Arts & Culture

Looking at race, racism through a philosophical lens

6 min read

Scholar Tommie Shelby says solidarity can transcend ethnocultural identity

Tommie Shelby’s airy office in the Barker Center is piled with papers. His desk is a blanket of white. Books and academic journals litter the floor. The look is, in a word, chaotic. The scholar is anything but.

His tall, slim frame is impeccably dressed in a dark, pinstriped suit. He sits, relaxed and at home, ready to easily discuss many of his life’s steady, heady companions. Works by Karl Marx, W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, Plato, and Immanuel Kant — just a few of the great thinkers who have inspired him — are scattered near his feet and crammed on shelves beside his door.

Marx, one of his biggest influences, he said, appealed to him because of his own modest background.

“I came to Marx with the prejudice that many Americans have towards [him]. They think that he must be crazy. I was surprised by how much it resonated with me and how much it seemed to capture something true about modernity and about the lives of working people. Coming from the working class myself, I connected to it.”

Shelby is professor of African and African American studies and of philosophy at Harvard.

Throughout much of his career Shelby has addressed race and racism through a philosophical lens.

His most recent book, “We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity” (Harvard University Press, 2005), examines the question of black solidarity, the notion of a particular kind of black political unity, one that can help eliminate racial inequality. In his work, he explores, through both a historical and present-day perspective, whether such a movement must necessarily be dependent on an underlying sense of black identity.

“I wanted to think about how blacks have tried to respond collectively to their situation,” says Shelby of his work, “and, more importantly from a philosophical point of view, how they should respond to their situation.”

Shelby argues that solidarity founded on a common black identity or culture can be replaced by one that revolves around the “shared experience of racial oppression.”

“Blacks can and should agree in the present to collectively resist racial injustice,” he writes. “Mobilizing and coordinating such collective efforts will be difficult enough without adding the unnecessary and divisive requirement that blacks embrace and preserve a distinctive ethnocultural identity.”

The complex issue is one that Shelby addresses as a professor as well as a writer. He currently teaches a class on black nationalism and a course on race and social justice. The subject of race, Shelby admits, is a challenging one for academic coursework. The problem, he says, is that the current public discourse around race is far too simplistic.

“Nothing could really be further from the truth; it’s incredibly complex,” says Shelby. “In my classes, the students come to appreciate that, if they didn’t already. [They understand] these are complex questions … and that there is a way of thinking about them in a relatively dispassionate and rigorous way. … That’s what I try to teach.”

Shelby’s next project will be a continuation of “We Who Are Dark,” and will explore the persisting plight of poor black urban communities, addressing the question, among others, of how this population should respond to its conditions. The book, he says, will also examine “the values that we ought to be bringing to bear as we think about how to respond to [this].”

While philosophers are sometimes more adept at thinking about the big questions than actually solving them, their perspective, Shelby notes, can contribute an important and valuable dimension.

“We can be good at thinking through the content of the values that we often assume, making them more precise, making sure that they are really the relevant ones, distinguishing values that might seem similar but in fact conflict.”

Shelby spent most of his childhood in Florida, the oldest of six children. His mother and stepfather were employed in a range of labor and service jobs. As a first-generation college student, their example of hard work, he says, led him to the “practical” study of business at Florida A&M University. But he found a year and a half of subjects like accounting left him wanting more.

His broader curriculum also included courses on sociology, psychology, and religion. While he was intrigued by religious studies, he says, he felt they often fell short in dealing with profound and fundamental issues.

I could “see the limitations of religious thinking as response to life’s questions,” Shelby says, adding that religion didn’t “seem to respond to the intellectual needs that I had about life, its meaning, how to live.”

Enter philosophy. Encouraged by his professors in religion to explore philosophy, Shelby took a couple of courses in logic and political philosophy and fell in love.

Later, a visit to his campus by former Harvard professor Kwame Anthony Appiah — who was then formulating a critique of a politics rooted in the identity of race — helped Shelby begin to develop his own view on the concept of race, one that would later become an integral part of his academic study and career.

Shelby received his Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. His first job out of school was as an assistant professor in philosophy at Ohio State University. But when a position opened at Harvard in 2000, he jumped at the opportunity. He says he was largely enticed by the chance to work with former Harvard professors Appiah and Cornel West.

“The prospect of having them as colleagues given that I was starting to take this turn working on questions of black politics and identity and so on was very exciting.” While saddened by their subsequent departure, Shelby said that by then he had learned to appreciate and engage with a broad range of talented Harvard colleagues.

“I learned a tremendous amount from my colleagues in the social sciences and the humanities who were working around the issue — not necessarily directly on what I am trying to address, but on related questions.”

Aside from new colleagues, Harvard brought Shelby something else. A family. At a party hosted by Tim Scanlon, Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, he met Scanlon’s daughter Jessie who was then living in California. Soon after, she was back in Massachusetts. And not too long after that, the two were married. They live in Cambridge with their 14-month-old daughter, Ella.

While his family happily takes up much of his free time, Shelby’s work is almost always with him, no matter what he’s doing.

“I find the world of ideas to be endlessly interesting, fascinating. It keeps me engaged,” he says. “That’s what I tend to do, even when I am supposedly taking a break.”