Humanism and Race — A Primer for Understanding the Past and Taking Responsibility for the Future

Course Introduction 

Inside of humanist circles, humanists often regard ourselves as progressive, forward-thinking, logic and science oriented, and concerned with finding equitable and pragmatic solutions to the many challenges humans face globally.  Outside of humanist circles, perceptions of humanists (from non-humanists) get more complicated.  In particular, humanists are often judged by how they look: disproportionately male, disproportionately white, and appearing economically stable and secure.  And humanists are judged by how they act: compassionate, but perhaps a bit too self-assured that their perspective on the world is more useful than an alternative perspective.

HandsTo varying degrees, both of these interpretations of humanists are right.  Humanists do tend to be progressive and open-minded, but we often end up thinking and feeling like we have all the answers, “if only we could convince everyone else.”  For this course on humanism and race, we start here, assuming there is some truth to both of these perspectives.  Humanists, throughout the centuries, have in many respects kept philosophers and politicians thinking about human possibilities for greater life flourishing.  But at the same time, humanists have often been so preoccupied with the question of “what is a human” and “what can the human do (for us)” that often, this progressivism has come at the cost of both tacit and explicit feelings of superiority to others, often black and brown others. For brief instance, philosopher and humanist David Hume—regarded by many as the father of skepticism, the philosophical perspective critical of certain claims to knowledge that cannot be empirically verified—noted “the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites,” while another humanist and philosopher, Immanuel Kant, once wrote of a black man that “this fellow was quite black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.”[1]

Today, when we talk about social issues, all too often we end up playing oversimplified identity politics, where we place easy blame on one group or the next. And such blame could certainly be leveled against Kant and Hume and many others.  But for this course, we want to do more than deconstruct our notions of pristine, innocent humanists.  We want to hold in tension the best of humanist progressivism with a humility and honesty about the work we can help others to do, and the work that we might do on ourselves.

black-lives-matter-lol1The last few years, in the United States, have seen the rise of a black lives matter movement.  It is important to keep in mind that this movement is itself a response to intensely disproportionate police and vigilante killings of black folks, recognition that self-hatred and self-inflicted violence is addressed only in tandem to antiblack racism, and the overwhelmingly disproportionate imprisonment of black and brown folks in American prisons, today.  Currently, there are more black men in American prisons than are enrolled in American universities.  The easy response to such figures is to rationalize them as a result of long-standing policies preventing black men from adequate jobs, education, and the like, or to follow a meritocratic argument that finds fault with the black men imprisoned.  The harder task, albeit the most obvious and accurate, is to take collective ownership of these many racialized hardships and understand them as a product of raced and racist-thinking that has existed for centuries and that still exists in many ways today.

Humanists, and humanisms, are not immune from this ownership, this need to take responsibility.  Often, humanists both inside and outside of organizations arrive at a humanist position having rejected the antiquated, mythological thinking that motivates so many theists.  And at first glance, in the U.S. at least, churches and the theists inside of them have (and remain) woefully ignorant and behind when it comes to overt and internalized racism, sexism, homophobia, and more.  But where race is concerned, humanist grass is not any greener.  In fact, humanist grass tends to be decidedly “white” and many humanists remain confused or in outright disagreement as to whether or not humanism should even bother itself with addressing social issues like racism.

This course has been designed for those humanists sympathetic to—or interested in learning more about—the cause of racial justice as much as for those who might be unsure of why, or how, the topic of race or the social-structural issue of racism have anything to do with humanism at all.  There’s no way to tell the full story of humanism and its relationship to race within the boundaries imposed by this course.  But what we’ve offered here is a series of snapshots, held in tension by the theme of humanism and race, and we think they offer insights and guidance for how humanists can make sense of one of the most vexing issues confronting us today.

Lesson One offers an outline of the relationship between humanism and race, grounding the discussion in philosophy and how that philosophy played out in the social world historically, and how it continues to do so today.  And it ends by recognizing the need to take seriously the many particularities of normativity. In other words, taking seriously the manner in which white folks—and white humanists—are raced (whether we like it or not).  Lesson Two takes a more focused look at white humanists, offering ways of making sense of what seems like a paradox, offering new ways of understanding ideas like white privilege, and ultimately, coming to grow comfortable with the discomfort and uncertainty of the social world faced today by humanists as much as everyone else.


[1] Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 63.

Next Page