Anti-Black Racism in Arendt, and Philosophy’s Dangerous Commitment to Purity

By Kevin Miles

It is arguably the case that Hannah Arendt can no longer be reasonably defended against the charge of being guilty of anti-black racism. If anyone interested in the subject was not persuaded by Anne Norton’s “Heart of Darkness: Africa and African Americans in the Writing of Hannah Arendt” (1995), what followed with Robert Bernasconi’s “The Double Face of the Political and the Social: Hannah Arendt and America’s Racial Divisions” (1996) and his “The Invisibility of Racial Minorities in the Public Realm of Appearances” (2000) should have been more than enough to illustrate Arendt’s failure to understand the phenomenon of race in American society. Danielle Allen’s “Law’s Necessary Forcefulness: Ralph Ellison vs. Hannah Arendt on the Battle of Little Rock” (2001) and her Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education reveal the limits of Arendt’s failed engagement with the politics of race in the United States. More recently, Kathryn T. Gines has convincingly revisited the matter in Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question (2014) and ends her book with this closing sentence: “In expressing her judgments about the Negro and the Negro question, Arendt has indeed exposed and disclosed herself, though it appears that she has not liberated herself from her individual idiosyncrasies.”

hannaarendtsudomenica16ye8Gines’s closing indictment against Arendt, concerning her failure to liberate “herself from her individual idiosyncrasies,” is not simply an individual charge directed at particular judgments made by Arendt, but a recalcitrant question concerning the so-called “history of philosophy.” Arendt reminds us in The Life of the Mind that “thinking means that each time you are confronted with some difficulty in life you have to make up your mind anew.” What the damning evidence of Arendt’s anti-black racism shows is that her “thinking” on race is infected by a prejudice about which she failed to think; her work failed to confront the difficulty of race on the very terms she establishes for thought. What Arendt’s anti-black racism reveals is a problem for philosophy that we have seen on too many occasions, because it is no fundamentally different than the challenge we face when considering Augustine’s acquiescence to the use of torture, Kant’s racist remarks in his Anthropology, Locke’s willful participation in the African slave trade, Hegel’s remarks about the entire continent of Africa, or the anti-Semitism explicitly disclosed in Heidegger’s damning Black Books.

We find a key to this problem in the Preface of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “As for the individual, every one is a son of his time; so philosophy also is its time apprehended in thoughts. It is just as foolish to fancy that any philosophy can transcend its present world, as that an individual could leap out of his time or jump over Rhodes.” If “philosophy also is its time apprehended in thoughts,” we can begin to make sense of how the philosophical thinking of some of the tradition’s best thinkers appears so absurd. What leads us to be surprised when we encounter racist judgments in a philosopher as important as Arendt? We expect the thinking of such philosophers to be exceptional by virtue of a misguided belief in “purity” and the misguided belief that philosophical thinking in itself is necessarily an instance of purity. Let Hegel’s observation about philosophy being a child of its time disabuse us of our belief in pure thinking.

What strikes me as worth considering is not why Arendt’s judgments about Black Americans failed to be exceptional or how it is that she failed to achieve “pure” thought. Arendt could no more transcend the world informing her thinking than she could jump over the island of Rhodes. A more interesting question involves what opportunities Arendt may have had which could have informed her of her anti-black “individual idiosyncrasies” before she arrived in the United States. We should wonder about the extent to which her readings in Kant and Hegel informed her judgments, but we can also consider how the world of a German of her time came into contact with the anti-black racism in Germany. Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out is extraordinarily suggestive in this respect.

Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out provides ample evidence that after its defeat in World War I Germany was required “to consent to the occupation of the left bank of the Rhine as well as the cities of Cologne, Coblenz, Kehl, and Mainz on the right bank.” This 15-year occupation of Germany mandated by the Treaty of Versailles involved Black colonial soldiers numbering tens of thousands of Africans. Shortly after the African troops occupied German territory, German political parties submitted a parliamentary petition claiming, “Germans feel this improper use of the coloreds to be a disgrace and observe with growing indignation that they are exercising rights of sovereignty in German cultural territories. For German women and children—boys and men—these wild people are a dreadful danger.” The petition additionally complains that “colored troops” gather in such a way that “German women are exposed to them…Is the Imperial government cognizant of these occurrences, unworthy of human beings? What does it plan to do?”

black-people-lynchedThe goal of this sort of rhetoric is easily anticipated by anyone familiar with the anti-black racist discourses that provoked thousands of lynchings without due process in the United States. The African soldiers were accused of every villainy imaginable; they were “black rapists,” “Rhineland bastards,” murderous, bestial, not human; certainly not to be let loose any more than a rabid dog. Field Marshall Hindenberg’s Aus meinem Leben in 1920 is explicitly pejorative in this regard, even if it is primarily directed at the French for subjecting the German people to such danger.

The point here is a simple one: What anti-black bias the Germans expressed at the close of World War I was not new to them. They had almost as much time to develop an anti-black bias as did the average white citizen in the United States. Is it unreasonable to suppose that this aspect of Germany’s history made Arendt a child of her own time? In Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question Richard Bernstein writes: “The expression that best characterizes Arendt’s mode of thinking is one she used over and over again—‘thought-trains.’ All thinking is (or ought to be) grounded in ‘personal experiences’ and events. Thinking is, literally, reflections (nachdenken) on such events.” Might it be the case that this is the challenge we must necessarily consider in Arendt’s thinking, namely, that her thinking with regard to an Africanist figure is a thought-train that made a stop somewhere that reflection has not yet fully brought to light? What are we to think of thinking that is haunted by a past not yet past, but not entirely visible to the thinker’s thinking? Moreover, what does such a possibility tell us about the form of thinking we call philosophical?

Kevin Miles is a Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College, where he teaches race theory and film studies.