UPDirectory Highlighted Philosopher of December 2016: Tommie Shelby

Tommie Shelby

Caldwell Titcomb Professor of African & African American Studies and of Philosophy, Harvard University


AOS: African American Philosophy, Philosophy of Law, Philosophy of Race, Social and Political Philosophy

My primary research interests are in social, political, and legal philosophy. Most of my work has centered on questions of social justice with a particular focus on race and class. I give close attention to the history, socio-cultural life, and plight of peoples of African descent in the United States. My writings tend to be interdisciplinary, rooted in the concerns of philosophy but reaching out to and drawing on history, sociology, political science, and literary and cultural studies.

My first book, “We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity,” examines the conceptual presuppositions and normative underpinnings of African American political unity and collective action. I interrogate and explain the relationship between the ideas of race, social identity, and group solidarity within the practice of African American politics from slavery to the present. Drawing on insights from the black radical tradition, I provide a defense of the continuing relevance of black solidarity in the post-civil rights era.

In various essays, I’ve explored how we should think about racism and what makes it wrong or morally troubling, with a view toward understanding the normative foundations of antiracist thought and activism. I’ve also developed and defended Marx’s ideas about ideology and exploitation and shown their relevance for contemporary debates in political philosophy.

I have strong research and teaching interests in the history of African American political thought. I have written articles and book chapters about such canonical figures as David Walker, Martin Delany, W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Martin Luther King Jr. I’m particularly interested in how some black thinkers have drawn on the traditions of liberalism, Marxism, and black nationalism to develop a distinctive and powerful response to a world shaped by the practice of white supremacy.

In my most recent book, “Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform,” I examine the thorny questions of political morality raised by poor black neighborhoods in the United States. Should government foster integrated neighborhoods? If a “culture of poverty” exists, what interventions (if any) are justified? Should single parenthood among the black poor be avoided or deterred? Is voluntary non-work or street crime an acceptable mode of dissent? How should a criminal justice system respond to the law breaking of the oppressed? This book offers philosophical, empirically informed, practical answers, framed in terms of what justice requires of both a government and its citizens. It tries to show the value of careful philosophical reflection for social-scientific research and public policy.