.” In “On the Different Races of Man,” Kant argued that the first race is white and very blond. He also argued that “Negroes stink,” which sounds like racist discourse straight from the playbook of the Ku Klux Klan. In “On National Characteristics,” Kant wrote, “The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling.” Kant believed that Black people were “so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashings.” Indeed, for Kant, Black people were said to have thick skin and thereby should be “disciplined” not with “sticks, but rather whip[ped] with split canes.” This practice reflects the brutal violence inflicted on enslaved Black people and violates the principle that human beings should be treated as ends in themselves — that is, treated with the kind of special consideration granted to rational human beings. In short, enslaved Black people were used/exploited as merely a means to the prerogatives of white people. It is clear that Black people were not included within the framework of Kant’s “Herrenvolk” (master race) political and ethical formulations.

For Kant, Black people are apparently devoid of reason. Referring to a specific Black man, Kant said, “This fellow was quite black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.” Given this claim, there is a certain irony that Black philosophers should feel when reading the works of Kant. To be Black and to engage philosophically with his works would, for Kant, be a contradiction, or certainly a profound anomaly.

The history of Western philosophy isn’t “innocent” of anti-Black racism, but practiced it, and provided philosophical grounds for its existence. It is not always clear, metaphorically, if the baby and the bathwater are so easily separable. To get clarity on Kant’s racism, I spoke with philosopher Dilek Huseyinzadegan, associate professor of philosophy at Emory University and author of Kant’s Nonideal Theory of Politics (2019).

George Yancy: As we continue to think about Kant’s 300th birthday, why do philosophers tend to downplay his racism?

Dilek Huseyinzadegan: When it comes to foundational historical figures like Kant, philosophers tend to be hagiographers, as Charles Mills once said. It is a form of naive idealism; perhaps we over-identify with Kant and his ideas and begin to think of him as a savior providing a cure-all for our societal ailments. And those uglier parts of Kant’s philosophy that you mention are shameful: they make us uncomfortable. Because we don’t know how to deal with discomfort in a productive way, we defensively insist that Kant’s racism has no bearing on the “core” ideals of philosophy.

The case of Kant and racism is not unlike that of the founders of the United States. For instance, Thomas Jefferson was not only a slave owner and an avid defender of an anti-Black racial hierarchy but also one of the authors of the famous sentence, “All men are created equal.” The hypocrisy between Jefferson’s words and deeds is noted by Black scientist Benjamin Banneker as early as 1791. And yet, we continue to think of Jefferson only in ideal or aspirational terms.

The history of Western philosophy isn’t “innocent” of anti-Black racism, but practiced it, and provided philosophical grounds for its existence.

(Interestingly, according to a handful of Kant scholars, it is around this time — 1790s — that Kant changed his mind about racism, as if racism is just a superficial opinion, and became an egalitarian: this is a wild conjecture based on no direct textual or biographical evidence. Even if it were true, it would only mean that perhaps he was not a racist in the last 10 lucid years of his life.)

Similarly, Kant famously postulated that it is absolutely immoral to use people as a means to an end. And this is what some scholars — such as Susan Neiman, who is the author of that article you mentioned — think provides us with the metaphysical basis of human rights, which would be one of the tools to fight racism.

That idealized Kant is what is being celebrated this year; this is also the Kant who is taught regularly in undergraduate classes as the supreme moral philosopher. What rarely gets mentioned, however, is that Kant talked about people of color’s lack of talents and capacity for civil government in the same breath as he talked about the unconditional dignity of human beings. He contributed to the scientific legitimation of the concept of “race” and reified the idea that Black people lack reason as he was attributing the full formation of rationality to white Western European men — this is a position, by the way, Thomas Jefferson would parrot about a decade later in his Notes on the State of Virginia, and it would give rise to the development of “race-science” in the United States.

Furthermore, in Kant’s voluminous opus we do not find a single direct moral objection against the institution of slavery, which literally uses people as a means to make the world go round. We now know that the transatlantic trade of human beings that continued throughout his life did not rise to the level of moral significance for him to address it in the court of public opinion. I find his profound indifference more urgent for philosophers to study, rather than the question of whether he was a racist or not. Living in the place and time that he did, it would be extraordinary if Kant was not a racist in one way or another.

Many scholars are quick to conclude that there is a contradiction or inconsistency between Kant’s “core” moral ideals of humanism and his racism. This can be very misleading. It is not slavery or racism that creates a moral contradiction for Kantianism (or liberalism, for which I take Kantianism as a short hand): it is liberalism’s limited concept of freedom which holds it exclusively to be white men’s property. Plainly speaking, then, there is no “contradiction” between racism and humanism, and world history makes that self-evident. As Jean-Paul Sartre writes in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, “there is nothing more consistent than a racist humanism, since the European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters. … We saw in the human species an abstract premise of universality that served as a pretext for concealing more concrete practices.”

I believe that only a very uncritical mind — who would have to be dropped from another planet to Earth abruptly without any knowledge of history — would conclude that there is a “contradiction” or an “inconsistency” between humanism and racism. And in Kant’s philosophy we see a perfect example of their intertwinement and compatibility in conceptual or theoretical terms.

Some of my students ask if we should simply reject studying Kant because of his racism. My response is clear. I think that we should continue to study Kant and engage in immanent critique, which is the process of unveiling contradictions in his work. How would you respond?

In my 2019 book, I ask all philosophers who study Kant to consider if we ourselves might also be complicit in the intersecting systems of oppression in our world, just like Kant was, despite his and our philosophical claims that idealize equality. The book was a form of immanent critique, as you mention, a way to ask how we can hold these “seeming” contradictions in Kant’s work in tension and try to use the discomfort productively as we interpret and change the world. I contended that we are still living in a Kantian world, but we do have the tools to read Kant differently. Nowadays, I am less interested in reading Kant differently and more interested in spelling out and going beyond the limits of Kantianism to fight racism.

It is not slavery or racism that creates a moral contradiction for Kantianism: it is liberalism’s limited concept of freedom which holds it exclusively to be white men’s property.

I agree that immanent critique of someone like Kant is necessary, but I do not find it sufficient if our goal is to change the world for the better. We have other philosophers than Kant who have complete analyses of systemic oppression in their writings, and as a result they give us better, more relevant tools with which to fight.

Accordingly, the answer to the question of whether we should reject studying Kant because of his racism depends on what one wants to understand or change about the contemporary world. This is a world which, to paraphrase the first sentence of The Racial Contract by Charles Mills, is made by the unnamed political system of white supremacy.

If you are an undergraduate student wanting to understand why we live in the world that we do, it makes sense to study Kant as one of the conceptual architects of the modern world as we know it. In addition, you might also want to study him as a sharp and telling example of how racism and humanism can go hand in hand both in theory and praxis, as I mentioned above. But one can also get this knowledge by studying the writings of Frantz Fanon or Audre Lorde or Sylvia Wynter.

If you are a Ph.D. student in philosophy, you want to study Kant’s conceptual terrain so that you can comprehend the main tenets and critics of Western philosophy as a part of your professional training in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics and political philosophy. At least in the way the discipline of philosophy exists in North America today, this seems necessary.

Charles Mills influenced your work as he did mine. Mills was the contemporary Black philosopher whose work helped to render visible the whiteness of the profession of philosophy and the whiteness of its conceptual moves, especially in terms of his critique of Kant’s ethics and his conception of personhood. How do you best teach students of color how to approach a discipline that is so white, that often doesn’t see them?

It was Charles Mills and his monumental book, The Racial Contract, that taught me that global white supremacy is a constant yet shapeshifting tenet of our modern world with particular geographic and historical variations. My own work is indebted to many conversations with him as well as his encouragement to pursue studying Kant my way.

As you mentioned earlier, there is a certain irony that Black philosophers might feel when reading the works of Kant, who argued that only white Western European men are capable of philosophical argumentation. Imagine being a nonbinary person, who is “so unnatural in her desire to study philosophy that she might as well have a beard” (a quote from Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, 1764) and who comes from geographies and people “who never [have] risen and never will rise to the level of national character”(a quote from Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, 1798), which is a required aspect for a cosmopolitan world order, as Kant sees it. So, I start my classes by joking how my very existence in the world as a Brown queer nonbinary Kant specialist must drive Kant mad in his grave! It is indeed if not a contradiction, a profound anomaly, as you put it.

Kantianism — among other systems that aided white supremacy while preaching equality and dignity for all — contributed to the house in which we live, and this house turns out to be oppressive for a majority.

I then tell them not to feel too smug that something Kant said was impossible in the 18th century [had] occurred in the 21st. I also tell them Charles Mills’s joke that I am sure you have also heard at conferences: If all Black philosophers were together on a plane to attend a conference and the plane crashed, the diversity of the discipline would be gone! To illustrate Mills’s point and to show that we still live in a variation of Kant’s world, I point out the painful demographics of the profession where Black women constitute less than 5 percent of all philosophy professors in North America.

In the past decade or so, our discipline has “discovered” several Black and women philosophers in its history and now aims to incorporate them into the canon and curriculum of philosophy, which hitherto has been almost globally white and male. This is a good thing, but I am not holding my breath that the discipline will immediately be less white-male as a result of these interventions. I learned from you and Charles that we have inherited many conceptual and theoretical moves of whiteness from the canon, so it will be important to undo those frameworks first before we add more women and/or Black philosophers into the mix and expect a diverse result.

I invite my students of color as active participants in this ongoing transformation of the discipline but only after acknowledging the current issues in the profession and its all-encompassing white maleness in its methods and concepts. Together we try to reimagine a discipline that talks about and centers not the dead white men’s ideas masquerading as universal but the lived experiences of people of color. We have a lot of work to do.

In what ways would you like to see philosophers in the future critically engage Kantian studies?

It must be clear by now that following Mills, I consider Kantianism as a stand-in for liberalism, not in the sense of liberal versus conservative, but liberalism as in a political-economic system committed to the idea of universal human rights and the possibility of progress. He believed that despite its white supremacist roots, liberalism can still save us, arguing in his later work, “Black Radical Kantianism,” that given the popularity of human rights and progress frameworks, we could redeem Kantianism as one palatable form of liberalism in the service of racial justice in moral and political philosophy. This would mean that we are using Kant against himself but still engaging with Kant!

So, there is some good news for those who fear that Kant is canceled: he is not, as long as one wants to study and remain within the limits of liberalism. Bad news for those who downplay his racism: new scholarship is taking notice of Charles Mills’s work, as well as the work of Emmanuel C. Eze and Robert Bernasconi, on the issue of this so-called “contradiction” between Kant’s universalism and racism. I am delighted to see new critical works in Kant studies that take questions of race, racism and colonialism seriously, such as the writings of Huaping Lu-Adler, Jordan Pascoe, Jennifer Mensch, Jameliah Inga Shorter-Bourhanou, Inés Valdez, Inder Marwah, Reza Mosayebi, David Baumeister, Elvira Basevich, Michael Olson and Daniel Smith.

I take it that Kantianism — among other systems that aided white supremacy while preaching equality and dignity for all — contributed to the house in which we live, and this house turns out to be oppressive for a majority (I want to say 99 percent) of the planet’s population. Yes, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, but more importantly, as Audre Lorde says: “[the master’s tools] may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” And here is the rub: “And this fact is only threatening to those … who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

Thankfully, we have other places to go, and Kantianism is not our only source of support when it comes to fighting racism. Kant or Kantianism may help us to remodel this white supremacist house, but I am convinced that it will not allow us to rebuild it according to our needs here and now.

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