This is my fourth post in a series on the metaphysics of race. If you want to start at the beginning, go to the introduction to the series. Each post after that has a link at the bottom of the previous post.
Lots of social categories are created by social processes in that way, and we never think anything of it. There really are such things as plumbers, socialists, New Yorkers, people with bank accounts, hip-hop fans, and convicted felons. We don’t have any problem thinking those things are true of someone. We might want to resist reducing someone to being one of those things, as if it’s the only thing that matters about them. But we still think of those as being true of someone.
And there is plenty of evidence that races have some features in common with categories like those. After all, who counts as being a member of which racial group seems to vary with the social setting. Obviously there are clear cases for each racial classification, where different settings won’t make much difference. We would have to change our criteria pretty radically for Samuel L. Jackson not to count as black or for Scarlett Johansson not to count as white. But we can find numerous examples of laws or social treatment that change how we see someone’s race if they are on the boundaries of those categories.
The one-drop rule is a social rule that has been law in some places at some times. It focuses on black and white classifications and classifies someone as black whenever they have any black ancestry. The way to think of it before we knew anything about DNA was that you have what makes you who you are in your blood, so being black constituted having black blood (not in terms of having black-colored blood but having blood that comes from black ancestry). On the one-drop rule’s way of classifying people, one drop of black blood is sufficient for being black, and no amount of white blood is enough to overcome that.
Most people today recognize this rule as racist. It assumes black ancestry somehow pollutes someone, such that no amount of white ancestry can overcome it. The notion of passing as white came out of this. Someone with 1/16 black ancestry who never commented on their race and was assumed to be white would be seen to be passing as white if someone discovered their one black great-great-grandparent (one among 16). The assumption is that they’re really black, not white, not mixed, not both, not neither. The only possibility is black if there’s a black ancestor.
At this point in the United States, this kind of classificatory scheme is illegal. The Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in a footnote to a 1967 opinion that dealt with interracial marriage. Some people still think along these lines when classifying people racially, but my experience is that most people under 45 or 50, especially in the northeast or on the west coast, find this way of classifying people to be very strange. Maybe we still sometimes favor one side with mixed ancestry, such as taking Barack Obama to be black and not white because of his self-identification as black and his self-reporting of his experience in how he’s treated being more like that of black people than white people. But do most people today think someone is black who looks white, has no cultural connection with black people, and has just one black ancestor among 16 of that generation? The U.S. Census now allows people to check more than one box for race, so someone could identify as both black and white. Some people prefer the category of being mixed. Some would say they have black and white ancestry but are neither themselves. Much of this change in how people classify has happened during my lifetime.
My experience is that a child of a white parent and a black parent is racially classified not according to mere assumption of blackness, but how dark the person’s skin is has an influence. Self-identification also matters. Barack Obama claims blackness for himself, but all the media took him to be mixed until it was common knowledge that he just considered himself black. There was even a period during the primary in 2007 when there were questions about whether his blackness was sufficient to get the black community behind him as “one of their own”.
If that is all correct, then it seems as if we can’t just change our minds and call someone a certain race and make it be so, but if people on a larger scale do that then it seems as if it would change who counts as what races. And that seems to be pretty strong evidence that races are socially constructed in some sense. What does that mean? It means that what makes racial groups what they are depends on how people behave, how they think, and how they talk. Society determines where the lines are between the racial categories.
So go back to the anti-realist view from last time. Anti-realists will argue against social kind races by pointing to the fact that many people view races as biological. If there aren’t such biological groups, then races don’t really exist. But the social kind theorist has a response. If races are social categories, part of the explanation is that we treat people with certain biological features as belonging to groups with social significance. We might even wrongly take the social categories to be biologically significant. But what matters is not whether we believe them to be biological categories but rather what significance the categories actually have. The reason we select certain biological features (such as skin color, hair type, perhaps bone structure) as relevant and others (such as whether earlobes are attached, whether you can curl your tongue, or left-handedness) is because we have identified populations according to certain features, as a matter of social behavior (and in part because of geographical location, which also is not biological in nature), and then we have reproduced mainly along those lines. And that is what is biological about race and why people think it is a biological category. But biology hasn’t drawn lines around people and named them. We have. You can’t read those categories off DNA. The biological features that we do use to tell someone’s race don’t always line up with race, and sometimes we don’t know what to say about someone’s race just by looking at them and want to know what their ancestry is, because we think that is relevant.
So now let's take a case -- me. Most of my ancestors (at least recently) are white. I have one great-grandfather who was from Lapland (in northern Scandinavia). Who are Laplanders? They're a kind of indigenous people something like the Inuits of North America but in northern Europe. They are nomadic, or at least they were when my great-grandfather left Sweden to come to the U.S. They didn't intermix much with the Swedish people at that time. He left his family and arrived in the U.S. He didn't speak any English, so the people at the port wrote his name down as Harry Johnston, and after that he never told anyone his real name as far as I am aware. He had darker skin than most Europeans and looked more like Native Americans and like some Asians than he did other people from Europe. So what if I had to think about what race to check on an affirmative action form for a job application? Should I say I'm not white because I'm 1/16 Laplander? I think most people would not think my great-grandfather's background is all that relevant for affirmative action purposes. I'm basically white.
But imagine a member of the KKK being presented with this information about me. Wouldn’t they conclude that I’m not white enough for their purposes, even if 15/16 of my ancestors were white? You might think they’re just wrong about that, because we don't use the one-drop rule anymore, but even if that's right this case shows that different people have different purposes in assigning people to racial categories, and where you end up being put might depend on what those purposes are. Those purposes might shift mid-conversation, even. I have seen that happen.
I could multiply such cases. I put together some years ago a long list of news articles talking about twins born to mixed race couples. If both parents have mixed African and European ancestry, you can end up with fraternal twins where one looks black and the other looks white. I have found numerous news stories with headlines like "Black and White twins born," where the author clearly thinks one of the children is black and the other is white. Not only does that show that the one-drop rule is not operating, but it shows that we're not even using a sufficient-drop rule, which is what people might be using with Barack Obama. You might not be black from having a tiny fraction of black ancestry, but you're black if you have a certain amount, and he has enough, even if he has just as much white ancestry. (In his case, it's 50% of each). But each of these twins has the same ancestry the other one has. What makes the difference? Not ancestry but appearance. One is darker than the other other.
I think it's reasonable to conclude, then, that our social practices do influence who gets assigned into which group. And that really is the main argument in favor of races as social kinds. If we just look at how racial categories function, how we think of them, and how we decide who is in them, we can see variations at different times, places, and even for different purposes, and we don’t really have a case of a biological category, but we seem to be referring to actual groups, and people sure well know what groups we are referring to, even anti-realists. No one at all is confused about the large majority of people we are talking about when we say "black people" or "white people," although maybe some other groups involved ambiguities, and even those groups have ambiguities at the margins. That suggests that races are real but are social kinds. We made them what they are, and how we continue to behave and think and talk will continue to transform what they are. They have objective reality because of what we do, and that reality is not biological but social. And this has become the dominant view in the social sciences and in philosophy.
There are some variations within social kind or social construction approaches that I will get into in the next post, and then after that we will move to a new biological view that is starting to get some support.
This is the third post in my series on the metaphysics of race. To start at the beginning, go to the Introduction post.
The next view on our list is anti-realism. In metaphysics, an anti-realist view is just a view that denies the existence of something. An anti-realist about immaterial souls thinks there are no such things as immaterial souls. They think such souls are not real. An anti-realist about morality thinks morality doesn't exist. So an anti-realist race denies that there are any race. To be clear, this is not the same as rejecting biological races, because you could think races exist but are not natural kinds. Anti-realists reject races of any sort. There just aren't any races.
Why would someone hold such a view? Isn't it obvious that people fall into different categories along racial lines? Well, remember from the last post that people thought races to be biological kinds or natural kinds. Then science turned out to seem not to allow for such biological races. If races are biological kinds, and there are no such biological kinds, then there are no races. That is the most fundamental metaphysical argument for anti-realism about races, although as we will see there are other arguments (and not all of them are metaphysical).
Anti-realism about race is the denial that anything in biology matches up with our social classifications of race, and therefore there are no races at all. The language we use to talk about races isn’t really talking about anything at all. It’s all a mistake. There are no races, and we don’t refer to any existing entities when we talk about race. One response to this argument is to see races as social constructions or social kinds. We will come to that view. Another is to try to defend racial categories as biological but not in the classical biological realist view from the last post, and we will get to that also. But I want to look at the arguments given here first for not believing in races at all.
The Argument from False Views
This view usually relies on the notion that our social groupings do in fact treat races as biological categories, but they don’t turn out to be biological categories. If that’s right, then our common understanding of races is wrong, and there are no groups that match up with what we think races are. If we think races are biological, but there are no biological races, then the things we call races don’t exist.
Here is one worry about some of these arguments, though. A false belief about something that has social reality doesn’t make the social reality non-existent. Our categories of attorneys, political libertarians, and licensed motor vehicle operators are not biological categories. Even if races are not biological, could they be more like those categories? Those categories don’t involve such false beliefs, whereas our category of race might, so that’s one difference. But other social categories involve false beliefs, and we don’t take the thing in question to be non-existent. We didn’t reject heat when we stopped taking it to be some substance that warms things up but instead took it to be faster motion among particles. We just revised our understanding of what heat is. We did reject a concept that people had about heat that they called caloric, which was supposed to be the substance that heats things. We rejected any such substance, so we said caloric doesn’t exist. But we kept heat. We don’t talk about caloric anymore. We do talk about heat. And we talk about race. So if we reject biological races, is race more like heat or more like caloric? The fact that we do talk about it suggests that it's more like heat.
We also revised our notion of an atom, once we concluded that the things we’d been calling atoms were in fact divisible. Atoms were supposed to be indivisible. That’s even what the Greek word means. We’d been calling them atoms long enough that revising our language would have been too much of a change, so we just reconsidered the nature of the things we’d been calling atoms, and we no longer think of atoms as indivisible. We still believe the things we called atoms exist. We just no longer think of them as impossible to be broken into smaller parts. Similarly, we might think the things we were calling races do exist, but they’re not the biological kinds people once took them to be. They’re social kinds. So the arguments against races might not be arguments against races but arguments against biological races.
The Argument from Vague Boundaries
Another kind of argument against race comes from difficulties in figuring out where the boundaries are and figuring out where difficult cases fit in. Naomi Zack is a philosopher who worries especially about this. She has ancestry from several different backgrounds – black, white, Native American, Hispanic/Latina, and perhaps some more that I’m not even aware of. So what race is she? It doesn’t seem like she belongs to a race at all. Does she belong to multiple races, just one race, or none at all? Her own answer is none at all, but that’s because she thinks no one belongs to any races. But part of her argument against racial categories is that she doesn’t think hard cases like her make sense.
Is this a good argument? Aren’t there lots of categories where we have no trouble believing that there is such a category, even if it’s hard to figure out what to do with borderline cases? For example, football and basketball are clearly sports. Golf and bowling seem much less central to what we consider sports, but most people would include them. What about croquet or mini golf? What about chess? Now we’re stretching it a bit, right? Is high-stakes poker a sport? But clearly attending a concert is not a sport. Nor is texting someone. There are clear cases, and there are borderline cases, but there are also things that are definitely not sports. So the existence of borderline cases that are not so clear does not invalidate the category. There are things that are clearly sports, things that are clearly not sports, and things we're not so sure about. That's not evidence against the existence of sports. It's evidence that the boundaries of what counts as a sport are unclear or vague.
And a lot of our categories are like this. Is there a sharp line between the tall things and the not tall things? Is there a clear boundary between the things that are red and the things that aren't? Is there one grain of sand that makes a difference between a pile of sand and something that is not a pile of sand? Of course not. There are difficulties with vagueness in philosophy. I took a whole graduate seminar on the topic. But it's a much more pervasive problem about our language, our logic, and our categorizations in general. It's not something particular to race categories. Unless we want to use vagueness to reject a whole bunch of things that we normally have no problem with, we shouldn't be using it to reject the existence of races.
That doesn’t mean all the hard cases of racial classification should be easy. And it doesn’t mean there are races. But it does mean that the existence of unclear cases is not a good reason for questioning the existence of races.
Changing Race Criteria
Zack also points to the fact that the criteria for race membership can change from place to place or over time even in the same place. It might even turn out that several rules for how we assign people to races contradict each other. She thinks that that’s actually true about race classification in the United States. I’m not so convinced that any one practice of racial classification is internally inconsistent, but there are certainly practices of race classification that conflict with each other, and some of them operate at the same time as each other but for different purposes (and often by different people, e.g. the standards of the KKK, the standards of colleges in terms of affirmative action categories for admission, and the ordinary beliefs of most people may all be operating in a given city block, but different people are still using different standards for different reasons).
Does this mean there are no things that we can call races? Or does it just mean that there might be different kinds of things that we could call races? I don’t see how it rules out the second. Especially once we see the social kind view, we will see how there can be several kinds of races all at once, and we just mean different things by the terms we use at different times. But on that view, all of them exist, just like the categories of college students, Uber drivers, convicted felons, and professional athletes all exist, and we might sometimes mean different things by those terms at different times. For example, laws might change about what counts as a felony, and it might be retroactive to make a former felon no longer a felon. Similarly, laws can change about what race someone is classified as for federal purposes, and states might have different classifications for the same people.
What many philosophers have sometimes offered as a better approach to rejecting a category is to use the notion of reference. A term refers to something. When you use a word, you do have in mind something that you mean, but sometimes you can refer to something even if you get the facts wrong about what you are thinking is true about it. For example, you might point to someone across the room and say, “That woman over there in the blue shirt is really tall.” If it turns out it’s not a woman but a man with long hair that you mistakenly thought was a woman, you have still referred to him, even though you thought you were speaking of a woman. You pointed directly at him, and that successfully pinpointed who you meant, even though you misgendered him.
Similarly, maybe you somehow got the idea that hoverboards actually hover from watching the Back to the Future movies from the 1980s, where they had hoverboards from the future that actually did hover. So when your friend says they got a hoverboard, you pictured them riding a skateboard-looking thing that hovers over the ground. Then you ask them what color their hoverboard is, and they tell you it’s black. So you now add more detail to your picture of the hoverboard actually hovering. It's a black skateboard with no wheels that hovers. When you ask them about their hoverboard that you falsely think will hover, do you successfully refer to it, even though you got something important wrong about it? It seems so. When they answer that it’s black, it does seem that they have answered your question and have succeeded at communicating. You still have a wrong idea about it, but they communicated something true about it, and you understand that statement just fine.
So it doesn’t seem like getting the nature of a hoverboard wrong prevents you from referring to it. Similarly, why should we think getting the nature of races wrong (thinking of them as biological categories) would mean there must be no races to refer to? They could be something other than what we wrongly think they are, and it would still be meaningful to talk about them. In fact, even if we get the nature of races wrong, it seems we still have a relatively good idea of which people are in which ones. Isn’t that group of people then the one refer to when we use racial terms? If so, then anti-realism seems to be making a mistake. Races might not be what we thought they were, but it doesn’t follow that there is no such thing as races. We might just be getting it wrong about what they are if we think of them as biological categories.
The One Human Race View
I should say something also about a related but distinct view. Some people present a view that in some ways is like anti-realism, but it doesn't deny the existence of any races. It denies the existence of multiple races. It holds that there is one human race. Everyone is all part of the same race. In one sense, this is certainly not anti-realism. Anti-realists think there are no races, and this view thinks there is exactly one race. But it's like anti-realism in denying the races that we ordinarily believe in. None of those races exist, according to this view.
The problems with anti-realism also appear for this view. The arguments for anti-realism are not good arguments, and the reasons they give for thinking there are no races will also fail if they are put to show that there is only one race. And if there are reasons to think we communicate just fine by using racial terms, since we succeed at communicating when we use such terms, then the same argument works against the One Race view as well.
But I think this view also has a further problem. It fundamentally misunderstands what races are supposed to be. Races are supposed to be sub-categories of a species, not the species itself. You can't very well reject races because we got their nature wrong and then retain one race and in the process again get the nature of a race wrong. It's inconsistent to reject races from this biological argument and then to say that there is one race by identifying that one race with a species. Before the modern concept of race came along, people might have used the term that way. Tolkien, fond of archaic use of language, used it that way to distinguish the race of Man from the races of Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits, Orcs, and Ents. I found a passage from Jonathan Edwards, writing before the modern concept of race had infiltrated the American colonies, where has something like this. But the word "race" has not really been used to refer to the human species since that time, outside of fantasy literature influenced by Tolkien or writers steeped in pre-modern reflections on these things. So the One Race view seems to me to get the word as wrong as Classical Biological Racial Realism does. There is one human species, sure. But to take the human species to be a race, in the sense that the English word "race" is normally used, is to make a major semantic error. That's not what the word refers to in ordinary use.
They Do Exist but Aren't Races
They anti-realist view that I think has the most going for it is Joshua Glasgow's view., most prominently defended in his 2009 book A Theory of Race, which in my view was a game-changer in this debate in terms of how anyone needed to talk about this issue. Glasgow argues that there are no races, but the reference argument I gave above convinces him that there are groups that we refer to when we use racial terminology. When we talk about black people, say, there is a group of people (with admittedly vague boundaries when it comes to mixed race and so on) that our terms refer to. He just then insists that such groups are not races. His view has changed a little since then, and maybe I'll get to his current view in a later post, but I want to think about the view he defended in his book right now.
Suppose he is right that races have to be biological entities, but there are no such entities. It doesn't follow that the groups we have been calling are races do not exist, as I have argued above. But on his view, then, these groups are not races. I have resisted that above, and our next post will get into some more reasons why we might resist that. But I should note that Glasgow has basically conceded most of what makes the anti-realist view distinctive. He is saying that there is such a group as black people, another group as white people, and another group that consists of Asians. He is accepting that those groups are real, which is what anti-realism wanted to deny.
And I should say that this is what anti-realists have retreated to at this point. They don't deny the existence of the groups that people call races. They just don't call them races. You will still get what I will now call the classic anti-realist view, but many who have questioned the existence of races take this approach now. Kwame Anthony Appiah, who was the first philosophers to begin looking at this question since the early 20th century, famously defended anti-realism in several works. But he has retreated to the view that there are racial identities that we falsely call races but that do exist. Another anti-realist, Lawrence Blum, denies that there are races but calls the groups that everyone calls races by another name -- racialized groups. The groups exist, and we have racialized them, meaning that we think about them as races, even though in his view they are not races.
One response to Glasgow (and any similar position) is that the approach is willing to admit to the group but just failing to use the term everyone else uses. It’s like refusing to call atoms by that name, once it’s clear that they are divisible, all the while recognizing that they exist. But we did continue to use the name, because we referred to them as atoms in a way independent of the theory that led to thinking they were indivisible. We referred to them as atoms because they explained chemical interactions, and that reasoning still worked to allow us to refer to them, even if we had gotten their nature wrong.
It reminds me of the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, who mislabeled emotions as not being emotions because it didn’t fit well with their definition of emotions. They were so convinced that emotions are all bad that they had trouble dealing with some that seemed not to be. Anger is bad in some of its clearest case, so they were fine with that, but what about righteous indignation, which looks just like anger but is motivated by moral concern and recognition that terrible things are being done? The Stoic response was to say that certain things that we call emotions are not really emotions but just good feelings, because they’re compatible with good reasoning, and by their definition emotions are not compatible with good reasoning.
What's going on here is that the Stoics gave a bad definition of emotions. Someone came up with a counterexample, which should normally get them to admit they had a bad definition, and that should lead them to offer another one, one that allows some good emotions. But they stubbornly resisted redefining the term in a way that fit with how emotion-language is actually used. So they point to these good feelings and accept them as fine but refuse to call them emotions. Later philosophers, such as Cicero and Augustine, had a lot of fun pointing out how absurd the Stoics were on this question. They were simply getting their own language wrong and confusing everyone, since everyone knew full well that righteous indication is an emotion. It led people to think that Stoics really did believe all emotions are wrong. They didn't. They just believed that a narrower set of emotions is entirely wrong, while other things everyone calls emotions are not really emotions. So they said this extreme-sounding thesis that no one understood without reading them very carefully, and it could all have been avoided by using language the way everyone else did. The similar lesson with race-language is simply to use it the way everyone does, which means defining it in a way that Glasgow prefers not to do, at least in his book. (He has backed off on this in more recent work, but his current view is complex and relies on notions that we will get to in the next post about social kinds.)
It is for reasons along those lines that many philosophers today think races are not nonexistent biological entities but still are some existing thing. But what existing entities would they be? The most common answer is that they are socially defined entities like philosophers, college students, atheists, electricians, licensed motor vehicle operators, and football players. We’ll turn to the social kind view of race next time.
This is the second post in my series on the metaphysics of race. To start at the beginning, go to the Introduction post.
Biological race realism was the dominant view from the time of the slave trade until the mid-20th century. What a lot of people don't realize is that it was not really even a view until the modern period, starting around the time of 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who contributed to its development as a view. The ancient Mediterranean region that gave birth to what we call the Western tradition did not have a concept of race, as we understand that term today. They certainly distinguished between different cultural ethnicities and political nations. They didn't unify all people with a certain skin color and other external features as belonging to one group called a race, however. It wasn't really until the European slave trade that there was a European concept of race the way we use that term today. That doesn't by itself mean that there isn't something that our race terms refer to. It doesn't mean that there isn't something biological that our race terms refer to. After all, we didn't have a concept of electrons until modern chemistry, and that term still refers to a scientific reality. We didn't have a concept of DNA until 70 years ago, but that still refers to a biological reality. So the mere fact that the modern concept of race developed fairly recently in the grand scheme of things is not a good argument that there is no such thing as race. So let's take a look at the modern concept of race that developed.
As I said, the modern biological view of race developed during the time Europeans were trying to justify their practice of enslaving Africans. There is no question that the intention of justifying slavery was part of why they wanted to classify people in racial groups. Immanuel Kant puts it to that use explicitly, although his later work gives some indications that he may well have changed his mind completely on the permissibility of enslaving Africans. We will have to come back to that issue later. The fact that racial categories formed with immoral and unfactual claims as part of it plays a large role in some anti-realist arguments, so keep it in mind.
On the classic biological realist view, races can simply be read off the facts of our biology. There are a few different ways people have tried this, but the early view was before anyone knew anything about DNA. One common notion was the idea of a racial essence, whereby something in your makeup includes this essence that you have because of your membership in a certain racial group, and all members of that group will therefore have certain features by being in that group. Some of these proposed features within racial essences would be easily recognized today as being racist. They included intelligence, moral capabilities, and even moral worth as part of what the racial essence determines. So slavery could be justified if black Africans have lower intelligence and can't decide on their own what makes a good life for themselves, are unable to partake in a moral community as equals, and are not of the same value that other people are. The views that you will find if you look at the primary sources on this from that period would place the different racial groups into hierarchies in terms of who has more intelligence, moral capability, and moral worth and then who has less, and there will be different levels on that hierarchy for different races.
I think it's also important to point out that these early writings on race did not usually state exactly the same groups we call races today. Some of them were more fine-tuned, corresponding more to groups we would call ethnicities today. Some of them were broader and focused more on color and broader geographical regions. It isn't really until the 20th century that you got a solidification into the categories we now see as the races today. In fact, there is good evidence that there was a fight about whether Irish and Italian people in the United States would count as white. I think a lot of people overstate this, including the most influential book on the issue, but there were people who wanted to refuse Italian and Irish immigrants the ability to consider themselves white. Some of our best sources on this thought that idea was utterly ludicrous, however, which makes me think the mainstream view at the time did consider them white. In any case, these categories changed over the course of the development of the modern concept of race. There was a court case in the middle of the 19th century that concluded that "black" meant non-white, and so Chinese people were black. The same court also declared that Chinese people were American Indians because of the expectation from the land bridge theory that the two groups had common ancestry. This court case set a murderer free, because the race of witnesses was at issue, since only white witnesses counted by California law at that time. There were inconsistent rulings in the early 20th century on whether Arabs, Armenians, and Syrians counted as white. In 1922 the Supreme Court declared that a Japanese immigrant was not white, because "white means Caucasian," but then in a subsequent case when an Indian immigrant argued that Indians from the Punjabi region were Caucasian based on the original use of that term, the Supreme Court said no. That sense of "Caucasian" has to do with linguistic roots, and the racial one has to do with skin color. People's citizenship was at stake in these decisions. 65 people who had become naturalized citizens actually lost it because of that case. (I should note that this case is sometimes misrepresented, however. It's not that only white people could become citizens, and everyone else was forced outside citizenship. It's that only white and black people could become citizens, and those who were in between those two groups on the hierarchy of the time were not allowed to become naturalized citizens.)
So there's a complicated development of where our racial categories came from, and that will play a role in the idea of a social construction when we come to that. So hold on to this information as relevant data. But the main idea that had developed by the early 20th century is relatively clear and consistent. People were conceiving of race as a biological category. There was a whole "science" of race that formed trying to justify the different notions of a racial essence and how it led to both the variations we actually see (skin color, hair type, bone structure, facial shape) and the variations people just made up (intelligence differences, character differences, moral capabilities, moral worth). They developed a branch of pseudoscience called phrenology that measured skulls and drew conclusions about intelligence. In the 19th century they thought percentages of racial something or other would be found in blood, and they took talk of how much blood you had of a certain racial group to be getting at something literally correct in science. It was a startling revelation to discover in 1900 that blood types do not track with racial categories. They had to reconceive of what racial essences were supposed to be, but that notion continued on as what was seen as a scientific idea until the discovery of DNA five decades later.
But here is the core idea of biological racial realism. Races can be read off biology. That's it. That's the main thesis. You can do your biology and look at different people, and biology will simply tell you which races there are. They threw all sorts of other things into it, many of them racist, some of them perhaps not so much. But the core idea was that the racial lines are written into nature. In the concepts of philosophy, races are a natural kind. The idea of a natural kind goes back at least to Plato, who spoke of certain ways of thinking as carving nature at its joints, whereas other ways of thinking do not line up with the way things are actually organized in nature. Electrons are a genuine category in nature, because nature is already divided along lines of fundamental particles, such as protons, electrons, quarks, and leptons. We don't bring that to nature. It's already there. Plumbers, on the other hand, are not a natural kind. We divide people into plumbers and non-plumbers. That's a social category, not a biological one. You couldn't know if someone is a plumber by looking at their DNA or other biological features.
For a more controversial case but one that is very familiar to many of us, biological sex is natural in this sense, because that has to do with several elements really present in nature -- X chromosomes, Y chromosomes, sexual organs of different types, and so on. The fact that we have some cases that don't as clearly fit into the male-female binary is irrelevant to this issue. If I get into sex/gender issues in a later series of blog posts, maybe I can deal with that. But the important point here is that biological sex categories look at stuff that is actually in nature to form the divisions into categories, whereas classifying people according to how they dress, what activities they engage in, what pronouns they prefer you to use for them, and so on does not categorize people in biological ways. It categorizes people in terms of social behavior, internal desires, or expectations we bring to the table. But looking at X-chromosomes, the presence of ovaries or testicles, and so on is looking at genuinely biological phenomena.
So what biological thing is it that races are supposed to be, on the biological racial realist view? Until we discovered DNA, people thought it was fairly obvious. There is some racial essence that explains the obvious physical appearance differences between the races. And they also thought it would explain the other differences, the ones we today would say are racist. But once DNA was discovered, it no longer made sense to think there is a racial essence. I will present that argument in more detail when we get to social kinds, but the basic argument is this. One of the main reasons scientists stopped believing in biological races in the middle of the 20th century is that sub-species groups in other species have a much higher degree of variation between groups than human sub-populations do, What counted as a race or a sub-species group was a group much more distinct genetically than human racial groups are. Human racial groups are far more diverse within themselves than the amount of diversity between groups. The amount of variation between racial groups is tiny compared to the amount of diversity within each race. To put it another way, if you looked at the overall amount of diversity in humanity, and then you looked at how much of that diversity appears in each racial group, it would be almost all of it. The few traits that are distinctive of each racial group are surface-level and relatively insignificant biologically. There is an arbitrariness to them, biologically speaking. They don't seem to carve nature at the joints. So biologists simply concluded that there are no races, biologically speaking. And this is like the 1950s, when DNA was discovered. The civil rights era is only at its beginning at this point, with Brown v Board in place but much still to come.
But when philosophers finally decided to come back to this question in the 1990s, the first thrust of work in this area came to the same conclusion. It followed the science and recognized that the classic racial realist view grounded in biology did not work. If race is biological, and there are no biological races, then there are no races at all. So we will look at the anti-realist view in the next post.
I've wanted for a long time to do a blog series on the metaphysics of race, which is my primary area of research. This is what I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on, which has now been published as a book and has entered the current discussion among philosophers on race. I've been teaching this issue since 2004, and I've finally gotten to a point where I have a set of readings that I really like for introductory classes, and the main content I teach has coalesced into a stable form that I am using every semester now instead of trying something, getting frustrated by it, and not trying it again for a few semesters. I'm finally getting around to turning it into a blog series, because the covid-19 distance learning required me to type up my class lectures into a presentable form, so I now have a set of written materials that I can convert into a bloggable format. So here we go.
There are a number of philosophical issues related to race, but the topic here is the metaphysics of race, which just means looking at the nature of what (if anything) race is. In philosophy, metaphysics is just the nature of reality. It looks at questions about what kinds of things there are and what we can say about them. Metaphysics includes whether God exists, what kind of being God is if God does exist, whether we have immaterial souls that could survive death, whether we have free will and if so what free will even is, whether free will is compatible with being predetermined or with an omniscience being knowing what we will do, whether time travel is possible, the nature of space and time, whether a computer or AI can understand or be conscious, what it means for one thing to cause another thing, and lots of other important questions worth thinking about philosophically. Is a hole, a ditch, or a dent a real thing? Or is it just the absence of certain things or some other thing being formed in a certain way? Is there something about the nature of reality that explains why moral truths are true? These are all metaphysical questions.
But metaphysics also includes a number of questions that we sometimes classify under social philosophy, such as what it means to fall under the category of being a man or being a woman. Questions of sex, gender, gender identity, and gender expression are metaphysical questions (ones with serious ethical implications, but whether a transwoman is a woman is a metaphysical question, and which pronouns we should use for a transgender person or how we should treat such a person are ethical questions; some questions of social philosophy are metaphysics, and some are ethics, and what you say about some of those questions might affect what you say about others). What it means to have a disability and whether that means something is missing or distorted that ought to be present but is not involves metaphysical questions. Are all differences mere differences, or is there some aspect of reality that makes certain differences worse in some sense? Are there certain ways of being that are worse or better than other ways of being? These are all metaphysical questions about the social realm, involving questions about the nature of the categories we use, such as sex, gender, or disability.
So what about race? We can ask what sort of thing races are, assuming they even exist. Are there even such things as races? If so how would we figure out what kind of things they are? Those are the fundamental questions in the metaphysics of race.
There have been three main approaches to this question since philosophers started applying their concepts to the subject, which wasn’t all that long ago. The first attempt in recent times that I’m aware of by a philosopher was the early 1990s by Kwame Anthony Appiah, although others had used philosophical categories to answer this question long before that, and philosophers of earlier times did explicitly raise this question. In the most famous cases, they did so through lenses that most of us would now consider pretty distorted. Before Appiah, English-speaking philosophy as a whole would probably not even have seen this as a philosophical question and certainly would not have wanted to treat it as metaphysics. Even now, it's probably not going to be found in most lists of metaphysical questions, although most philosophers now recognize it to be a genuinely philosophical question. But most would see it not as a fundamental question of metaphysics but as a question of applied metaphysics, the same way theories about what morality is all about would be ethical theory and then questions about abortion might be applied ethics. But if you go back a couple hundred years, the 20th century exclusion of questions of race from philosophy would seem strange. Immanuel Kant was perhaps the most influential philosopher in continental Europe in his time, and he spent many pages writing about race. Indeed, many historians of the race concept place him as one of the most important thinkers to have developed the modern concept of race.
The three main approaches metaphysicians of race today present are the biological realist view, the social realist view, and the anti-realist view. Biological realism and social realism about races both accept the existence of races as real entities, but they disagree on what sort of thing they think races are. Biological realists take races to be naturally occurring, biological categories. Social realists think there are no such biological races, but they think races are real nonetheless. They are instead social entities, created by social forces and determined by such things as how we as a society end up classifying people. By contrast, anti-realists just think racial language doesn’t refer to anything at all. It’s a mistake to think there are races to begin with.
So I will proceed to look at each of these views. I will start with what I call the classic biological approach, which was the main view until about early-mid 20th century. The discovery of DNA and subsequent thought about species and sub-species basically eliminated the class biological approach among those who understood and were influenced by science. Anti-realism dominated for most of the second half of the 20th century and was perhaps the most prominent approach among the first philosophers to go back to including this issue in their discussions, but late 20th century arguments for a social realist view, which takes to be real but not biological, eventually led to that view dominating both in the social sciences and in philosophy once philosophers went back to looking at the question. A few biological approaches developed in the 1990s but didn't catch on, but a new one developed in the last 20 years that has become a viable view at this point, and we will see how that new biological approach relates to social realism (and why the two might even be compatible). But next up is the classic biological racial realist position.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.