This is the seventh post in my metaphysics of race series. If you want to start at the beginning, you can go right to the introduction to the series. I was going to have this be the final post, but I've decided to split this material in two. This post will look at some general issues, and the final one will get into some specifics.
What do I mean by the ethics of the metaphysics of race. As I said at the beginning, metaphysics is the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of reality, and looking at the nature of race is thus an exercise in applied metaphysics, in the same way that utilitarianism is an example of an ethical theory and then abortion is an example of an applied issue in ethics. The previous posts in the series look at questions such as whether race exists, what sort of thing it is, and so on. They are questions about reality. And if you've followed along with me in my arguments, then you should be convinced that race is real, the groups we usually call races are social kinds, their social construction involves problematic notions, the categories themsevles came into existence from false views, their current existence is nonetheless real, and where racial boundaries are drawn can vary from place to place, across time, and even from conversation to conversation. Social kinds are like that, because what defines them are social conditions that change as people use language differently, have different concerns, or think differently about what they are discussing.
If you followed me in my line of reasoning in the last post, you would also agree with me that there are groups that biology can identify that seem perfectly reasonably to call races but that are not remotely like the old biological theories of race and are much closer to the social kind races that we refer to in ordinary conversation. Our ordinary racial terms don't quite refer to precisely the same groups as these newly recognized biological races, however, so it wouldn't be accurate to say that these groups are the same races that we ordinarily speak of. They just overlap a huge amount.
So now the ethical question comes: what should we do after considering all that? How should we use our language? Are certain ways of talking right or wrong? Should we be classifying people into these groups? There are a number of ways of talking about races that we might rightly find very worrisome. But if races are real, and if real problems occur along racial lines, then we have to be able to refer to races, right? So that's what the ethics of the metaphysics of race is about. What are the moral issues related to how we recognize or don't recognize races and how we talk or think about them or how we don't talk or think about them?
In metaphysics, you have categories like realism and anti-realism, which get to whether you think the thing in question exists. If you think there really are moral truths, then you would be a realist about morality. If you don't, then you would be an ethical anti-realist. But there are varieties of both. We saw that in the case of race you could be a realist and think races are biological entities or social entities (or both, if you accept my arguments). But there are a number of further attitudes you could take.
Eliminativism is not about what exists as much as what we should stop believing in and talking about. The concept developed in philosophy of mind. Eliminative materialism starts from the view that minds don't exist. There are brains and neurons and neurological structures, but there aren't any such things as beliefs, desires, choices, and so on. So eliminativism in this case starts with an anti-realist claim. There are no beliefs. But then the eliminativist program is to work ourselves to a point where that mental language is no longer necessary by doing science and learning how to talk in brain terms. So the metaphysical component is the denial that beliefs exist, and the ethical component is working ourselves toward a point where we don't talk about them anymore. We stop thinking in those terms. (And, ironically, we stop having beliefs about beliefs.)
It's important to see that eliminativism is grounded in the metaphysical claim of anti-realism. I have already argued that anti-realism about race is false. So that shuts down eliminativism in the standard form. But could you get another argument going, that we should implement a long-term strategy of getting ourselves to a point where anti-realism is in fact true, and then we can stop talking about these racial groups that have their origin in false and morally problematic ideas. So it would not be eliminativism now. It wouldn't be accurate to say races don't exist now, after all. It would be a long-term eliminativism.
The problem with this view has already come up in this blog series. In the social construction post, Sally Haslanger's view is long-term eliminativist in this sense, and Chike Jeffers' response contains arguments against that. I explained why I agree with him in that post. As he argues, along the way the racial groups that were imposed by people with false views about those races nevertheless have become real groups whose existence has continued while conditions of membership have changed and how people have thought of those groups have changed, and some of them have developed within each racial group some cultural aspects that are common to many members of the group. This happens on a level larger than ethnicity, e.g. African-Americans are a much larger group than an ethnicity. Those cultural traits then become associated with the race, even though not all of those cultural traits are present in other African-descended groups around the world. Some of those traits are positive and neutral. Removing racial talk and thought could then eliminate things that are not bad, and that would be bad. And along the way, we still have to address racial problems. We need to keep using the terms all that time, which means people's sense of the existence of those groups is not likely to disappear very easily. Passing a law to ban racial terminology won't stop people from thinking in racial terms or engaging in all the biases that we have about various racial groups, most of which are unconscious and develop in early childhood. It doesn't seem as if eliminativism is a good response, then, even long-term eliminativism.
So does that mean we just keep these terms and never seek to change how we think about them? I call that approach retentionism. On a retentionist view, we just accept how things are and don't worry about trying to change them. Maybe we do this because we like the status quo. Maybe we do it because we see change as hopeless. Or maybe we do it just because we don't think about the ways we can make changes. But retentionism seems worrisome to me, at least if we do it in an unqualified way. Simply retaining categories tainted with bad stuff seems wrong. That's what is right about the eliminativist urge, but eliminativism goes too far. Retentionism, on the other hand, doesn't go far enough. We need to seek some change in how we think about these terms, how we use them.
I think the way forward is to recognize that there is a middle ground between simply retaining our racial categories and just getting rid of them. We could instead revise them. We can start using them differently. We can remove the bad stuff. We can think about racial groups more accurately and remove the conditions that set us up for all the racial problems that we have. However, I don't think we can just do this revision now the way some have argued we should. anymore than we could just eliminate the terms overnight. Short-term revisionism and short-term eliminativism both face the same problem. If we decide we need new definitions of race and start trying to implement them, it won't change people's thoughts, and it certainly won't change the biases they formed as children. What we need to do is change the conditions that lead to our racial views forming the way they do and that lead to biases forming in young children. I would therefore urge a long-term revisionist proposal.
What about the short-term, then? Well, we have no choice, actually. We can pretend we're trying to eliminate or revise racial terms overnight, but it won't work. It won't be likely to catch on, but even if it did it would be lying. We'd be pretending. It would be like parents who do the Santa Claus thing. We'd be living a fiction to try to get people to do something we'd rather they do, but it would all be founded in a lie. No matter how much we pretend there aren't any races, there are. No matter how much we want to say that there is only one race and then confusedly say that the human species is also a sub-species or race, it simply will be false, and we'll be spreading a lie. Sure, it's a noble lie with good motives behind it, but those of us who care about the truth should never tolerate such a proposal. It should certainly not be a view that a philosopher should endorse. Philosophers should seek the truth and should acknowledge it when they discover it.
And the fact remains that you have to be able to talk about these groups we call races in order to recognize biases, disparities, mistreatment, and so on. Those are realities, and we need terminology to do that. Even most anti-realists now are recognizing that. While they are still denying that races are real, they have at least found other ways to refer to the groups that we call races. They call them racialized groups or races* or the like. But what that recognize is that the groups we call races are real and that they need to be named. They are just resistant to calling those groups races. If you really want to insist on that, I won't fight it too hard, although I still think that relies on false assumptions about how our terms refer to things in the world. If we have consistently called those groups races for hundreds of years, and we agree that the groups exist, why not simply recognize that the word simply refers to groups like those at this point? Even if the word once meant something else, it doesn't anymore and hasn't for at least several decades. But if you're going to resist on that point, at least recognize that the groups exist and that we need to refer to them while also recognizing that the vast majority of people use racial language to refer to those groups.
So I think short-term retentionism or at best a very minor revisionism is all we can do right now, while pursuing a long-term revisionism, especially about the conditions that lead to how we think about races and form our racial concepts so that we can end up with different racial notions than we have. And now it's only taken me seven posts to explain the title of my book. A Realist Metaphysics of Race: A Short-Term Retentionist, Long-Term Revisionist Approach, and this blog series is almost over. But we're not done yet. We still need to get to the details of what that short-term retentionism and long-term revisionism look like in practice. There are particular proposals that I want to look at more specifically and offer some suggestions for what that would best look like.
This is my sixth 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.
Now Spencer also acknowledges that there are different social constructions than the OMB one, and those don’t have anywhere near the kind of biological support to count as biological races. So what if some practice takes Pacific Islanders or aboriginal Australians (who have black skin and tight, curly hair, just as Africans do) to count as black because they have the same appearance as Africans and African Americans? The only way to get such a group is to focus on biologically insignificant categories in comparison to what Structure does. But some people think about race that way, and one social construction of race does put those three genetically distinct populations into one race. Skin color and hair type are such a tiny percentage of anyone’s genome that picking those out doesn’t have any biological reason to support it. The reason you would lump those diverse genetic groups together is because people treat them similarly because of their appearance. The practice of putting such groups into a racial categoy has social reasons, because our society makes those features significant when people discriminate or make assumptions about people because of their skin color. That allows you to have socially constructed races with different boundaries than the ones the OMB uses. Those socially constructed races are not biological, he says.
This is my fifth 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.
In the last post, I argued that races are real and that they are social kinds. Some people talk about social constructions, and they mean pretty much the same thing as social kinds, but they often want to build more into that notion than the mere idea of a social kind. This post looks at a few versions of social kind views and thinks through what we should say about those variations.
The most important discussion of social construction is Ian Hacking's book The Social Construction of What? Hacking identifies to core element of a social construction as something that might have appeared inevitable but in fact wasn't. People whose idea of the role of women is to cook, raise children, and engage in projects from home might think their idea of women is inevitable and follows from biology, but they are wrong, and we can see that by looking at any society where women excel at other tasks. The idea of women, then, is socially constructed in that some element of how we think of women seems inevitable but was actually caused by social forces that could have taken things in another direction (and indeed in some societies, including the 21st century U.S., have gone in another direction).
Hacking then points to a few ways social constructionist theses can differ. All social constructionist theses include the idea that something seems inevitable but wasn't. Something didn't have to go the way it did but did go the way it did. Historical or social forces led to the current state of affairs. But that doesn't tell you one way or the other if the current state of affairs that is socially constructed is good, bad, or neutral. It also doesn't tell you one way or the other is the current state of affairs is unchangeable, in other words if what was not inevitable now is inevitable. So we then have a few variations.
Someone might think races did not have to exist, but they were brought into existence by social forces. Or they might think races did not have to exist in the form they do, but they were made to be what they are by social forces. Both are constructionist claims. But you could hold that while thinking races are largely neutral entities. You could also think that the entities that were created or shaped by these social forces led to good divisions that we should affirm. Or you could think these entities are bad in some way. The social constructions might be harmful in some way or morally problematic.
In fact most people who see races as social constructions do think there is something problematic about them. But there is disagreement on whether they are thoroughly problematic and thus have no redeeming elements or whether it is possible, at least in principle, to transform our social realities to a point where races still exist but without those problematic elements.
One major debate among social constructionists about race lies between what Sally Haslanger calls her sociopolitical account of race and what Chike Jeffers calls his cultural constructionist account. There are actually two main axes of difference between these views.
First, Haslanger defines race in such a way that the problematic elements of race are part of race itself. Being black has as part of its very essence being treated as inferior. It doesn't have as part of its essence actually being inferior, but it does have as part of its essence being treated as inferior. Someone is black because there is a process of treating certain people as inferior than others. It's part of the very categories, according to Haslanger's definition, that hierarchies, discrimination, stigmatization, biases, and so on occur. Similarly, it's part of the definition of whiteness to be treated more favorably along the same lines.
Now you might think this is obviously false. Why couldn't it be that white people and black people could exist within any of those social assumptions? Isn't that the whole point of saying it's a social construction? Isn't that just a claim that the current arrangement is not inevitable but could have been different? Well, in fact Haslanger would agree with all that. What she's saying, though, is that the current constructions of whiteness and blackness do have a hierarchy and all those problematic elements. And in her view, those elements are essential to the constructions we have. In her view, we can't undo that. The only hope is to get ourselves to a point where we no longer have the racial categories that we currently have. Her long-term goal would thus be elimination of the racial categories entirely. Maybe we could replace them with something else, but there is no room in her view for reforming them or revising them. In her view, whiteness is irredeemable. That is not to say that people who are white are irredeemable. That is to say that the category of whiteness that has been socially constructed and contains all manner of problematic elements is irredeemable, and we ought to work our way to a society that does not have it anymore. And I should add that it's not just whiteness but every racial category that has this feature. Blackness is irredeemable and involves problematic notions of inferiority and stigmatized elements. And so on for every racialized group in its social constructions.
There is also another way Haslanger's view can be misunderstood, and this is very important to her and reveals the other side to her view. You might use the problematic nature the categories to argue for a kind of anti-realism. These categories are bad, so we shouldn't use them. We looked that line of reasoning in the anti-realism discussion in earlier posts. Haslanger, however, does not think that the irredeemable nature of racial categories means we should stop using racial terms or thinking racially. In fact, it is crucial to her view that we do use racial categories and that we use to them mean what she defines them as, with all the problematic elements built into the definition. In fact, she readily admits that the terms might not actually mean what she says we should use them to mean. She says she is not doing an analysis of what the terms actually mean. She is defining how she thinks we ought to use them if we have anti-racist goals. So she's not actually doing the metaphysics of race, as I explained that task in the first post. She's doing the ethics and politics of using racial language. She thinks the goal of anti-racism is best served by using racial terms in a way that sees nasty and offensive things built into race relations and in a way that would see no races existing if we had a just world.
There is a name for this kind of approach in philosophy. It is called instrumentalism. An instrumentalist in philosophy of science is someone who doesn't think science actually gets at truth. It just helps us think about the world in ways that are useful to us. Haslanger, similarly, is not trying to get to the truth about what races are but is trying to use race language to get us what we want. She is an instrumentalist about race language. A metaphysical approach to race, on the other hand, is more concerned about getting things right about whether races exist and what they are if they do, before moving to questions about how we should therefore use language and seek whatever goals we have about resisting racism and other racial problems. We need to keep those tasks separated, and Haslanger's approach ignores the one and moves straight to the other, as if the metaphysical question doesn't matter.
Even apart from that issue, is Haslanger right that thinking of races as if they now have an essence of being related in hierarchies is how we will remove those hierarchies? Why should we think emphasizing hierarchies and insisting that they are essential to races is going to have the effect of removing those hierarchies? She thinks you need to affirm the existence of those hierarchies in order to change the social relations that lead to then, which may be so, but does that require thinking those hierarchies are essential to racial categories themselves? Chike Jeffers disagrees, with a view he calls cultural constructionism. His main thesis is that races as they have been socially constructed can develop distinctive cultural features that could remain as good things worth preserving and affirming as good, even if there are currently problematic features in how races are currently constructed. In other words, in a just world that had removed the problematic forces that currently construct races the way they are, there might still be races. What's good in the racial constructions might be able to survive a reforming of our racial social constructions so that there would still be races, with identities worth affirming even if we have removed all the bad stuff. Haslanger's view has no room for that possibility, and one might argue that in effect what she has done is denigrate all races by insisting that we have to see them as essentially problematic, with no elements that could remain in a just world.
I think you might even have room for thinking something good or at least neutral would be preserved of whiteness. The mainstream of critical race theory would argue that whiteness itself has an essential feature of being oppressive and is indeed constituted by oppressive relations with other races. But a cultural constructionist can recognize that there might be cultural traditions practiced mainly by or even exclusively by white people that could be preserved while removing any hierarchies, stigmatization, or biases against other races. If nothing else, there seems to be something appropriate in a white person feeling glad when other white people have done good things, including resisting racism and trying to transform our social patterns to remove racially problematic elements. Couldn't there be room for something like that in a cultural constructionist view? Races, then, have been socially constructed to be what they are, including some ways that certain races are hierarchically above others, with stereotypes, biases, stigmatization, and so on. But those things are not inherent to the concept of these races, and in principle in a just world without the bad stuff, there might still be a recognition of the racial groups because of positive features of those groups that are not defined or seen in terms of a hierarchical relation to other groups but just as existing groups with differences that no one sees as positioned in a way that makes any other groups negative in comparison.
It is my contention that Haslanger has ruled this principle out, even defined it out of existence, without really arguing for doing so, other than to give an argument for identifying racial categories as having problems. But you can identify the categories as having problems without thinking those problems are the essential nature of those categories. So I think the cultural constructionist view has the better support in this debate.
So far in this series we've looked at classic biological realism, seen why it was rejected, moved to anti-realism, seen why that view doesn't hold up under closer examination, and then looked to social kind or social construction views, where I have argued not just that races are socially constructed but that the cultural constructionism version of a social construction view is the correct view. Races have in fact been constructed in a way that social forces stigmatized, define certain races downward, lead to biases and stereotypes, and in general lead to a whole bunch of bad ways of thinking about races and behaving toward people of various races. But we should not see those features as inevitable or as essential to the racial groups that have been constructed. In principle we could remove the bad stuff and maybe still have something left. And that means we should not think of whiteness itself as hierarchical or tied to privilege or whatever other way we have conceived of it. Whiteness itself is just membership in the group that has in fact been conceived of this way, but we can try to change the societal conditions that lead us to conceive of races that way while perhaps retaining the groups if there is good reason to do so as we eliminate all the bad stuff.
In the next post we will come full circle, because there's a new view out there, basically just in the last ten years or so. Biological realism is back. It's not the same kind of biological race realism, though. Classic racial realism is still as untenable as it ever was, but new work in the science of race has allowed for a different sort of biological realism without any of the racial essences that made the classic view so ridiculous. And, perhaps surprisingly, since I just argued for a social kind view, I will actually come out and say that this view is almost correct. It's so close to being correct, in fact, that we need to be very careful how to proceed. So we will look to that next.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.