On racism and how to read Hannah Arendt

8 minutes to read
Ana Deumert

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has led to a renewed interest in Hannah Arendt’s political philosophy across the social sciences.

Reading Hannah Arendt

Her discussion of the history of totalitarianism; her concept of ‘the banality of evil’; her own experience of nazism and being a refugee, of being stateless; and her thoughts on the contours of the human condition as a plurality have inspired scholars in recent years. As Richard J. Bernstein (Why Read Hannah Arendt Now, 2018) wrote in the New York Times: ‘in our own dark time, Arendt’s work is read with new urgency’. 

Yet, as one digs a little deeper, her work becomes murky and troublesome: many have pointed out that Arendt’s texts – impressive and thought-provoking as they are in so many ways – are marred by anti-Black racism (Patricia Owens, 2017, Racism in the Theory Canon; on the concept of anti-Black racism, see Ahmed Olayinka Sule, 2019).

In this column I want to look at three of Arendt’s writings and reflect on the question: Where do we go from here? How should one approach canonical thinkers who have been racist (or sexist, or homophobic, or ableist) in their thinking and writing? 

The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951/1955)

In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt condemns the violence of imperialism and slavery, has little time for the ‘race fanatics of South Africa’, and shows that the origins of European fascism can be found in the long history of imperialism, racism and antisemitism. 

The book has been influential in postcolonial theory, even though – as argued by David Temin (Nothing Much Has Happened, 2019) – Arendt’s rejection of colonialism is not as categorical as one might wish. Implicit in the text is a troubling distinction between ‘good empire’ and ‘bad imperialism’, a rather uncritical use of the settler-colonial ideology of terra nullius, as well as a tendency to limit discussions of colonial violence to early encounters; that is, not to recognize it as a structure that persists through time and into the present.

Even more troubling is that Arendt expresses deep racial prejudices and anti-Black racism in the text. She writes about the ‘savages’ of Africa, who she describes as ‘human beings … living without the future of a purpose and the past of accomplishment’, and who are ‘as incomprehensible as the inmates of a madhouse’. 

Striking is the difference between the English version of the text and the German version (written by her), which appeared in 1955. The English version is upsetting and deeply disturbing, but in a slightly subdued way: racist statements, while frequent, are hedged by phrases such as ‘as far as we know’, allowing for the possibility of incomplete knowledge. 

It is difficult to argue that Arendt was simply a writer who was shaped by her time

The German version, on the other hand, lacks such hedges and its descriptions are even harsher: the peoples of Africa and Australia have ‘no culture whatsoever’ (keinerlei Kultur) and forms of political organization are not simply ‘at a very low level’ (as the English version states), but similar to what is known from ‘animal communities’ (tierischen Gemeinschaften). 

These are not isolated statements; they permeate the text and many more could be added. 

It is difficult to argue that Arendt was simply a writer who was shaped by her time (an all too common excuse that is made when one encounters racism or sexism in the work of celebrated scholars). In the 1950s, the decolonization of the colonial world was on its way. To put the text into its historical context: the German version appeared in the same year as anti-colonial leaders gathered in Bandung, the Algerian War of Independence had started a year earlier, and two years later Ghana (in 1957) became the first African nation to gain independence. 

Yet, Arendt, an original and critical thinker in so many ways, chose not to see the multiple political agencies of Africans. Instead, she reproduced long-standing racist tropes.

Reflections on Little Rock (1959)

In October 2019, the Hannah Arendt Centre hosted an event to address the question of racism in Arendt’s work. Kathryn Sophia Belle – formerly known as Kathryn T. Gines – was invited to speak about her book Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question (2014).  

At the heart of Gines/Belle’s book is Hannah Arendt’s essay Reflections on Little Rock, published in Dissent, eight years after The Origins of Totalitarianism

The phrase ‘Little Rock’ indexes a central event in the civil rights struggle: the enrollment of nine Black students at Little Rock Central High School in 1957. This followed a Supreme Court ruling (Brown versus Board of Education, 1954), which declared the segregation of educational facilities as unconstitutional. However, when the nine students tried to enter the school premises, a white mob attacked them. Eventually the Black students had to be escorted by federal troops.

Arendt was unable to see and understand that social inequality and political inequality cannot be separated

In Reflections on Little Rock, Arendt displays not only a fundamental lack of understanding of structural racism in the United States, but her rigid separation of the private, the social and the political spheres prevented her from grasping the importance civil rights activists attached to educational desegregation. 

By describing African Americans who wished for their children to attend formerly white schools as ‘social climbers’ and uncaring parents, Arendt misrecognized the political value of equal education, of ensuring that everyone has access to the same educational opportunities. 

Arendt was unable to see and understand that social inequality and political inequality cannot be separated, that social (including educational) inequalities impact directly on citizenship and political participation. 

The theoretical shortcomings of the text are complemented by condescending remarks about African Americans, who – according to Arendt – don’t know what is best for them. There are factual mistakes and misinterpretations, and strong advocacy for the rights of white parents to send their children to racially segregated schools (as documented by Gines/Belle).

Ralph Ellison (1964, Who Speaks for the Negro) was clear in his assessment of Arendt’s analysis: she was ‘way off left base … she has no conception of what goes on in parents who send children through these lines’. 

On Violence (1970)

Arendt’s thinking on racial issues did not change in the next decade – despite the fact that she had admitted to some misjudgment about Little Rock in a private letter to Ellison.

In On Violence (1970) – written almost twenty years after The Origins of Totalitarianism and a decade after Reflections on Little Rock – Arendt contrasts the ‘high moral claims’ of white protesting students with the ‘silly and outrageous’ demands of Black students. She further claims that the latter were ‘admitted without academic qualifications’ to university and that their ‘interest was to lower academic standards‘. 

She ridicules their requests for the introduction of what she calls ‘non-existent subjects’ (and gives ‘African literature’ as an example). She mocks the requested teaching of Kiswahili, which she describes as ‘a nineteenth century kind of non-language’. 

Anne Norton (1995) comments in her essay Heart of Darkness: 

Arendt’s easy dismissal of African history, African literatures, African languages; her readiness to ascribe academic inferiority to Black students, and squalor, crime and ignorance to the black community, are innocent of evidence. They evince an uncharacteristic, and profound indifference to the historical record and the evidence available on these subjects at the time’. (Cited in Gines/Belle 2014)

Throughout the essay, Arendt ignores white-colonial state violence, and focuses her critique almost exclusively on the dissident actions by the Black Power movement (Chat Kautzer, Political Violence and Race, 2019).

Concepts of citizenship and agency are central to her political philosophy. Yet, she was not willing to apply them to the political actions of African and African Americans

Even though Arendt claimed solidarity-with-the-oppressed in Reflections on Little Rock (based on her own experience 'as a Jew'), this is not visible in On Violence, where she rationalizes the angry push-back by whites as justified, and derides the idea of a broad anti-colonial front. In an interview she expands on the latter as follows:

‘The only ones who have an obvious political interest in saying that there is a third world are, of course, those who stand on the lowest step – that is the Negroes in Africa. In their case it’s easy to understand; all the rest is empty talk … The new slogan – Natives of all colonies or former colonies unite or all underdeveloped countries unite! – is even crazier than the old one from which it was copied: Workers of the world unite!’ (Thoughts on Politics and Revolution, an interview with Adelbert Reif, 1970).

Concepts of citizenship and agency are central to her political philosophy. Yet, she was not willing to apply them to the political actions of Africans and African Americans – her statements reflect not only racist tropes and anti-black racism, but also a deep-seated ignorance about the anti-colonial politics of the time. 

Speaking at the above-mentioned event at the Hannah Arendt Centre, Lewis Gordon (2019) observed astutely that it seems as if there is a ‘race trigger that happens when Hannah Arendt has to talk about black people’. 

Where do we go from here?

Reflecting on his experience of teaching Arendt’s work, Gordon notes that sometimes, when he points out the anti-black racism in her writings, his colleagues and students interpret this as meaning that ‘we should not read her work’; that he wishes to remove Arendt from the reading list. 

Gordon calls this ‘a white response’: it is a response typical of those who had the privilege of being surrounded by scholarship that is not offensive to their being. Yet, the world is different for Black scholars: it would be weird if canonical (Western) texts did not contain any racism. 

Gines/Belle makes a similar point: 

Anybody you read in the canon, right, there is this way in which anybody you read in the canon, there’s gonna be issues of anti-black racism … there’s gonna be issues of sexism, homophobia, and all of these things … what I want to invite scholars and students and reader of these texts to do is, you know, read what’s actually there.’ 

Discussions of racism in Arendt’s writings are not new, nor is she a unique figure in the Western philosophical canon (Bryan Van Norden, Western Philosophy is Racist, 2017).

Immanuel Kant’s work has come under similar critique, and there are ongoing debates of how to engage with the overtly sexist and racist aspects of his writings (Pauline Kleingeld, On Dealing with Kant’s Racism and Sexism, 2019). 

It is in Kantian scholarship that one can find inspiration for how to approach Arendt’s work: not to cancel her, but to engage with her work and to debate  her. 

This means, first and foremost, that her views of Africans and African Americans cannot be excluded from discussions of her work: we need to read ‘what is actually there’. The aim is not to ‘rescue’ her, or to explain her as ‘misunderstood’, but to understand her political philosophy more fully, in all its complexity. It is not to ask ‘why did she write this’, but to ask ‘how come she would write this (given all the other things she is concerned about, in particular her own reflections on racism)’? 

Reading Arendt might help us to better understand the contours of racism as a Euro-American habitus (Lucy Allais, 2016, makes a similar argument about Kant). As scholars, we also need to consider the possibility that her views of Africans and African Americans impacted on her theoretical work; in particular, on her understanding of colonialism. 

Could it be that Arendt is grounded in a bifurcated ethics that is unable to transcend white-colonial thinking (as argued by Charles Mills, 2019, for Kant)? That her sincere wish ‘to understand’ (as she explained in an interview with Günter Gaus in 1964) is hampered – and foreclosed – by the legacies of coloniality which affect us all?