Sunday, October 30, 2016

Pedersen on Vitalis's World Order, Black Power Politics

Susan Pedersen (Columbia Univ. - History) has published Destined to Disappear (London Review of Books, Vol. 38, no. 20, October 20, 2016, pp. 23-24), reviewing Robert Vitalis, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Cornell Univ. Press 2015). Here's an excerpt:

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. . . .

[A] small, hard-pressed group of black scholars . . . 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.