Racial Essentialism

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I'm trying to work out a taxonomy of the various views someone might hold regarding the nature of racial groups. One of the views, sometimes called racial realism, takes races to be natural kinds something like species in biology. On this view, their basis lies in biological facts completely independently of any historical origins of racial groups, social facts about how we treat each other, or lingustic facts about how we use racial language. I'm not interested for the moment in whether this view is true. I'm interested in various forms it might take.

One element of this sort of view that virtually all the scholars who work in this area ignore is that the natural kinds of race may not involve anything particularly insidious. This view could hold that racial groupings are based on skin color, bone structure, hair type, and virtually nothing else. As long as its proponents insist that such characteristics would be enough to constitute a natural kind, then it's a realist view. This isn't the most historically influential racial realist view. That view holds that certain intellectual, moral, and probably several other characteristics must follow from being part of a certain racial group. But it is a kind of racial realism.

What I've been puzzling through for the last two or three hours is what some people mean by calling this sort of view "racial essentialism". First off, I'm not sure if that term is supposed to apply to the milder kind of racial realism that most people who work in this area ignore. Second, I'm not sure what it means even if it's just supposed to apply to the more extreme view that was used for so long (and still is in some quarters) to legitimate white supremacism and other forms of racism.

I can think of at least six things that someone might mean by calling such a view racial essentialism. I'm not interested in evaluating any of them at the moment. I'm just trying to come up with the possible views somewhat might call racial essentialism. This might be a little more technical than I usually get in my posts on this blog, but it's hard to reduce these descriptions to more ordinary language without losing the distinctions between the views, so I apologize if you get a little lost in the terminology. I might be able to clear up any confusion in the comments if anyone wants further clarification. Here are the six I've come up with so far, and I'm curious to see if anyone can think of any more:

RE1: Someone cannot change races. One's race is fixed. Anything that would appear to change one's race does not do so and is merely an apparent race change.

RE2: Someone with a racial essence couldn't have been of a different race no matter how many other things in the world had been difference. (This isn't about race changes but about someone's race from the outset.)

RE3: Certain properties are true of everyone in any racial kind, and those properties are essential to the person. Someone without those properties but otherwise just like the person would not be the same person. If the person could lose any of those properties, a new person would remain in the original person's place. One racial realist view might take skin color, actual or potential intelligence, and a particular moral status as essential properties included in a racial essence, and RE3 would mean that removing any of those properties would amount to killing the person.

RE4: The properties included in the racial essence are essential in the sense that no one can be a member of that race without having them. If someone is black, certain properties will follow. This leaves it open that someone can change races in the actual world or that someone who is one race in the actual world could have been of a different race. The property is essential to the kind but not necessarily to the person who is a member of that kind.

RE5: The properties included in the racial essences are essential both to the group as in RE4 and to the person as in RE3.

RE6: Racial properties are comparative and take the following form: it's a necessary truth that someone in group X is better in way Y than everyone in group Z. There are no properties that are essential to the group itself, since the racial properties might have been different. There are no properties essential to the individuals, since I might have been in another group from the one I'm in. But the necessary truth is that being in this group makes me better or worse in certain ways than everyone in some other group. There's a sense in which you might think of this as an essence, but the only properties here that might be called essential are relations between members of racial groups. In modal logic, the relation is described in parentheses, and the necessity operator is outside the parentheses. Thus no individual or group itself need have any essential properties. It's funny to call this essentialism, but there's something vaguely essential going on here. It's a relation that's essential to the set of the two kinds.

That's what I have so far. If anyone can think of other possible views that someone might use the term 'racial essentialism' to refer to, I'd appreciate hearing what those views are. I'd like a pretty exhaustive list if possible.

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Racial Essentialism from OrangePhilosophy on June 1, 2006 8:36 AM

I don't know if anyone is still checking anything here, but I thought I'd try to draw attention to a post on my own blog in case anyone is. I'm trying to work out a taxonomy of the various views... Read More


I think that the use of "essentialism" that you are pondering is pejorative. Essentially, race does not exist. An analogy is that you are not Jeremy; I am not Christopher. However, in this example, I think it is worthwhile to preserve Jeremy and Christopher, whatever they are, but we are probably better off in not preserving race, whatever that is.

Christopher, I think things are a little more complicated than that, but this post isn't dealing with either issue that you raise. This post is about the views that do take race to be real in a very particular kind of way, i.e. that something cessential or necessary is going on. As I said at the beginning, I'm not interested for the moment in whether any of the views I'm cataloguing are true. I'm just trying to isolate the possible views someone could hold. Later on in my dissertation I'll be dealing with the issues you're raising, but what I'm starting with is setting up the possible views so I can categorize the positions people have actually taken and make clear what other possible views there are. I think that needs to be in front of us before we ask the questions you're asking about which of these views might be true (and about which we should try to make true if it's within our power to make one of them that's not true eventually become true).

But you do raise two issues that you seem to be treating as one issue, and I think you're wrong on both counts. One is a factual question, and the other is a moral question. The arguments that there are such things as races are very difficult to overome, at least for anyone who agrees that there are universities, Republicans, boundary lines, the Outback, customs, and virtually any other thing that comes into existence because of human practices. Some people argue that race, if it exists, must be like a biological species, where you can read it off DNA without any knowledge of human social practices or history. They then argue that there is no genetic category like that, and they conclude that there are no races. But that's fallacious, because they rule out all sorts of other possibilities for what race is. I'm working on a taxonomy of all the possible views on racial categories right now, and you seem to be treating only two of them as real possibilities. Either race is like species, or it doesn't exist. There are lots of other possibilities, and several of the views in this list (which I've expanded and clarified a good deal since I posted this) are consistent with some of the other ones.

The second issue is also difficult. Even if race is purely fictional (which I think isn't true to begin with), some have argued that the categories are worth retaining due to their value in pointing out systematic discrimination and other evils. You can't call something bad if calling it bad relies on the existence of something you're pretending doesn't exist. But if race is real because of social practices in the same way that boundary lines, corporations, legislation, and many other socially-created things are real, then it's just deception to act as if there are no races.

Exactly. The essential nature of race is deceptive. Your question is about the essential nature of taxonomy which is more real than that of race. And people do not encounter things that are not real. Taxonomy is real. Race is not. What is taxonomy is the question to which your enquiry leads.

I'm not going to rule out every version of essentialism until I figure out what they all are. Some of the ones I've isolated (which is a longer list than what I had when I put this post together) are not just possibly true but overwhelmingly likely to be true. I don't think those are in this post. I think some of these might be true, too, but not as obviously so.

I haven't figured out which essentialist claims the people who have been called essentialist have held to, but I do agree that that sort of view is entirely implausible given what we know scientifically and what can simply be observed about what people are like.

I'm not sure what you mean by taxonomy being real but race not being real. By taxonomy, I'm talking about an organization of possible views about race. I'm not asking what taxonomy is. I'm asking what race is. The taxonomy is made up of views about what race is. By race, I'm talking about categories of people. By taxonomy, I'm talking about categories of views. I don't see how to compare those two. They're not about the same subject matter. People and views both exist, and groups of people and groups of views both exist. They're both real but in different ways.

The issue of whether there are races doesn't have anything to do with any of this, though. It's about whether the groups we classify people have any reality at all, even if it's a reality caused by social forces. I've discussed that issue to death in comments sections on other posts and don't really want to repeat all of what's already publicly accessible. Those are the best places to discuss an issue that isn't about what this post is about.


re:RE2 - I think you meant to end the sentence with "different" ?

In RE3: Whats a racial kind ?
You explained natural kinds in the first paragraph, but have not explained what racial kinds are.

- Raj

On RE2, that's right. It should be "different".

On RE3, I'm leaving it open what racial kinds are. They might be natural kinds. They might be social kinds. They might be individually determined kinds within each person's own relativized categorization. There may be such kinds. There may be no such kinds. I don't want to assume any view on what racial kinds are, and therefore I can try to figure out if the kinds that people refer to (if any) can be thought of as essential in any of these ways without assuming the racial realism that takes races to be natural kinds. If I can isolate essentialism from realism, I think I've done something new in this field.

One other thing that you might want to pursue on the side is the notion of caste as in the caste system of India. It just might give you an extra thing or two to think about. It basically would contain all of the issues contained in the race issues, minus the biology.

I mean, it is all too obvious that caste is a fiction. (It in particular came from the Laws of Manu). Yet, if you go to India, you will notice that people from certain caste's seem to tend to display certain tendencies.

So for example, people from caste A might seem to be quite musically inclined, while people from caste B might seem to be very business minded.

However we know that there is no such thing as caste. So what accounts for all of this?
- Raj

It started with a fictional idea. The social categories are as socially real as categories like Democrat and Republican, just not based in any real differences besides social differences. What I mean by that is that there are real social practices that treat people in these ways, and those social practices are fairly well-defined in such a way that you can speak of someone having a certain classification in a way that's entirely predictable. All it might mean is that people will group certain people together, but that social fact is a reality that the names can refer to.

It's a helpful analogy in the ways it might be like and different from race. I'll have to keep it in mind.

As for what accounts for the differences, I think there might be two factors. One is that growing up in a caste that's expected to do certain things sort of trains you to do those things. This can be because that's just what you're assumed to do. It might be lack of exposure to other things. It might be lack of development of certain skills, including intellectual or physical skills.

The other factor is that people may have been originally assigned to a caste because of some differences in ability, which probably don't exactly correspond to any huge genetic difference but may relate to differences in genetic potentials. Some people collecting garbage might have had the potential to go to college and get a much cushier job. Others may not have had the potential to do that kind of work. If the lower potential is genetic, as I suspect it is in many cases, then the children of people in those jobs might inherit the lower potential. So there could be genetic factors, though I think much of how that is developed is not genetic, and someone with a high potential for intelligence might have developed so little of it that someone else with a much lower intelligence is actually much smarter for having worked hard to develop intelligence skills.

But all that is way ahead of what I'm doing here, of course.

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