Hidden, Forgotten, Forbidden Black History: Racism At the Very Foundation of Political Science

By April 24, 2017Editors' Choice

White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations by Robert Vitalis Cornell, 272 pp, $29.95, November 2015, ISBN 978 0 8014 5397 7


Susan Pedersen, London Review of Books

Robert Vitalis tells a great story about how he came to write this book. Some years ago, sitting in the Clark University library avoiding grading his students’ final exams, he pulled an old history of the university off the shelf. Clark played a key role in the birth of the field of international relations in the two decades before the First World War, he read, especially by founding and supporting one of the new discipline’s flagship journals, the Journal of Race Development. ‘That can’t be right,’ he thought.

The Journal of Race Development - by George Blakeslee

Some more digging told him that it was. The Journal of Race Development, established in 1910, was one of a spate of academic journals, associations and institutes founded as American social scientists came to grips with their country’s expanding global and imperial role. The journal’s title, jarring today, reflects perfectly the centrality of the category of ‘race’ to political science at the time. During the ‘Wilsonian moment’ of 1919, the journal was rechristened the Journal of International Relations without much disturbing its contributors or character. A few years after that, it was bought and renamed again by a New York-based association of internationalist businessmen, officials and academics, the Council on Foreign Relations. Yes, that’s right: it became Foreign Affairs, the pre-eminent journal of the foreign policy establishment.

This is just one of the startling and illuminating genealogies Vitalis pieced together during the ten years or more he spent researching this book. White World Order, Black Power Politics does two things. First, it provides a critical history of the institutional development of the field of international relations in the United States, from its founding at the turn of the century through to the Cold War. This history is radically unfamiliar: the ‘origin story’ taught on undergraduate courses, which traces the field’s core concepts (realism, liberal internationalism) back to Thucydides or Machiavelli or Wilson is, Vitalis insists, a post-1945 invention. Instead, at the moment of its American birth, ‘international relations meant race relations.’ Races, not states or nations, were considered humanity’s foundational political units; ‘race war’ – not class conflict or interstate conflict – was the spectre preying on scholars’ minds. The field of international relations was born to avert that disaster.

A blunter way to put this, and Vitalis is blunter, is that international relations was supposed to figure out how to preserve white supremacy in a multiracial and increasingly interdependent world. Segregation and Jim Crow had done the trick at home, where non-white populations were in the minority, but how could white America govern its newly annexed and overwhelmingly non-white territories without losing its republican soul? A few white scholars thought the task impossible. Indeed, one of the most famous – John Burgess, founder of Columbia’s School of Political Science and of the Political Science Quarterly – opposed President McKinley’s imperial adventuring precisely because it threatened the democratic institutions he thought suited to ‘Teutonic’ peoples alone. ‘American Indians, Asiatics and Africans cannot properly form any active, directive part of the political population which shall be able to produce modern political institutions,’ he warned. Unless it wanted to go the way of Rome, America should leave empire alone.

Most American political scientists disagreed. The Wilsonian moment gave them the chance to prove their new field’s worth. True, there were those, like the repellent T. Lothrop Stoddard (PhD Harvard 1916), who met anti-imperialist appeals with hysterical jeremiads about the threat to white supremacy; and in the Year of Trump, we shouldn’t be surprised that Stoddard’s incendiary trilogy – The Rising Tide of Colour (1920), The New World of Islam (1921), Revolt against Civilisation (1922) – proved wildly popular. But the bulk of the profession – what Vitalis calls the hump of the bell curve – were confident that they could develop institutions that would enable non-white races to progress without upsetting fundamental hierarchies.

Their racial paternalism dovetailed perfectly with the work of the new League of Nations, which was building an oversight regime that would guarantee the ‘well-being and development’ of colonised peoples while keeping them in imperial hands. Many prominent American international relations scholars of the interwar years – Harvard’s Raymond Leslie Buell, Columbia’s Parker Moon, Chicago’s Quincy Wright – made their names studying that mandates regime. American foundations such as Rockefeller and Carnegie were happy to underwrite their efforts.

One of Vitalis’s core arguments is that the difference between these serious-minded researchers and extremist popularisers like Stoddard is more a matter of style than substance, of tone than content. The ‘hump’ of the profession may not have raged about whites’ inalienable ‘right to their racial heritage’, but Vitalis could find no white international relations scholar in this era who directly challenged white privilege by supporting equal citizenship rights and colonial self-determination. All were, as the historian of anthropology George Stocking put it, ‘evolutionists’: that is, they assimilated ‘races’ to ‘stages’ of the human evolutionary past, and then assumed each had to develop separately and at its own pace. After all, these were the principles that governed race relations in the United States.

Yet there was another tail to the bell curve, a small, hard-pressed group of black scholars who insisted that the problem was not racial conflict, or even racial difference, but simply racism: the systematic and worldwide denial of equal rights to citizenship and self-determination on grounds of race alone. Vitalis calls this group the ‘Howard School’: the term captures both Howard University’s pre-eminence as a centre of African-American learning at a time when white universities would train but not hire black academics, and the distinctive contribution of its faculty to scholarship more broadly. At a time when international relations was the study not of the anarchical relations between the world’s states but of ‘the dynamics of domination and dependency among the world’s superior and inferior races’, these ‘first black scholars (and only them) in a deeply segregated academy challenged the fundamental premise of international/interracial hierarchy, that different norms applied to different classes of people’. Recovering their indefatigable work is this book’s second major contribution.

Vitalis is interested in four scholars in particular: the philosopher Alain Locke (PhD Harvard 1918), the historian Rayford Logan (PhD Harvard 1936), and the political scientists Ralph Bunche (PhD Harvard 1934) and Merze Tate (PhD Radcliffe 1941) – though he also notes the contributions of the historians E. Franklin Frazier (PhD Chicago 1931) and Eric Williams (PhD Oxford 1938), who taught at Howard before returning to Trinidad in the late 1940s. Of the main four, all but Tate – the first African-American woman to receive a PhD in this field – are today reasonably well known, something that can’t be said of the once eminent white scholars with whom they argued and sometimes collaborated. Yet they are remembered as pioneering black intellectuals, founders of the field of African-American studies, not as political scientists. Although the American Political Science Association offers a Ralph Bunche award for the best scholarly work on ‘ethnic and cultural pluralism’, neither Bunche’s work, nor that of his peers, would appear on an IR syllabus today.

We get some sense of that work here: Locke’s early interrogation of the concept of ‘race development’ and his attention to Harlem’s significance as a diasporic intellectual centre; his, Logan’s and Bunche’s critical assessments of the League of Nations’ mandates regime; Bunche’s analysis of race as a cloak for economic exploitation in A World View of Race (1936); and Tate’s prescient analyses of arms control and Pacific relations. But this isn’t really an intellectual history, because Vitalis is concerned less with the merits of particular paradigms than with the process by which they come to hold disciplinary power: that is, how they gain support, draw funding, give birth to institutes and journals, and cope with or succumb to challenges from rival frameworks. His is a history of struggle, albeit the kind of struggle that happens in boardrooms, editorial meetings and the plenary sessions of academic conferences.

It was an unequal struggle, obviously: black scholars were usually admitted to the white academy grudgingly or, almost worse, as token representatives of their race. Vitalis provides plenty of vignettes to illustrate this: white scholars or statesmen angling to find the one acceptable black collaborator (‘Ralph Bunche would be excellent but perhaps hard to get’); foundations, having decided to put funds into African studies, courting and endowing prestigious white institutions with no track record in this field instead of Howard (‘an atavism destined to disappear’). This account is depressing but not especially surprising. More unexpected is the story Vitalis tells of one particular white scholar’s episodic and self-interested collaboration with Locke, Logan and Bunche.

Raymond Leslie Buell shows up again and again in this story, just as he forced his way into countless conferences, journals, colonial governors’ offices and League meetings in his quest to shape international relations between the wars. Vitalis doesn’t quite know how to deal with Buell, who also found ideas of separate development seductive and was too hopeful about ‘trusteeship’ regimes. But against his fairly conventional liberal internationalist thought must be placed his hyperactive and anything but conventional practice. We see Buell badgering Locke for contacts in Africa; teaming up with Logan at a conference in Williamstown to defend the legitimacy of colonial nationalism; exposing Firestone’s reliance on forced labour in Liberia; heading off for almost a year of research in Africa (the first international relations scholar to do such work); and quitting his job at Harvard because he thought he could do more to improve race relations as the head of the New York-based Foreign Policy Association. Buell could be patronising: he clearly liked seeing himself as a scholarly impresario and tried to direct as well as support black scholars’ work; Pearl T. Robinson has written wonderfully on Bunche’s simultaneous use of, and defences against, Buell’s meddling. But in recovering Buell’s complicated relationships with Locke and Logan as well, Vitalis has rescued from obscurity one of IR’s most interesting forgotten founders.

Buell’s relationship with the Howard School was unique. He was, Vitalis says, the only white international relations scholar to engage seriously with African-American scholars as intellectuals. By the time he died prematurely in 1946, aged fifty, frameworks were already shifting. His bestselling 700-page textbook, published in 1925, assumed that race and empire structured the international order; eight years later, a rival textbook written by the University of Chicago’s Fred Schuman paid more attention to economic rivalries between states. Intellectually, race was falling out of favour as a respectable explanatory factor – a shift that Vitalis might have been expected to celebrate but does not, for the simple reason that he sees this turn to be a racist move as well. But his argument here is convoluted, sometimes too heavily ironised and not parsimonious, making it possible for a reader to be struck by his vivid reconstruction of the era when ‘international relations was race relations’ without quite grasping his arguments about the later period. This would be unfortunate, because Vitalis’s history of how ‘race’ vanished is easily as important – and probably more relevant to our day – as his recovery of the work of Stoddard and Buell.

Why did race cease to be the dominant category for the field of international relations? Not, Vitalis insists, because statesmen and pundits ceased to think in those terms. Even as imperial powers fought savage counterinsurgency wars, State Department memos and Foreign Affairs articles were describing anti-colonial movements as driven by race hatred and racial psychoses. International relations, too, still had its virulent racist tail. Lothrop Stoddard was still scribbling away, coining the term ‘realist’ to describe those who understood that whites (not ‘states’) would fight to preserve their privileges. In the 1950s, Stefan Possony, later of the Hoover Institution, the journalist Nathaniel Weyl and Robert Strausz-Hupé of the University of Pennsylvania’s Foreign Policy Research Institute promoted eugenicist ideas about black racial inferiority and urged resistance to efforts at integration in the United States as part of the European empires’ struggle against non-white colonial nationalism across the globe.

Margaret Sanger Quote

But the ‘hump’ of the bell curve just flattened out. Mainstream scholars didn’t so much change their minds about race and empire as walk away from the question. Part of this shift was generational, as ambitious younger scholars turned towards bipolar rivalry as the hot new subject of research. The economic crisis of the 1930s and the resulting construction of rival economic blocs also drove scholars to think of imperialism less as an expression of racial dominance and more as an effort to secure markets and resources – an interpretive move Bunche, for one, accepted. The horrific racial persecution of the Nazi regime had an impact too, delegitimising explicit racial argument within the academy. Although some scholars simply substituted ‘culture’ (or, in Samuel Huntington’s case, ‘civilisation’) for the now proscribed term ‘race’, more simply lost interest in the issue.

Vitalis, quoting Toni Morrison, calls this turn away from race ‘the graceful, even generous, liberal gesture’, and not with admiration. Its effects were profound. With race no longer a master category, American race relations no longer figured as part of a global pattern, and those who still saw it as such were marginalised. When the MIT political scientist Harold Isaacs published his controversial but very important study The New World of Negro Americans (1963), which examined the choices and work of black American scholars in the context of the breakdown of the global norm of white supremacy, no political science journal in the US reviewed the book. When the Ford Foundation began to put funds into Melville Herskovits’s programme in African studies at Northwestern, Herskovits first had to agree to abandon his plan to have ‘Negro studies’ and African studies in one centre. Since international relations was now not race relations, the way racism worked globally was no longer a subject. ‘It was as if department, centre, and institute heads had all received the same strategy memos as the Anglo-American diplomats who were charged with depoliticising the issue.’

That intellectual shift pulled the rug out from under the Howard School. Howard was by 1940 the font for critical thinking about race and empire, as well as a crucial node in what Vitalis calls a ‘wholly unique counternetwork of leading anti-colonial theorists, public intellectuals and future prime ministers of Africa and the Caribbean’. But Bunche was called into government service during the war and Eric Williams into Caribbean politics soon afterwards (both with considerable real-world consequence), and Locke died in 1955. Howard was hit hard by McCarthyism too, with many faculty members under investigation; ironically, the end of academic apartheid would be another blow. Rayford Logan soldiered on, but while he spent much of his time battling for resources for his programmes and recognition for his work, he also spent some of it subjecting Merze Tate to the kinds of indignity department chairs can always visit on colleagues they despise. Vitalis admires Logan, but never pretends that department politics were any more enlightened at Howard than anywhere else.

The Howard School had no successors. The 1960s would bring ‘race’ back into the academy – but mostly through new African-American studies programmes, not political science or international relations. Black undergraduates today are very unlikely to study or pursue advanced degrees in political science; those few who do are taught a history of the discipline of international relations that is partial if not fictitious, a history in which Logan, Locke, Bunche and Tate (and, for that matter, Stoddard and Buell) never appear. Hence Vitalis’s strenuous resistance to a narrative of liberal progress. Forgetting one’s history is not, for him, a neutral act.

He wants us, instead, to take his genealogies to heart. He wants his discipline to understand not only how central the category of race and the structures of racism were to its founding institutions and paradigms but also to see the erasure of that history not as progress but as repression, a wilful forgetting that has if anything made it less equipped to comprehend (much less to address) the shocking racial inequities that still mark both the American and the global order. Will his field listen? I don’t know. Political science tends to be a presentist discipline. But if international relations scholars want to understand the racial politics that made their field what it is today, there is no better place to begin than with this righteously angry book.


About IBW21

IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to building the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. to work for the social, political, economic and cultural upliftment, the development of the global Black community and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.