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"Post-Post-Racialism: or the Evolution of Race-Thinking": A Conversation with Paul C. Taylor (Keywords: Metaphilosophy; Political Philosophy; Afropessimism; Aesthetics)


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 1 ("The New Basics: Planet").

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Paul C. Taylor is the W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. His publications include On Obama (2015) and Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics (2016). In this interview, he talks to Adam Ferner about the latest edition of his Race: A Philosophical Introduction, which examines the way notions of race function in the contemporary social landscape. The conversation has been edited for clarity.


Adam Ferner (AF): The third edition of Race: A Philosophical Introduction has just been released. It’s a philosophical examination of the concept of race, and though it’s a small book, you cover a lot. On the question of the nature of race, you position yourself as a “radical constructionist”. Race is like money, socially constructed but no less real for being so. It’s “ontologically subjective, but epistemologically objective”. But you’re not just concerned with the metaphysics of race. Your primary focus is on race in relation to politics, ethics, and the philosophy of experience. You examine the often deeply damaging ways that “race-talk” functions in society. However, you resist the thought that we should stop talking about race – a move that aligns with a problematic “colourblind” mentality – and recognise that while racial discourse is dangerous, “…so are hammers and knives”. As you write, “My sense is that, like many other tools, the practice of race-thinking is useful enough to keep around as long as we handle it and attend to its risks with care.” This is a “critical racialist” approach.


The book also provides a historical analysis of the development of the concept, charting the move from pre-modern theocentric ethnography (which distinguishes between, for example, Christians and Heathens) to the modern form of race-thinking that we find in Kant, which arranges basic types into a hierarchy with whiteness at the top. Despite widespread claims about “post-racialism”, this modern notion continues to play a role in the white supremacist societies we live in today. But race-talk isn’t static. As you put it, racial projects evolve, as do meanings. And it’s the shifting form of the concept that I wanted to focus on first. This is the third edition of the book. The first came out in 2003, at the time of the invasion of Iraq by US and UK forces and a swell of anti-Asian racism (in response to the SARS epidemic). The second edition came out in 2013, shortly after the London riots, prompted by the death of Mark Duggan, and the conviction of Stephen Lawrence’s murderers. In the US, it was the middle of Barack Obama’s presidency, and you concluded that edition with some thoughts on his “meteoric rise”: “Whatever else [his ascension] means it clearly shows that the old rules for race-thinking and racial politics have changed.” I don’t think I need to go into the political climate in which this latest edition has appeared, but a fair amount has happened and one of the strengths of the book is that it manages to keep pace with socio-political developments. With this in mind, I was wondering what it’s like to be theorising about a moving target? It seems to be an element of activist philosophy that doesn’t necessarily figure in, for instance, analytic metaphysics. Do you think philosophical discussions about race have a particular rate of change? More specifically, do you think the changing socio-political landscape has required substantial theoretical shifts in your work?


Paul C. Taylor (PCT): Let me approach this last question first. The changing social and political circumstances didn’t require much of a shift in the content of the work, which I take to be one of its strengths. One of the aims of the project was to provide an account that was supple enough to accommodate the kinds of shifts you’re talking about even in advance of knowing what shifts are coming. The point, in a way, is to bear out a thought that was controversial in the late twentieth century, but much less so now: that race is dynamic and mutable and all-provisional and all-contingent. A lot of people accept that now and understand that this claim doesn’t also require us to say, “Therefore, race isn’t real”. So the content of the work hasn’t changed. What has changed is my orientation towards the burden of producing it.


When the first book came out I had a very crude sense of what it meant to intervene in these kinds of debates. Now, I have a richer sense of the shape of the publishing industry and the weight of academic discourse relative to other forms of knowledge production (especially in US think-tanks and media). This has left me with a fairly “pessimistic” view of academic contributions (I’m putting pessimistic in scare-quotes because different people mean different things by that word). For example, it has become clear to me that the principal use of this book is in university courses, the principal audience is the people who participate in those courses, and the principal benefit is that it provides these people with a vocabulary for continuing to expand the scope of intelligent engagement with racial politics. I didn’t understand that when I wrote the first book. I thought books of this kind could circulate differently among faculty experts. I was naïve about academic publishing and about what’s expected of certain texts. In this edition, one of the things I try to say clearly is that it isn’t an introduction to the philosophy of race, but rather a philosophical introduction to the phenomenon of race. The first is a way of introducing someone to a set of academic debates among specialists. It’s a way of inducting people into a game that academics play with each other. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to talk philosophically about race. When I wrote the first book, I thought these two things were more closely integrated than they turned out to be.


AF: I’m thinking about your engagement with the publishing process. When we hear interviews with novelists, about their work and writing practice, there’s a much greater focus than there is in academic philosophy on the feelings the writing evokes. The background thought I had here is about epistemic exploitation and the way the weight, the burden, changes, depending on how the publishing industry positions you in response to political events. In the UK, for instance, there has been a recent drive by the industry to produce more work by authors of colour, without necessarily any attempt to change to the editorial patterns, or the make-up of the industry, to support such authors.


PCT: Are you familiar with the Journal of Political Philosophy’s special issue on Black Lives Matter? It came out in 2017. The issue failed to feature a single author of colour. This is what it means to position something as a trend; we do this thing because this is what everyone’s talking about, but we do it in the way we do everything else. So we end up with this issue on Black Lives Matter with no black people in it because the structure of academic journal publishing can’t turn on a dime, and when people want to show their interest in new things, they show their interest in the old ways and can’t really do justice to the new things. Is that what you mean?


AF: That’s exactly what I mean. And I know people in academic philosophy don’t typically ask this sort of question, but I’m just wondering how that makes you feel as an author? 


PCT: You’re right that we don’t normally talk about this. People who are trained in the way we are trained aren’t often invited to think of ourselves as authors who must cultivate a writing practice. We are researchers, we are scholars, and writing is a medium that we use to do this work, but it’s easy to get by thinking of one’s writing as a thing that just has to happen for the real work to reach its audiences. It’s not a craft that one nurtures. One implication of this is that we tend not to think about the sorts of questions you’ve asked, except on the margins and sometimes in cynical or mercenary ways. So I appreciate the question. Despite what I said about the Journal of Political Philosophy, I have more hope for (and maybe it’s misguided) book publishers, especially big ones. They have more resources available to help them pivot. People like you and me run journals, and we’re trained in the way we’re trained and we do what we do with varying levels of support from our institutions or publishers. Book publishers, despite the travails the industry is going through, are set up to do this in a way that we’re not. They can throw an editor at a subject and tell them, “Go talk to people and figure out how we can do this better”. So I’m more encouraged by the way book publishers navigate this than the journals.

People who are trained in the way we are trained aren’t often invited to think of ourselves as authors who must cultivate a writing practice. 


Another of the challenges with respect to race theory is basic demographics. Identity is not a perfect proxy for ideological commitment, but it tracks closely enough and it matters that you have vanishingly few philosophers of colour in a field that thinks it is trying to diversify. There just aren’t many folks who can help us think about how to do this well – and that leads back to your question. The few people out there get over-burdened. It’s very complicated and very messy, which is why the open-endedness of your question is unavoidable. “How does it make me feel?” It’s such a forest of problems that detailed engagement would take us forever. But the fact that there’s interest in this work makes me feel mildly encouraged, much of the time. But it’s mildly encouraged, and it’s subject to reversal at any moment.


AF: Maybe we can switch back to the first part of the initial question. Do you think conversations about race have a particular rate of change? 


PCT: I’m not a historian, I’m not a sociologist of knowledge, I’m not in media studies – so I’d take the following diagnosis with several grains of salt. First of all, some people would say that things haven’t changed a whole lot. We keep having the same conversations because the powers that be (however one wants to cash that out) fail or refuse to learn the lessons of each moment of racial politics. We just keep repeating the cycle.


Along with many other people in the US, I sometimes talk about the prospects for a “Third Reconstruction”. The First Reconstruction happened in the wake of the American Civil War – it was a moment in which the country seemed to have committed itself to uprooting white supremacy – and then it just stopped. Then it got worse. Then we had the “Second Reconstruction”, which wasn’t officially called that, but was the mid-twentieth century US Black Freedom Movement (some people call it “the Civil Rights Movement”). It looked like the country had devoted itself to uprooting vestiges of white supremacy – and then Reagan happened, and then Trump happened. Now people are saying we’ve got to do this thing again, but what are the prospects?


This kind of analysis is useful because we refuse or fail to learn these lessons (I’m using James Baldwin’s “we”, the big “we”, that stands for the polity yet to come, which includes everyone). That has to be in the background of any answer to this question. The rate of change might be zero. That said, it seems there can be patterns, which is why Amiri Baraka talked about the “changing same”. Ultimately, I’m not sure how to answer your question, and this is one of the reasons pragmatist resources appeal to me. My view is that the only way to engage with this topic responsibly is to deal with facts on the ground, and with cases in light of the best information you can gather.


AF: Your focus is very much on the US, but your aim has been to produce a text that will speak to readers in different places and contexts – which I think it does. You write, “I focus on the US… in the hope that attending with care to the details of the setting I know best will yield some lessons that generalize across contexts.” In contrast to Michael Root, who says that race “doesn’t travel”, you think that (in some senses, at least) it does. This made me think of a concern sometimes expressed in the UK, that the texts we use to understand race are perhaps unhelpfully accented by work coming out of the US. Could you say how you think your theoretical framing, developed as it is in a very specific context, can be mapped onto different ones?


PCT: For a variety of social and political reasons people in lots of places use words derived from or related to the word “race” to do stuff. In empirically traceable ways many of those people came by the practice of using those words by similar pathways. Whenever that is the case there will be questions about when the different dialects pull apart. Some of what questions like these bring into play is just a general worry about what happens to languages when they’re used across a great geographical expanse. It’s a perfectly general problem and we have all sorts of ways of solving it. I can go to London, I can talk to people about lots of things, and I get along fine. Occasionally we run into weird cases, but we figure them out. However, these questions also encourage us to think about the ways race-talk should work for people who are paying attention. In some ways, that’s bound up with the work we think academics and scholars and public intellectuals (if we believe in them) are doing and should do.

The burden of the philosopher is not to provide a blueprint for political action but to create a richer sense of possibility for people who are thinking about political life.


I take one of my guiding mantras from Alain Badiou, who says (and I’m paraphrasing) that the burden of the philosopher is not to provide a blueprint for political action but to create a richer sense of possibility for people who are thinking about political life. I think that’s right, but I think we forget it. We want our scholars and our public intellectuals to say, “Here’s how things are and you should do these things in these ways”. That isn’t my view at all. I’m not competent to do that. What I’m competent to do is to engage with these ideas in ways that people seem, at least, to find edifying, and hopefully that expands their sense of possibility, and allows them to navigate the issues in ways that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. If we don’t attend to this division of epistemic labour, it’s easy to want scholarly work to do things it probably shouldn’t be doing. All of which is to say that if we have a shared language, and if there’s value in language being refined and expanded in ways that allow people to use it as a resource to navigate their lives, then you need folk dealing with its basic features. That’s the picture I start with. And I’m pretty confident something like that has to be right – but it’s easy to forget it in the press of on-going political contests with very high stakes.


AF: One of the interesting features of the book is the way you shift between the macro-level and the micro-level, between the systemic and the individual…


PCT: I just want to complicate one piece of what you said. I’m sure you had it in view, but I want to make it explicit for the record because it may help clarify my previous comment. One of the things we’re talking about is what’s in-between the systemic and the individual. There’s something like the “local”. The individual is a space we might reserve for more phenomenological engagement. But the local is what I was just talking about – the burden of translating very high-level analyses into languages and resources that can be brought to bear on problems that take particular shapes in particular settings. That isn’t the individual level. And one of the things that bears on the local level has to do with the political and personal stakes of having a voice in that space.


One of the things in play when people worry about the imposition of theories from other places on more local settings is that you’re taking up the air in the room. There is a real concern here that has to do the way places like the UK and the US and New Zealand and Australia and South Africa are bound up in this web of inter-discursive interaction that tilts very strangely towards folk like me and away from other folk in the places where the problems take shape. I try not to lose sight of that, but it’s very hard to say a great deal about it without the local knowledge of what’s happening.


AF: I think this issue connects with the question I was going to ask about the philosophy of experience. You have an interest in individual experience, which comes out in your work in aesthetics (for instance, in your book Black is Beautiful) and in relation to issues of performance. For example, you talk about the potential difficulties in casting Keanu Reeves as Malcolm X. In your conversation with Myisha Cherry (on the UnMuted podcast) you also talk about the choice to cast Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in the 2016 biopic. I understand you as saying that you don’t want to rule out these choices (you don’t want to restrict an artist’s ability to produce art freely) but you recognise there’s an issue about the performance of a racialised position.


One conversation, which I think brings these issues to the fore with respect to the US-UK context, and in relation to these questions about systemic, local and individual, is the casting of Daniel Kaluuya in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. After the film’s release, Samuel L. Jackson commented on the casting in a radio interview: “What [would that movie] have been with an American brother who really feels that?… Daniel grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for a hundred years… What would a brother from America have made of that role? I’m sure the director helped, [and] some things are universal, but [not everything].” The suggestion is that there’s a substantial difference between the lived experience of a black man in the States and a black man in the UK. There was also an economic element to this conversation because Jackson was interested in the way British actors are getting US actors’ jobs. I wonder whether you think there’s a problem here? Is there something happening in relation to the lived experience at the individual level which isn’t being captured at the abstract, systemic level, but that we need to account for?


PCT: This is the kind of question that clearly requires fine-grained concrete engagement. You can’t talk about this stuff at a high level of abstraction and generate principles intended to govern artistic practice. “Thou shalt not cast people from this ethnic group in this role!” You just can’t. Art doesn’t work like that (to put it very crudely). So these are the kinds of questions that affirm my commitment to the thought that my job is – using Alain Badiou’s language again – to expand the sense of conceptual possibility. Usually, I talk about this in terms that I draw from John Dewey.

The burden of philosophy is to provide the resources to tell ourselves stories so we can subject ourselves to self-scrutiny. 


Dewey said that we’re free to the degree that we act while knowing what we are about. The burden of philosophy is to provide the resources to tell ourselves stories so we can subject ourselves to self-scrutiny. Dewey also focussed on a commitment to the ongoing work of inquiry, which is meant to make it possible for people to act more intelligently rather than less. He was keen on replacing the language of “reason” in philosophy with the language of “intelligence”. Reason is a faculty that is supposed to do stuff. Intelligence is a capacity that you can have. You can grow it and shrink it and exercise it. There are all sorts of arguments philosophers want to have about the relative merits of those terms, but I don’t want to talk about any of that. I’m just sharing the motivation that brings me to a particular orientation towards these kinds of questions.


So, we’ve got Daniel Kaluuya and Samuel Jackson’s criticism, which is for me a much less compelling version of an objection one finds elsewhere in the US about the difference between different kinds of people who are racialised as black. In the book, I say “black” is a racial category that can subsume all sorts of ethnic and national and other identifiers. I can be a person racialised as black in the US, or a person racialised as black in the UK. That locution, “person racialised as black in this place” is a placeholder for an experience that shapes people, by and large, into individuals who tend to have certain kinds of values, dispositions, commitments and so forth. That’s what Jackson is talking about and it’s worth talking about, especially in light of the economic imperatives you mentioned. You have British actors playing Harriet Tubman in Harriet and this character in Get Out, and if you’re an American actor you might think that this is very strange. But I’ll bracket that and just speak to the theoretical side of it.

I think Jackson is just wrong on the merits of this case, but he’s pointing to something useful. That film is, one might argue, as much about racial blackness as it is about the African American experience (as much as there is a single African American experience). Anyone who has paid attention to their journeys through the world, as a person in a body racialised as black, would have access to the stuff Jackson is interested in. And blanket prohibitions would be unhelpful here. Blanket prohibitions would rule out Ruth Negga playing Hamlet at the Gate theatre in Dublin in 2018. And one can make a very interesting argument, as caretakers of the Gate theatre did, that this is the Hamlet for our time. This is a perfectly sensible thing to do, or at any rate to attempt, given what Ireland is now.


You don’t want to foreclose the possibility for a thoughtful artist or creative person to use the resources of meaning that racialised vocabularies give us to interrogate the world. What you can do is to give people the resources to have those conversations more intelligently. I just watched Black Narcissus from 1947 and there’s all sorts of weird brownface and orientalist stuff going on, but there’s also a bunch of other stuff that’s really interesting too, and if you recoil from the brownface, then you miss the other things. We have to develop nuanced, sophisticated vocabularies for holding each other to account with respect to these issues.


It has become clearer and clearer to me that I think of my burden as a philosopher as intimately bound up with the work of criticism. What do art critics do? They tell you a story about their experience of this thing and they try to find language that allows you to engage with it more clearly. There are evaluative moves bound up in there, but the real aim is to bring these resources to bear on this art object so the auditor, or spectator, or consumer can experience it more fully. Ethical argument is like that too. Dewey himself explicitly said that philosophy is a criticism of the influential beliefs that underlie society. I take the word “criticism” there very seriously. We’re engaging in the work of criticism. We want to assemble resources so that people can engage their lives and the things they encounter more intelligently, experience them more fully, and handle them more responsibly than otherwise. That’s not about blanket legislation or prescription.


AF: I see this as consonant with what you write in the book about the utility of philosophical analysis as a method for understanding what concepts do: “Once we decide what racial prejudice is, psychologists can test for it; and once we decide what injustice is, policy analysts can devise ways to contest it. But settling the best ways to think about justice and prejudice is a philosophical project, even if people other than philosophers often, by necessity, do the work.”


In positive moods I agree with you, but in other moods I wonder whether there’s really anything distinctive about what’s done in philosophy – and indeed, whether the forms of argumentation philosophers are trained in actually inhibit social progress. This goes back to what we were talking about at the start, about how you feel about the work you do. Even if they don’t actively present obstacles, the make-up of the discipline (in the UK, certainly) suggests that philosophers have not properly contended with the ways white supremacy intrudes into thought. I think a lot about the kind of “stickiness” Sara Ahmed describes in relation to whiteness – the way white people centre themselves, through confessionals or virtue signalling, and how philosophy, practically speaking, doesn’t appear to have the resources to protect itself from these dynamics. Simultaneously, I recognise that this kind of thinking leads to a torpified horror – an “analysis paralysis” – which itself can be a function of whiteness.


You write about Afropessimism in the book, and about the possibility of despair in relation to Cornel West’s work and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. I was wondering if you could say more about the hope you might or might not feel in relation to social progress in the philosophical sphere – and your hopes for philosophy in helping us achieve it.


PCT: I confess I don’t have a great deal of hope for philosophy with respect to these considerations. But I’m not particularly troubled by that because I have bigger fish to fry. We all have bigger fish to fry. I’ll try to put that less crudely.


The first thing to do is to distinguish philosophy as a discipline inhabited by people with degrees of a certain kind, who get credentialed in a certain ways and then invited to specialise in certain kinds of scholarly work – from philosophy as a human practice that people take up wherever they are, whatever they’re doing. I have a great deal of interest in the second thing, though not as much hope as interest. I have much less interest in the first thing – the scholarly, specialised practice – and about as much hope as interest.


I am embedded in that first thing, that professional practice. And because the scholarly practice is what it is – in some of the ways your question suggests – it is less available than one would like for the work of thoroughgoing social criticism. There are lots of people telling very good stories about that, and I won’t belabour the point, but one thing that makes it easier for me to inhabit that space, without a great deal of hope, is language that I get from people like Fred Moten, who are very clear about the academy as an unavoidably and inevitably corrupt and perhaps corrupting space, within which one can nevertheless gather resources to do things in other places. There’s something importantly right about that, and that thought sustains me in the scholarly enterprise in ways that make it possible for me to live there while aiming my sights elsewhere.


I have always been ambivalent about philosophy because philosophy didn’t do a good job of engaging with the issues I wanted to think about.

We all know people for whom inhabiting the scholarly space is not particularly problematic. They love it – they are in and of it – that’s their thing. But it is not my thing. I have always been ambivalent about philosophy because philosophy didn’t do a good job of engaging with the issues I wanted to think about and which we’re talking about now. But I happen to be located in the academy because of accidents of biography and choices I made before I knew better (and choices that I continue to make now that I know better). Since I’m in that space I want to think about using its resources – and not just intellectual resources. Some of us have the privilege of working in institutions that have amassed great stores of wealth. We can use those resources too.


Philosophy in the US and elsewhere has changed a great deal; it’s possible for people of colour to aspire to things in the profession that they couldn’t before. Oxford University Press, for example, has a book series overseen by Chike Jeffers and Linda Martín Alcoff. That was unthinkable twenty or thirty years ago. So there are signs of change. But Barack Obama was president of the US a few years ago, and look where we are now. Change doesn’t always mean linear, forward progress. It more often means Amiri Baraka’s “changing same”. I’m glad there’s more room for people to do things I couldn’t when I was coming up, but I have no illusions about what that’s about. The real challenges are elsewhere. The challenges in both spaces – the professional discipline and the real world – are intertwined and connected, but they’re not identical and I’m more interested in the fact that my legislature in Tennessee doesn’t believe in science or history than in journal publication rates.


AF: I was thinking about what you were saying about the cyclical nature of things, and I was wondering about the effect that has on you. I see it as feeding into accounts of black nihilism and into Derrick Bell’s racial realism. This shifts the epistemic burden in a way I’m uncomfortable with, but I’d like to hear more about how you cope with that. How do you cope with the fact that there rarely seems to be forward movement? You mention in the book a “tragicomic” response, and it would be great if you were to say more about that.


PCT: I want to take the language of “coping” very seriously. This question points to the spot at which the professional practice of philosophy merges with philosophy as the art of living well. At least two things are in play for me.


One is the thing you mentioned. I grew up on Cornel West’s reflections on the tragic, the comic, and the tragicomic, and I think there’s something importantly right at the conceptual level about his intervention. The basic structure of his intervention is that you have pessimism, you have optimism, and both of them are flawed for pretty obvious reasons. What you need is something in-between that recognises the possibility of defeat and despair and the inevitability of death, while still holding onto the possibility that concrete human action can make things better. On his account, optimism is the view that things must get better, pessimism the view that they cannot get better. Both play too fast and loose with the reality of human agency and contingency. How do you go on if defeat is necessary? How can you recover if you think success is necessary but the world keeps showing you that it isn’t? The way you go on is that you accept that defeat is always a possibility, but so is progress and victory. And what makes the difference is human agency. That intervention makes room for the existential work that West is also interested in. What resources do you have, culturally, psychologically, sociologically, socially, and morally to build up the stores of will that allow you to navigate the moments of disease and despair and dread and death in the hope of success and overcoming? It’s existential work.


You accept that defeat is always a possibility, but so is progress and victory. And what makes the difference is human agency.

I think that’s crucial and leads me to the second thing I want to say, which is about “mindfulness”. “Mindfulness” has to do with developing healthy relationships to our attachments so that you can desire things without hitching your happiness to them. The aim is to develop non-grasping ways of valuing things so that when those things are taken from you, you aren’t shattered. It has to do with developing the capacities for the kind of meta-cognition that allows you to reflect on your reactions to things, so you can reflect on your dismay and realise it’s just a piece of an overall experience. It’s essential that people develop resources, skills, practices around the work of “mindfulness”. There’s something like this in every religious tradition. It’s most obvious, in some ways, in the Buddhist tradition, because they have clear and straightforward language for it, but it’s there in Christian scriptures too – and it’s interesting that there has been a flourishing of what some people are now calling “black Buddhism” in the US – Buddhism intentionally fused with black church traditions, in an attempt to turn those resources in directions that makes them more explicitly available for people wrestling with challenges like police brutality.

Both of those things bear on my reaction to Afropessimism. I think Afropessimism in its best form is found in the work of Jared Sexton. One thing he says is that Afropessimism isn’t an intervention – it’s a reminder. It’s a way of pumping the brakes on an over-eager embrace of change. It’s a kind of spiritual discipline (this isn’t his language). It’s a way of managing your relationships to your prospects of prospering. It’s a way of managing your expectations with respect to the racialised landscape. It’s a refusal, he says, to prematurely delimit the bad news of Black life. My experience of other writers in this tradition is that they’re less clear about that, and more interested in making gnomic pronouncements that can do important rhetorical work in distancing us from facile expectations about how things ought to be, but that can also easily leave us very unclear about how concrete human persons can navigate their experiences of the real world.


Paul C. Taylor’s Race: A Philosophical Introduction (3rd Edition) is published by Polity Press.


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 1 ("The New Basics: Planet").

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