De-Segregating International Relations: A Conversation with Robert Vitalis on “White World Order, Black Power Politics”

If you’ve been following the news about race-related campus protests this academic year, it can sometimes be hard to keep them straight. In the autumn, students at Yale’s Silliman College demanded the removal of a College Master following his wife’s e-mail to students encouraging students to use their own judgment when it came to potentially insensitive Halloween costumes, rather than following guidelines issued by Yale administrators. In the winter, students at Oberlin College, a liberal arts college in Ohio, issued a sweeping manifesto to the President demanding significant investment in African and African-American Studies as well as the appointment of more black faculty members. And this spring, students at Princeton University occupied the President’s office to demand the removal of former U.S. (and Princeton University) President Woodrow Wilson’s name from the university’s public policy school. Those demands led to the removal of a “celebratory” mural from the wall of a residential college also named after Wilson, but visitors to the New Jersey campus will still find themselves walking by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

These debates about how American universities today deal with race – whether they should scrub buildings of the names of white supremacists, or invest more in programs in African-American Studies and professionalization programs for faculty of color – are unlikely to end anytime soon. However, as the work of our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, Robert Vitalis (University of Pennsylvania), suggests, the very structure of these debates may obscure an important history in the making of universities and the structure of academic knowledge today. While coming to terms with the racist legacy of individual Presidents or college donors may be a necessary task, as Vitalis shows in his new book, White World Order, Black Power Politics. In it, he shows that race was actually quite core to many disciplines, but especially international relations of the kind taught at the Wilson School and sister institutions in the United States long before African-American protest movements challenged existing structures of power.

Robert Vitalis "White World Order, Black Power Politics" (Cornell UP, 2015), the book at the center of our conversation with Professor Robert Vitalis

Robert Vitalis “White World Order, Black Power Politics” (Cornell UP, 2015), the book at the center of our conversation with Professor Robert Vitalis

To put Vitalis’ argument most provocatively, for many decades, the “international” in “international relations” was synonymous with “interracial.” And while many individual scholars of international relations, and other disciplines, held racist views, this obscures the larger point that the discipline of international relations itself was itself centrally concerned with race relations – meaning, how to manage the relationship of the supposedly superior white race around the world with “Negros” everywhere from the tropics of African to the alleys of Harlem. Textbooks on “international relations” discussed colonial policy in the same chapter as debates about mulattos and the anatomy of black prisoners. In other words, debates over whether or not to retain or remove the name of a Woodrow Wilson from a school of public policy barely begin to get at what a critique of academic disciplines informed by race would look like. Even if temples of learning named after Wilson and John Calhoun are eventually renamed, the curricula taught within them remains awaiting serious scrutiny of its racially entangled past.

It might sound like a big case to make–especially for those whose memories of International Relations 101 classes are marked more by moments of dozing off in between the Melian Dialogue of Thucydides and Kenneth Waltz’s Man, the State, and War. But by and large, Vitalis succeeds at his task. To find out why, the Executive Director of the Toynbee Prize Foundation, Dr. Timothy Nunan, recently sat down with Vitalis to discuss his road to writing the book, the book itself, and his journey as a political scientist into the worlds of intellectual history and African-American history.…