White World Order, Black Power Politics: An Interview with Robert Vitalis

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Robert Vitalis

This month, I had the wonderful privilege of interviewing Professor Robert Vitalis on his recent book, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015). Dr. Vitalis received his Ph.D. in political science from MIT in 1989. His first book, When Capitalists Collide: Business Conflict and the End of Empire in Egypt, was published in 1995. The Organization of American Historians awarded him the Bernath Prize in 1996 for his work on Egypt’s political economy. He joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in 1999 and directed the US/ED Title VI National Resource Middle East Center between 1999-2005, for which he raised $4.9 million in federal funds. He continued to develop and expand the scope of his interests in historical comparative analysis in his second book, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, which was named a book of the year in the London Guardian. He has been awarded fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2009), Rockefeller Foundation (2003), the International Center for Advanced Study, NYU (2002), the American Council of Learned Societies (2002), and the MacArthur-SSRC International Peace and Security Program (1998). He was a MacArthur Award nominee in 1998.

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Paul Hébert: Can you tell us more about what led you to research the ideological origins of the academic discipline of foreign relations? How does this new project build on your previous scholarship?

Robert Vitalis: The story I tell in the book’s preface is true. I stumbled onto this project after reading a self-published history of Clark University. It noted the contribution its faculty made to the early history of the discipline of international relations through founding the first journal, the Journal of Race Development (JRD), in 1910, a fact that complicates the conventional origin story and one that no international relations scholar had an inkling of until I began to publish my findings. The one the discipline tells itself is that like minded internationalists in London and New York sought to keep Wilsonianism alive through founding the Royal Institute of International Affairs (better known to insiders as Chatham House) and the Council on Foreign Relations, together with the first specialist publications, International Affairs and Foreign Affairs.

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What I read in the journal and other contemporaneous sources called into question three commonly held beliefs about the discipline. The first is that its thinkers never showed much interest in the study of imperialism. The reality is that the new U.S. colonial conquests of the late nineteenth century were the fundamental grounds on which the scholars argued the need for a new field of study, in particular due to the prospect of increased conflict across the color line. The second, starkly wrong idea, therefore, is that “race” hasn’t mattered to theory building. Yet here were leading white scholars championing the theory of “race development,” hence the journal’s title, or what today we are more likely to think of as uplift, tutelage, nation-building, and so on, as the chief means by which “race war” might be minimized and white supremacy secured in the future. The third all too familiar belief, not limited to academic international relations, is that black thinkers have not mattered. Yet W.E.B. Du Bois, who by then had left Atlanta University to edit the Crisis, served on the original editorial board of the JRD, which changed its title to the Journal of International Relations in 1919. An early version of the chapter “Souls of White Folk” from Darkwater appeared there, and he continued to publish in its ultimate successor, Foreign Affairs, after the Council bought and renamed the journal. As your readers might expect, the Council’s history makes no mention of the journal. It points to Du Bois as evidence of its long time editor’s open mindedness in an era when racism ruled, although no other African American appeared in its pages for decades, and passes over in silence the contradiction when discussing the difficulty in finding a qualified African American for actual Council membership. My book explores these intertwined institutional and intellectual developments in international relations history and theory for the first half of the twentieth century.

White World Orders relationship to my previous work is a complicated one. I am political scientist known primarily for two books on the political economy of the Middle East, and I was hired at the University of Pennsylvania in 1999 to take over the running of its Middle East Center. After publishing my first book on the politics of business interest conflict in Egypt, I began to study the impact of U.S. oil firms in Saudi Arabia. After stumbling on the Journal of Race Development and determined to learn more about Du Bois, I raised funds (after a bruising war inside the fellowship committee) to retrain in African American studies in order to pursue the study of international relations history, and got to know Nell Painter and Kevin Gaines, then at Princeton, and Adolph Reed Jr., then at the New School. The job at Penn, however, obliged me first to finish the Saudi Arabia book, one that nonetheless shows the influence of my intellectual turn. The history that U.S. oil companies invented after World War II about their early and unshaken commitment to the Saudi people, at a moment when criticism of U.S. imperialism was on the rise in the Eastern Province and across the globe, is the one that scholars repeated uncritically for decades. The firms’ private records revealed a dramatically different reality. I developed an account of the exploitative order in place in the oil camps, the racial science that justified it in the minds of the American engineers and managers, and the failed efforts of Arab and other workers to bring about its end. I likened what I did in that book to “reverse engineering” particular processes of myth-making. I’ve done more or less the same thing now for a sector of the U.S. academy in White World Order.

Hébert: What sources did you find particularly helpful for crafting this historical narrative? Did you work with sources you had not utilized in your earlier work, and if so, how were these new sources useful?

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Ralph Bunche’s A World View of Race

Vitalis: My work differs from that of most political scientists in its heavy reliance on archives, and I have written on this kind of research for political scientists who believe it is possible to write about the past credibly without doing such work themselves. My two previous books mined U.S. State Department and Great Britain’s Foreign Office records for material on Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s social and economic history, and Americas Kingdom also benefited from records brought to the U.S., I believe surreptitiously, when the Saudi Arabian government took over the U.S. oil companies’ concession. The “owner” eventually donated them to Georgetown University. In White World Order I turned to the records of private organizations (e.g. The Social Science Research Council, the Foreign Policy Association) and papers of individual scholars for the first time. Among the most valuable were the papers of Raymond Leslie Buell (at the Library of Congress), a young Harvard professor and the first U.S. scholar to do serious field in Africa (The Labor Problem in Africa, 2 volumes, 1929). Buell was also one of the only specialists to engage seriously if patronizingly with Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, and Rayford Logan, who considered Buell a friend. Logan later said the same of Harold Isaacs, an ex-comrade of Leon Trotsky whose papers at MIT ought to be of interest because the interviews with some seventy African American journalists, activists, and scholars reported on anonymously in his New World of Negro Americans (1963) are there in full, as are Isaacs’s letters to and from James Baldwin, Paulie Murray, C. Eric Lincoln, Logan, and others.

Needless to say it would have been impossible to write White World Order without the collections housed at Howard’s Moreland-Spingarn Research Center. Locke’s papers were an education and a revelation. The book draws heavily on Logan’s papers together with his diaries at the Library of Congress. The Center’s curator, Joellen ElBashir graciously gave me access to Merze Tate’s then still unprocessed papers (Barbara Savage, who is writing Tate’s biography, has successfully lobbied for organizing the collection.). I did not spend nearly enough time in Ralph Bunche’s papers at UCLA, and there is still much to learn from them about the Howard department and the political science profession during a dismal time.

Beyond the archival collections, the digital depository JSTOR, which, when I started this project did not include the Journal of Race Development (it does now), made the inventorying of papers and assessing the critical reception of various thinkers invaluable. The same goes for UNZ.org, when it came to hunting down articles from the mass market magazines and journals of opinion.

Hébert: Your book focuses in part on how major figures in African-American intellectual history, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Rayford Logan, Ralph Bunche and Alain Locke, challenged the core ideologies that drove the foundation and development of the discipline of international relations. International relations provided the intellectual infrastructure for engagements between what was later called “the global North” and “the global South,” and your book reveals how the discipline and critiques of it blurred the line between foreign policy and Americas domestic race relations. Given these aspects of your project how does the story you tell complicate our understanding of twentieth-century African-American intellectual history?

Vitalis: The book suggests two ways in which presentism may get in the way of understanding the moment and milieu in which Du Bois, Locke, Logan, and Bunche trained and did their work, which was also applicable to long time exemplars of white supremacist thought such as T. Lothrop Stoddard. A main finding of the book is that not so long in the past “international” and “interracial” were basically synonyms. So textbooks in international relations would discuss miscegenation and the new Harvard Bureau of International Research aided studies on the anatomy of blacks in prison and on mulattoes in the United States. We lose all sense of this reality when we read now about Ralph Bunche or other thinkers as having worked simultaneously or serially on “domestic” and “foreign” affairs. The same is true of Stoddard, who is typically discussed as a “race theorist” even though he wrote on multiple dimensions of international relations, from the “Negro problem” and the Islamic revival to the causes of war.

A second problem is the weakness in our knowledge of the history of the social sciences, and the tendency of practitioners to imagine that disciplinary institutions looked more or less the same as the do now. Existing intellectual biographies of Ralph Bunche, to give a representative example, offer the thinnest descriptions of his actual training and the kinds of intellectual debates that defined his area of specialization. We compound the problem when we posthumously promote one or another scholar into the disciplines that did not yet exist, African studies say for Ralph Bunche. As I noted in the book, what “Bunche was—and, surely, self and collective professional identifications then in play trump the ones waiting to be invented—was a specialist in comparative colonial administration.” Yet today we have lost all knowledge of that specialization.

Beyond these more general points, the book contributes new information and offers correctives to the records for each of the thinkers in question: Frank Frazier’s early plans to study race relations in Morocco; the context for Locke’s use of the concept “race development” and his own pre-Myrdalian account of the American “social creed;” Bunche’s authorship of a study (The Atlantic Charter in Africa from an American Perspective) that his biographers instead believe he opposed; Logan’s prescient account of the interethnic violence likely to accompany independence in many Sub Saharan African states; and Merze Tate’s critical review of Richard Wright’s Color Curtain, about the 1955 Asian African Conference at Bandung, to give a few examples.

Hébert: Your book offers new insights on the career of Merze Tate, the first black female professor of political science in the country. Could you tell us more about Tates life and legacy? What role did she play in shaping the field of international relations?

Merze Tate
Merze Tate

Vitalis: Tate was a native of Michigan (I got this wrong in the book!), born in 1905, who worked as a teacher before going back to school and ultimately obtaining a PhD in government from Radcliffe in 1941. She started teaching at Howard in 1942, on a year by year basis at first. I would point readers to Barbara Savage’s chapter in Toward a New Intellectual History of Black Women, the first published results of her biography-in-progess, for an overview of Tate’s life and career. Tate has all but been forgotten, left off lists of pioneering black scholars in political science, even though her first two books on the disarmament movement helped to define an entire field of study in international relations.

By 1959-1960, she had broken through the color line in the profession, placing articles in political science and history journals and participating in meetings of the American Historical Association. After traveling to India on a Fulbright in 1950 she shifted the focus of her research to imperialism in Hawaii, Australasia, and later in Africa, much of which remains unpublished. Tate was one of the few scholars working on the topic in the early Cold War (Wisconsin’s William Appleman Williams is the one all diplomatic historians cite.). The historical profession only began to catch up with her again in the 1960s and 1970s, by which point she was nearing retirement after being beaten down by a hostile working environment, among other factors.

Hébert: The African-American intellectuals and activists at the center of your project were in dialogue with their counterparts from the Africa and the Caribbean. What kinds of influences did these transnational encounters have on the Howard School and critiques of international relations?

Vitalis: I barely scratched the surface on this topic, from Rayford Logan’s lifelong friendship with Haiti’s Dantes Bellegarde, dating back to the Paris meeting of the Pan-African Congress, where Logan met and served as Du Bois’s translator, to Bunche and Locke’s successful efforts to hire C.L.R. James’s protege, the Oxford-trained Eric Williams, as war broke out in Europe. I would emphasize two points: One is that Bunche’s political education of the various tendencies in African liberationist thought really began in London in the mid-1930s among the student activists, trade unionists, and others associated with his ex-student George Padmore. In turn Bunche went out of his way to bring nationalists like Kwame Nkrumah into the conversations taking place in wartime Washington foundation and policy networks about the future of empire in Africa. The related point is that Bunche and Logan grounded their increasing skepticism about the prospects for the transfer of power in Africa not in notions of some inherent lack of capacity on the part of future Ghanaians, Nigerians, and so forth but on the failures of colonial officials to prepare the ground. I was struck by the extent to which Nkrumah and especially Padmore shared some of these concerns, at least in private, but more needs to be done on the topic. Seemingly the views of the latter two shifted once they reached the Gold Coast. The Scotland Yard intelligence files on Nkrumah tell a part of this story, and scholars need to find the files for Du Bois and other key figures.

Hébert: White World Order, Black Power Politics explores the relationship between imperialism and Americas domestic racism and the black intellectualsefforts to challenge to white supremacist and imperialist ideologies. The book also contributes to a growing body of scholarship that reveals the extent to which the African-American struggle and the worldwide struggle against Western imperialism were intimately related. Moving from the past into the present, where do you see these legacies and strategies emerging in contemporary politics?

Vitalis: First let me point to a few key men and women today inspired by black internationalism in their scholarship and activism. One is the Palestinian-American legal scholar Noura Erekat, who spearheaded the Black Palestinian Solidarity Video project, “When I See Them, I see Us.” Another is Hisham Aidi, the author of Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture, who documents how the legacy of Malcolm X matters powerfully to black and Muslim youth in contemporary Europe as they mobilize against rising Islamaphobia. And Robbie Shilliam, at Queen Mary University of London, one of the most important scholars studying racism and international relations today, works locally with Rastafari and black communities, and with indigenous rights movements across what he calls the Black Pacific.

On March 5, 2016, I spoke at the CodePink 2016 Summit on Saudi Arabia. Back in the 1950s, A. Phillip Randolph and the Pullman Porters joined in the first protest against the U.S. embrace of the reactionary Saudi rulers, at a time when slavery there was still legal. The U.S. – Saudi alliance is one that enriches arms makers, under the guise that the kingdom is vital to our security. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, the vast sums the U.S. spends in operating its global military machine in the Persian Gulf and beyond goes far to explain why resources go wanting in our cities, schools, and communities. We ought to follow the example of Du Bois, who understood the importance of opposition to militarism as central to the struggle for justice.


Paul Hébert

Paul Hébert is an independent scholar who received his PhD from the University of Michigan. He is currently working on a book manuscript based on his dissertation, “A Microcosm of the General Struggle: Black Thought and Activism in Montreal, 1960–1969.” Follow him on Twitter @DrPaulHebert.