Recently at Daily Nous, Justin W. posted on the fact that the percentage of blacks in professional philosophy lags behind the percentage of blacks that make up the American population. In the title of the post, he calls this a problem—‘Diversity in Philosophy: Is the Problem Lack of Pre-College Exposure?’. Justin W. summarizes the situation succinctly (and the study from which he pulls the data is here):
…though blacks in the U.S. make up over 13% of the general population, they make up just 1.32 percent of the total number of people professionally affiliated (as grad students or faculty) with U.S. philosophy departments. Approximately 0.88 percent of U.S. philosophy Ph.D. students are black, and approximately 4.3 percent of U.S. tenured philosophy professors are black.
The purpose of W’s post is to ask what the cause of the lag might be, but I will set that issue aside and ask whether W is justified in calling it a problem.
So, why think that a lack of blacks in professional philosophy is a problem? One thought is that the cause is racism—blacks are hired at a lower rate because of unjustified biases against them. If this is the cause, then clearly the profession faces a serious moral problem. But, I doubt that this is the cause, especially since most departments strongly desire to make admissions and hires that increase the numbers of minorities in the profession. At any rate, this is an empirical matter, and simply noting that the number of blacks in professional philosophy is low will not suffice to show that racism is the cause. As things stand, we must first establish that racism is the primary cause before concluding that the numbers issue is a problem because of racism.
Another reason to think that the low numbers of blacks in philosophy is a problem is that perhaps the profession suffers from not having more blacks. People who believe this are likely to point to standpoint epistemology to support their claim. As a fix to the alleged problem of implicit bias, standpoint epistemology emphasizes the importance of including people from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in a profession. Outsiders, they argue, will shed light on the blind spots of the in-group. But, even if we accept the validity of standpoint epistemology, it’s difficult to see how it would help with philosophy. How would being white or black affect one’s thinking about the Ship of Theseus, or consequentialism? It seems like it wouldn’t.
Applied ethics and philosophy of science might be areas of exception. A black man might have a different perspective on the ethical status of affirmative action policies, for instance. This suggests that it might be pragmatically wise for philosophy to increase the presence of minority groups in the profession. Perhaps, in certain sub-disciplines of philosophy, increasing the number of blacks would help the discipline overcome certain views that it is biased against.
A third reason that the low numbers of blacks in philosophy might be a problem is that perhaps departments are less effective at teaching black students than they would be if there were more black professors. Black professors, the thought goes, are more capable of relating to, and empathizing with, black students. Again though, this is a pragmatic reason, and no one has established that black students stop studying philosophy because they have issues with their non-black professors. If the problem is a pragmatic one, it is surprising, given the amount of hand-wringing over the issue in some circles. I would have thought that labeling the phenomenon a problem suggested that there was an ethical issue here.
Even if the lack of blacks in philosophy is a problem, I wonder if it is a problem for philosophy, and not the academy more generally. What is the percentage of black professors and graduate students across the university? Is it below the percentage of blacks that make up the American population? These are empirical questions to which I do not know the answer, but my suspicion is that we would find the same phenomenon at the university level as we do in philosophy.
And, suppose we find disparities of groups in other departments. Suppose, as seems probable, gender study departments have a higher number of women than men, or African American study departments have a fewer number of Asian Americans than the percentage that Asian Americans make up of the American population. Is this a problem for those fields? It seems, on pain of consistency, we should say it is.
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