Does Race Require Ancestry?

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I was discussing a piece of my dissertation with a group of other people from my department at a dissertation workshop last night, and some of the attendees raised some interesting cases that I'm curious how people would respond to.

Case A: Suppose an evil geneticist decides to play around with people's racial intuitions. One way to do that would be to modify the DNA of a human embryo who is the product of two white parents to give the genetic characteristics that would typically cause the visible characteristics commonly associated with black people. Would the child be black? This isn't a case of egg-switching, baby-switching, or anything like that. The child's biological parents are both white. Is the child therefore white?

Case B: God decides it would be fun to have two versions of Michael Jordan in the world and thus creates an exact duplicate of him. Is the duplicate black?

If the answer in either case is that the resulting person is black, then descent from black people isn't necessary for being black. One has only white ancestors, and the other has no ancestors. I think that would be pretty significant given that most people working in the philosophy of race think descent is a necessary condition (and many think it's even a sufficient condition).

11 Comments

Perhaps we need to redefine race with our new capabilities? Should race be defined by the social reaction to the individual? How does that alter the answers to the above questions?

Actually, the idea that a person's race is determined by the social reaction to the person is plainly on the table for me. I don't see that as necessarily a redefinition. It may well be correct, or it may be correct in certain contexts. That's one of the reasons I want to gauge how people respond to cases like this.

I would answer black in both cases. To whatever extent race is a social construction, then neither case is actually relevant. The point there is that the child or duplicate looks black and will therefore be treated as black. As to any ontological aspect to race, while descent from a common race is the usual pattern, I don't see that it's either necessary or sufficient. Consider that all races can trace their ancestry back to a single pair. In order for there to be races, at some point, parents of the same race had to produce offspring of a different race. Even if this occurred in a series of barely perceptible changes over several generations, the argument that descent from a particular race is necessary or sufficient to be a part of that race is weakened. Furthermore, it is not beyond possibility that ontological racial differences were sudden. If so, then if the genetically modified child is not a different race from his parents, then neither were those who originally manifested racial characteristics different from their parents.

If God did make a second Jordan it wouldn't be the first direct creation of a man. So, going back to the first time, did Adam have a race? If he were to appear and walk around the Earth today, I doubt that we would be amazed at his apparent lack of race. We might say that God intended no particular race, if any, for Adam. However, if race is ontological, then, if Adam lived long enough for various racial characteristics to manifest themselves, then he would have belonged to a different race than some other people. In the case of the new Jordan, we can't even argue immediate lack of intent on God's part. If he's creating a duplicate of Jordan, if the original is black, then God would have to intend for the duplicate to be black. For me, divine intent is enough to settle the matter.

To whatever extent race is a social construction, then neither case is actually relevant.

I'm not sure I follow. To the extent race is a social construction, the correct answer really does depend on how people would respond to cases like these. If it's people's beliefs and actions that determine who belongs to what race, then people's judgments on strange cases should be exactly how we should figure out what the social construction is.

Consider that all races can trace their ancestry back to a single pair. In order for there to be races, at some point, parents of the same race had to produce offspring of a different race.

This assumes that what the races are now is what the races were at that time. But I don't think we should expect that to be true. If races are socially constructed, then whatever it is to be a race (as we use the term now) should be determined by our linguistic and social practices now. But what it is to be particular races would still depend on facts about the people and groups at any time being discussed, and that has to do with which groups function as races at the time. It may well be that there is a point of divergence in ancestry between two races now in existence, but at the point of divergence all the people involved were in what at the time was one race.

I do think it would be strange to think of races existing at a time when there was only one human being. In the biblical accounts, I don't think it makes sense to think of races until (at the earliest) when you've got descendants of the children of Adam and Eve, and then maybe you could see Cain's children as one race and Seth's as another. But I'd be hesitant to see those as races in the modern sense. I don't think you would have that until at least after Babel, and that's only true when the divergent lines would lead to divergent physical characteristics, since I think that's part of what we think of races.

I do, however, think it makes sense to think of Adam as belonging to a race if when the races diverge Adam clearly has the visible characteristics of one of the several races. So if current scientific understandings of the origin of human beings are correct, then a common ancestor of all human beings in Africa who would have had enough of the characteristics we associate with black people would legitimately count as black in the current category.

Okay, I wasn't even considering that these two cases would be common knowledge; just that people would react to the person they initially saw. If someone believed that descent from a particular race was necessary to belong to that race, then, appearance aside, they would have to say that the child is white and Jordan 2 is not black. If 'necessary' is replaced with 'sufficient' then they might answer either way.

My discussion of tracing ancestry to a single pair did assume that race is the same now as it was then. I had begun the previous sentence talking about any ontological aspect to race; i.e., aspects of race that are an essential part of an individual's make-up regardless of what society might think. To whatever extent races are socially constructed, none of what I said would apply. While I am convinced that there is a social construct aspect to race, I am not convinced that there is not an essential aspect to race. And if there is, how do we determine the ratio between the two? People working on the philosophy of race who think that descent is a necessary condition may simply be recognizing what society thinks. At some point, however, this belief would have to have been based on essentialist assumptions (whether or not these were correct is beside the point). So it seems that these assumptions must, at least, be considered. If race is an essential part of being human, then it's not so strange to think that it would exist when there was only one human being. If it isn't at all, then I concede your point.

What do you mean by 'essential'? I've got a whole chapter in my dissertation looking at twenty-some different things people might mean by that term with respect to race, some of them demonstrably false, others controversial, and still others trivially true.

People who think descent is necessary do think it's because that's what society thinks. There are only a handful of people in the field who think race both exists and isn't in any sense socially constructed, and I really do mean only a few. I know of two, maybe three. I'm not sure if there are more, but there may be. There are several very vocal people who deny the reality of race. The vast majority accept some kind of social construction account, although most of them don't explain what they mean by a social construction or give much of an indication of how they think races are constructed. So anyone who thinks there's a descent condition is almost always someone who thinks that's true because it's how people think of race.

When I'm clear on what you mean by essentialism, maybe that will help, but one of the problems is going to be that whatever social practices lead to races being what they are have to construct race out of things that exist. Believing that some non-existent substance called phlogiston explains fire doesn't make there be this thing called phlogiston. On the other hand, believing in this thing called caloric that was supposed to explain heat doesn't mean heat didn't exist. It just wasn't what they thought it was. Presumably, if races exist, then they are existing things, and they can't be made up of things that don't exist. If there is nothing that matches up to essentialist views, then it's going to take some work explaining how essentialism is true based on people's views that it's true.

But again this might depend on what you think essentialism is and on what sort of construction you have in mind for race to be. Those are both issues I'm putting to the side in the what I've been doing lately, but it's stuff I've thought about and begun writing about, and maybe when I'm done I'll have a clearer idea of what I think about it.

Both individuals would be considered "black" in our society. Now they might not consider themselves black.

I tend to think race is a bit superficial considering most of what we mean by "race" is actually a combination of cultural differences and physical appearance. These elements are not always in harmony with someone's supposed race.

I certainly didn't mean to complicate things so much by bringing up the word “essential”. Basically, I was attempting to describe aspects of race that are not constructed by society. I'm looking for something that is objectively true about an individual regardless of what society may think. Go back to the evil geneticist case and, for the sake of argument, we'll say that the child is white because he descends from white parents. Now, imagine that this child is switched with the black child of black parents. Each is raised by the opposite set of parents but no one knows about the switch. Furthermore, society does know about the evil geneticist and agrees that such a child, descended from white parents, would be white. Society is mistaken about which child actually has black ancestors and which one doesn't. But is it mistaken about which child is white and which child is black? If race is nothing but a social construction, then they cannot be mistaken. Social constructions are whatever society says they are. However, this is not the case if, apart from the knowledge or opinion of society, ancestry determines race. There is a difference between saying that descent is necessary because society thinks it and saying that society thinks it because it is necessary. In this case, ancestry would be essential [or whatever word might be better] to race. Perhaps, though, the actual state of the genetic material is what is essential. In so, the alterations of the evil geneticist would be sufficient to make the child black. If society believed that descent was necessary and that the child was, therefore, white, their belief wouldn't make it so.

It occurs to me that I may be conflating race with ethnicity. If I am, I do wonder whether this is completely unjustified or if the sharp distinction between the two may not be warranted. Although I am open to the possibility that race may be nothing but a social construction, I'm also enough of a fan of objective truth to think that there may be an aspect of race, or a factor necessary to race, that society doesn't get to decide and that, if they have not properly factored it in, would make their construction wrong.

Something can be socially constructed and also be objectively true regardless of what individual people think. There's no legitimate understanding of what it is to be politically conservative that has Ralph Nader coming out a conservative. That's objectively true because of all the varied ways someone might be conservative. Yet what it is to be conservative is surely a social construction (or perhaps more accurately several social constructions).

Social constructions aren't whatever people say they are. It's not as if people can just make a social construction by believing something to be the case. The same is true of money. A $2 bill won't be worth $1 million just because a few people decide to consider it worth that. What gives it its worth is a large web of social practices including how people on a large scale treat it as valuable and what the government says in its laws and policies. Now the fact that it's rare and the fact that many people would love to collect some does make them worth more than $2. So what people believe and do can have an effect. But with large-scale social constructions, it needs to be large-scale changes in practices to see a noticeable difference in the construction.

When people say race is socially constructed, they generally mean that what it is to be a race and which things are true of belonging to a race are determined by society. This is consistent with there being objective facts because of those constructions. So it might be that according to a certain construction someone is black, but no one knows it. According to the one-drop rule, someone with recent black ancestry is black, even if no one knows of that ancestry. The person is objectively black, and the idea of blackness is socially constructed. Child-switching cases without evil geneticists can get you that.

So it's not about social constructions. The social construction could include an objective ancestry requirement or whether the social construction is objectively just about appearance.

When you present the possibility that society thinks ancestry is essential because it somehow is essential independent of society, I'm having trouble seeing what you mean. The word 'race' has a meaning only because people use it in a certain way. It gets its meaning, therefore, by social practices. So at least in that minimal sense what 'race' means is caused by what people do linguistically with this word and others like it. The fact that the word has changed its meaning over time shows that there isn't something essential to the word that it has a certain meaning, whether it involves ancestry or not.

Maybe you meant something different, but I'm not sure what you meant if you did. I can think of several things you might have meant, but all of them sound different to me than what you said.

Ethnicity is hard to distinguish from race, but the most plausible account I've seen is that race involves visible, genetically transmittable features, while ethnicity doesn't and is primarily focused on a very loose family-like relation together with culture.

To be honest it seems to me that you define "black" by if they are dark enough, or white if they are light enough. Also, typically understood African features contribute to the label, but by and large I have never really seen it as having anything to do with actually ancestry.Its a bit like asking "What colour is that house?". Its what ever colour its painted.

I certainly think that makes a difference. People who are mixed who are darker are more likely to be called just black. People who are lighter are more likely to be described as mixed. You're less likely to see darker-skinned mixed people called white.

I should say that things may be very different if you're talking about mixing other than black-white. The history of the one-drop rule and segregation does make a difference, even if it has less of an impact now than it once did.

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