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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Friday, November 07, 2008

Carter's RACE 5: Immanuel Kant and the Racialized Teleology of Enlightenment

After defending the dissertation and moving on to teach, I was so relieved not to be reading only what could be digested for nourishing some part of my project. I immediately started reading in one of my key areas of interest that had mostly lain dormant while in doctoral studies: Mesoamerican history and the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Through my seminary years I had come to believe that something of grave importance for the church had happened during that time and that it was poorly understood. I believed that something had gone terribly wrong, and that it was somehow tied to contingencies rather than necessity. Something had happened in the history of European engagement with the civilizations they were newly encountering that could have gone otherwise. As it turned out, it was disastrous for many of the world’s peoples and for the church. I was eager to restart this line of thinking through new research.

About seven months later, I started teaching my first undergraduate ethics course at Shaw University. On the first day of class, a student asked me questions about the textbook choices and course design that made me realize something that I had bypassed during doctoral studies. As an adjunct, I was teaching from syllabi prepared by others, and it presented a fairly standard approach to European philosophical ethics. Although my fellow students and I had applied a good deal of intellectual concern to matters of racial division in the church, I was amazed at how little effort I or my teachers had put into actually reading and studying literature examining such matters. So my next crash course was in African and African American approaches to ethics.

Looking back it became apparent that when I wrote in my dissertation about the ways that accommodation to modernity had handicapped and even perverted the churches of the West, I did not grasp the interrelationship of modern nation-states and racialized thinking. Among all the fruit of studying John Milbank, I was not pushed by him toward a construal of modernity as a racialized world. I can see now where I might have grasped some insight had I been looking. However, the critical turn in Milbank’s argument never really embraces the construction of whiteness. Milbank’s identification of the “liberal Protestant metanarrative” offers possibilities for reflection on the racialized nature of the modern world, but frankly I was focused on the rise of modern nation-states and did not give enough attention to the rise of modern economics nor the racial implications of the nation-state. Carter’s work offers a way to probe this direction and gain a new insight into what I have studied.

Several years after I finished my dissertation, the work of Luis Rivera in A Violent Evangelism helped me to begin to understand this gap in my education and thinking.

The key here, as I made note of in the previous post, is that Carter has examined critical but lesser known writings of key figures. This time, it is Immanuel Kant. Kant, ever positionized as anti-teleological, is far more complex than most of us learn in school. His attention to teleology can’t be ignored in Toward Perpetual Peace, yet to my reading this work was either an anomaly or a late-career change of perspective which contradicted earlier views. But Carter has shown the critical teleological elements of Kant’s entire project, evident in his fascination with Enlightenment and what it means for the future of humanity as the seeds of human potential unfold in the rise and triumph of the white Europeans in the world.

This connection to race might be ignored by many readers as “throwaway comments” scattered in his writings. This is in fact the favorite hermeneutic of twentieth-century philosophy and political science, which carves out the sections of enlightenment writings that speak to theological arguments or racial conceptions. Most of us are aware of Kant’s derogatory remarks about the impossibility of a black man making good sense when he talks. The commonly repeated racist quotation becomes an emblem of the racist heritage of modernity, but most of us go on teaching Kant as if this belief about race is not central to his philosophical project. Carter has argued that certain essays and reflections from the heart of Kant’s career clearly develop the significance of race within the philosophical, political, metaphysical project of Kant’s career. Race, and particularly the white race which is a race transcending race, is a critical driving force in the teleological unfolding of human destiny.

The contrast of black and white races is a critical element of Kant’s thought. The black race represents a kind of dead end of one possible trajectory of human development. Having reached a certain point of development, perhaps a nadir, the black race would be most difficult to turn and move toward the higher directions of the human race displayed and potential in whiteness. The “darker races,” in having developed certain seeds or potentialities inherent in humanity, have become enclosed within the trajectories of their particularity, “they suffer under the entropy of their own particularity: they can’t get over themselves.” Thus believing that race is a natural and inherent and permanent feature of humanity, he singles out one race, a kind of super race, as the one destined to fulfill human destiny. As for the others, “their racial existence is an impediment to their human existence, where ‘human’ here stands for the universal.” Only one race can stand for the universally human (89).

Having been led to this place, it now seems obvious that the racializing project is inherent in the modern project, not merely a detachable extra appendage unrelated to and unnecessary to the body politic and the body of knowledge. It remains a driving force behind so-called globalization and the neocolonial vision of multinational corporations and nation-states.

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