Reply to Anyabwile

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Thabiti Anyabwile has responded to my critique of his discussion of race. In several places, I think he has misunderstood my view or gone beyond my argument to attribute to me a view that I do not hold and that does not follow from what I said. In some places I think we just disagree about something fairly fundamental. I'll address each of his points in order

1. The issue of the image of God is largely irrelevant to the main issues. I just thought some of the way Thabiti was speaking had implications that I didn't think he would welcome. That seems to be a correct assessment. He doesn't welcome the suggestion that God has a body, but he wants to say that some of what the image of God constitutes is manifested in our bodily reality (both male and female). I don't have any problem with the idea that God worked into us certain capacities to carry out the mission of representing him, and some of those capacities have to do with our physical being. I do in fact think that's the case. I'm skeptical whether those capacities constitute being made in the image of God, however. I certainly would agree, however, that there are no people who are more in the image of God than others, as if white people represent God more fully. But I don't think you need to see the image of God as partially reflected in our bodies to say that. So I think this issue is largely a distraction from the issues we really do disagree about.

2. Thabiti clarifies that he presents his argument against the reality of races as a way of getting to the sections of his article that I agree with, not as a way to respond to the wider literature on race. I though I already knew that, so I'm not sure how this is a corrective to my understanding. He also says that once you accept race, you cannot get out of that trap. He doesn't want to enter it to begin with. I disagree. It depends on what you take race to be. I can acknowledge the existence of what I think race to be without falling into the trap of admitting to the reality of what he thinks race is supposed to be, because what I think race is isn't the same thing as what he thinks race is supposed to be. But that issue comes out in his subsequent points, so I'll look at the details further there.

3. I never claimed that races are like refrigerators in every sense. I simply claimed that the principles that something doesn't exist just because it isn't talked about in the Bible is false. It's no argument against something's existence just because it isn't in the Bible. I did give other examples of social categories that are more analogous to race, e.g. political conservatives or university students. Nothing biological determines whether you are a university student. Social practices determine that. But the category exists nonetheless. Since races are socially-determined categories, they are more like that. The difference is that people are classified according to characteristics at least some of which are biological, and that is not true of all socially-constructed categories.

There is a big difference between races and leprechauns. Leprechauns are people with some very strange properties, and no one actually has the properties of leprechauns. But they are concrete individuals. There just aren't any of them. Races aren't concrete individuals. They are categories based on classification schemes. Even if the criteria used for determining who is in what category are biologically arbitrary, there does exist a set of classification practices, and the people who are members of the races do exist. The criteria that are used rely on realities, and those realities include some biological differences (even if they are somewhat arbitrarily chosen in terms of the biology). Those realities include real social and historical facts, including severe mistreatment of entire populations of people. Those realities include somewhat reliably-identifiable properties that people do in fact use to categorize people.

I don't think we should confuse the question of whether races exist from the question of morally evaluating the actions that led to the racial classification systems we have. There is a group of people that anyone who says the words "black people" is referring to. It may be a biologically arbitrary group, but it is not a socially and culturally arbitrary group. There's something the group has in common. The group has been called "black" (among other things, such as "Negro"). The group has been treated as a group. The group has been discriminated against, enslaved, segregated, and mistreated in other ways. False beliefs have been spread about the group. But none of those things shows that the group doesn't exist. In fact, those things show that the group does exist, and identifying the practices that contribute to those problems requires referring to the group as a group.

Thabiti says that admitting this is like building an edifice on sand. I say that it is simply acknowledging social realities. I never said we ought to build anything on this, just acknowledge that it is there. You don't deny the existence of the sand or the problems it causes those who build houses on it. You don't deny the existence of the houses built on the sand. You just don't pretend those houses are built on a very firm foundation. If the way we think about race is unhealthy, we ought to change the way we think about it, yes. But thinking about race as a social category rather than as a biological category does remove the unhealthiness of race thinking. It allows us to see that there's nothing biological or deep in any other way about race. It allows us to see that any differences that divide us racially are a result of cultural factors that aren't good reasons for division. It allows us to see that the central thing is humanity, not races, which are not significant accept for acknowleding the real and important practices and attitudes that people do have that are very harmful in relation to the groups that people have been classified into.

4. I'm not going to dispute that some people root race in biology. Certainly some do. Radical racists obviously do, and uninformed people also do without realizing that science is against them. I don't want to deny that most people think about race in terms of biology in any way, because I don't even want to do that myself. Biology plays an important role in how people are assigned to racial categories, even though those characteristics are not biologically significant enough to warrant choosing these categories rather than others. If race is a biological category, it is an arbitrary one. What makes racial groups come into existence is not some biological fact but rather a set of facts about how certain biological traits (including ancestry; I'm not just talking about skin color, hair type, and so on) have led people to classify people into groups.

I think many people nowadays, on reflection, would accept this description. The popular idea of color-blindness as a political mission, i.e. not seeing people according to their skin color, is rooted in the idea that race is not biologically significant, that it doesn't depend on deeper biological facts like a "racial essence" that explains non-surface characteristics. That idea is disappearing, even if it still affects people in more minor ways. Thabiti says that the one-drop rule proves that the "racial essence" idea is still operational, but the fact is that the one-drop rule is not operational any more in much of the U.S. and was never operational in most of the world. We don't want our view of what races are to depend on particularly U.S. idea anyway. In Haiti there's a reverse one-drop rule. Which race you belong to if you are mixed race depends on where you are. My kids would be white in Haiti, but they would be black in an area that is still using the one-drop rule. I've never lived anywhere where most people would be comfortable calling them white and leaving it at that, and I've never lived anywhere where most people would be comfortable calling them black and leaving it at that. Most people would see them as mixed, in my experience. The one-drop rule is pretty much dead in the places where I've lived, even if a lot of race scholars seem reluctant to accept that (which was the context of my bringing it up).

My main point is that we can hasten the death of biological views of race most effectively by acknowledging the social realities behind racial classification. The best way to do that is not to ignore the categories created by practices that we happen to disagree with. It is to recognize those categories and recognize that there is no deep significance to them, all the while recognizing that there are social consequences to those classifications. To do that, you must be able to refer to the group. To refer to a group, you have to treat it as if it exists. You don't have to treat it as if everything everyone believes about it is true, just that there is the group of people who are classified together by these socially-significant but biologically-arbitrary methods. I don't see how that amounts to pretending. It seems to me to be a simple recognition of social realities.

5. Thabiti now moves to other contexts. It's very clear that different racial classification schemes operate in different places, as I've already pointed out. In Barbados, my kids wouldn't be black or white, but no one would describe them simply as mixed either. Isaiah would be high yellow, I've been told. Ethan and Sophia might be something else. I don't remember offhand what the particular label was. But there's a more finely-grained classification system for mixed race people.  We do have more finely-grained ethnic classifications in the U.S. as well in certain contexts, although there is nothing among blacks in the U.S. like the different ethnic classifications in Africa. To get at social realities in the U.S. you have to be able to talk about the classifications that occur in the U.S., and those are racial classifications. More finely-grained classificiations may exist but may be irrelevant, and there may not even be any more finely-grained groups.

6. Thabiti doesn't see how not accepting any sense of reality to race prevents one from addressing racism. I think I've made a clearer argument for that in this post above (see the final paragraph under #4). My main point is that acknowledging racism and social patterns of racial classifications requires accepting the existence of race. You cannot identify a group according to which people are mistreated without identifying the group that is being mistreated. You cannot acknowledge mistreatment along racial lines without there being something to what race is, even if it is not what the people doing the mistreatment think race is.

Thabiti's move is to say that race is a fiction. But a fiction exists. Philosophers distinguish between several kinds of views that (in different ways) seek to dismiss the reality of something. You might think there is no such thing as something and that it is meaningless to speak of it. Several important philosophers (e.g. Kwame Anthony Appiah, Naomi Zack) have said exactly this about race. I don't think such a view is tenable, for the reasons I've already stated. You might think instead that the concept is meaningful but that nothing fits it. This is what we think about unicorns, leprechauns, and so on. But the problem with this is that there are groups that terms like 'black people' refer to. Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that the group exists but doesn't have the characteristics people say are true of it?

The fiction is then not in the existence of the group but in its significance. The group is held to be biologically significant, but it isn't. It is, however, socially significant in certain social contexts, given the realities of social practice. We ought to deny any deeper moral or social significance related to any intrinsic characteristics, but we ought to recognize that there are nonetheless social patterns that will affect people along racial lines, and those sociological facts have a reality that requires recognizing social trends according to the lines we call racial categories. So saying that race is a fiction would be perfectly fine if it come comes across as merely the thesis that there is no biological basis for such racial classification.

But that's not how such a statement comes across. It carries with it the implication that there are no sociological facts that explain why we categorize people in these ways or at least that any such socially-based classifications will explain nothing. But these socially-based classifications do explain quite a lot in sociology. They explain why people treat other people in certain ways, and you can't explain such facts in any other way. So abandoning them means we cannot explain something that has an explanation. It's not just that the atrocities are real, that immoral acts really occur, that immoral attitudes are present in real people. It's that the categorizations are real, social entities that come into existence because of social and historical facts the same way the not-very-deep categories of fiscal conservatives, social liberals, theological moderates, presuppositional apologists, and so on do exist.

Thabiti's main reason summarizing why he resists this is that retaining an illusion of difference doesn't help us progress in our understanding. But I'm not saying that we should entrench the perception of difference if we're talking about any deep difference. I'm simply saying we should acknowledge social differences and that social practices lump people into different groups whose existence has explanatory value in philosophy and in explaining that there are immoral practices in society. Acknowledging that does not entrench any deep difference of the sort that both Thabiti and I are worrying about people believing in.

7. Thabiti's account of idolotary seems to be that something is idolatrous when it involves doing something that contradicts what scripture says. If so, then all sin is idolatry. Maybe that's so. I'm not going to dispute it. But my view very clearly does not deny any of the things that he's saying we need to insist on from scripture. All believers are one in Christ. There is nothing deep about race as I've defined it that should lead us to see racial identities as definitive in any way that prevents our oneness in Christ. I don't see how anything in my view is exalting race, alienation, or culture over God's description of the fundamental truth about the world, humanity, and the new creation that is the church.

I'm in fact denying significance to those things at the level we're talking about. The only significance they have is on the same level of all manner of things that are real but not identity-forming in a way that trumps any spiritual identity in Christ. Some people place their identity in their occupation, for instance. I don't want Christian doctors seeing their identity as a doctor as more central than their identity as a Christian. But that won't stop me from acknowledging the social category "doctors". I don't want people seeing their socially-constructed identity with a political party as definitive either, but I won't deny the social reality of the social construction of political classifications according to viewpoint. I think it's a false disjunction to say we have to pick between recognizing the reality of something that might be identity-forming in some sense and insisting that the most fundamental identity of a follower of Jesus Christ is in being Christian and being interconnected with all other believers on the same level and without distinction. One reason it's a false disjunction is because some things that might be identity-forming shouldn't be. We should form certain identities based on classifications. But in other cases recognizing the reality of the category is fine, as long as we don't take it to be definitive in any way relevant to Christian solidarity and unity.

As I said before, I think Thabiti and I agree on the most fundamental things, and where we diverge here is much less significant. But I think we need to say certain things on the issues where we disagree, and he says we need to say the opposite. I hope I've given some sense of why I think we ought to go the way I'm recommending on those issues and why I think his objections are not good reasons to reject the reality of race in every sense.


It's been helpful to have this exchange with you. I've been helped to clarify my own thinking in several points, and for that, brother, I'm thankful to God and you.

I think you're correct when you say we "agree on the most fundamental things, and where we diverge here is much less significant." Reading and re-reading your posts leave me thinking two things:
1. In one sense, what you're calling "race" and the social realities you think underpin it, I'm calling "ethnicity." What might account for the difference is I'm wanting to escape altogether the biological associations that historically have accompanied the term "race." I think on the substance of what you're saying, I would agree. Perhaps the disagreement has more to do with the level of abstraction/attribution we're each comfortable with (assuming "race" to be a wider-reaching construct with less nuance than ethnicity).
2. Perhaps the more fundamental thing I'm left thinking is that you haven't interacted much with the biblical warrant (or lack thereof, imo) for thinking of "race" as you do. I'm not merely suggesting that "race" does not exist as a biological fact. I'm also stating that the Scripture does not allow for such a notion (Gen. 1-2, 5; Acts 17). Granted, there are all kinds of social constructs we find useful for explaining reality. And there are all kinds of constructs that are useful that are not in Scripture. But ought we to develop and use constructs, however useful, that the Scripture denies? That's really the starting point of my position and perhaps why we seem to be missing one another.

Again, brother, I am greatly helped by the exchange and your thoughtfulness. Grace and peace,

Social constructs, as I understand them, are not things we develop and use. They are simply true as a result of social practices. I don't develop and use the social construct that a certain piece of paper produced in a certain location with a certain printing pattern on it is worth a certain value. Money is produced by social practices, and its value, while a social construction, is real within the system of economics that it's part of.

The same is true about racial practices. I don't develop and use the social construct of race. I try to figure out what it is. I'm not sure scripture is going to help me do that. It's not the sort of thing I'd expect scripture to speak to.

Hmmmm.... That's an interesting view/use of "construct." As a social scientist by training, I've always understood a construct to be a general principle or idea that helps explain certain phenomena. It's a level of abstraction meant to explain certain data. You seem to use the notion of "construct" to apply both to the particular thing itself (in your example, paper currency) and to a more abstract notion associated with it (value assigned to money). Am I following you here?

If I understand you accurately, you may be confounding the general idea ("construct" in my usage) with the particular data to be explained. In other words, you can't say "race" is self-evident because there are observable differences among people. There may be alternative explanations of the differences, constructs and theories that better explain the data. It's an interesting kind of confirmation bias at work if we say that the mere existence of differences automatically means races exist. And again, that's really problematic if we understand that the Scripture says the opposite.

I would say that the mere existence of differences does mean that there are categories. There are left-handed people and right-handed people. There are attached-earlobe people and unattached-earlobe people. There are short people and tall people. How significant we take these categories to be morally and politically is another matter. What has happened with race is that certain differences (not all biological) have been used to categorize people, and that is sufficient for there to be such groups. What leads us to worry about the existence of these groups is that what's been included has been taken to be more significant morally and politically than it really is. But that doesn't mean the group doesn't exist, just that things people believe about the group are wrong.

A piece of paper is not a social construct. It's a physical object. What makes money a social construct is that we have a social practice of treating that piece of paper as having a certain value. We don't need a theory to do this. We just do it. Maybe a good case would be one you've already mentioned. In standard academic usage, sex is a biological difference, and gender is a social construction that we as a society have added to it. The differences that explain the classification into male and female sexes are present in biology. The differences that explain gender differentiation in ways that don't arise from biology but from social practices are referred to by academics as gender. That is a social construction.

When academics claim that homosexuality is a social construct, they do not mean that same-sex desire is a social construct or that the people who fall under the term 'homosexual' are a social construct. They mean that society has developed a category of people who have same-sex desire and then treated that category as somehow definitive of the person's identity. Because of this practice, there is such a thing as someone who is gay, when there wouldn't otherwise be. In the ancient Greek world, there may have been people whose desire was toward people of the same sex, and there were people who engaged in same-sex sex acts without such an idea of same-sex preference as a definitive characteristic. But there wasn't any sense that some people are straight while others are gay. That way of categorizing people is a modern construct. But it's not one that current sociologists have constructed. It's one that social processes already have created, and people now categorize in that way. That's what creates the category of gay people, according to the standard view of what a social construction is.

Some social constructions are innocent or at least not inherently bad. Others are bad and not influential enough to lose much if we refuse to participate. Still others involve evil in their origins but have become so important to how people conceptualize the world that we ignore their effect if we don't use them, even if we want to insist that there's nothing metaphysically deep about them. It's the third category that I think race is part of.

I should say that I think this approach is consistent with seeking to do things that will eventually remove the social construction from operating in society. I think making people aware of the biological realities, the biological arbitrariness of the categories, and the different classification systems in different places (among a lot of other difficulties) will help remove the social construction or at least transform it so that it is less harmful. But the fact remains that so many people simply assume it and thus give a social reality to the categories that if we refuse to refer to them in any way (even reluctantly) it's hard for me to see how we can address the problems that such classifications have allowed.

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