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.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.