In July of 2014, Eric Garner is put in a chokehold by a police officer, and killed. There are enough people swarming the scene to film the last remaining moments of his life, and to hear the words that have come to characterize a movement: “I can’t breathe.” Later that summer, Mike Brown is stopped on the street by a police officer, shot, and killed. The deaths of Garner and Brown, and of the many other black people killed at the hands of police, incite widespread public outrage and protest.
Things aren’t looking much better for black people north of the U.S. border. From as far back as 2002, the Toronto Star has been investigating racial profiling in the city, and in their 2013 “Known to Police” series, analyzed data collected from 1.8 million “contact cards.” Findings include that “[t]he proportion of cards for black people in Toronto is three times greater than blacks’ share of Toronto’s population. In New York, the proportion of blacks stopped and frisked is 2.3 times greater than blacks’ share of that city’s population.” In September of 2014, Jermaine Carby is shot and killed by a police Constable during a traffic stop and Black Lives Matter Toronto was born.
In September of 2014, I am just getting started on my degree at McMaster University. My experience couldn’t be more different than the experiences of those protesting on the streets. I am doing my master’s… in Philosophy: the most abstract, white-male dominated field of all time. Well, that’s probably an exaggeration. Philosophy certainly isn’t the only discipline in which the views of white men figure prominently, but philosophers have a penchant for idea-worship. To practice within the field is to not only familiarize oneself with the thoughts of many Great White Men (think Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Hume, Locke, Hobbes, Rawls, Wittgenstein…), but to place their ideas on a pedestal. Yet what would these now-deceased men think about black social death? Or about the kind of civil unrest characterized by the protests in Ferguson?
To be fair to the Great White Men of the Western canon, much of their work can be, and has been, applied to social and political problems. And in more cases than not, their ideas are revered (by some) because they continue to be relevant to our contemporary human experience. Progressive work is also being done in the field by many modern-day philosophers. One example of this is found in the work of Dr. Chike Jeffers, a philosopher of race here at Dalhousie who has edited a collection of African philosophy and specializes in the writings of black American thinker, sociologist and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois.
Still, a large gap exists between the kind of work being done in the Ivory Towers and the kind of work being done by activists on the ground. I tried to close the gap in my master’s thesis by analyzing the arguments provided for, and against, racial profiling. Yet as much as I try to keep my work focused on applied philosophy, a deep layer of guilt underlies the process. I could be spending my time doing work that actually helps the cause. Instead, I spend most of my days sitting in a comfortable chair in a comfortable cubicle (that I keep warm with the help of a nifty portable heater), reading, writing, or performing some sort of esoteric activity or another.
Although the tension between practical and theoretical work will probably always exist, academics certainly do have an important role to play in social justice movements. What this role looks like will depend on the researcher’s individual commitments and focus, but praxis will probably always require more than ordinary comforts will allow. A prime example of this is Dr. Cornel West, a Harvard University philosophy professor, getting arrested for participating in the Ferguson protests. While I can’t promise anything so drastic for my future, ruffling a few feathers along my way may be par for the course.