[We at NewAPPS are very grateful to Prof. McPherson, who generously accepted our invitation to guest-blog.--ES]
With regard to Black Americans, I feel about "implicit bias" much the same as I feel about the "pipeline problem.” There is a willful, not necessarily a conscious, preference among many members of the philosophy profession largely to maintain the status quo in terms of: the social group profiles of members; the dynamics of prestige and influence; and the areas and questions deemed properly or deeply "philosophical." None of this is good for black folks.
Despite its strivings toward disembodied, ahistorical truth, objectivity, and (now) science, philosophy is obviously an enculturated practice. This is not a radical or viciously relativist claim that should discredit philosophy. Rather, this is a modest observation meant to highlight reality, which there is an ongoing tradition of ignoring or denying.
The questions taken most seriously by a certain group of philosophers, in a particular time and place, are not somehow inherently more important or interesting than any number of other questions that could occupy a philosopher’s thought. This politics of philosophical enculturation, even within a roughly shared cultural tradition, can be racialized and gendered. What will be reflected in turn are racial and gender complexities of the broader culture and of specific societies—within which professional philosophers will be acting out their racialized and gendered sensibilities, experiences, and priorities.
That the job market has become even more competitive and that department reputations are now quasi-officially charted would tend to intensify pressures that sustain dominant values and practices. (Disclosure: I have recently participated in this charting process and would do so again.) Of course, there is nothing racist or sexist about wanting a good job or trying to build a strong department.
The considerations raised thus far do not necessarily point to widespread racism or sexism in the philosophy profession. But suspension of disbelief is hard to maintain regarding the choice to focus on gesturing toward external or subconscious causes of the underrepresentation of blacks and women in philosophy, instead of committing to meaningful change from within.
Low-level diversity steps will fail to make a significant, worthwhile difference for blacks on the whole—-especially since we lack the means through critical numbers and allies to generate much pressure for change. The more viable contest and negotiation in the philosophy profession is among whites—-be they men or women (cf. mainstream feminism), straight or gay, abled or disabled, socio-economically privileged or underprivileged, native or non-native English speakers, analytics or continentals, etc.
The efficacy of consciousness-raising depends on the possibility of often enough inducing awareness, shame, and committed attempts to do better, as compared to mere defensiveness, embarrassment, and pro forma displays. I'm not sure how to think about the efficacy of a Gendered Conference-type campaign for racialized minorities. I imagine that pointing out the all-whiteness or non-blackness of every notable philosophy conference, journal, and department would quickly become so routine as to lose whatever impact it might initially have—similar to the useless boilerplate in job ads that, with unintended Gricean implicature, "especially encourage minorities to apply.” I also can imagine that a few individuals "of color" could benefit.
“Quotas” are out of the question—among other reasons, because they are a legal non-starter in the U.S. But I am a strong believer in real affirmative action, not the fictitious “tie-breaker” or meager “outreach” simulacrum. A number of “well-qualified” blacks can be found now (albeit, if you’re serious, on a first-come basis), without need for appeal to affirmative action. Still, there is often no substantive accounting for philosophical taste: if gatekeepers have convinced themselves that affirmative action would nearly always be necessary in order to hire a black person, so be it.
Addressing the gross underrepresentation of blacks in philosophy would require a sincere effort to hire and retain us, in visible places. This would involve recognizing that we might often be driven by questions (whether or not about race) on the margins of mainstream debates. Since many journals can be expected to continue rewarding pursuits that are unfriendly, in effect, to inquiries more likely to interest many black philosophers, the quality of our work, apart from the prestige of the venue in which it appears or its mainstream influence, might need to be given greater weight in assessing merit.
A critical mass of preferred philosophers—through opposition, indifference, or self-deception—resists movement toward an effort of this kind. Generally, the profession has become comfortable with the “standard and customary” procedure (words actually used, in private defense, by a renowned department)—that is, calling for names, hoping for a couple applications, and filing diversity reports that emphasize the “pipeline problem,” en route to hiring whomever they truly want. This procedure almost never results in making an offer to black philosophers, or even inviting us to give a job talk (which would risk alerting conscientious deans and graduate students to the fact that we already exist).
Such an approach to demonstrating concern about blacks in the profession is not meant to succeed. Yes, I am charging bad faith, by whatever mechanisms it operates.
The overwhelming, functionally exclusionary whiteness of the philosophy profession is directly and indirectly signaled by the status quo. A complicated array of factors sustains this whiteness, not all of which are racially malign in themselves. But the perpetual resort to other priorities, exculpatory speculations, evidentiary demands, rival justice claims, weak initiatives, and requests for the presumption of good faith—in a profession and from departments that could hardly be more racially segregated, while adopting for the 21st century the spirit of “with all deliberate speed”—does appear to add up to a racially hostile environment.
So how, personally, did I end up here? I was naïvely susceptible to the myth that the profession would be eager to have people like me. I was too confident about the sheer power of my “undeniable” and “proven” intellect and credentials. There wasn’t a realistic career path, within or outside academia, that seemed more appealing. I thought that getting paid for pursuing my philosophical interests would be very satisfying. I did see and hear warning signs. But I had extraordinary philosophy mentors, from whom I received encouraging feedback. In various ways, I came to believe that the profession, despite its traditional tendencies, would mostly be welcoming enough.
That optimistic assessment proved mistaken. Nevertheless, I am at peace in my department, which made a serious effort to hire and retain me. There are conspicuously black philosophers—already in the pipeline and demonstrably capable—who have been less fortunate. There also must be ambitious black students who could become talented philosophers—yet get the warning signs, racialized and other, and head in an alternative direction.
I hope that this helps to clarify my perspective as well as to offer suggestions for major progress toward inclusion.