Classic Biological Racial Realism
This is the second post in my series on the metaphysics of race. To start at the beginning, go to the Introduction post.
Biological race realism was the dominant view from the time of the slave trade until the mid-20th century. What a lot of people don't realize is that it was not really even a view until the modern period, starting around the time of 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who contributed to its development as a view. The ancient Mediterranean region that gave birth to what we call the Western tradition did not have a concept of race, as we understand that term today. They certainly distinguished between different cultural ethnicities and political nations. They didn't unify all people with a certain skin color and other external features as belonging to one group called a race, however. It wasn't really until the European slave trade that there was a European concept of race the way we use that term today. That doesn't by itself mean that there isn't something that our race terms refer to. It doesn't mean that there isn't something biological that our race terms refer to. After all, we didn't have a concept of electrons until modern chemistry, and that term still refers to a scientific reality. We didn't have a concept of DNA until 70 years ago, but that still refers to a biological reality. So the mere fact that the modern concept of race developed fairly recently in the grand scheme of things is not a good argument that there is no such thing as race. So let's take a look at the modern concept of race that developed.
As I said, the modern biological view of race developed during the time Europeans were trying to justify their practice of enslaving Africans. There is no question that the intention of justifying slavery was part of why they wanted to classify people in racial groups. Immanuel Kant puts it to that use explicitly, although his later work gives some indications that he may well have changed his mind completely on the permissibility of enslaving Africans. We will have to come back to that issue later. The fact that racial categories formed with immoral and unfactual claims as part of it plays a large role in some anti-realist arguments, so keep it in mind.
On the classic biological realist view, races can simply be read off the facts of our biology. There are a few different ways people have tried this, but the early view was before anyone knew anything about DNA. One common notion was the idea of a racial essence, whereby something in your makeup includes this essence that you have because of your membership in a certain racial group, and all members of that group will therefore have certain features by being in that group. Some of these proposed features within racial essences would be easily recognized today as being racist. They included intelligence, moral capabilities, and even moral worth as part of what the racial essence determines. So slavery could be justified if black Africans have lower intelligence and can't decide on their own what makes a good life for themselves, are unable to partake in a moral community as equals, and are not of the same value that other people are. The views that you will find if you look at the primary sources on this from that period would place the different racial groups into hierarchies in terms of who has more intelligence, moral capability, and moral worth and then who has less, and there will be different levels on that hierarchy for different races.
I think it's also important to point out that these early writings on race did not usually state exactly the same groups we call races today. Some of them were more fine-tuned, corresponding more to groups we would call ethnicities today. Some of them were broader and focused more on color and broader geographical regions. It isn't really until the 20th century that you got a solidification into the categories we now see as the races today. In fact, there is good evidence that there was a fight about whether Irish and Italian people in the United States would count as white. I think a lot of people overstate this, including the most influential book on the issue, but there were people who wanted to refuse Italian and Irish immigrants the ability to consider themselves white. Some of our best sources on this thought that idea was utterly ludicrous, however, which makes me think the mainstream view at the time did consider them white. In any case, these categories changed over the course of the development of the modern concept of race. There was a court case in the middle of the 19th century that concluded that "black" meant non-white, and so Chinese people were black. The same court also declared that Chinese people were American Indians because of the expectation from the land bridge theory that the two groups had common ancestry. This court case set a murderer free, because the race of witnesses was at issue, since only white witnesses counted by California law at that time. There were inconsistent rulings in the early 20th century on whether Arabs, Armenians, and Syrians counted as white. In 1922 the Supreme Court declared that a Japanese immigrant was not white, because "white means Caucasian," but then in a subsequent case when an Indian immigrant argued that Indians from the Punjabi region were Caucasian based on the original use of that term, the Supreme Court said no. That sense of "Caucasian" has to do with linguistic roots, and the racial one has to do with skin color. People's citizenship was at stake in these decisions. 65 people who had become naturalized citizens actually lost it because of that case. (I should note that this case is sometimes misrepresented, however. It's not that only white people could become citizens, and everyone else was forced outside citizenship. It's that only white and black people could become citizens, and those who were in between those two groups on the hierarchy of the time were not allowed to become naturalized citizens.)
So there's a complicated development of where our racial categories came from, and that will play a role in the idea of a social construction when we come to that. So hold on to this information as relevant data. But the main idea that had developed by the early 20th century is relatively clear and consistent. People were conceiving of race as a biological category. There was a whole "science" of race that formed trying to justify the different notions of a racial essence and how it led to both the variations we actually see (skin color, hair type, bone structure, facial shape) and the variations people just made up (intelligence differences, character differences, moral capabilities, moral worth). They developed a branch of pseudoscience called phrenology that measured skulls and drew conclusions about intelligence. In the 19th century they thought percentages of racial something or other would be found in blood, and they took talk of how much blood you had of a certain racial group to be getting at something literally correct in science. It was a startling revelation to discover in 1900 that blood types do not track with racial categories. They had to reconceive of what racial essences were supposed to be, but that notion continued on as what was seen as a scientific idea until the discovery of DNA five decades later.
But here is the core idea of biological racial realism. Races can be read off biology. That's it. That's the main thesis. You can do your biology and look at different people, and biology will simply tell you which races there are. They threw all sorts of other things into it, many of them racist, some of them perhaps not so much. But the core idea was that the racial lines are written into nature. In the concepts of philosophy, races are a natural kind. The idea of a natural kind goes back at least to Plato, who spoke of certain ways of thinking as carving nature at its joints, whereas other ways of thinking do not line up with the way things are actually organized in nature. Electrons are a genuine category in nature, because nature is already divided along lines of fundamental particles, such as protons, electrons, quarks, and leptons. We don't bring that to nature. It's already there. Plumbers, on the other hand, are not a natural kind. We divide people into plumbers and non-plumbers. That's a social category, not a biological one. You couldn't know if someone is a plumber by looking at their DNA or other biological features.
For a more controversial case but one that is very familiar to many of us, biological sex is natural in this sense, because that has to do with several elements really present in nature -- X chromosomes, Y chromosomes, sexual organs of different types, and so on. The fact that we have some cases that don't as clearly fit into the male-female binary is irrelevant to this issue. If I get into sex/gender issues in a later series of blog posts, maybe I can deal with that. But the important point here is that biological sex categories look at stuff that is actually in nature to form the divisions into categories, whereas classifying people according to how they dress, what activities they engage in, what pronouns they prefer you to use for them, and so on does not categorize people in biological ways. It categorizes people in terms of social behavior, internal desires, or expectations we bring to the table. But looking at X-chromosomes, the presence of ovaries or testicles, and so on is looking at genuinely biological phenomena.
So what biological thing is it that races are supposed to be, on the biological racial realist view? Until we discovered DNA, people thought it was fairly obvious. There is some racial essence that explains the obvious physical appearance differences between the races. And they also thought it would explain the other differences, the ones we today would say are racist. But once DNA was discovered, it no longer made sense to think there is a racial essence. I will present that argument in more detail when we get to social kinds, but the basic argument is this. One of the main reasons scientists stopped believing in biological races in the middle of the 20th century is that sub-species groups in other species have a much higher degree of variation between groups than human sub-populations do, What counted as a race or a sub-species group was a group much more distinct genetically than human racial groups are. Human racial groups are far more diverse within themselves than the amount of diversity between groups. The amount of variation between racial groups is tiny compared to the amount of diversity within each race. To put it another way, if you looked at the overall amount of diversity in humanity, and then you looked at how much of that diversity appears in each racial group, it would be almost all of it. The few traits that are distinctive of each racial group are surface-level and relatively insignificant biologically. There is an arbitrariness to them, biologically speaking. They don't seem to carve nature at the joints. So biologists simply concluded that there are no races, biologically speaking. And this is like the 1950s, when DNA was discovered. The civil rights era is only at its beginning at this point, with Brown v Board in place but much still to come.
But when philosophers finally decided to come back to this question in the 1990s, the first thrust of work in this area came to the same conclusion. It followed the science and recognized that the classic racial realist view grounded in biology did not work. If race is biological, and there are no biological races, then there are no races at all. So we will look at the anti-realist view in the next post.
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Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.