Our advent sermons this year are from Isaiah 59-60, and this week we are starting with the first half of chapter 59. (I know this isn't the first week of advent, but we were working through Genesis and had to finish chapter 50 last week.)
One thing that stood out to me about this week's passage is the progression of pronouns in Isaiah 59. The prophet starts out in verses 1-3 speaking in the second person. "Your iniquities have separated you from your God" and "have hidden his face from you." He speaks to the people about their own sin and its effect on them. At this stage he is accusing them, and he is not part of what he is criticizing. They do this.
He then shifts to third person in verses 4-8. At this point no one calls for justice. They give empty arguments, speak lies, conceive of trouble, are quick to shed innocent blood, and walk paths without justice. No one who walks in their ways will know peace. He isn't just accusing others now. He's talking about an objective situation, without placing himself in it our outside it. He's noting something that is true.
Then we see a shift to the first person in verses 9-13. "Justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows." He speaks of his own people, him included, as if they collectively walk around blindly and mourning, looking for justice and deliverance but not finding it.
But verse 12 shifts to an explanation. "For our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities." Rebellion against God, oppression, revolt, and lies are in the same breath given as the reasons why "we" end up with the effect of verses 14-15. Justice is driven back, righteousness pushed off at a distance, truth stumbling in the streets, honesty unable to enter. "Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey."
He's still giving the effects on those around him, but he's identifying with them in their sin and collectively recognizing that it's not just some other group of evildoers that he is calling out. We are all in this group. And when he calls for justice, the reason it's not happening is because of the doing of injustice that he is also participating in.
You might argue that he's just collectively identifying with his fellow Jews the way Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel do in Ezra 9, Nehemiah 9, and Daniel 9 when they weren't committing the sins of the people but were still offering prayers of collective repentance for the people they belonged to. But I think this is different. Ezra didn't commit the sin of marrying pagans who didn't worship God that he was lamenting. Daniel didn't bow to the idols around him in Babylon. Yet they collectively repented as a way to lead their people to repent.
But the things Isaiah is dealing with here, though not all sins we all commit, includes things that he and any other generally righteous people in his time, were complicit in. So even though he starts out pointing out the sins of others and describing the effects on them, none of that false, he ends up identifying with it enough to describe it as something true of "us" in a way that leads him to express public and collective repentance that he seeks those around him to join with him in. And then he says that the reason they have not experienced the justice that they now long for (which they started out not even wanting) was because of their own injustice.
If, as I think is true, the presentation of the prophecy of Isaiah should be taken at face value, and it was actually composed by Isaiah himself in the 8th century looking forward to a time much later when the Jewish people were living in exile in Babylon, then there are even more interesting implications of this. Isaiah is here identifying with not just his own generation of God's people in their current rebellion but with the future rejection of God's ways by a generation that he isn't even part of. His notion of collective responsibility and group identity is that strong, which speaks volumes about how easily we get away from those notions with Western individualism. And all of this is compatible with recognizing that in one very important way we really are responsible for what we ourselves do. That runs all through this (and through the other collective repentance prayers of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel).
And it's also jarring to many of our sensibilities, where we like to think of things in an oppressor/oppressed binary, to see God's prophet speaking to oppressed people and telling them that one chief reason why they are oppressed is that they are themselves complicit in injustice, and then he has his prophet communicating this identify with them in that injustice, as much as he also seeks in that identifying to offer a prayer of repentance for them to turn from that injustice and experience the fruits of righteousness and peace.
It's hard for me to read this passage and think anyone in our current setting (politically left or right) should come away from this feeling comfortable about themselves. If they do, they are either rejecting its teaching or not understanding it.
I encounter people of all sorts fairly regularly on social media. There is a real debate about how the word "racism" should be used. I have a lot to say about that, but I'm not interested in that debate for the sake of this post. There are those who have tried to rework our categories in such a way that prejudice and discrimination are not racism. Racism is purely a structural or systemic thing. Prejudice and discrimination are bad, but they are not racism. We ought to resist them and avoid them to the extent that we can, but racism is just the institutional, structural, and systemic stuff. In their view, we should reserve the word "racism" to refer to the system itself, not the people who do it or their attitudes or actions. Thus racism can only be in one direction, the direction that society enforces with structural, systemic, and institutionally determined forces that act mostly to the advantage of white people and mostly to the disadvantage of others. I happen to think that approach to how we should use the word "racism" is wrong in a few ways, but as I said I'm not interested in that debate for the sake of this post. I'm interested in a reaction against that view that I think goes too far in the other direction.
A very common response to those who reserve the word "racism" for structural, systemic, and institutional stuff is simply to deny that there is such a thing as systemic racism. That sort of statement has been increasingly common on the right in response to what they (rightly in my view) regard as problems in how people (mostly on the left) are conceiving of racism. But what seems to me to be an overreaction is simply to deny that there is such a thing as systemic racism or to deny that it is our most serious sort of racial problem.
The idea of systemic, institutional, or structural racism goes back before the Civil Rights era. People had been calling attention to these sorts of problems well before the time of MLK. But it began to be more mainstream as people noticed that changes in laws and societal attitudes were not bringing along changes in some of the other forces that advantage or disadvantage people along race lines. MLK began to see this toward the end of his life, and he began to recognize that just getting people having the right attitudes and making changes in laws to prevent explicit and deliberate discrimination would not be sufficient to solve all of our race problems. There are systemic, structural, and institutional forces that lead to disadvantage and advantage in ways that no one intends. No one is deliberately discriminating or explicitly prejudiced. Yet disadvantage and advantage occur. The problem is in institutions, structures, and systems rather than in beliefs, desires, emotions, or actions of individual people. That is the concept of systemic racism.
On one conception of racism, the one I was raised with, the one that feels to me like how the English language actually operates, these systemic problems are simply not racism. I completely understand those who don't like to call it racism. I myself don't like to call it that. Racism is an attitude of the heart or a set of actions of individuals. But that's a linguistic issue. It's not an issue of what the world is actually like. The thing people are in fact calling systemic racism, and in fact the only thing that term has ever referred to, is real. Not only is it real, but it consists of what seem to me to be the more significant and substantial problems that we have in our society at this point. The stuff I'm inclined to call racism is becoming less present, less effective in causing real problems. Why? Because there is such a stigma attached to racism, to even being perceived as racist, that it's diminished to a much greater degree than the systemic problems have. But the systemic problems remain. And the systemic problems do trace back to racism in the classic sense, when you look hard enough and far enough. They wouldn't be present without racism having occurred.
Here's an non-racial example for anyone having trouble understanding the concept of a systemic problem. Adderall is a controlled substance. People take it when they have no condition requiring it, and people take doses that are much too high. That means it's illegal for a pharmacy to put it on auto-refill, and it's illegal even to prescribe it with refills. You have to call your doctor every month to get them to submit a new prescription. Typically, the people who are taking Adderall are the same people who have executive control issues and are going to have a harder time being organized and remembering to call about that new prescription, which places an additional burden on people who are already worse off when it comes to things like this. That results in days without the medication that helps them be more organized and attentive. No one is trying to make life harder for people with ADHD and autism who rely on this medication. That's not the point. The goal is to prevent abuse by those who don't need the medication to begin with. But because of laws designed to prevent that abuse, the people who need the medication suffer. This is what a systemic or structural problem looks like.
Are there such problems that occur along race lines? There certainly are. There are institutional, systemic, and structural forces in our society that work against people of color, some of them stronger for certain groups than for others, some of them not because of any present discrimination but just because of the effects of past discrimination (e.g. housing segregation today is not a result of present-day bank practices but because of past discrimination in mortgages and racial contracts of who could live in which neighborhoods), and there remain disparities in infrastructure, housing quality, locations of shopping or other necessities nearby, and so on. School segregation no longer has any laws forcing it, but kids tend to go to school where they live, and the quality of schools reflects the resources of the neighborhood. Together with policies like school choice, which allows enterprising parents and students to get out of the bad schools but also thereby makes the bad schools worse for those without that initiative and drive, our schools get more segregated and more disparate in quality and outcome, and that occurs along race lines. There is many careful studies that identify biases that affect law enforcement and criminal justice, disparities in health care, stigmatizations and stereotypes that affect our behavior even if we think the stereotypes are false, and so on. It should be obvious that many of these things are not racism in the classic sense, but they are the only thing that people have ever meant by terms like "systemic racism." They are disparate results that occur along race lines in ways that are predictable and systemic. The forces in our society tend to produce those results along certain lines in ways that are consistent and recurring. And these problems are much more serious than a privileged white kid using the N-word or not inviting the one black kid in the mostly white neighborhood over for a birthday party.
Now if you prefer to call these things "systemic advantage" and "systemic disadvantage" or something like that, I have great sympathies for why you might want to do that. But the fact remains that these are the only thing that terms like "structural racism" and "systemic racism" have ever meant. Words mean what they are used to mean. So those terms do in fact refer to these sorts of problems. That is so, whether you want to think of these sorts of issues as racism or not. I tend to be in the "not" category on that myself. But systemic racism is real, and those who consistently deny it are in effect denying that any of these problems are real. It does not help the cause of the political right in trying to push back against some of the excesses and unhelpful behaviors of the left on race issues if it just looks like you are denying observable facts, and that's what denials of systemic racism look like to the left. If you want to have real conversations where you engage with real people and actually try to convince them of things, to help them see that you have a legitimate point against anything they are saying, it helps to understand their view and get it right first. You are not doing that if you simply deny the reality of systemic racism and say no more. That strategy is doomed to failure. It is no wonder that they will call that strategy "white fragility" or "white supremacy," because it just looks like a desperate attempt to pretend that our most serious problems along race lines simply don't exist. Let's stop doing that, please. If you don't want to be accused of white fragility and white supremacy, then do not set yourself up to be accused of it by behaving in exactly the way the left predicts you will act. And then maybe there will be room for an actual conversation where people seek to understand each other and move forward.
"To be White is to see oneself outside of Race." -- taken from an advertisement for a race discussion coming up at Le Moyne College.
I believe the quote comes from Robin DiAngelo. Yes, there is something she means by that that is true. She's talking about the structures and unconscious ways of behaving that are unfortunately and systematically associated with some of the ways that white people conceive of themselves in relation to race. In short, they don't conceive of themselves in relation to race. Race is something other people have, in effect. They are the norm, and others are the deviation, and racial identity is not something they have to think of themselves as having. It is a problem when white people conceive of themselves that way.
Even so, I would maintain that it's a misuse of language that is both misleading and alienating, and I think it's a terrible idea to use the word "white" or the word "whiteness" in that way. The actual meaning of "white" when used in a racial way, to most people, does not refer to those social patterns. It refers to which ancestry someone has, and talking this way is the best way to reinforce the unhealthy and problematic racial patterns in our social relations.
Talking as if this is essential to races and race relations gives the impression that (and therefore reinforces subconsciously) the idea that the unhealthy patterns are just the way things are. It does not allow us to separate whiteness as someone's ancestry and whatever social stuff we have added to that. It doesn't allow us to move away from thinking problematic racial relations are part of white identity, because it deliberately defines them as part of whiteness.
Not only that, but by saying something that seems patently false to most people, it comes across to most people as ignorant and racist. There is something the person actually means that is not ignorant and racist and is in fact intended to serve racial justice. But it comes across that way, and in my view people who talk that way are in fact to blame for that misimpression. They are the ones who are talking unclearly and using terms in nonstandard ways that ordinary people will not understand. So they are damaging their own message by coming across as racist extremists.
Furthermore, it is alienating to white people who care about racial justice and who recognize that there are many ways that white people can do the thing described in the quote, because it is speaking as if it is essential to white people. As I said, I know that is not what DiAngelo means. She means that it is essential to whiteness, and she isn't seeing whiteness as what it is to be descended from Europeans or whatever. She is seeing whiteness as participation in societal behaviors and patterns. And there is something right about what she is recognizing. That is important to see. Many of her critics refuse to see that, and there is something intellectually dishonest about that if they have actually read her carefully and charitably with an intent to evaluate her rather than to start with the assumption that she is wrong.
But what it comes across as is the kind of racial essentialism that science disproved in the mid-20th century. It comes across as treating all white people as being the problem. It presents itself as othering white people in order to get out a message about how white people other non-white people. And that is the "but you did it first" Trumpian whataboutism that the left frequently recognizes and points out when they see the right doing it but yet engages in just as frequently and loudly when they feel like being just as toxic as those they regularly condemn. Those who care about racial justice need to move beyond this kind of talk if we are to have real conversations about race that move people in a direction where they can hear us and accept what we are saying.
I have now completed my metaphysics of race series, so here is a list of all the posts with links for easier navigation.
1. Metaphysics of Race: Introduction
2. Classic Biological Racial Realism
3. Race Anti-Realism
4. Races as Social Kinds
5. Social Constructionist Views of Race
6. The New Biological Race View
7. The Ethics of the Metaphysics of Race
8. Minimalist Race and Whiteness
9. Short-Term Retentionism, Long-Term Revisionism
This is the ninth and final 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, or you can go to the full list of posts with links. In the last post, I looked at some issues with the language of race itself and how that fits into my short-term retentionist, long-term revisionist proposal. In this post I will move to even more practical issues. How do we live in a way that keeps that project in mind?
How we use racial terms in the way I discussed int he last post provides one example of what I would say not to do and how it connects to what we should do in terms of race categeries. But is that going to get us where we need to go? I doubt it. What kind of practical advice would I offer, then, to help move us toward the right kind of revision without abandoning what we need our race terms to do? What would this short-term retentionism and long-term revisionism look like in practice? What specific things can we do to further the goal of retaining our terms as needed and in all honesty about what they actually mean, while seeking to transform the meaning of them to be what they ought to be? I have a few thoughts, but I haven't spent anywhere near as much time thinking about this as I would like.
1. Lots of careful study has been done in psychology of how we are affected by racial stereotypes, stigmatization, and so on. We now know that we all exhibit biases merely from being aware of a stereotype, even if we disagree with the stereotype, and members of the group in question also have many of those biases. We might think a stereotype is completely false, but we still exhibit biases against people along the lines of that stereotype. That's pretty disturbing in itself, but it gets worse. The ways that these stereotypes are reinforced is simply seeing people portrayed doing the stereotypical things. Even if those are done in a proportionate way, this can happen. So suppose I'm watching old episodes of Law & Order. Suppose the creators of the show had calculated out how many criminals to show on screen and how much screen time to give them that portrayed the current statistical frequency of crimes as committed by each racial group. I doubt anyone has actually done that, but suppose they had. Suppose they even did it with stigmatized groups like black men or Hispanic men being shown less frequently than their actual criminal rates per capita. Nevertheless, showing it at all, even at lower rates, will reinforced the stereotype. And of course showing none of it would rightly be criticized as giving an inaccurate picture. So what are we to do? I have no idea. We can't stop doing everything that might reinforce a stereotype.
But when do stereotypes form? Typically we get them at a pretty young age. Psychologists have done some very disturbing studies with children. They will make up a word out of nowhere. They will tell kids that so-and-so is a glub and thus-and-so is a greeb. Then they will say that so-and-so likes fishing, and thus-and-so likes basketball. Then they'll say a third person is a greeb and ask if they would like basketball, and they say yes. They have done it with character traits too, and all it takes is one example, and kids form a stereotype of a moral characteristic of all members of that group. When we get older, it takes more examples, but if you do this with negative traits it happens even faster and quicker and with fewer examples. That's from a general cognitive bias that we all have, which is called negativity bias. It's the reason you hate movies with bad endings that you enjoyed most of the way through. It's why you notice negative characteristics much more easily than positive ones when asked to give an evaluation of something with pros and cons.
Now with that in mind, how should we talk to children about issues involving race? I know there are approaches out there that advocate starting early with talking about race issues, using age-appropriate ways to discuss discrimination, privilege, and so on. Some people even write board books for babies about that stuff. Now think about the goal. We want the next generation to be less influenced by stereotypes, stigmatization, and so on. So do we want to be exposing them to these issues at a very young age, when it will just reinforce their stereotypes that they will eventually get from society by rooting them more firmly? As I pointed out, it doesn't matter if your views are contrary to the stereotypes. Just being aware of them does its damage, and the earlier it happens the worse it is. We should not be encouraging people to read such books to their children. We should be avoiding at all costs any kind of racial terminology being used around small children. I have five children of mixed race. We raised them in environments where they had regular contact with people from many backgrounds. They saw different external looks on people as part of the normal range of humanity. But we never used racial terms with them when they were young, not really until they came home from school talking about the categories everyone else was using. We did what we could to put off their exposure to language that leads children to essentialize racial identity until society forced it on us, and my hope is that the later exposure to that will reduce the effect on them.
2. But take the other side of that last point. We did refrain from using racial labels with our children when they were young. We did not raise them in a color-blind society. We talked about people's skin colors being different. We raised them amidst diversity of people. We recognized the different colors of skins, and they were among people of various shades and backgrounds in their daily life. Lots of careful study has shown that the more intimate your relationships are with people of other groups the less affected you will be by the biases that occur from being exposed to stereotypes and stigmatized elements of racial identities. My kids have been in relationships, in close friendships and in family relationships, across many cultural, ethnic, racial, and national lines. That is especially important if we want the next generation to be able to move further in revising our racial notions to be (a) more accurate and (b) less involved in the ways that our cultural practices further racial problems. Integration is important and not just to have people of different races side-by-side with each other, as happened when schools began to be integrated in the 1950s. When people work together and form common identities together, that makes much more of a difference than merely having to be around each other. When they can begin to recognize someone across any line as one of them, that's what leads to real change. We need to pursue connections across racial lines in ways that lead us to feel connected with each other, to see ourselves as together, as united, as having something in common that is part of our very identity.
3. One important element of any path forward is that we need to be willing to listen and understand those who have different experiences and understandings than we do. This is even more important because so many disagreements are simply over how to use language. When some people use "white supremacy" to refer to the doctrine that white people are in fact superior, and other people use it to refer to the factual situation that occurs when white people have advantages over non-white people, what happens when you say that someone's opposition to affirmative action is white supremacy? Most opponents of affirmative action do not think positions of power should be restricted to white people, but that is in fact what most people will hear when you say that opposing affirmative action is white supremacy. You are tying them to the worse of all racists by speaking that way. Yet it is extremely common in academic and activist circles to use the term exactly that way. It doesn't mean the view that white people should be seen as superior. It simply means that white people are disproportionately in power.
The same thing happens with terms like "systemic racism," which is a synonym for "institutional racism" and "structural racism," and all three refer to whatever forces lie behind disparities, whether they are caused by actual racism or not. The disparities might be inadvertent effects of unconscious biases, long-delayed effects of past racism, or even just the way a system of bureaucratic policies leads to a result that has more harm toward one race than another. It isn't racism in the usual sense of that term in every case, and that was the original point of the concept. It was meant to show that there may not be any actual racists doing any actually racist stuff, but it still involves problems we ought to concern ourselves with. The concept behind it is real, and it really exists. But when people question the existence of systemic racism, what are they really questioning? They are questioning whether it is racist in the classic sense of the term. They are suggesting that maybe it isn't caused by overt and explicit racism. And of course those who believe in systemic racism are not saying it is caused by overt and explicit racism, since that was the very point of systemic racism, that it might not be caused in that way. So the two groups are affirming the same proposition and then seeing the other side as racist or evil or factually challenged, all because they are talking past each other and not realizing that they are using their terms very differently. We need to listen to each other, charitably and with a goal to understanding where they are coming from, not with a goal to showing them wrong. We need to hear each other, and this needs to come from both sides.
There are people who don't listen. They can't hear what someone else is saying because of a preconceived idea of what they must be saying. I encounter that at least several times a week on social media. But some people even have an explicit view not to listen. It comes from a misunderstanding of a genuine point. The genuine point is that different people have different experiences, and sometimes those experiences allow some people to see something that others won't see. Sometimes this happens along race lines, and those who experience discrimination can notice it when it occurs to others, when those who are even engaging in the discrimination might not even notice it if it's unconscious. We certainly don't always notice if the things we do can negatively affect someone when the thing we do is just something we see as normal, and someone who does not see the thing we do as normal is much more able to notice it. When my college friends (mostly not native Spanish speakers) spoke Spanish around me, and I don't understand Spanish, they didn't understand how that left me feeling at the margins of such social interaction. It was the person who was pushed to the side who would notice it. They were just speaking Spanish, which they understood. The same thing can happen and regularly does happen along race lines. White people are less likely to be aware of ways they are engaging in seeing something as normal when it is not the normal experience of other people, precisely because it is normal to them.
So it seems correct to say that people who are marginalized, discriminated against, stereotyped, stigmatized, or disempowered in various ways are going to notice things that others don't see. But one thing we cannot do if we hope to make any progress racially is to adopt some policy that when we disagree, we automatically have to favor the person who is less empowered. We can't institute a command that white people need to shut up and listen, at least if that means they are expected not to contribute to a conversation so that both people can understand each other. I see that kind of language regularly on social media. Certain voices get to part of the conversation, and others do not. Even if the ones that do not are wrong, it will not allow us to have any progress if those voices cannot have a conversation. I can't even explain what's wrong with someone's views if I won't let them talk. I also need to know what they think in order to see that I am misunderstanding them when I do so. I will be misrepresenting them otherwise, and then they will just dismiss me as someone who doesn't care about the truth, and they will be right to do so, because I will have demonstrated that I have no interest in the truth or in engagement with my fellow human being to try to make progress and break down the divisiveness.
4. I think the most important thing of all, however, is that we need to be willing to support actual change, which starts with recognizing the problems. When someone points to problems, we can be skeptical of them and dismiss the assertion instantly, or we could seek to have a conversation about it. There is a truth to the white fragility notion of Robin DiAngelo. White people can sometimes be defensive and can dismiss what people are saying about race. But of course it's not specific to white people. People of any other group can do that too, and the suggestion that this is something particular to white people (and her notions of whiteness that I discussed in the previous post) is one reason (along with the "shut up and listen" mindset) that I would never recommend her book to anyone. But what she is right about is that in race conversations we can form our views and then dismiss anyone saying anything that disagrees with those assumptions. It is not white fragility to want empirical support for a claim that a black person might make about some racial problem, despite DiAngelo's claim that it is. But it is immoral defensiveness and belligerence to refuse to listen to someone who is saying something very different from what you are taking them to be saying (see the examples above). We will not have progress by saying only one side can speak, and we will not have progress not listening to the one side that says that only they have a right to speak. We need to hear the presentation of problems as reported by both sides, and then we can do empirical study to see if the claims are accurate. You will likely find that a lot of assumptions both sides have about systemic issues are not true. But you will also find that there really are systemic issues that sometimes do and sometimes don't line up with how they are often talked about on either side. We need to be willing to do careful studies to show what is true and then to be thinking hard about what we might do about the things we identify as problems. Much of what I have said in this blog post is heavily informed by empirical research, and a lot of it was stuff I didn't know when I first started working on race issues. It is my conviction that any way forward has to be sensitive to careful study in multiple fields. We need to hear from psychologists, sociologists, economists, political scientists, biologists, and even philosophers. Then we need to take those results into account as we think through how we respond.
This is the eighth 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, or you can go to the list of all the posts with links.
In the last post, I introduced the notions of retentionism, revisionism, and eliminativism. Should we give up on race notions (eliminativism), keep them as they are (retentionism), or seek to modify them (revisionism)? I argued that in the long-term we ought to seek to change them but in the short term need to keep them as they are. What does this look like in practice? I will start by looking at a couple issues regarding the use of race language itself, and in the next and final post in this series I will look at practical behavior that seems supported by evidence-based studies to serve the short-term and long-term goals of my approach.
The Ordinary, Minimalist Concept of Race
I want to start by thinking about what Michael Hardimon calls the minimalist concept of race. He also calls it the ordinary concept of race. He is distinguishing this notion from a more robust notion of race like the scientific essentialist notion that races have genetic components built in that determine all kinds of things about us, such as our intelligence, moral value, and capabilities of various sorts. He thinks that notion of race is no longer part of the ordinary concept of race. There might be experts who look at the history of race who see that it was true about early ideas in the modern development of the concept of race, but ordinary people do not think that that's what race is. One way we know this is that philosophers working on these questions have collaborated with sociologists to do careful empirical study of people's notions of race and of particular races. We can also look at how language is used by ordinary people, a opposed to scientists, sociologists, or philosophers working on these questions. Words mean what people use them to mean, and all it takes for a word to change its meaning is for people to use it in a different way for a long enough time that it gradually becomes a new meaning for the word. If we stop using it in the first way, then that no longer becomes its meaning.
Hardimon argues that the minimalist notion of race is the ordinary concept of race of most people. It's the view on the street. We don't let academics or activists decide what words mean unless we start using the words the way the activists and academics are using them. Once we do, then those are part of the meaning. But we don't defer to expert son the meaning of a term. The experts have to do empirical research to see how people are using terms, and we should listen to their expertise on that. But it's not like physics where we just have to hear what those who have studied subatomic particles think about the nature of electrons. There are no such experts on what race-language refers to, other than those who have done empirical research on how language is used.
So here is Hardimon's account of what it is to be a race:
"A race is a group of human beings
(C1) that, as a group, is distinguished from other groups of human beings by patterns of visible physical features,
(C2) whose members are linked by a common ancestry peculiar to members of the group, and
(C3) that originates from a distinctive geographic location"
I tend to think that's a pretty good definition. It might require a tweak or two to allow for weird cases like a duplicate of Chris Rock, say, appearing out of nowhere and with no ancestry or history, who I think obviously would still count as black. (But I realize there are philosophers who think the Chris Rock duplicate wouldn't even be human, never mind black.) I also think Tuvok, a black Vulcan in Star Trek, is obviously black, and he certainly isn't human. But those tweaks are oddities on the extremes of our language use, and problems with that sort of thing are similar to problems in deciding whether someone is the same person after being dismantled entirely by a Star Trek transporter, while a duplicate is constructed somewhere else out of new matter that looks and talks and has memories just like mine. I happen to think the transporter killed the original person and created a duplicate, but a lot of philosophers agree with how Star Trek presents such cases and thinks it merely transports the original person to a new location. We don't need to think our disagreement on such side cases tells us our definitions of "person" or "human being" are wrong. We can push those issues aside for most discussions, and the same is true of weird side cases of race (although in both cases I would want to get to those discussions eventually to get a full theory together).
But I agree that Hardimon's account is the basic idea that most people have of what it is to be a race and what is true of the racial groups we ordinarily refer to. Hardimon's definition notices that races are groups of people with differences. Those differences have to do with patterns of visible physical features and common ancestry distinctive of each group. That common ancestry originates from a certain location.
That's it. There is no commitment to whether races are social kinds or biological kinds. For all this says, they could be both or neither or one or the other. This definition captures what it is to be a race in a way that we can then still have the debate about which kind of thing the races we have are. And it seems to get the basic aspects of racehood correct, in my view, and Hardimon and others have given empirical research that I think back that up.
Given such a definition, I want to get to an issue that looms large right now in certain circles. There is, in my view, a very harmful way of talking about certain kinds of race-based phenomena. It's also a very popular way of talking, and I don't think those who talk that way realize how harmful it is to speak the way they do. It is confusing to many who hear them and don't understand them, and it reinforces the very things about race that we should want to revise long-term and remove from our notions of races. It in fact is not in the minimalist, ordinary concept of race, so speaking this way reinforces aspects of race that are not even in the ordinary concept. In my view, what we ought to do is steer more toward thinking of race in that way and away from other ways, including ways tied to the social constructions we add to race. We need to realize those constructions are there, but we don't want to reinforce them.
This way of talking that I think is so destructive is common in a field that is sometimes called whiteness studies. It is common on an academic level from people who do whiteness studies or who work on questions of systemic and structural problems related to race. It has filtered down into a certain segment of the general public, especially among activists, but I am seeing it more and more among people who are just becoming aware of and interested in race issues (those who might describe themselves, or those whom their critics would describe them as, becoming more woke). Thr National Museum of African-American History and Culture, a subsidary of the Smithsonian, recnently caused a bit of a flap over posting a document to their website that engaged in this use. The document was removed, and they replaced it with this justification of that use of language.
I think this way of talking is both false and dangerous. It involves thinking of and speaking of whiteness as something other than being a member of a race in the sense of the ordinary concept of race above. It is becoming common to speak of whiteness as an ideology or a set of social constructions or a set of advantages rather than as simply the property of belonging to a certain group. In this way of seeing whiteness, it is the way that systems of power and influence, advantage and privilege position white people. It is an agenda of seeking to preserve those and continue to institute them. It is the way that society maintains white advantage. This is a real phenomenon. Most of it is unconscious. Some of it is the very indirect consequence of practices long ago that set up systems that still have those results today. Some of it just the inevitable result of not very carefully evaluated ways of living life as a member of a majority group. Some of is is from having been affected by stereotypes to have biases that are often unconscious. Some of it is having absorbed stigmatized notions and a sense of what is normative from what is around us. All this is to say that I am not denying the phenomenon that people are calling whiteness. What I want to say is that we should not be calling it whiteness, and I think it is morally wrong to do so.
There are several strong reasons for thinking this way of talking is deeply immoral. And no, it's not that it's racist. I believe I've said enough to show that it's not racist. It's targeting a genuine phenomenon and simply mislabeling it, and that sends a message that people wrongly perceive as racist. They can be blamed for that only to the extent that they understand this gross misuse of language is occurring, and many of them don't. The most obvious reason not to talk this way is that it is inaccurate. You end up saying false things. If you say that whiteness causes some kind of disparity, you are telling a falsehood. Whiteness is simply membership in a group that has ancestry and surface-level physical features in common, going by the Hardimon definition above that I have endorsed. Unless you are die-hard essentialist about races, thinking races have essential natures that make people racists, you are simply saying something false when you talk about whiteness in this way. We should care about truth. Truth is important. Whiteness does not actually cause anything of the sort. Merely being a member of a group that has certain visually identifiable features and ancestry does not cause anyone to resist calls for a living wage. So why are we calling it whiteness?
Marilyn Frye saw this problem 18 years ago when she distinguished between what she called whiteliness (which corresponds to how the use of "whiteness" I am critiquing) and mere whiteness, which corresponds more to what the ordinary, minimal concept of race would say that whiteness is. She called the stuff we should avoid and seek to change by some new term rather than trying to co-opt an existing one that already has a meaning and thus could sow nothing but confusion among those not in the insular circle of those talking about whiteness in this way. Alas, her voice did not win out.
A further reason we should avoid this way of talking is that it confuses people. The point of communication is to get what you are saying across to the person you are talking to. This use of the term is very insular. People who read a lot of scholarship about race understand it. People who spend a lot of time in activist circles understand it. But go back to the ordinary concept of race. How do you expect most people are going to hear if I say that we need to dismantle whiteness? What do they hear if you tell them that oppression of black people is whiteness? What do they hear when I say that I am engaging in whiteness when I exhibit unconscious biases against certain racial groups? What do they hear when I say that it is whiteness (and it is bad) to expect people to be on time for something or to want to do well in school? What do they hear when I say that it is whiteness to have little concern for those of other races or to use white privilege to discount the experiences of others? I would add that the newest trend (and it's all over social media) is not to stick with using "whiteness" in this way but even to extend it to "white people," i.e. saying that white people do such-and-such and then when challenged on it to say that they don't mean it's something white people do but something that whiteness does, in this already-problematic sense of the term. And we get even further along on the path to make the statement sound as racist as possible while insisting it does not mean that.
I will tell you how most white people hear this sort of statement. They feel as if they are being accused of being the most despicable racist possible. They hear it as saying that all white people are white supremacists and neo-Nazis of the worst sorts, because the statement is connecting something terrible and evil with whiteness, as if there is something like a racial essence (something biologists rejected more than a half century ago) behind why white people are so evil. In other words, it comes across as the most vile racism there can be. Saying something that sounds like that in order to try to communicate something very different is simply a big communication fail. I feel like posting one of those "You had one job" memes with someone using the word "whiteness" (or worse, "white people") in this sort of way. It's almost as if people who talk this way are trying their hardest not to get their message across and instead to try to make lots and lots of white people mishear them in order to be able to accuse them of having white fragility when they object. As a friend of mine has been saying a lot recently, I'm generally not one to go for conspiracy theories, but this seems like a case where it's sorely tempting. I hope that's not the motive, but it's accomplishing that goal very well. People are drawing their battle lines. I spend lots of time literally every day having to explain what people mean when they say stuff like this and how it's not the racist thing that it sounds like, and people simply don't believe me. They think I'm trying to explain away and justify actual racism for simply explaining what people who talk about whiteness this way mean. That alone is an incredibly powerful reason never to talk this way. Ever. It's easily one of the best ways you can divide people over race without ever lifting a finger.
As if falsity and miscommunication, leading to divisiveness, were not already enough reasons, there is a more subtle reason why we should not talk this way, one that connects directly with the overall project of short-term retentionism and long-term revisionism. It actually gets things backwards. What we want to do is recognize racial realities and use racial terms in a way that captures what really happens, but we want to move toward removing the problematic associations and assumptions connected with those terms in practice. We want to move toward the ordinary, minimalist concept of race, and speaking this way goes the wrong direction. It actually reinforces the aspects of race thinking and racial interaction that we want to move away from.
I have two sons with autism, and one of them has low impulse control. Behavior is a frequent topic of conversation in our household, and we have spent much time looking at evidence-based research about autism and behavior. One of the things an evidence-based approach will do is expose him to various conditions and then see how he responds. He is very quick to figure out what people will respond to. The behavioral therapists who worked with him would stop responding to his attempts to fake-hit them to get away from a certain task, and he would quickly learn that fake-hitting wouldn't get him the iPad he wants. He would have to ask or write it out or sign, depending on which method of asking they were reinforcing during that trial. When they gave him the iPad if he fake-hit them, they reinforced the fake-hitting. When they ignored the fake-hitting by only gave it to him when he asked, they were reinforcing the asking. It is well-documented that in cases like his nearly any audible or physical response to the behavior you want to reduce will reinforce it, because he's likely either seeking sensory feedback (and you are giving it to him) or trying to get attention (and you're giving it to him. So when he pushes me during one of his online sessions with his teacher during this pandemic, and I respond by telling him, "No" or pushing back or any other response, careful study of him and other people like him actually shows, I am reinforcing the behavior. The way to reduce to behavior is to ignore it when he does it but to model for him what he should be doing and to reinforce that when he does it. That's a bit counterintuitive, but it's what careful psychological studies have shown over and over again in this kind of case.
How does using "whiteness" the way I have been describing reinforce what we want to remove? Well, it builds it into the very definition of whiteness. You can't very well tell people that whiteness is evil and that they need to divest themselves of it, all the while building into their very identity that they are the kind of people who have essences that manifest themselves this way. Those who use this term this way don't believe that, but they are speaking publicly to people who see whiteness just as their belonging to a group that is grounded in skin color, hair type, ancestry, etc. When you say of such a group that something that sounds like it is part of their essence to behave in this kind of way, it reinforces all the associations with whiteness that we should be working hard to remove from our racial identities. You can't very well divest yourself of whiteness when people are working very hard to send a signal that being white includes all these terrible things. And I can't imagine what this is reinforcing about white people in the minds of those who talk this way regularly. We don't want to build racism into our race definitions. We want to move toward the minimalist concept so that we can affirm that racial essentialism is false and not send any messages that come across as assuming it, We want to remove racist elements from our racial concepts, so let's not reinforce those notions by using language in a way that divides rather than brings us together, that sounds like it has assumptions about racial essences that science disproved 70 years ago, that confirms all the notions that any racially forward person should not want to reinforce.
If that doesn't convince you, compare the parallel way of talking that we would get if we did the same thing to blackness. If we want to see whiteness as an ideology of white supremacy or a set of systemic structures that perpetuate white normativity, then we should also see blackness as an ideology of black inferiority or a set of systemic structures that disadvantage black people. We should not see blackness as merely belonging to a category of the minimalist race. We should not see blackness as cultural, either, not if the cultural elements we are referring to could ever be seen as positive. Blackness would have to be (to be parallel) the forces in place that operate to exclude, stigmatize, and enforce disadvantage. Blackness would be just as evil as whiteness. It would be because of someone's blackness that they do less well on standardized tests. It would be because of someone's blackness that they don't know what clothing is appropriate for a job interview or would need to be prepped for how to dress for such an interview. Can you see how racist that sounds? Yet it's precisely parallel, and if it's conceptually legitimate to use "whiteness" in the way that people are, then it is equally conceptually legitimate to use "blackness" in such a way. Indeed, both concepts are getting at a real phenomenon. But should we call that phenomenon whiteness and blackness? I don't see how it is remotely legitimate to do so, either in terms of accuracy or when we evaluate this way of speaking morally.
I have no problem talking about these phenomena, but please don't do so by calling it whiteness or blackness unless you want to perpetuate the racial disparities and stigmatized associations that we already have, indeed unless you want to reinforce those and make them stronger and to foster pointless division over a mere disagreement in language. There are philosophers who define races as groups that are put into a hierarchy, so that they wouldn't be races at all without the hierarchy. They do this to address the fact that hierarchies do exist in how we see and treat each other. But it's counterproductive to define races in such a way. We need to go the other way, which is why the minimalist view of race is so important. It moves us in the direction of allowing us to refer to races and say that racial groups are in fact treated in a hierarchical way while also not building it into the notion of races that the are hierarchical. So we can move toward the revision, which you can't do if whiteness (or blackness) is evil. But we can name the evils that are present by having racial terms that we preserve and can use to state such problems.
I was going to finish up the series with this post, but it got too long, so I will be continuing in one more post. So the ninth post will look at some much more practical matters of how to live in a way that keeps in mind both short-term retentionist and long-term revisionist goals.
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, or you can go to the list of all the posts with links. 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, starting with a look at the minimalist concept of race and whiteness.
This is my sixth post in a series on the metaphysics of race. If you want to start at the beginning, you can go right to the introduction to the series, or you can go to the full list of posts with links. 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, you can go right to the introduction to the series, or you can go to the full list of posts with links. 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.
This is my fourth post in a series on the metaphysics of race. If you want to start at the beginning, you can go right to the introduction to the series, or you can go to the full list of posts with links. 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.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.