Discussion of the Reality of Race

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In Thabiti Anyabwile's response to the George Zimmerman verdict yesterday, he made some comments about his ongoing position on the unreality of race, which I've tried to engage with him on before. I'm not surprised he wasn't interested in continuing that conversation on that post, but he did chime in to appreciate the conversation that arose between me and another commenter there. It's very different to engage with this issue on a popular level, as compared with the more technical philosophical engagement with this issue that I've spent much of the last decade of my life working on. It's also different to engage with particularly Christian arguments, which obviously don't arise very often among critical philosophers of race. I thought some of what I wrote in the conversation might be worth preserving here, so here are some excerpts. If you want to read the entire conversation, you can see my initial comment here and then the beginning of the conversation with another commenter here. Perhaps this can give a taste of my forthcoming book on this topic to those who have been asking about it (which I'm trying to finish revising this summer, with the hope of a publication date by the end of the year if I succeed).

Here are the excerpts I wanted to preserve, first from my initial comment:

I'm not sure you're being fair to those who insist that races are real entities. Most academics who hold that view nowadays do not think races are natural kinds, and thus no scripture that deals with what's fundamentally true about human interconnectedness and the restoration thereof in the new covenant community has anything to do with that kind of claim of racial realities. I agree with all your reasons for rejecting races, but I just don't think that conclusion follows.

The main view that anyone actually holds among philosophers about this that recognizes real races is that races are social kinds, created by human practices and given reality thereby, the same way that money, universities, and the category of political libertarians are entities created by social practices. The difference with races is that they (1) have been generated in part by evil practices, which should require us to reconceive how we think of them and move our society to reconfigure the categories, but it doesn't mean they don't exist and (2) there is a moral significance to those categories on a level that generates obligations, both in interpersonal relations between individuals where such obligations might not exist or not exist as strongly between two people of the same race, and on a larger scale where the sorts of things people refer to as racial justice would come in.

And I think this is different from ethnicity or culture. Ethnicity is partly a sub-category of race. It involves smaller sub-groups of the racial groups. There are white people, and then there are varieties of white people -- English, Swedish, etc. And someone's race can often be apparent when ethnicity is not, and something socially holds together all the white ethnic groups as white in how our society treats people who get assigned that category. Also, ethnicity and race are assigned differently. Race is more often assigned by society based on appearance, although ancestry plays a role. But ethnicity is much less about appearance and much more about ancestry and cultural heritage. And culture is entirely different. There are plenty of people who almost anyone would consider racially black but ethnically white or (more controversially) the reverse.

I would say that there's something Barack Obama has in common with Chris Rock, and it isn't culture or ethnicity. They likely don't have any recent common ancestry (and if they did it would be on Obama's mother's side), and Obama's cultural background is largely from his white mother and his Indonesian step-father (until he deliberately adopted black culture in Chicago, but that's not his culture of origin). But the mere fact of how they are perceived by most Americans as being in the same race puts them in the same socially-assigned category as each other, even if there's nothing more fundamental than social facts that could ground such judgments. But there's nothing more fundamental in our nature to ground our assignment to categories like college students, Baptists, Democrats, or government employees. Yet we have no problem recognizing those groups, even though we don't recognize those-with-attached-earlobes or those-who-can-curl-their-tongues, even though those are categories related to biology, precisely because those categories are not socially important for any reason. If government policy, patterns of discrimination, or stereotyped attitudes corresponded to such arbitrary categories, then there would be a similar social reality to such categories as there is with race.

You can hold all that while rejecting the idea that racial categories get at some fundamental lines in nature and while insisting that all human beings in Christ are one in Christ without there being divisions along racial lines. You can hold all that while insisting that Christians should not form our fundamental identities in racial categories but in Christ. But we have to keep in mind that Paul's insistence that there is no Jew or Greek doesn't stop him from treating Jew and Greek differently in how he evangelizes them. We can recognize the reality of a social phenomenon and accept the categories made salient by that social phenomenon without denying any of what lies behind your resistance to races.

And here is some of the conversation that followed with another commenter, who had put forward the view that there are no races but there is racism:

I'm not sure your view is coherent. If there are no races, then they're in the same ontological category as unicorns, i.e. there are none, and therefore there's nothing there to ground whatever it is that racism is against. If there's such a thing as racism, then there are races, even if they turn out not to be what we might have thought they were. Even if we arbitrarily assigned people to four categories -- the ones, twos, threes, and fours say (e.g. like when we divide people up into teams in gym class as kids), it's true that there are those groups. If the other groups began to discriminate against the ones, then there could be bias against that existing group. It doesn't have to be an ontologically deep group to be an existing group. But it does have to be an existing group for there to be bias, discrimination, etc. against the group.

The other commenter appeals to borderline cases as an argument against races and points to problematic origins of our racial notions and then appeals to the irrationality in something like claustrophobia as a comparison with some supposed similarity with race-thinking.

surely the existence of borderline cases isn't enough to make there not be such groups. There are plenty of borderline cases for political groups, but that doesn't mean there are no liberals, conservatives, libertarians, socialists, etc. The fact that it's hard to decide whether to count bowling, golf, and curling as sports doesn't mean there are no sports.

Most scholars agree that our modern concepts of race (there isn't just one) go back to about the 18th century. Kant is often taken to be the one who most developed it into what it is now. Virtually no one thinks races are natural kinds the way we generally take species to be. There are a handful of philosophers of race defending such an idea, but they stand out as exceptions. My view of that is that they groups those people are looking at are not the same that we standardly call races in our ordinary practice. Those groups are not based in biology but in social practice. I just don't think that means they're not real, any more than the group of political libertarians is not real because that's not grounded in biology.

I would admit that many people's views of race involve false beliefs. But that doesn't mean the groups don't exist or that our racial terms don't refer to them. When I say something about "black people" there is a group of people, with indeterminate boundaries, that I am speaking of, and pretty much everyone knows pretty much which set of people I mean. That's enough for my words to refer successfully. That's so even if many people have very false beliefs about what unifies those people. We once though atoms to be indivisible, by definition. We then started speaking of some divisible entities as atoms, and the name stuck. Then we discovered that the things we were calling atoms were divisible. But we still refer to those things by using the terms, because they became names rather than descriptions. People who believe God doesn't exist and is even impossible can still refer to God by using the word 'God'. People who think God is not trinitarian still refer to God when speaking about God, even though they have a false belief about God's very nature. If they say Jesus is not God, they say something false, but the God that they're claiming Jesus not to be is still God. Otherwise their statement wouldn't be false.

I don't think the claustrophobia analogy is apt. You can fear something that doesn't exist or fear something that does exist but because of false beliefs about it. You can hate something that's purely fictional but that you believe to exist. But racism is directed against actual people, and that's the difference. Those people who are in fact victimized by racism are unified by that racism, even if by nothing else, as a social group. Even if that's the only ground of social practice to explain the existence of races (and I don't think it is), that would be sufficient for there to be races. Racism isn't like claustrophobia, because some kinds of racism, such as discrimination, assume there's a group being discriminated against. The actual facts of how racism works depend on there being a group that is negatively affected by the racism. That's not true with phobias.

The next comment responds primarily to the claim that races can't exist because there's nothing that every member of any given race has in common with every other member.

Very few terms in any natural language can be defined in a way that you can give necessary and sufficient conditions for belonging to that category. You can get that kind of precision in mathematics, in physics, and in formal logic, but it's not how natural language works. Any social category is going to admit of vagueness, and that's not a good reason to abandon it. Look at the debates about how we should define the term 'evangelical'. Yet it's clear that the Gospel Coalition is evangelical and that liberal Episcopalians, say, are not. That's so even if we can't agree on the boundaries, and lots and lots of clear cases are uncontroversial. You don't have to think there's one core property everything in a group has to think it's a real group.

A desk doesn't have to have four legs, or even any, since it might be attached to the wall alone. It doesn't have to have a flat surface, since it might not be meant for writing. It doesn't have to have a certain shape. There's not much that you could find that is true of every desk and nothing else but desks. But we have no problem identifying desks and talking about them as desks. With most things we have no problem with this, but with race a lot of people don't want to recognize that our ordinary criteria for group membership don't require the precision of the natural sciences.

If we're going to insist that there are no races of the natural-kind sort, then we should abandon the idea that if races exist they will be like natural kinds. We should instead consider whether there are groups that are more like our ordinary, socially-identified categories that correspond closely enough to how we use our racial language, and it turns out there are.

I do think there are important lessons to learn about how we should think, speak, and categorize from the pieces of evidence you point to. We should avoid assuming a black-white binary where we ignore other categories. We should avoid thinking that someone with black and white ancestry has to be exclusively in one of the two categories. We should recognize that our categorization criteria can change over time, in different locations, or even when different questions are relevant to a conversation. Racial categorization is a lot more fluid and contextualized than a lot of people realize, even many social scientists who recognize the categories as social constructions. But none of that is sufficient for rejecting that there's any reality to the categories, since there is an obvious social reality that has significant implications.

My contention is that our response is not to act as if that social reality is not real but to transform the social reality by informing people of the underlying facts and pointing out that it is a social creation, one that we can change by reconceiving and revising our views about race, correcting the false beliefs we do have and recognizing the evil present in the origins of the race concepts we've currently got. The result will be, I am convinced, not a rejection of races but a transforming of how we think of them, and a rejecting of any sense of all-encompassing identities with essentialized understandings of how people who belong to such groups must be, but recognizing the diversity among people who have been assigned to groups while affirming the good that has come from culturally identifying with others in the categorizes one has been racialized into, all the while retaining the categories to be able to name the evils of racial ills that rely on the existence of the social category (and even the historical reality if we get to a point where the current evils are gone). I think that requires recognizing the reality of races, since you can't transform something you're pretending isn't real. But it also requires intensive efforts to inform, persuade, and reconceive our language, practice, and thought about race, and it's going to take serious thinking about how to talk to small children and a large-scale effort on the part of a great many people to do that in a coherent and broad-scope way. I think I'm in agreement with Thabiti on much of that, even though I think we disagree on the core issue of whether races are real.

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