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Philosophy and Diversity

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Tina_Fernandes_Botts

In plain numbers, black (professional) philosophers are less than 1% of philosophers overall, a very disturbing number. And the numbers of other philosophers of color (and women and disabled philosophers and LGBTQ philosophers) are also disturbing… For me, as a hermeneuticist, all ideas are generated from phenomenological experience. There is no such thing as an abstract idea that emerges from nowhere. So, to me, the value of demographic diversity is that it carries with it a diversity of ideas that is healthy because it keeps everyone on their toes generating new ideas, and not just sitting around rehashing old ones over and over again. It seems strange to me that this obvious benefit of demographic diversity is not obvious to everyone.

‘I wish I had a rational explanation for what’s going on. I think that’s the point of my chapter (and upcoming book) on the topic referenced above, The Concept of Race, Aristotle’s Proportional Equality, and the Equal Protection Clause: There is no rational explanation. And that’s what is philosophically of interest. This very odd disconnect (between academia and the law on the topic of the reality of race) demonstrates the way in which variate schemas of reality operate along different tracks, particularly in the West, like ships in the night, as it were.’

‘In my view, hate speech should be a free speech exception like child pornography, “fighting words,” obscenity, defamation, and a whole host of other forms of speech that are currently freely regulated in the United States.’

Tina Fernandes Botts is an assistant professor of philosophy at California State University, Fresno and Co-editor of the American Philosophical Association’s Newsletter on Philosophy and the Black Experience. Her research is centered in the philosophy of law, the philosophy of race, and philosophical hermeneutics. She teaches in these areas as well as in feminist philosophy, social and political philosophy, applied ethics, ethical theory, and the history of philosophy. Before coming to Fresno she was at Oberlin and before that she was a Fellow in Law and Philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and a Visiting Instructor at Hendrix College. Here she discusses feminism, how to understand the many faces of oppression, intersectionality, how demography impacts even on metaphysics and logic, the underrepresentation of blacks in the philosophical academy, how expanding the demography of philosophy will bring it back to its origins, why hermeneutical phenomenology is crucial to the way forward for philosophy, what she means by ‘hermeneutical ontology’, what it looks like in terms of race and gender, on the mystery of the disconnect between academia and the law on race, about the multiracial experience in America, on what can be done to improve matters, on care ethics and moral particularism, hate speech and the scandals of male philosophers behaving badly in the academy.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Tina Fernandes Botts: I think I was born a philosopher. I became a professional philosopher as part of a series of fortuitous events that happened late in my life. I dropped out of the graduate program at the University of Maryland — a heavily analytic program — years ago. I then completed a law degree at Rutgers University, and after that I worked as an attorney for many years. At a certain point, the opportunity arose to teach philosophy on the graduate level arose (Hendrix College). I really enjoyed that, and I thought my engagement with professional philosophy would end there. But, then I ended up returning to graduate school, this time at a continental program. I thought my philosophical pursuits would end there. But, I got a job right out of graduate school at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. After that, I was very fortunate to obtain a fellowship at the University of Michigan for a year. After that, a postdoc at Oberlin College fell into my lap. That was a dream come true. What a vibrant, close-knit, quirky community. A real pleasure. And now, I will move to California State University, Fresno in the fall. I am very excited and happy about this move, but the trajectory was far less than a well-executed plan. Each point in the path so far has felt as if it just came to me from the universe. There is no doubt that I have worked hard, but I have enjoyed every minute of it.

3:AM: You’re working in some pretty toxic areas. Hate speech, racism and sexism are just three issues of our contemporary world that make it nastier than it need be. The lunge to the political right across the world seems to have given permission for these not just to exist but to be endorsed by political leaders – Trump is just one of many leaders who seem to be able to position themselves on platforms of racism, sexism and hate speech in a way that strikes me wasn’t the case twenty, thirty years ago. Am I right on this or are things not getting worse – its always been this bad?

TFB: Well, I think these things come in waves. I think your instincts are correct that things seem to have come to a head and have gotten worse very recently. Regarding the popular trend to the political right, it seems clear to me that this is backlash from having had a black president for the past two terms. There are a lot of racists out there who have been very uncomfortable with having a black president. They feel a space has been opened up to openly react against that reality.

3:AM: You’ve written about the concept of intersectionality and its absence from contemporary philosophy. It’s a term that you say helps us grasp what contemporary feminism is about. So can you sketch what this term means?

TFB: It’s just a statement on the fact that mono-dimensional approaches to understanding oppression are insufficient for capturing the phenomenon. Contemporary feminism self-consciously grapples with this fact through proactively theorizing and developing strategies for praxis in a way that places the many faces of oppression (and the way they overlap and fuse) at center stage.

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3:AM: You argue that the reason why intersectionality doesn’t figure in mainstream philosophy is because mainstream philosophy doesn’t value the epistemological, metaphysical, ethical and political value of non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-‘able-bodied’, non-wealthy individuals. I understand that mainstream philosophy is overwhelmingly white and male etc etc in terms of who practices it in the academy, and that’s not healthy, but how can that demographic impact on , say, metaphysics or logic?

TFB: Good question. The answer is that, for me, all schemas of reality (all metaphysical and epistemological paradigms) are value laden. The so-called first principles of metaphysics are a case in point. Mainstream metaphysics starts with the concept of substance, a general term used to describe the stuff of which the world is composed. For Locke, substance was “something [he] knew not what,” and this is very telling, I think. Whatever substance is or may be (or is not, for that matter), the key is that it is a theoretical construct. Generally speaking, although there are exceptions, the invocation of this concept reifies the notion of a singular, foundational starting point for all discussions of everything; the components of a static, parameterizable, objective, external world. And this entity or phenomenon is, at a minimum, solid, and also quantifiable, and changeless. Arguably, only those who are accustomed to having their cultural Weltanschauung assumed to be universally applicable to everyone and everything would choose such an entity as a metaphysical first principle.

For those of us who are marginalized, the existence of such an entity (substance, or static, unchanging reality) is not obvious. Moreover, those of us who are marginalized have what W.E.B. DuBois called “double consciousness.” That is, we understand and have facility with the mainstream Weltanschauung or view of reality, but we also understand and have facility with at least one other, marginalized Weltanschauung, that of one or more marginalized, oppressed, or subjugated groups. For me, this double consciousness (and for me, it’s more like triple or quadruple consciousness) has resulted in the view that if there is a metaphysical first principle, it is likely absence and not presence; that is, an anti-substance (nothing) and not substance, something on the order of Anaximander’s apeiron. I talk about this in my book, Philosophy and the Mixed Race Experience, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

The same is true for logic. Logic is customarily understood as a procedural tool that provides no substantive content. On closer inspection, however, logic’s rules and systems contain within them value systems that only admit of certain, limited outcomes. The rules of the game limit the questions that can be asked, which, of course, constrain the available answers. The principle of non-contradiction, for example, contains within it the Western worldview that, metaphysically, something either is or it is not; and epistemologically, it is either true or it is false. It cannot be both real and unreal; true and false. Nor can it be resistant to this schematic. But the fact that something either is or is not (true or false) limits the playing field of that which is (or that which is the case) considerably. There is no room for hybridity, no room for mixedness, nor room for ambiguity or nuance. If this is one’s picture of reality, there is a very large segment of reality that will fall through the cracks, unsusceptible to this sort of schematization. This reality is then rendered nonsensical, and thus non-existent. An example of the sort of reality (or “truth”) is the Weltanschauung of the oppressed.

3:AM: You’ve written about the underrepresentation of blacks in philosophy. Can you sketch out what the empirical studies have revealed about this and then say what the value of demographic diversity is in professional philosophy?

TFB: Okay, well, there are a few empirical studies out there now that attempt to accurately characterize the status of blacks in philosophy. The one I put together with Quayshawn Spencer, Myisha Cherry, Lliam Kofi Bright, and Guntur Mallarangeng, “What is the State of Blacks in Philosophy?” Critical Philosophy of Race, 2(2), 2014, pp. 224-242, relied, to a large extent, on somewhat ad hoc research methods. That said, what is important is that we felt we did not need to use fancier or more sophisticated social science research methods because the number of blacks in philosophy is so low that black philosophers are all known to each other. In plain numbers, black (professional) philosophers are less than 1% of philosophers overall, a very disturbing number. And the numbers of other philosophers of color (and women and disabled philosophers and LGBTQ philosophers) are also disturbing. To me, it is obvious that demographic diversity will lead, as John Stuart Mill envisioned, to a healthier, more robust marketplace of ideas. The idea is that there are ways of knowing and avenues of access to knowledge that those from diverse populations bring to the table.

Of course, to buy into this view, one must accept a link between phenomenological experience and the ideas generated from phenomenological experience. For me, as a hermeneuticist, all ideas are generated from phenomenological experience. There is no such thing as an abstract idea that emerges from nowhere. So, to me, the value of demographic diversity is that it carries with it a diversity of ideas that is healthy because it keeps everyone on their toes generating new ideas, and not just sitting around rehashing old ones over and over again. It seems strange to me that this obvious benefit of demographic diversity is not obvious to everyone.

3:AM: I guess this then leads on to the question of the nature of philosophy itself – do you think that by having greater demographic diversity will bring about a new idea of what philosophy is and can do?

TFB: I sort of have the reverse idea. I think that greater demographic diversity in philosophy will bring about the original idea of what philosophy is and can do. For Socrates, philosophy was a check on intellectual hubris, something of which professional philosophy currently has no shortage. The beauty of old school philosophy is that it is a call to complete and utter intellectual open mindedness. The power of this sort of stance is unlimited, I think, and part of the heart and soul of true philosophy, going back to Socrates.

3:AM: One of the things you’ve argued for is to move away from beginning questions about the reality of race with issues of metaphysics and science, and instead recommend we start with a hermeneutic ontology – from metaphysical essentialism and epistemological foundationalism towards the hermeneutics of being. Why is this the best way forward and are Heidegger and Gadamer the key figures here?

TFB: Yes, I think hermeneutic ontology is the best way forward because, unlike metaphysics and science, hermeneutic ontology is not wedded to any particular set of first principles or procedures or other arbitrary frameworks of meaning. Instead, it acknowledges the (for me, obvious) connections between reality, meaning, and the human role in creating both. For Heidegger, schemas of reality (or ‘worlds’) are created through human interaction with the world, and with each other. His key point in Being and Time is that to “understand” anything is to interpret it, to place it in context, a context that is deeply influenced by the schemas of reality in which the interpreter dwells. Authentic understanding, to the extent it exists, is improved by a proactive acknowledgment of this fact, rather than attempting to pass off one’s value-laden attempts at so-called “understanding” as attempts at objective knowledge.

Gadamer added a fuller account of the mechanics of the process of meaning-production (interpretation) by positing dialogue-resulting-in-consensus as the way in which so-called truths about so-called reality are actually created rather than discovered. Hermeneutic ontology calls the knower or the perceiver of reality to check their hubris at the door, in order to facilitate more robust and expansive dialogues en route to fuller and more workable (so-called) truths about that which is.

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3:AM: This approach is very different from the one you critique whilst reviewing Albert Atkins book on the philosophy of racism which I guess comes from a more ‘mainstream’ philosophical tradition. What do you see as the advantage of approaching the issue from the hermeneutical tradition?

TFB: Well, perhaps I misunderstand your question, but I think you are asking me to reconcile the vantage point from which I critiqued Atkins’ book on philosophy of race with my hermeneutic ontology. If I understand your question correctly, the answer is that the hermeneutic ontologist in me is always involved in all of my philosophical work, whether I am explicit about using that approach or not. In the case of my review of the Atkins book, my review focused on challenging the assumptions contained in his approach to the philosophy of race by, for example, highlighting that his approach was “mainstream” (code for white, or rooted in white experiences). In a book I am completing right now, The Concept of Race, Aristotle’s Proportional Equality, and the Equal Protection Clause, Lexington Books, I employ hermeneutical methods (e.g., interrogating the history of various concepts, including “race” and “equality”) to try to ascertain what a hermeneutist would call “the spirit of the text” of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, vis-à-vis racial discrimination. My goal is to make a critical assessment of what the Equal Protection Clause originally meant, what it currently means, and what it should mean using hermeneutical tools. I am not explicit about using hermeneutical tools to accomplish these goals, but that is what I am doing throughout.

3:AM: Can you sketch out for us what this hermeneutical ontology looks like in terms of race (and gender)?

TFB: Sure. Race and gender are social constructions. These constructions do not correlate with anything classically “real” in the so-called external world, but are generated through the ways in which human beings interact with the world and the ways in which they interact with each other. This is no way undermines the degree of their actual reality however, because the same is true for everything that is taken to exist. In other words, race and gender are no more or less “real” than trees, cars, or Socrates. The classic case used to demonstrate this concept is money. Like race and gender, we use money every day. It has a currency. It affects our access to material goods, social goods, our place on the social hierarchy, our options, our opportunities. It isn’t “real” in a full stop sort of way. But it is real in the sense that our lives are permeated with the concept and what we do with it affects our lives dramatically. In simpler language, there are no biological races, but race is real nonetheless, and our policies should be drafted accordingly. To be explicit, we still need affirmative action, we still need critical race theory, and we still need to speak in terms of races. We also need an Equal Rights Amendment, sexual harassment laws, harsh penalties for rape, and other laws designed to enforce the equality of women. One day, none of these things may be necessary, but we have not yet reached that point.

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3:AM: Does this link with your approach to law and legal hermeneutics and how we should approach the concept of race and equal protection law? You point out that there’s something very odd happening in the USA: the Supreme Court has moved to seeing race in terms of biology whilst the academy has moved away from seeing race as biological and seeing it in terms of sociocultural/sociohistorical terms. The two places – the Court and the Academy, have changed places. What’s going on and what philosophically is of interest in this?

TFB: I wish I had a rational explanation for what’s going on. I think that’s the point of my chapter (and upcoming book) on the topic referenced above, The Concept of Race, Aristotle’s Proportional Equality, and the Equal Protection Clause: There is no rational explanation. And that’s what is philosophically of interest. This very odd disconnect (between academia and the law on the topic of the reality of race) demonstrates the way in which variate schemas of reality operate along different tracks, particularly in the West, like ships in the night, as it were. In order to gain some insight into what is going on, it is necessary to dig into the historical trajectory (the genealogy) of the development of both concepts.

This is the hermeneutical endeavor. The idea is that what race is/means in one trajectory (science) is different from what it is/means in another trajectory (Supreme Court decisions). Race has no meaning at all except what it ascribed to it by usage in a given context. If we understand that, perhaps we can realize that the best hope we have for knowledge with a capital K (about race, or racial discrimination) is not justified true belief (code for objective knowledge) but dialogue between competing world views; that is, agreement. The wider the scale of the dialogue the better. Regarding equal protection law, the idea is that if the Supreme Court were in dialogue (consultation) with relevant academic literature on race, it would have to acknowledge that there is no biological component to race. This, in turn, would mean that the Supreme Court would have to face that race is entirely a social phenomenon, generated collectively to further certain agendas (some conscious and deliberate, some unconscious).

More importantly, acknowledging the non-biological aspect of race would highlight that what makes racial discrimination legally problematic is not that it uses an irrelevant physical characteristic (or an irrelevant set of physical characteristics, all of which combine together to form ‘race’) to provide or deny social goods; but that it perpetuates the widespread belief (generated by the American institution of chattel slavery) in a correlation between blackness and natural inferiority. This belief in the natural inferiority of blacks is so pandemic in American society that many (for example, the late Derrick Bell) believe it is impossible to eradicate it from the American consciousness. The Equal Protection Clause was enacted in order to attempt to undo the damage caused by this widespread belief; that is, it was enacted in the face of the fact that African American slaves and their progeny were being systematically excluded from the political process and denied access to basic social goods on the basis of their status as slaves, or former slaves, and the perceived biologically inferior status that their status as slaves (or former slaves) was meant to signify. Equal protection law needs to be modified to get back to this original purpose, as the damage done from slavery has still not been undone.

3:AM: You’ve written about multiracial experiences of Americans and racial discrimination. Doesn’t the law protect multiracial Americans from such discrimination without stomping all over a person’s multiracial identity and forcing them to choose to be of one group? Can you say something about what this does to people who are multiracial?

TFB: Theoretically, American law protects multiracial Americans from racial discrimination. This is because, theoretically (that is, on the surface), American law currently protects everyone from racial discrimination, including whites. But, in practice, in order to file a claim for racial discrimination, one must first identify one’s race, and American law currently does not allow multiracial Americans to legally identify as multiracial. So, for example, a mixed race person could identify as a member of a given monoracial minority group (e.g., African American) and then claim that discrimination has happened to them in virtue of being African American. But, if the discrimination was actually in virtue of the person’s being mixed (which it would have to be since that’s what the person is), then such a claim would be a lie and would also fail. This is the situation that multiracial persons often find themselves in with regard to the courts.

The early case of Plessy v. Ferguson is an example of this. There, Homer Plessy boarded a train in segregated Louisiana to make the case that as a person whose ancestry was “7/8” white, he should be able to sit in the white car and not be forced to sit in the colored car. In other words, Plessy was taking a public stand on the absurdity of segregation laws that were based on biological race (specifically, the “one drop rule,” an idea prevalent in Jim Crow laws just after slavery ended, according to which if one had “one drop” of black “blood” – ancestry — one was black). But, the courts saw him as black (following the one drop rule) and not mixed. They bypassed his mixed race ancestry, and the point he was trying to make (that racial categories were absurd) and only addressed the question of whether the racial segregation of railway cards (one white and one black) was constitutional. The court at the time said the racial segregation of railway cars was constitutional, and Plessy lost his case. The court had no way to process Plessy’s mixed race status so his primary objective was obscured.

3:AM: What should be done?

TFB: To me, it is obvious that what should be done is that “multiracial” should be made an available legally cognized race such that anyone who qualifies for it can officially select it and use it in relevant legal contexts. I would like to be clear that I see this only as a stopgap measure until such time as there is no longer any need for anyone to identify in terms of any racial category, since I think that all racial categories are fundamentally absurd and destructive in the long run.

3:AM: You’ve discussed a ‘care’ approach to morality, one that opposes utilitarianism, Kantian duty and ethical egoism, and which says that the key aspect to morality is the concept of ‘care’. You find Merleau-Ponty important in this. Do you find this approach particularly useful when discussing the ethics of feminism and racism by bringing in a dimension of ethics that is often omitted?

TFB: Well, yes, I discussed care ethics in an encyclopedia entry a couple of years ago. The context of the creation of that entry was that I was asked to comment on the relationship between Merleau-Ponty, care ethics, and relational ethics in criminal justice ethics. In other words, although I am sympathetic with what I wrote there, nothing in that encyclopedia entry is a perfect fit with my own philosophical views. For example, I am sympathetic to care ethics, but I would not say it is an approach to ethics that I hold myself. I think care ethics is on track in its focus on context, particular moral situations, and the rejection of the standard (“justice”) model or method of moral decision-making that applies abstract principle to specific situations in a top down manner. I am skeptical of the focus on “care” in care ethics, as this has always struck me as identifying women as primarily nurturers, which I find problematically essentializing.

Rather than saying I am a care ethicist, it is more appropriate to say that I am a moral particularist (within analytic ethics) and a proponent of hermeneutic ethics (within continental ethics). I am still working out the components of this ethics, including reconciling these two approaches. But, yes, the idea is that an ethics so constructed would better address the needs of women and racialized minorities. For example, from a moral particularist point of view, I am interested in the question of whether race (or gender) is a “morally relevant feature” of a given moral situation. Of course, I would likely argue that (at this point in time) race and gender are often morally relevant features of a given moral situation. That’s the moral particularist component of my developing ethics. The hermeneutic ethics component is that race and gender may cease to be relevant in moral situations, since context (time and place) determines what are the important features of a given moral situation. If racism and sexism were eliminated from the earth, race and gender would no longer be morally relevant features.

3:AM: Hate speech is prevalent all over the internet and social media and now in the speeches of politicians going all populist. How should we understand hate speech and what should be done?

TFB: In my view, hate speech should be a free speech exception like child pornography, “fighting words,” obscenity, defamation, and a whole host of other forms of speech that are currently freely regulated in the United States. Historically, free speech exceptions have been created (endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court) where the harm to society outweighs the benefits of freedom of expression. This guideline is rooted in John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, according to which one person’s freedom ends where harm to others begins. It is also rooted in the acceptance of human dignity as a key value in a civilized society. Most civilized societies regulate hate speech in some way based on an explicit value of human dignity, while the United States remains steadfastly opposed to the regulation of hate speech on any ground.

In the United States, this anomalous behavior is rationalized away as a unique priority on “freedom” in the U.S. that other countries do not share. Since freedom of expression is routinely regulated in the U.S. where the harm involved is considered important (exploitation of children, defamation of professional reputations), it is telling that the perpetuation of racism, homophobia, antisemitism (and other forms of oppression) are not considered harmful enough to warrant the regulation of hate speech in the U.S. In the U.S. context, “freedom” (of racist whites, anti-Semites, sexist males, homophobes, misogynists, etc.) to say what they wish is considered more important than protecting oppressed minorities from further oppression. In other words, I see the harm of hate speech as the perpetuation of the oppression of members of historically marginalized, oppressed, and subjugated groups. And I see the failure of the U.S. to understand this as a harm sufficient to warrant hate speech regulation as part of the U.S.’s historical failure to protect such persons. I think the Supreme Court should recognize human dignity as an American value and recognize hate speech as a violation of human dignity. It should also establish hate speech as a free speech exception, in line with most other civilized countries in the world.

3:AM: Women and non-whites are vastly underrepresented in the academy when it comes to philosophy. There seem to be scandals concerning bad behaviour of male philosophers towards women coming up at alarming rates. As a philosopher in the academy what should be done?

TFB: Interesting question. I think academic philosophers should open their eyes, minds, and hearts to the ways in which women and racialized minority groups have been systemically excluded, exploited, and abused within the discipline. While students and junior faculty who are women and/or persons of color start out interested and curious about the discipline. What they find when they start getting into philosophy is that neither their value as thinkers and knowers nor their ideas about what is philosophically important or interesting are taken seriously. They become alienated and leave philosophy to find more hospitable homes in other disciplines. This happens routinely. Women are routinely sexually harassed and members of racialized minority groups are routinely treated as not having the intellectual stuff to be philosophically rigorous.

In both cases (that is, for both female and non-white philosophers), the philosophers are treated as having no epistemological authority and limited intellectual capacity. Those of us who, for whatever reason (in my case, my sheer love of the discipline), decide to stay and fight for our right to be philosophers and do philosophy have a difficult time indeed, largely due to resistance and ignorance on the part of the keepers of the discipline (white, straight, able-bodied, European, cis-gendered, property-owning, males who think only what they do, and the topics they think are important, count as sufficiently universal or objective to warrant the name “philosophy”). We need a sea change in the discipline. We need a recognition that philosophy is about a love of knowledge and a love of learning. It is fundamentally about keeping one’s mind radically open to new ideas.

Key to creating this sea change would be for mainstream philosophers to acknowledge that reason does not happen in a vacuum, that it is value-laden, that all philosophizing is value-laden, including the approaches to philosophizing prevalent in the West, particularly in English-speaking contexts (the U.S. and U.K.). Also key would be for mainstream philosophers to acknowledge their own racism, sexism, etc. This final key is the most difficult hurdle, in my opinion, since philosophers as a whole (and as part of their identity as philosophers) pride themselves on being particularly rational and objective, when the reality that is far, far from the case.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend to the readers here at 3:AM that would take us further into your philosophical world?

TFB: Sure.

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First and foremost would be Heidegger’s Being and Time.

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Second would be Kimberlé Crenshaw and Neil Gotanda’s Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement.

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Third would be Gregory Leyh’s Legal Hermeneutics.

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Fourth would be Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract.

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Fifth would be Gary Minda’s Postmodern Legal Movements.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 4th, 2016.