The Status of Black/African-American Philosophers in the U.S.

Posted on November 15, 2016 by

I confess: I am a sort of observer. Perhaps something like an amateur anthropologist observing the philosophical community. I enjoy going on the web searching pictures and videos from all kinds of philosophy conferences around the world. I love to see philosophers “in action”, being caught on camera while giving talks, discussing formally or (even better!) informally. Among other things, it is funny to notice patterns of eye gazing, gesticulation and voice projection of those scholars. But something has constantly been undermining my pleasure with this sort of anthropological experience: I can’t help but notice other patterns in those pictures and videos. For instance, I see only a very few Black/African-American philosophers in U.S. conferences and departments . Maybe this is just a matter of my limited access to data (pictures and videos) or it reflects (to some extent) a real in-balance in today’s American philosophy.

After a conversation with my colleague and APT’s blogger Josh Stein, and also after some research of my own, the disparity in American philosophy became clear to me. African Americans are underrepresented in philosophy by any measure. This underrepresentation is simply undeniable. For example, according to this empirical study published in 2014 (also reported by daily nous), blacks represent only 1.32 % of the total number of people (grad students or faculty) affiliated with a US philosophy department. Blacks also represent only 0.88% of the total number of PhD students in US philosophy departments. Furthermore, only 4.3 % of tenured philosophy professors are black (a terminological point here: in this study, “black” encompasses African-Americans but may also include other ethnicity as well, such as African immigrants for example).

The membership surveys of the American Philosophical Association (APA) also provide some indication of how many Black/African-Americans take part in the US philosophical community. Currently, APA has 9,007 members. However, from 4,965 reported members, only 141 are self-declared black/African-American. This means only 2.8 % of all reported members. This percentage has been oscillating just a little bit over the years, achieving 3.9% in 2015, and 2.6% in 2014. Previous years show even lower numbers of Black/African-Americans philosophers in the APA.

Certainly, these studies are open to debate. In the case of surveys based on self-declared reports, we can easily call into question the methodology, and sample size used. Maybe, it can be argued, the data are rendered “useless” given the problems with these studies. I do not want to go into these issues here, but I think they highlight another problem: the existence of only a few studies concerning the racial diversity in American philosophy. After all, there is not much data left if we reject the APA surveys and the other resources currently available. For sure, more research on racial diversity could provide better data, helping us to better understand the status of racial minorities in American philosophy. Hence, more research on racial diversity could shed light on how serious the racial imbalance in American philosophy really is. Understanding the disparity is a step towards solving this problem.

The low percentage of Black/African-American philosophers in the U.S., and the lack of research on the disparity of racial representation in the discipline, became more apparent to me after I moved to North-America. Philosophy departments here are certainly aware of such imbalances that haunt our profession. Most notably, gender imbalance is a strong issue (see Alison McConwell’s post here about an interesting initiative). Different policies, such as affirmative action measures, are administered at many institutional levels, which produce different practical results. For this reason, I tend to think that the status of woman in American philosophy is improving. Or, at very least, I think that the problem of gender imbalance finally has been recognized by the philosophical and academic community in the U.S., as well as in Canada. In contrast, the problem of racial imbalance has not yet been fully recognized. The level of awareness concerning Black/African-American underrepresentation in American philosophy is low. So far as I can tell, affirmative actions and policies to deal with this underrepresentation problem are almost non-existent. 

I wonder how long it will take until we address this issue of Blacks/African-Americans in American philosophy and how we could make our colleagues aware of it. In sum, I wonder when I am going to see more philosophers from minority groups at U.S. conferences.