Racism Links to International Relations

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Next year many teams will likely argue that the assumptions behind the Affirmative’s evidence related to how the US should interact with China is based on flawed racist conceptions, as international relations theorizing is grounded in racism.

In a new (2015) book, White World Order, Robert Vitalis, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, develops this argument. I’ve included many debate-relevant cards from the book in this release as well as evidence from an author who interviewed him.  What is especially interesting is that the author if the interview piece ties solutions to racism in IR to actions to confront racism in the United States.  This argument will be particularly useful for those wishing to push the limits of the topic to include domestic efforts to confront racism.

Timothy Hunan, May 20,  2016, Robert Vitalis on “White World Order, Power Politics,” https://toynbeeprize.org/global-history-forum/de-segregating-international-relations-a-conversation-with-robert-vitalis-on-white-world-order-black-power-politics/ DOA: 6-6-16

Taking the international relations field of the early twentieth century seriously—in the sense of how it conceptualized world order, not its racist ideas–matters today. For if one viewed race andclimate as the fundamental independent variables of international society, then the issue of the interface between race and the tropics was just as live in Harlem and the “Black Belt” (to name two regions of America heavily populated by African-Americans) as it was in Nigeria or the Philippines. Grasping this distinction (or rather, lack of a distinction) between “inside” and “outside” in this race-centric conception of international relations is utterly critical, Vitalis emphasizes, since it helps spur scholars today to “internalize” and “externalize” their disciplines—to pursue them inside-out and outside-in. Vitalis explains. For early American scholars of international relations, it was perfectly consistent to treat interracial marriage or the maintenance of Jim Crow in the American South in perpetuity as an “international issue,” because it literally was an inter-national (that is, inter-racial) issue. Leading American scholars of international relations like T. Lothrop Stoddardargued in favor of the maintenance of difference between the races, fearing that racial mixing and the absence of racially apportioned seats in legislatures would lead only to chaos and eventual “race war.”

In contrast, notes Vitalis, both disciplines like International Relations and African-American Studies today remain captive to a narrative logic of “inside” and “outside” when it comes to conceiving the American nation-space. The study of American foreign relations, notes Vitalis, is typically about the world “out there,” not the ways in which American domestic space interacts with the world outside. U.S. relations with black African states are usually not treated in the same framework as Black Lives Matter, for example, since the one is a “foreign” issue and the other a “domestic” issue.

But, notes Vitalis, international relations studied properly must be interwoven with “domestic” perspectives on race and blackness. AsWhite World Order shows, notions of an “Atlantic community” (as in the Atlantic Charter of August 1941 or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO) were framed in such a way from the start so as to deny African claims for self-determination, and critical black scholars like Rayford Logan (1897-1982) and George Padmore (1903-1959) were critical of the hollowness of the Charter from the start. In contrast, a view of the Atlantic Charter more informed by race would present it as the road taken instead of a more inclusive vision according to which the USA and British Empire would respect black self-determination in the South and in the colonies.

Likewise, scholars of African-American Studies might extend their disciplinary engagement with literature, sociology, and history to the field of international relations. Concepts of blackness, hierarchy, and white supremacy may be just as embedded in the history of American foreign relations as scholarly discipline as they are American housing and mortgage policy (to take one example). This kind of re-reading of IR into the canon of African-American thought might also open new vistas upon intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois, who appears in White World Order not only as a champion of a “talented tenth” of black intellectuals but also as a fierce–and victorious–debater against white racialist scholars like the aforementioned William Stoddard. In a series of three debates with Stoddard in 1925 (in New York), 1927 (New York), and 1929 (Chicago), DuBois dismantled Stoddard’s fantasies of white racial purity and a “right to racial heritage” being diluted by the putative threat of miscegenation.

As White World Order shows, throughout the early- and mid- twentieth century, numerous intellectuals, foremost among them African-Americans but also white scholars like Raymond Leslie Buellchallenged aspects of the prevailing racialist view of international relations. (Buell, a Harvard professor, was the first U.S. scholar to perform serious fieldwork in Africa; his personal relationship with black scholars was, however, frequently patronizing.) Still, it is black intellectuals like Alain Locke (1885-1954 and the first African-American Rhodes Scholar), Merze Tate (1905-1996), Ralphe Bunche (1907-1971), and others who populate the bulk of Vitalis’ readable 181-page account of race in American international relations. Locke, as we discussed in our TPF Global History Forum interview with historian Susan Pedersen, was one of the first scholars to investigate the League of Nations’ mandate system, finding that the Mandate Powers were doing little to advance their promises of “race development” and a transformation of the Mandates into something more than colonies in all but name. The report had little practical effect at the time, but it spurred Locke — a professor at Howard University in Washington DC – to develop the University into a hub for investigation on the interdependence of imperialism and racism. Over the late 1920s and 1930s, scholars like Bunche and Rayford Logan joined the faculty, turning it into an intellectual powerhouse.

Readers of this piece, and especially those with backgrounds in international relations, may wonder why, if the Howard School was so important, they haven’t heard of it – or works like Bunche’s A World View of Race. Or they might wonder why, if racism and racial hierarchy was so important to early twentieth century international relations, the discipline’s watchwords (especially in the texts first-year students read) are terms like “realism” and “power politics.” Relying on works like Paul Gordon Lauren’s Power and Prejudice, one might assume – as did this author – that the confrontation with Nazi racism plus the exigencies of Cold War geopolitics against the Soviet Union eventually spurred American political science departments to embrace these new conceptual frameworks over old ones that emphasized the centrality of race.

The truth is more complicated. When the Great Depression hit American universities, many a plan hatched in the 1920s to build institutions withered, as funds dried up. As internationalist institutions like the League of Nations faltered, moreover, the racialist scholar Stoddard began lobbying aggressively for what he dubbed “realism” (the first use of the term). But when he used it he meant a retreat from high-minded and impractical schemes for international coöperation, increased trade, and migration, since they tended to lead to the “sacrifice of race.” A more sober policy would see American interests in close alliance with the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world to allow the perfection of the white race.

Contemporary discussions among mainstream élites like Raymond Fosdick (the head of the Rockefeller Foundation) and John Foster Dulles were more muted, but concerns about race still loomed large in the minds of many. The leading textbook of the period,Frederick Schuman’s International Politics, dismissed racialism as a pseudoscientific myth, but noted that the effects of this myth still made it possible that “Negro States” like Ethiopia, Liberia, or Haiti would lobby for African-American self-determination — or, worse, that the Soviet Union would do so. Merely suggesting this, however, made Schuman the target of smears about being a fellow traveler of Stalinism; he nearly lost his job. But the broader point is clear: the invocations of “realism” or “power politics” in the sense that we know them today were only products of Pearl Harbor and a post-1950s rewriting of the history of the discipline. There is, in short, almost no evidence that foundations or universities were anticipating a break from a race-centric world or a full-throated turn towards state- not race-centric IR as we know it now. As Vitalis’ account shows, throughout the 1930s, members of the Howard School wrote eloquently about the effects of racialism on the international system and participated in a vibrant interwar Black Atlantic world that included figures like George Padmore and C.L.R. James, among others. But when scholars like Max Yergen applied to the Carnegie Corporation for grants to study the effects of African colonialism, they were routinely turned down, and so much of the African-American institutional activity that flourished in the 1930s was run on a shoestring budget. When the US’ war against Japan and Germany began in 1941, Howard School scholars like Ralph Bunche and Rayford Logan were shut out of the funding and activities that opened up at the Carnegie Corporation, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Princeton (where many League of Nations offices had been relocated). Both during and after the war, scholars like these, as well as Locke and Merze Tate (of whom more in a moment) pondered how stable an America-centric international settlement could be that still honored de facto segregation at home and the maintenance of British and French colonial dependencies (albeit with some access to natural resources for the US) abroad. Beyond its inherent injustice, this exclusion of black scholars from the profession had deleterious effects on the ability of the field of international relations to comprehend decolonization, arguably the most important change in the international system of the postwar years. Repeating earlier tropes, 1950s Cold Warriors wrote of the danger of a “race war” wherein African decolonization, Soviet Communism, and African-American discontent would generate a vortex threatening white hegemony. Howard School scholars, as well as the white political scientist Harold Isaacs, pushed back against this myth, but these works were, again, little-reviewed and little-read in mainstream political science journals. Even as foundation money enabled the creation of Area Studies centers around the United States, the contemporary intuition was that the “low level of civilization” of Africa, not to mention its still-colonial status (beyond Ghana, Ethiopia, ad Liberia) made its study a less pressing priority than that of Europe, China, the Soviet Union, or the Middle East. Howard received virtually no funding from either foundation or federal funding initiatives. Hence, not only was a cadre of African-American intellectual talent squeezed out from discussions about the United States’ role toward colonial Africa, but the post-1960s generation of white Africanists that did emerge from institutions like Northwestern University was also ill-equipped to understand later demands to integrate African Studies curricula with those in African-American Studies.