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Volume 20 • Issue 2 (2017)

Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question

Kathryn T. Gines
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

A scant half-century ago, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was among the most greatly admired and frequently discussed public intellectuals of her day. I was fortunate to have begun my undergraduate studies and undertaken my early postgraduate education at precisely the right moment to encounter and appreciate her—within the admitted limits of my abilities.

Like others of her origin and age—a German Jewish female born at the turn of the twentieth century—she escaped Nazi Germany and came to the attention of the broader intellectual community at least partly because of her understandable focus on politics, the impulse toward authoritarianism, and the diverse moral quandaries complicating “the human condition.” Her intellectual preoccupations and her extensive contributions to public discourse may not have won her an indelible place in the canons of Western political thought; however, her immediate influence on thinking about some of the most pernicious ideas and shattering events in recent history will not soon to be forgotten.

In particular, it is important to recall that among her pivotal themes was the recovery and restoration of the “public world” at a time when merely “social” or “personal” concerns had come to dominate our thoughts and actions. North Americans, thankful to have defeated enemies on two fronts and enjoying post-war prosperity after the Great Depression, were retreating from active political engagement. In the wake of totalitarian monstrosities, attention to hearth and home was a relief.

Among the intelligentsia, mass political involvement was seen as hazardous. Intense political participation was considered too fraught with possibilities for extremism to be encouraged (Bell, 1960). Both citizens and social scientists were content with political apathy and regarded low voter turn-outs as indicative of electoral contentment. Few expressions of complacency outperform the sanctimonious assertion of sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset that political ideas were obsolete, for the United States was already “the good society in operation” (1960: 403).

In the alternative, Hannah Arendt stressed the nobility of political traditions and sought to restore the centrality of the ancient agora as a centre of free and open discussion to shape shared beliefs and behaviour in an idealized modern polis. She understood politics as philosophy brought down to street level and an essential activity in pursuit of freedom and the common good. In the early and mid-1960s, it was a creditable quest and it remains so today—perhaps with growing urgency.

My first exposure to Hannah Arendt was her mighty volume, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), which I found revelatory. Along with Theodor Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality (1950) and Albert Camus’ The Rebel (1953), it helped construct a view of the dual disasters of Nazism and Stalinism that made it seem possible both to understand and to move constructively beyond them.

Impressed, I promptly purchased and read The Human Condition (1958) and Between Past and Future (1961); somewhat later, I sat down with On Violence (1969). Though by then I was becoming more critical of her theorizing and what I perhaps presumptuously took to be her “passive-aggressive” reluctance to call herself a “philosopher,” she continued to do what good teachers always do; namely, provoke her students and readers, and make them think more deeply than they might otherwise have done about their own ideas as well as hers.

Arendt’s claim to historical fame will most likely not come from her meditations on totalitarianism and its connections to racism/anti-Semitism, imperialism/colonialism and Stalinism/Nazism, which were the questions that initially attracted me to her. Nor, I suspect, will her meditations on the relationship among the private, the social and the political worlds (which engaged me for somewhat longer) endure. Rather, she will probably be remembered for two matters that normally fall somewhat outside ethereal academic thought.

The first was the fame (and infamy) that she acquired from one of the most contentious pieces of journalism in recent history—a series of articles for The New Yorker magazine on the trial and execution of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann that evolved into Eichmann in Jerusalem (1961) and introduced the phrase for which she is justly remembered, “the banality of evil.”

The second was the fame and the infamy that came from scholarly and wider public interest in her youthful affair and life-long friendship with Martin Heidegger—whose career cannot be disentangled from his membership in the Nazi Party. If nothing else, she further inflamed the ongoing dispute about whether such thinkers’ personal attitudes and actions should disqualify their thought or, at least require that Heidegger’s philosophy be “seen through the lens” of his Nazi affiliations.

Now, however, another aspect of Hannah Arendt’s thinking has been highlighted by a young Black scholar at Pennsylvania State University who was not yet born when Ms. Arendt died, but who has delivered a strong critique of Arendt’s understanding of the “Negro question” in the United States of America. It should be of interest not only to Arendt’s admirers and detractors, but to everyone for whom the social cleavages of class, race and gender genuinely matter.

The controversy takes off from a single article that Hannah Arendt (1959) contributed to Dissent magazine, “Reflections on Little Rock.” It centres upon accusations of racism against her. It is not entirely new; harsh criticisms and energetic defences have been made before (Allen, 2004; Burroughs, 2015; Cole, 2011; Duran, 2009, Hinze 2009; Norton, 1995). In fact, the original article ignited a blaze of controversy upon its publication and it has continued to ensure heated discussions ever since. It led, for instance, to a multi-sponsored panel at the Program of Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University in 2007. That event compelled discomfiting reflections on the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Entitled “Hannah Arendt and Little Rock,” it featured an in-depth discussion of Arendt’s views on race and society that were not always easy for her admirers to hear. That discussion continues.

At base, the historians, philosophers, social scientists and legal scholars have asked: “How could one of the world’s leading critics of anti-Semitism seem to advocate racial segregation in the American South?”

Moreover, in an ominous foreshadowing of odious “trigger warnings” in contemporary institutions of higher learning, the Princeton announcement seriously wondered: “Should scholars include or disregard ‘Reflections on Little Rock’ in their presentations of Arendt’s political thinking?” This concern alone should keep the Arendt controversy alive as an example of the hazards of pusillanimous self-censorship which is, after all, among the most corrosive elements in the overall degradation of academic freedom and goes to the core of academic integrity—now, as always, a highly contested concept.

In Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question, Kathryn Gines brings renewed salience and intensity to bear on Arendt’s own integrity and consistency. It is a matter not only of tremendous importance to Arendt scholars, but also to students, teachers and citizens throughout North America today. We are regularly confronted directly or indirectly by increasingly incendiary racial violence and rhetorical excess that is, for some, a clear and present danger to the America’s liberal democratic political order.

Gines’ contribution is especially timely in light of the recent unleashing of conflicts that have remained unresolved for more than the half-century since the United States Supreme Court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 [1954]) that at least formally did away with the segregation of schools, and since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Pub. L. 88–352, 78 Stat. 241, enacted July 2, 1964) into law intending to usher in a new era of racial equality as part of his aspirational “Great Society”—bookending, as it were, the events in Little Rock and the US civil rights movement which so disquieted Hannah Arendt.

Gines works through Arendt’s perceptions and utterances to disclose a pattern of attitudes toward desegregation that is incompatible with the view of Hannah Arendt as a political progressive and courageous opponent of racism and discrimination in all its forms. She shows how Arendt harboured a view of African-Americans as the progeny of a “world of black savages” and frequently thought in precisely those terms. She highlights Arendt’s accusatory assessment of integrationists who, she declared, only wanted their children to attend white schools out of an inappropriate sense of personal ambition. She describes Arendt’s opinion that integration would lead to a collapse of academic standards and that demands for such things as Black Studies would corrode the curriculum and irredeemably sully higher education.

Most of all, Gines argues that, for Arendt, the United States did not have a “racial problem”; it had “Negroes,” and Negroes were the problem. What fascinates me is the fact that Arendt had delivered, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, an astute account of the ways in which race prejudice could be deployed to create a false justification for colonialism abroad and (especially) anti-Semitism at home all in the interest of a dominant social class; yet, she failed utterly to appreciate a similar process in her own account of democracy and equality for “Negroes” in her adopted homeland.

The cerebral subterfuge that Arendt performs to make her case ultimately derives from her primal categorical distinctions among the political, the social and the private realms. Her enduring interest (following Aristotle) in promoting politics as our species’ highest secular calling and the fulfillment of our species-nature as zoon politikon (political animals) becomes twisted by her constriction of the “political” to include only an idealized law-making capacity that, in effect, relegates the most pressing and divisive issues of the community to the secondary status of the “social” or even the tertiary “private” sphere. She outlandishly claims, for example, that the first black girl to break the colour bar in Little Rock was an innocent who was cynically manipulated by her father and NAACP officials (none of whom appeared at the Central High School with her) into becoming a “hero” for their own selfish motives.

Arendt, of course, does not deliver an explicitly racist argument. To be fair, she says that segregation is an evil consequence of the primordial American “crime” of slavery; but, she does consign it to a lower level of importance—a merely “social” problem that has no business in the illustrious domain of national politics. Readers may make of that what they wish: self-delusion, hypocrisy or the results of a tilt toward Plato/Socrates’ allegedly “noble lie” when it comes to sorting out what authentic politics is meant to be.

Whatever it is, it cannot be excused, as Gines rightly says, by an appeal to ignorance and a claim that Arendt was merely unfamiliar with race relations in the United States or that, as an immigrant, she could not be expected to have nuanced knowledge of American race relations. A European background, after all, did not shelter Gunnar Myrdal (1944); and, if Arendt was truly unaware, then she’d have been well advised to refrain from comment.

Gines’ entire commentary should be read directly alongside Arendt’s own work. Arendt was an admirable, perhaps emblematic, example of a twentieth-century public intellectual whose erudition in support of human dignity and against oppression cannot entirely be denied. Her appeal as a resolute opponent of (almost) every sort of human iniquity and inequity is irrefutable; but, her stature as a creative and insightful advocate of freedom and public happiness was compromised by crucial flaws, some partially hidden, but not wholly concealed.

One reason that Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question should gain a wide readership has little to do with Arendt herself or even with the “Negro question,” but rather with the fact that, from Ferguson, Missouri to Paris, France and to Gaza, waves of hatred based on race, gender and post-colonial tensions (often accelerated by religious sentiments) are truly undermining Arendt’s beloved agora.

What’s more, somewhere in both the rational and the irrational aspects of otherwise tolerant, well-meaning and liberal people may lay similar toxicities to those found in a careful reconstruction of Arendt’s incipient, if not quite ripened and rotten, racial presumptions. It is required of us as educators and as citizens to subject our political and intellectual leaders to the same scrutiny that Kathryn T. Gines applies to a stalwart of Western thought and it is equally important to subject ourselves to the same severe interrogation.

References

Adorno, T. Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. & Sanford, R. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Allen, D. (2004). Talking to strangers: Anxieties of citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, H. (1969). On violence. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & World. (Originally published as a special supplement, Reflections on violence, in The New York Review of Books, February 27, 1969, it was also included in her collection, Crises of the republic, New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1972).

Arendt, H. (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York, NY: Viking.

Arendt, H. (1961). Between past and future: Eight exercises in political thought. New York, NY: Viking.

Arendt, H. (1959). Reflections on Little Rock. Dissent 6(1), pp. 45-56. Available online http://learningspaces.org/forgotten/little_rock1.pdf

Arendt, H. (1958). The human condition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, H. (1958). The origins of totalitarianism, 2nd revised ed. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Co.

Bell, D. (1960). The end of ideology: On the exhaustion of political ideas in the fifties. New York: NY: Collier.

Burroughs, M. (2015). Hannah Arendt, ‘Reflections on Little Rock,’ and white ignorance. Critical Philosophy of Race 2(1), pp. 52-78.

Camus, A. (1953). The rebel: An essay on man in revolt. London, UK: Hamish Hamilton.

Cole, D. (2011). A defense of Hannah Arendt’s ‘Reflections on Little Rock.’ Philosophical Topics 39(2), pp. 21-40.

Duran, J. (2009). Arendt and the social: Reflections on Little Rock. Critical review of international social and political philosophy 12(4), pp. 605-611.

Hinze, C. (2009). Reconsidering Little Rock: Hannah Arendt, Martin Luther King Jr., and Catholic social thought on children and families in the struggle for justice. Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 29(1), pp. 25-50.

Lipset, S. M. (1960). Political man: The social bases of politics. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Myrdal, G. (1944). An American dilemma: The Negro problem and modern democracy, 2 vols. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Norton, A. (1995). Heart of darkness: African and African Americans in the writings of Hannah Arendt,” in Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt, Bonnie Honig (Ed.). University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, pp 247–262.


Howard A. Doughty teaches Values, Morals & Ethics, and Social Consciousness: Equity & Social Justice in the Faculty of Applied Arts & Health Sciences at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howard_doughty@post.com