203. Some Uses of Philosophy in the Wake of George Floyd’s Murder, Part 2: Sartre on Racism

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on his neck for nine minutes and twenty nine seconds while he was lying face down handcuffed on the street. His death, and many other horrifying acts of social injustice both before and in the wake of his tragic death, have rightly led to international moral outrage and plenty of peaceful protests in the name of justice. The hope is that, more than ever before, these protests calling for justice, legal reform, political change, education, solidarity, and so on will substantially change the world for the better. Many of these efforts are already working as the daily news headlines show. Indeed, a Black Lives Matter rally in my own town has already made an impressive difference. 

In the midst of all this action it may seem that the concerns of philosophy – the activity of asking, and attempting to give imaginative and well-argued answers to, general and fundamental questions in order to gain wisdom – might be too abstract for the times at hand (for my post on the nature of philosophy, go here). But I think it is crucial to think philosophically about the issues that are unfolding since how we think informs our action and vice versa In part one of this series, I showed how natural law theory was employed to fight social injustice in the past, its relevance to the murder of George Floyd, and how it can help in potential future reform (see here). In this post I explore how the French philosopher, playwright, novelist, political activist, and Nobel Prize recipient Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) can help shed light on some issues in the Black Lives Matter movement. Sartre’s insights come from his book Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate (1946; see the Schocken 1995 reissue) which analyzes anti-Semitism in post-WWII France through the lens of existentialism (for an overview and critique of Sartre’s version of existentialism go here). But he claims his ideas can apply to other forms of racism and, as we will see, he is right. Let’s begin with an overview of some basic concepts in Sartre’s philosophy.

Jean-Paul Sartre in 1967

Some Basic Concepts in Sartre’s Philosophy

In his work Being and Nothingness (1943) Sartre describes two fundamental types of beings in the world:

  • The “in-itself” is the kind of being that is what it is: it has no possibilities, no consciousness, no choice, and no sense of time.  For example, a stone is simply a stone. All objects fall into the category of the in-itself.
  • The “for-itself” is the kind of being that is what it is not and is not what it is. This means the for-itself can define itself by what it is not yet: a student sees herself as what she is not yet—a graduate—and acts in accordance with that projection of possibility (i.e., is what it is not).  Moreover, at any moment the for-itself can say “I am not what I currently am” and move beyond present facts and circumstances by negating them (i.e., is not what it is). Sartre thinks consciousness is a power of negation that allows a for-itself to freely make choices and give meaning to an otherwise meaningless world of objects (for an argument in defense of this conception of freedom through negation, go to my post here). Human subjects fall into this category.

Sartre then introduces two other terms that help clarify the freedom of the for-itself, namely, facticity and transcendence:

  • Facticity represents all those facts we need to face about ourselves such as the acts we commit.  In general, facticity is our past. To deny facticity is to remove a necessary condition for freedom since our choices are always based upon our facticity.
  • Transcendence represents our ability to not be reduced to our facticty.  We can give new direction and meaning to past events.  We can, as conscious beings haunted by possibilities, see ourselves differently and choose new courses of action not necessitated by the past. So transcendence is future-oriented. To deny our ability to transcend is to also remove a necessary condition for freedom.

We can begin to approach racism by noting that Sartre, following an ingenious insight from Soren Kierkegaard in his Concept of Anxiety (1844), claims that humans typically try to escape freedom because of the anxiety it causes. It is overwhelming to experience our transcendence which calls into question many of the so-called solid obligations, practices, and beliefs that make up our facticity.  Indeed, existential anxiety differs from fear insofar as it is not directed toward a fearful object but towards the very notion of being able to do something else. But the trouble doesn’t stop with transcendence since it is painful to take responsibility for one’s facticity as well.  We conveniently forget deeds we are ashamed of and are happy to stress the good and overlook the bad in ourselves. As a result, we engage in acts of self-deception in order to escape our existential freedom. Sartre refers to this self-deception as “bad faith” (mauvaise foi):

  • “Bad faith” occurs when we seek to run into total transcendence and deny facticity and/or when we seek to reduce ourselves to our facticity and deny that we can transcend.

The strategies of bad faith cannot succeed since freedom is integral to the human condition. Thus, as Sartre rather dramatically put it, we are “condemned to be free.” But we can choose to act more authentically or, in Sartre’s terms, in “good faith”:

  • Authentic action or action in “good faith” occurs when we accept facts AND we don’t reduce ourselves to facts: we take responsibility for the past and accept that as free beings we can transcend into a new futures with new possibilities. 

Sartre’s Account of Anti-Semitism in Particular and Racism in General

How does all this theory relate to racism?  Well, Sartre argues that racists are in bad faith since they attempt to reduce both themselves and others to beings with no transcendence. They seek to see themselves as having a fixed essence of some sort, some essential nature that entitles them to a job, power, wealth, land, prestige, etc.  They fear change (often socio-economic and cultural) due to the anxiety that it brings. So they seek to deny their existential freedom by reducing themselves to beings—really objects, the in-itself—with a superior nature set in stone. By doing so they hope to avoid judgment, shame, failure, accountability, and so on. However, in order to maintain this image of a fixed superior nature, they need to mark others as inferior by nature. So they need to see some other group or groups as beings with no transcendence as well. Turning to Anti-Semite and Jew, we can see how these ideas apply to anti-Semitism:

“Many anti-Semites—the majority, perhaps—belong to the lower middle class of the towns; they are functionaries, office workers, small businessmen, who possess nothing. It is in opposing themselves to the Jew that they suddenly become conscious of being proprietors: in representing the Jew as a robber, they put themselves in the enviable position of people who could be robbed. Since the Jew wishes to take France from them, it follows that France must belong to them.  Thus they have chosen anti-Semitism as a means of establishing their status as possessors.  The Jew has more money than they?  So much the better: money is Jewish, and they can despise it as they despise intelligence….Thus I would call anti-Semitism a poor man’s snobbery. And in fact it would appear that the rich for the most part exploit this passion for their own uses rather than abandon themselves to it—they have better things to do. It is propagated mainly among the middle classes, because they possess neither land, nor house, nor castle, having only some ready cash and a few securities in the bank….Anti-Semitism is not merely the joy of hating; it brings positive pleasures too. By treating the Jew as an inferior and pernicious being, I affirm at the same time that I belong to the elite. This elite, in contrast to those of modern times which are based on merit or labor, closely resembles an aristocracy of birth. There is nothing I have to do to merit my superiority, and neither can I lose it. It is given once and for all.  It is a thing. We must not confuse this precedence the anti-Semite enjoys by virtue of his principles with individual merit. The anti-Semite is not too anxious to possess individual merit. Merit has to be sought, like truth; it is discovered with difficulty; one must deserve it. Once acquired, it is perpetually in question: a false step, an error, and it flies away. Without respite, from the beginning of our lives to the end, we are responsible for what merit we enjoy. Now the anti-Semite flees responsibility as he flees his own consciousness, and choosing for his personality the permanence of rock, he chooses for his morality a scale of petrified values.  Whatever he does, he knows he will remain at the top of the ladder; what ever the Jew does, he will never get any higher than the first rung. We begin to perceive the meaning of the anti-Semite’s choice of himself.  He chooses the irremediable out of fear of being free; he chooses mediocrity out of fear of being alone, and out of pride he makes of this irremediable mediocrity a rigid aristocracy.” (25-28)

He concludes with a passage that expands his analysis to other forms of racism as well:

“We are now in a position to understand the anti-Semite.  He is a man who is afraid.  Not of the Jews, to be sure, but of himself, his own consciousness, of his liberty, of his instincts, of his responsibilities, of solitariness, of change, of society, and of the world—of everything except the Jews. He is a coward who does not want to admit his cowardice to himself; a murderer who represses and censures his tendency to murder without being able to hold it back, yet who dares to kill only in effigy or protected by the anonymity of the mob; a malcontent who dares not revolt from fear of the consequences of rebellion.  In espousing anti-Semitism, he does not simply adopt an opinion, he chooses himself as a person.  He chooses the permanence and impenetrability of stone, the total irresponsibility of the warrior who obeys his leaders—and he has no leader. He chooses to acquire nothing, to deserve nothing; he assumes that everything is given him as his birthright—and he is not noble. He chooses finally a Good that is fixed once and for all, beyond question, out of reach; he dares not examine it for fear of being led to challenge it and having to seek it in another form. The Jew only serves him as a pretext; elsewhere his counterpart will make use of the Negro or the man with yellow skin. The existence of the Jew merely permits the anti-Semite to stifle his anxieties at their inception by persuading himself that his place in the world has been marked out in advance, that it awaits him, and that tradition gives him the right to occupy it. Anti-Semitism, in short, is fear of the human condition.  The anti-Semite is a man who wishes to be a pitiless stone, a furious torrent, a devastating thunderbolt—anything except a man.” (53-54)

“…a devastating thunderbolt – anything except a man.” – Sartre

This last phrase “anything except a man” suggests how self-defeating racism is. In Being and Nothingness Sartre discusses the strategies of sadism and masochism. He points out that a masochist wants to live as an in-itself, as an object, but also wants to know himself as an object. In effect, he wants to be a conscious doll. But this would require him to live as a conscious for-itself and an unconscious in-itself at the same time—a contradictory task which is impossible. Similarly, the sadist seeks to possess other people’s freedom by reducing them to mere objects. But he also wants the people he reduces to be aware of their humiliated state. In effect, he wants conscious dolls. But this is yet another absurd attempt to make a for-itself into an in-itself at the same time. According to Sartre racists are sadists insofar as they are trying to reduce others to things with a fixed inferior essence. And, since they want to see themselves as things with a fixed superior essence, they are also masochists. Thus racists are engaged in a two-fold self-defeating effort to escape the inescapable freedom that lies at the heart of the human condition: they cannot avoid dehumanizing themselves as they dehumanize others. 

Now we might think, given this analysis of racism as the reduction of oneself and others to facticity, that racism could be overcome by disregarding facticity and identifying people solely with their transcendence. But recall that authenticity must include both facticity and transcendence. Sartre asks us to “Recall the portrait of the philosopher that Plato sketches in the Phaedo: how the awakening to reason is for him death to the body, to particularities of character; how the disembodied philosopher, pure lover of abstract and universal truth, loses all his individual traits in order to become a universal look of inquiry” (111). He says that certain reformers seek a similar disincarnation which is “an exercise in asceticism and of purification, an escape into the universal” (112). Such an escape invokes things like being rational, being children of God, being humans with dignity, and so on to conveniently disregard facticity. In doing so, it is in bad faith and perpetuates the very oppression it seeks to eradicate.

So that is my brief overview of Sartre’s theory of racism. In his helpful introduction to the text, philosopher Michael Walzer points out that Sartre did no research and had little evidence for his claims. Rather, “He produced a philosophical speculation variously supported by anecdotes and personal observations.” No wonder Sartre’s book has, and continues to be, controversial. Indeed, Harold Rosenberg, in his critical essay “Does the Jew Exist? Sartre’s Morality Play About Anti-Semitism”, claims that “on the basis of his authentic-inauthentic conception, Sartre has consciously permitted himself to accept the anti-Semite’s stereotype of the Jew” (go here for the essay). And we know that anti-Semitism isn’t confined to the lower middle class. Nonetheless, I agree with Walzer who claims that “The result, however, is a powerfully coherent argument that demonstrates how theoretical sophistication and practical ignorance can, sometimes, usefully combine.” So perhaps it is best to see Sartre’s theory for what it is – a useful theory – and see if it can be put to use with regard to certain cases of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism. Turning to the case at hand, let’s see how it applies to some issues in the Black Lives Matter movement. Some of these applications are more speculative than others. But they all offer interesting views through an existential lens.

“All Lives Matter”

There are many who, however well-meaning they may be, advocate color blindness and prescribe we say “all lives matter” since, according to them, “black lives matter” excludes others and is therefore offensive. Indeed, some claim that it is racist. But to state that Black lives matter doesn’t logically imply that other lives don’t matter. It is just to call attention to systemic racism and social injustice against Blacks both past and present. But we can use Sartre’s analysis to raise a second and far more interesting objection: the prescription to move beyond Black lives matter to all lives matter can, in its call to see everyone as human beings, children of God, persons with dignity, etc., deny facticity. As we saw above, this would be an inauthentic response to racism since an authentic response must acknowledge both facticity and transcendence. Of course, emphasizing our shared human dignity is important. Indeed, in the last post we saw how crucial this notion of our shared humanity is to natural law and natural rights. But we can only combat racism, sexism, and other forms of social injustice by also carefully considering people’s differences and the various implications of having those differences. To put it in Sartre’s terms: we can only begin to understand how and why some people are being reduced to their facticity if we acknowledge and think hard about that facticity. Any other response will seek to disincarnate the other as a means to neutralizing the existential anxiety that accompanies real reform, choice, and responsibility. So, if we follow Sartre’s account of racism, we will have to say that “all lives matter” is bound to perpetuate the very oppression it seeks to inauthentically eradicate.

White Entitlement

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines entitlement as “the official right to have or do something.” For example, one may be justly entitled to worker’s compensation, social security, or property. But many think they are entitled to have or do something when, in fact, their entitlement is not justified. “White entitlement” is meant to denote one form of unjust entitlement. It refers to white people who think that, just because they are white, they have a right to do or take something when they do not.

Reports of individual white entitlement are currently in the public eye. Viral footage of Miya Ponsetto, Amy Cooper, Lisa Alexander, Robert Larkin, “Kroger Karen”, Tamara Harriman, Lee Jefers, Anthony Brennan III, Lena Hernandez, “Walmart Wendy”, Michael Henkel, Kathy Jenkins and many others show white people acting as if they are completely entitled to condemn, judge, exclude, attack, threaten, and demean Blacks and those who support them. They act as if the world is theirs to alter at will: everyone will bend to their selfish demands, their narratives will drown out all others, they will harm with impunity, their prejudice will stand for knowledge, and no one will dare judge them as they fight the good fight. Many of them act quite differently as they lose their jobs, face widespread public humiliation, and, in some cases, are arrested.

The Netflix documentary 13th (2016) by Ava DuVernay (see the trailer here) offers us various ways to see white institutional entitlement as well: “DuVernay contends that slavery has been perpetuated since the end of the American Civil War through criminalizing behavior and enabling police to arrest poor freedmen and force them to work for the state under convict leasing; suppression of African Americans by disenfranchisement, lynchings, and Jim Crow; politicians declaring a war on drugs that weighs more heavily on minority communities and, by the late 20th century, mass incarceration of people of color in the United States. She examines the prison-industrial complex and the emerging detention-industrial complex, discussing how much money is being made by corporations from such incarcerations” (Wikipedia). If these causal connections are sound, then we have reasons to see white entitlement as something present to some extent in the police, the prison system, the media, politics, religion (see an interesting article on religion and racism here), economics, and the very foundations of our country via the institutions of slavery. And such foundations have enabled systemic racism that supports individual acts of white entitlement like those mentioned above.

Now some of these examples are controversial and the facts, motives, and effects surrounding them are often unclear. In the face of this unfolding complexity we must do our best to avoid sweeping generalizations and overly simple explanations. But, assuming we do have legitimate examples of people acting individually and collectively with white entitlement, we should be seeking an explanation of them. And we can imagine Sartre offering us this explanation which I put together from fragments of the above quotations:

These people who act so entitled assume deep down that everything has been given to them as their white birthright—but they are not noble. Of course, they have enjoyed the benefits of systemic racism and white privilege which has helped perpetuate their delusion of aristocratic superiority. And they have used Blacks to stifle their anxieties at their inception by persuading themselves that their place in the world has been marked out in advance, that it awaits them, and that tradition gives them the right to occupy it. No matter what they do they remain at the top; no matter what the Blacks do they remain at the bottom. To this end, they find the existence of Blacks absolutely necessary. Otherwise to whom would they be superior? But time goes by and then, much to their surprise and dismay, they find their much deserved success elusive. Most of them realize they possess neither land, nor house, nor castle, having only some ready cash and a few securities in the bank. They become afflicted with existential anxiety. But, rather than face their freedom, take responsibility, and grow as authentic human beings, these cowards seek to stabilize their fixed status through racist ideas and acts that vindicate their image of superiority. Many of these acts, made out of desperation, are as reckless as they are self-defeating as current events have shown. It is important to remember that if it is not Blacks it will be the immigrants or some other group they will hate for stealing what they think is rightfully theirs. Thus we see that white entitlement is, in short, a fear of the human condition.

Again, we must avoid painting with a broad brush when it comes to the unfolding events we are experiencing. It is best to assume there are multiple and complex causes at work. But I think his ideas are bound to apply in some cases and can offer us powerful hypotheses as we inquire into racism and its denials.

An Existential Lens on Reform

These hypotheses can be grouped into two closely related categories that reflect the above distinction between facticity and transcendence. On the one hand, we must come up with ways to identify racist institutions that attempt to reduce people to their facticity (we have already seen some examples in relation to white entitlement) and consider ways to resist, reform, and/or replace them with those that do not. Obviously such efforts will entail identifying and challenging actual racists in ways that legally disarm their evil influence. Of course, we can’t expect to address a future with less racism if we can’t come to terms with the racism of the past. As history and current events show, this is no easy task since facing our individual and social facticity can be quite disturbing. But it is something that needs to be done and there are plenty of excellent resources available to help. For example, the “1619” podcast is a powerful look at how slavery has transformed America (go here to listen) and there are plenty of books that critique the inaccurate and narrow history we are taught such as Lies My Teacher Told Me, The New Jim Crow, A People’s History of the United States, Race Matters, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, and so many others.

However, we should incorporate a strong sense of both evil and tragedy as we engage with such critiques. For all too often denial sets in, blame is passed, and refuge is taken in readily available ideologies and conspiracy theories. Cornel West (see The Cornel West Reader) notes that democratic “citizenship must not be so preoccupied – or obsessed – with the possibility that it conceals or represses the ultimate facts of the human predicament.” And these ultimate facts include “disease and death” as well as tragedy and evil: “Like Melville, Matthiessen, and Niebuhr, I believe that a deep sense of evil and the tragic must infuse any meaning and value in democracy” (179). He elaborates with reference to his prophetic pragmatism:

“Prophetic pragmatism, as a form of third-wave left romanticism, tempers its utopian impulse with a profound sense of the tragic character of life and history. This sense of the tragic highlights the irreducible predicament of unique individuals who undergo dread, despair, disillusionment, disease and death and the institutional forms of oppression that dehumanize people. Tragic thought is not confined solely to the plight of the individual; it also applies to social experiences of resistance, revolution, and societal reconstruction. Prophetic pragmatism is a form of tragic thought in that it confronts candidly individual and collective experiences of evil in individuals and institutions – with little expectation of ridding the world of all evil.” (166)

Cornel West (photo by Gage Skidmore)

West points out that the “best in the black intellectual and political tradition has always raised the problem of evil in its concrete forms in America. People like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ella Baker never focused solely on black suffering. They used black suffering as a springboard to raise issues of various other forms of injustice, suffering and so forth that relate to other groups – black, brown, white workers, right across the board, you see…Why? Because a question of evil sits at the heart of the American moral dilemma. With the stark exception of its great artists – Melville, Faulkner, Elizabeth Bishop, Coltrane, Toni Morrison – American society prefers to deny the existence of its own evil. Black folk historically have reminded people of the prevailing state of denial.” (504)

We should heed such tragic wisdom as we work through reassessments of history with an eye on reform. By being keenly aware of it we can intelligently and sympathetically face more of our facticity and hope to avoid what Richard Rorty, in his Achieving Our Country (1991), refers to as the “light-minded, Californian view that one should treat any crime one happens to commit as a useful learning experience” (33). You can read my posts on how to deal with tragedy here and my posts on evil here.

On the other hand, we must think about ways to empower people to face their transcendence. Victims of racism and other forms of abuse may find it difficult to actualize possibilities given their oppressive conditions. Indeed, the possibilities may not even be there in many cases. So it is not enough to remove negative forces. We must also seek out positive ways to empower people to move forward. And how can we help people face their existential anxiety in ways that prevent them from turning into racists in order to escape this anxiety? This question is important if we are to take preventative measures against future racism. Certainly a good education, a strong sense of self-worth, encouragement of one’s abilities by a loving family and supportive community, an ability to see that we can learn and grow stronger by encounters with people of different races, and the capacity to intelligently and experimentally face change are aspects of empowering transcendence. But how can these conditions become a common possession throughout society? What economic, psychological, sociological, religious, legal, political, and physiological aspects are involved in both the enhancement and prevention of these conditions? What can each of us do to move positive development along?

This sketch of what a general model of authentic reform will entail if we follow Sartre’s existentialism is certainly challenging. And we must keep in mind that existential anxiety, despair, suffering, nausea and absurdity – all experiences Sartre was a master at diagnosing and describing (see his novel Nausea for example) – will accompany our choices and efforts to be authentic. But this may not necessarily be such a bad thing. After all, if Sartre is correct then their presence can be a sign that, far from being only intellectually involved in reform from a distance, we are existentially engaged as well.

Go here for my third post in this series.

2 replies on “203. Some Uses of Philosophy in the Wake of George Floyd’s Murder, Part 2: Sartre on Racism”

  1. Chad on

    As always, the wisdom you convey, the arguments you set forth, are deeply compassionate, instructive and right on time. I look forward to more !

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      Hey Chad! Nice to hear from you. I am glad you liked the post – thanks for reading. I’ll have another one up asap.

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