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.