Philosophy: July 2013 Archives

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:

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