Race as Phenomenon: Critical Philosophy and Dr. Robert Sussman’s The Myth of Race

Jeremy Brunger

Racism remains one of the great social ills confronting modern civilization. The Enlightenment did not originally produce it, but it solidified its categories: the hierarchical logic of the Medieval scala natura transformed under Enlightenment secularization into the hierarchy of races. In the modern scientific literature, race is mostly a bygone concept, consigned to the rubbish bin of intellectual history. In philosophy and the humanities at large, it is largely considered a mere social construct, an interpolative faculty linked not to human identity but to human exploitation. Nevertheless, despite race’s abolition from the intellects of reputable scientists and philosophers, race continues to prove a formidable topic of debate in the popular public sphere. One recent counterpart to this popular discourse is Dr. Robert Sussman’s 2014 book The Myth of Race, which outlines the intellectual history of racism beginning with the 16th century and leading into the 21st century. Sussman’s criticism is liberal in nature-he does not support racism and leads a rather devastating critique of the scaffolding of institutional racism and 20th century eugenics while solidly connecting the dots between American liberal capitalism and European fascism. Sussman goes to great pains to point out where, in the social sciences, racism has made its mark, ranging from psychology and psychiatry to anthropology and economics. But he does not much consider its role in relation in philosophy, or the possibility for exposing race as pure myth using philosophy as a critical tool. In this paper, I shall examine how philosophy can also prove that race is mythical rather than scientific in nature.

In The Myth of Race, Sussman describes Kantianism’s role in propagating racist anthropology. However, he does not examine the very kernel of Kant’s thought, the distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenous, or things-as-they-appear and things-in-themselves. The phenomenal world, for Kant, is composed of what the human sensuous apparatus can appreciate, while the noumenous realm, that which is reality, remains beyond the scope of the human sensuous apparatus. But race is phenomenal, not noumenous-it does not constitute a person, it merely reflects a phenotype. Human beings see race, but they see it as an aspect of the social imaginary. Realist science does not confirm its existence, only the dialogues of racial oppression do. Race has been a powerful engine of social control for centuries, even though it is but epiphenomenal rather than real. In the section “Of the Ground of the Distinction of All Objects in General into Phenomena and Noumena” in Critique of Pure Reason, Kant writes

…it seems to be implied in our very concept that if we call certain objects, as appearances, beings of sense (phenomena), by distinguishing the mode in which we intuit them from the nature of those objects in that latter capacity, although we do not so intuit them, although we do not so intuit them, or take other possible things, which are not objects of our senses at all but are thought as objects merely through the understanding, and contrast them with the beings of sense, calling them beings of understanding (noumena). The question then arises, whether our pure concepts of the understanding might not possess some meaning with regard to these beings of the understanding and constitute a mode of knowing them (258).

If race is a phenomenon, it is emphatically not noumenous, which is to say, it is not real-it is a series of myths “thought as objects merely through the understanding.” Kant’s racist anthropology is founded on a paradox (Sussman 27). His thinking suggests racism, but its method proves it immoral, as does Kant’s famous categorical imperative. While the imperative of moral law, as Kant sees it, is only supposed to be applied to rational beings, that is, fully autonomous (and thus not enslaved) human beings, it does not take a great leap of logic to apply it to all human beings regardless of phenomenal skin color, and therefore the imperative ought to have dismantled racist thought at the very birth of modern racism. It is, perhaps, a quirk of history, in conjunction with the exploitative practices of empire, that it did not. The theoretical application of Kant’s categorical imperative holds that the oppressing of one group of human beings by another group of human beings is immoral and is therefore not substantiated by the natural order. With racism, the ethics in and the method of Kant’s thought powerfully contradict themselves.

Racism goes, then, from the individual to the social. Michel Foucault’s Society Must be Defendedoutlines the ways Foucault thinks oppressive societies punish their minority groups using the language, or dialectic, of biology. For Foucault, racism is founded on one group’s ability to appropriate the category of what constitutes discursive truth in order to win out competitively over another group. Thus, societies like historical Europe or America run, in part, on the perpetuation of racist thought in the minds of those who stand to benefit from it and those who stand to be ruined by practical racism. InSociety Must be Defended, Foucault writes of the role of race in the regulation of modern industrial society:

It is indeed the emergence of this biopower [of racism] that inscribes it in the mechanisms of the State. It is at this moment that racism is inscribed as the basic mechanism of power, as it is exercised in modern States. As a result, the modern State can scarcely function without becoming involved with racism at some point, within certain limits and subject to certain conditions…What in fact is racism? It is primarily a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die. The appearance within the biological continuum of the human race of races, the distinction among races, the hierarchy of races, the fact that certain races are described as bad and that others, in contrast, are described as inferior: all this is a way of fragmenting the field of the biological that power controls…It is, in short, a way of establishing a biological-type caesura within a population that appears to be a biological domain (Foucault 254-55).

Sussman points out that scientific discourse, from Kantian anthropology to eugenics, played a large part in creating the vocabularies of racist oppression (43). Foucault’s insights into knowledge-power, the transmission of power from the intellectual sphere to the practical sphere, from the social imaginary into the social reality, as constituted by the scientific “will to truth,” link quite well with Sussman’s thesis on the discursive genesis of scientific racism. Scientific discourse created and reflected racism, and was in turn supported by material economies based on racism, like the Atlantic Slave Trade, or Southern feudalism in America (Sussman 15). For Foucault, when social leaders start to cry “society must be defended,” what they are really saying is that social minorities must be disciplined before they unsettle the biopolitical social order. Everywhere racism exists, it is most vocally supported by the ruling class or those who seek to identify with it. For Foucault, the discourse of truth can be used as a tool of oppression, but it can also become a useful tool for resisting this oppression. Race thinks itself true; it is but a phantomic way of speaking down to the Other. Johanna Oskala, writing of Foucault’s philosophy of power, posits that “Scientific practices and the rules regulating them make it possible for some entities to appear as objects of scientific research only at certain times and under certain conditions” (13). Just how biology introduced racism into the scientific mind, the scientific mind used biology to discover that race and racism are not genuine categories of truth (Oskala 67). The rise of racialism occurs at the same time as the rise of modern European and then American empire. The two events are dialectically intertwined. Sussman discusses the role psychiatry, a then-nascent science, played in propagating European racism; in this instance we might consider the normative psychiatry of the 20th century to be largely coincident with racism, at least insofar as it relates to racial subject-position (115-16). One of Foucault’s chief intellectual enemies was the institution of normative psychiatry, which predicated itself on conforming outliers into model citizens (Oskala 19).

Since racism is a tool of the ruling class for sustaining itself, it must have a way to engender itself in the public consciousness. It largely propagates race and therefore racism by the interpolative hailing of the racial spectacle. Louis Althusser’s concept of the hailing of identity-when some symbol of the ruling class imprints a self-conscious symbol onto one of its subalterns-proves quite informative as to the generation of race in a philosophical register. Race interpolates people into thinking of themselves as certain identities occupying certain stations in the totalized society (Althusser 190). “Ideology,” writes Althusser, “acts or functions in such a way as to recruit subjects among individuals (it recruits them all) or transforms individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) through the very precise operation that we call interpolation or hailing. It can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace, everyday hailing, by (and not by) the police: ‘Hey, you there!'” (190). For instance, when reading a Faulkner novel about the South, one is quite certain to encounter black people who are oppressed but who do not express discontent. This is because, in part, they have been successfully interpolated by the social order: it has hailed them as “A: black people” who must “B: be oppressed.” This is their role, no matter their substance; this assignation is how a fundamentally inegalitarian society sustains itself through space and time. Althusser continues, writing “One has to be outside ideology, in other words, in scientific knowledge, to be able to say ‘I am in ideology'” (191). Thus, the ideological, that is, the falseness of racial phenomenal experience, seeks its succor from being supposed a category of scientific knowledge, but is nevertheless always already non-scientific.

This interpolation takes place in the realm of the superstructure of a society. In other words, race is located in and part of its superstructural content. It is, in essence, ideology clothed in phenomenal skin. Karl Marx’s philosophical distinction between the base of material economy and the superstructure of political, juridical, and ideological content uncovers the foundation of race in exploitative material economy. The results of this exploitation become ideological aspects of that exploitative society: different races, occupying different caste positions, become associated with different signifying cues. Marx’s concept of the superstructure was one of the keystones of his social theory, as elaborated in Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy and The 18th Brumaire. He refers to “an entire superstructure of uniquely shaped sensations, illusions, modes of thought and fundamental views of life” springing from “different forms of property, from the social determinants of existence” (Sperber 403).Thus, lighter people are thought of as somehow purer, and darker people somehow criminal. Any society that features the category of race in its cultural superstructure is one that is fundamentally inegalitarian, because its allotment of subject-positions, along with property, is predicated on exclusionary practices as measured by race. The inequalitarian economic distribution inherent to Western life, especially in the last few centuries, ejected race from the human body into the realm of ideas, where it metamorphosed into a false science based on how it thought the body performed in relation to its economic position.

Race is thus performed within the cultural superstructure and accomplished by social interpolation. Judith Butler’s theory of social performativity, as outlined in Gender Trouble, further reveals the ephemeral nature of race. People come to think of themselves as belonging to a certain race as opposed to another race. Since they find race coincident with their identity, they perform it, much how they perform gender, without recognizing that race, like gender, exists within culture, not biology (Butler 20). Race, like gender, is ideological, that is, its performance renders the over-arching social structure more absolute in its mechanisms of law and order. By performing race, people ensure their continued exploitation. The performativity of race constitutes it: race is categorically closer to a speech act than a biological category. Since it is not noumenous, it is ideological, ideology performed sometimes without the actor knowing it (Althusser posits in On the Reproduction of Capitalism that ideology is upheld unconsciously). Many Americans have naturalized race within their thinking, without understanding that science does not lend it any credence; many more have performed it, thinking it an authentic and objective form of expression as removed from the concepts of culture or ethnicity.

Racism is not only an institutional practice; it is a theory of servitude and exclusion. To be one race, theoretically, is not to be another. Race is a site of privilege, even though it is the very mysticism of oppressive society. Philosophy can do much to render it a more neutral idea, though perhaps the idea of race cannot reach neutrality because it is structurally ideological and founded on principles of social inequality. The history of the concept of race is co-incident with the concept of symbolic violence, which arose with early modern European imperialism and used color, which it quantified, as its instrument of oppression. As riots occur in American streets and spread fear in American families because of racism and its crises, so too can philosophy hope to dismantle the more intellectual components of racist theory and practice, however much they are founded in the racist and racialist pseudosciences Sussman roundly denounces in his study.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Foucault, Michel. Society Must Be Defended. New York: Picador, 2003.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. New York: Penguin, 2008.

Oskala, Johanna. How to Read Foucault. New York: Norton, 2008.

Sperber, Jonathan. Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life. New York: Liveright, 2014.

Sussman, Robert. The Myth of Race. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2014.


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