Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism in International Relations Theory

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Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism in International Relations Theory Errol A. Henderson Dept. of Political Science Pennsylvania State University eah13@psu.edu

ABSTRACT: This essay addresses the centrality of racism in international relations (IR) theory. It examines the extent to which realism, liberalism, and constructivism are oriented by racist precepts grounded in the intellectual foundation of IR. Specifically, my argument is that a racist dualism inheres within the philosophical assumptions informing the foundational constructs of IR: namely, anarchy, power, and democracy; and due to the centrality of these constructs within the prominent theoretical frameworks that draw on them, such as the balance of power, the clash of civilizations, the democratic peace, and even recently promulgated social constructivist theses, racist precepts have an enduring impact on IR theory today. The draft focuses on realism and liberalism, but later revisions will extend the analyses to constructivism, as well.

Introduction The Study of Race and Racism in International Relations Racism and IR: Ontological, Ethical, Epistemological, and Empirical Dimensions The Racial Contract as the Basis of the Social Contract Anarchy and World Politics: The Tropical Roots of IR Theory Racism, the Balance of Power, and the Clash of Civilizations Tracing Racist Assumptions in IR Theory: The Kantian Peace Conclusion

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Draft prepared for the International Studies Association, San Diego, CA, March 2006. Please do not cite without the author’s permission. Comments welcomed

Introduction

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This essay addresses the centrality of racism in international relations (IR) theory. It examines the extent to which realism, liberalism, and constructivism are oriented by racist precepts grounded in the intellectual foundation of IR. Specifically, my argument is that a racist dualism inheres within the philosophical assumptions informing the foundational constructs of IR: namely, anarchy, power, and democracy; and due to the centrality of these constructs within the prominent theoretical frameworks that draw on them, such as the balance of power, the clash of civilizations, the democratic peace, and even recently promulgated social constructivist theses, racist precepts have an enduring impact on IR theory today. Clearly, the assertion that racism played a prominent role in the promulgation of IR theory—and social science theory, in general—is not difficult to demonstrate given the roots of IR theory in the philosophy of the Enlightenment era, which was a period marked as much by the ascendancy of rationalism, and scientific rigor, as of Western racism; but the argument that racism persists in the prominent paradigms of world politics may be less obvious to many. The essay proceeds in several sections. First, we review the literature on racism and international relations before turning to a discussion of race and IR theory, specifically. Second, we provide a conceptual framework for examining the impact of racism on IR theory that focuses on the ontological, ethical, epistemological, and empirical assumptions that racist discourse has generated in IR. Third, we delineate the role of racism in the main ideational constructs that undergird analyses in IR; namely, the social contract theses that inform our conception of the “state of nature”, which is the starting point for most IR theory. This focus calls our attention to the impact of the broader “racial contract”, in which these social contracts are situated; and challenges us to reconceptualize contractarian theory and its role as the ontological linchpin of IR theory. The basic argument is that if the foundational precepts are racially defined, then the theory that derives from them is similarly circumscribed by racist precepts. First, let’s consider the manner in which racism can be thought to influence IR, in general.

The Study of Race and Racism in International Relations For...
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