Recently in Race Category

Several politically right commentators have criticized Hillary Clinton's recent remarks about implicit bias, charging her with expressing her own bigotry in the process. See, for example, the Federalist and the Weekly Standard. A quick Google search turns up several others. When I first saw this, I thought it was a big of a lapse, given how quickly the right turned to the defense of Juan Williams when he was fired by NPR for basically saying the same sort of thing about people dressed in Muslim garb in airports. (See similar Google search for him.)

Williams admitted to an unconscious bias at airports when he sees people who he expects to be the more common demographic to be terrorists. He expressed some regret about this, clearly indicating that he thought something was unfortunate about being that way, but he said it's sort of understandable how people end up being fearful in that way. He was fired from NPR for being a bigot.

Clinton comes along and describes the implicit bias many white people have against young black men in hoodies. She says it's honest, open-minded, well-meaning people who have this fear, which is certainly true. That's what makes it implicit bias. It happens even among those who don't want it to, who oppose racism with every moral fiber they have. In context, it's clear that she's saying this is something that needs to change. She's not saying this is a good thing. But these critics latch on to it to insist that she must feel this fear herself, as if that somehow would make her hypocritical and a complete bigot worthy of condemnation (in a way that Williams apparently was not, at least the way many of the right acted at the time).

The point of both Williams and Clinton is that this is something unfortunate that our psychological makeup leads us to do, and it's something that ideally we should seek to change, but it's nonetheless part of how we experience race in this country. There's bad there, and there's something normal about it. Both are true. There might be slightly different nuances between the two cases, but I find it hard to believe that there's enough difference between the two cases to justify such radically different treatment. (And I'd be shocked not to find the mirror image of the right's treatment as the left begins to defend her, despite many of them having criticized Williams for saying the same thing.)

It's not hypocritical for an anti-racist to point out that they probably have implicit bias and wish that were otherwise, expressing a desire to try to find ways to deal with that. I don't have a lot of confidence that either Juan Williams or Hillary Clinton would have a lot of good things to say about what a positive response to it would be, and that's not because of their political views or anything like that. I don't expect politicians or political commentators to have much to say of value on the subject. Psychologists and psychologically-informed philosophers might have some things to say that are worth listening to, but no one has a lot of interesting and helpful suggestions about this particular problem. The best work on it shows that it forms at a very young age and doesn't really go away. Most of the ways people come up with to deal with it are very temporary or very gradual, and the best help for it is to have a more integrated society (especially at the most intimate levels of friendships and relationships). That's a good reason not to make a speech about it, as if there are a bunch of policies politicians can implement that will change this. But it's not hypocritical to do so. What is hypocritical to treat these two differently unless you can point to something that explains why he's heroic and she's evil for saying the same thing (or vice versa, for any who might defend her after having seen Williams as a bigot).

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There's a nice review of my book up at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, by Dwayne Turnstall. I was hoping to take some time to write up some thoughts on the review, but my summer teaching has been pretty time-consuming, since I'm doing a senior seminar (called "Health, Society, and the Law") with quite a lot of content that I've never taught before. I hope, when things cool off, to be able to share some thoughts I've had about the review and the material I've been teaching. In the meantime, I wanted to express my appreciation to Duane for the fair-minded review and will continue to reflect on he has to say about my book.

A Realist Metaphysics of Race

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Official book description:

In A Realist Metaphysics of Race: A Context-Sensitive, Short-Term Retentionist, Long-Term Revisionist Approach, Jeremy Pierce defends a social kind view of racial categories. On this view, the biological features we use to classify people racially do not make races natural kinds. Rather, races exist because of contingent social practices, single out certain groups of people as races, give them social importance, and allow us to name them as races. Pierce also identifies several kinds of context-sensitivity as central to how racial categorization works and argues that we need racial categories to identify problems in how our racial constructions are formed, including the harmful effects of racial constructions. Hence, rather than seeking to eliminate such categories, Pierce argues that we should also make efforts to change the conditions that generate their problematic elements, with an eye toward retaining only the unproblematic aspects.

Endorsements:

Jeremy Pierce masterfully applies contemporary analytic work on the metaphysics of natural kinds to the question of the existence of races. He argues that races are social constructions rather than biological kinds; while this makes talk of races problematic in some ways, Pierce claims that we should continue to use race-talk while correcting some of its problematic features, as to stop talking about races would be to overlook important historical injustices. This book will be of great significance to anyone interested in philosophical questions about race. (Ben Bradley, Syracuse University)
 

In A Realist Metaphysics of Race, Jeremy Pierce clearly lays out the terrain of the leading theories about what races are (that is, if they 'are' at all) and gives a compelling argument that they are social constructions. Races, in his view, are real; they are not natural kinds, but social kinds--and social kinds with important context sensitivities. While primarily a work in 'applied metaphysics', Pierce's treatment ranges broadly--and competently--across a wide range of philosophical sub-disciplines: philosophy of science, philosophy of language, experimental philosophy, contextualism. The result is a nuanced and informative coverage of important issues that philosophers--and the discipline of philosophy--cannot afford to ignore.
(Kevin Timpe, Northwest Nazarene University)

Philosophy of race is a vibrant, maturing field and Jeremy Pierce's book is a cutting-edge addition to the literature. He offers perhaps the most thorough critique of Joshua Glasgow's anti-realism thus far and his defense of social constructionism is novel in a number of respects. Most notably, he pushes us to take seriously the idea that social practices can be generative of racial difference as an experienced reality without thereby creating the groups we call races. His suggestion that these groups pre-exist the social constructions that make them significant is a fascinating metaphysical proposal. (Chike Jeffers, Dalhousie University)


Table of Contents:

Chapter 1: Natural Kinds and the Analogy of Species
Chapter 2: Natural Kinds and Race
Chapter 3: Classic Anti-Realism
Chapter 4: Glasgow's Anti-Realism
Chapter 5: Social Construction and Biological Constructionism 
Chapter 6: Races and the Metaphysics of Objects and Groups
Chapter 7: Context-Sensitive Features of Racial Classification
Chapter 8: The Ethics of the Metaphysics of Race
Chapter 9: Colorblindness, Implicit Bias, and Essentialized Categories

Last I heard, the release date is Dec 15, 2014, just over a month from now. The publisher's website isn't listing a precise date, but I haven't heard them say otherwise since they gave that to me as their tentative release date.

See also the publisher's website and the Amazon listing.

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:

Doctor Who and Race

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Apparently a new book is out (or perhaps is about to come out), analyzing Doctor Who and race, and it has angered someone at the BBC enough that they've come out with a response to the charge that the show is "thunderously racist". The article gives no further information about the book, but a quick Google search turns up this site that seems to be intended to promote the book. This seems to be the call for papers, giving a sense of what the publisher or editor wanted the articles to be like before any of them were written.

I have two thoughts. One is that the pushback from the scifi blogs and from the BBC, pointing out ways Doctor Who is racially forward, seem to me to be generally accurate. Consider the contemporary show especially. Martha Jones was by far the most intelligent of all the recent companions, and she's black. She was a medical student, even, and she eventually became a doctor. The other recent companions have mostly been working-class women with much less education. They dealt with the inter-racial relationship of Mickey and Rose as if that were perfectly normal. There have been plenty of guest starts, and those of non-white races have not seemed to me to be remotely racially stereotypical in most cases.

There might be racially insensitive moments of the original series, reflecting those times (meaning that it's not any more racially-insensitive than anything else in those days). The show started in the 1960s, after all. There were several early serials where the reality of the available actors in the UK at the time required that they use white actors to play Aztecs or the soldiers of Genghis Khan. If you did something like that now, you'd better do it right.

Some say the SNL portrayal of President Obama by a white actor was much more successful at this than most instances of blackface. It remains to be seen whether Johnny Depp will get away with his Tonto in the Lone Ranger later this year. But in the 1960s, when the actors you had available were all or mostly white, you had to make do with what you have, and the issue is mainly not who's playing the characters but whether they act in a way that furthers harmful stereotypes. In my judgment, most such instances on Doctor Who do not, at least where I am in the series now, which is 1971, with a smattering of episodes throughout the later Doctors and then the new series through the early sixth season.

As for the claim that primitive cultures are portrayed as savages, all you need to do is look to the second serial, The Daleks, where the Thals, who had gone primitive after centuries of post-apocalyptic avoidance of technology, were anything but savage. It was The Doctor who convinced them to overcome their pacifism and fight back against the Daleks. There was even the serial called The Savages, where the idea that they were savages was held by the dominant technological society in that world but turned out to be false, and at the end they have to learn to live together in harmony. And those examples were both in the 60s.

The reality is that a long-running show like Doctor Who will eventually display the prejudices of its times, but it has many, many moments of breaking away from those, and it often has done so in creative and helpful ways, using alien races as analogies for human racial relations or for colonial or slave relations. It's perfectly legitimate to point out ways Doctor Who has assumed cultural superiority of certain groups and such, assuming it has done so in the particular cases. It's fine to point out ways the show has represented stereotypes when it has done so. But it does not do to make blanket statements based on a few individual cases about the show as a whole, especially if the current show is implicated in problems with past representations. And if you talk about Doctor Who now, it doesn't make any sense just to point to examples from decades ago.

So that's my first thought. The reaction of Doctor Who fans and the BBC to the charge of racism seems to me to be largely correct. The show doesn't seem to deserve the label "thunderously racist". The criticism seems to me to be ill-informed.

But that brings me to my second thought, which is that the knee-jerk reaction doesn't strike me as very informed either. Take a look at the call for papers, and then go to the site promoting this new book to see what the various articles in the book are actually doing. Here is a list of the main points for each chapter


Tokenism

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I've been thinking about the concept of tokenism and why we find it problematic, given that virtually everyone who complains about tokenism thinks there is some good in having representation by those who are underrepresented in a particular sphere. What makes the difference between the cases where we find it unproblematic to try to get people more represented and those where we consider it tokenism? A few considerations come to mind:

The most obvious cases of tokenism are when someone just wants to appear forward-thinking and progressive by selecting people of an underrepresented group without really being concerned at all about the underlying ethical issues. If a college's admissions literature and website are littered with pictures of non-white students when such students are only 1% of the college's population, we might cry foul and wonder why they think they can pretend the school is more diverse than it is just to make themselves look good.

We should be careful here, of course. An institution might not be doing this just to look good. They might be thinking that portraying the student body in such an inaccurate manner will help attract students in those very groups, and they might have good motivations for wanting such a change. But it still seems wrong in such a case, even though it's not merely to generate a false view of the school to garner a better reputation. The dishonesty in the portrayal seems like a kind of tokenism. We might select people out of underrepresented groups to make it look like our institution is better than it is, or we might do so for purer motives, namely to try to make it better than it is, but either way the dishonesty of portraying it that way seems to fall under our concept of tokenism.

So is it basically a kind of dishonesty that makes something a case of tokenism? I don't think it's as simply as that. Consider a TV show that has their one token black in a mainly white cast. That black character might display all the stereotypes of black characters, in which case it might be criticized for stereotyping. On the other hand, it might display no such stereotypes, in which case it might be accused of sanitizing the character to make them more white-friendly. You might then think the critics are unfair. You can't win, no matter what you do? Actually, I don't think that's the problem. I think the no-win situation is set up because you don't have enough black characters both (a) on TV in general and (b) on the show in question. Even having two black characters, one of each type, is better than having one token black who fits either mold. The solution seems to me to be to have a diversity of black characters, some of whom display some stereotypical characteristics but who nonetheless are real characters, some of whom display fewer stereotypical characteristics but who nonetheless are real characters. What saves the day for a show that might be accused of tokenism is to have a variety of real characters showing a diversity of real-life traits from real people. Portray them so that the audience cares about them. Portray real inner conflict, hard choices, and so on. Make your characters of color as interesting and developed as all the other characters, and have enough of them across the variety of TV shows that we create, and you're a lot less susceptible to be accused of tokenism.

What does that suggest about what tokenism is? It's not just plain honesty, because there's plenty of room in there for trying to have as many characters as you can that don't fit well with the actual percentages of which black people have which traits. You don't need to have your black characters have children out of wedlock at exactly the rate that happens among black people in real life. You don't need to have them like hip-hop at the same percentages. You don't need to have them attending college or being incarcerated at the same rates. You need some level of honesty there to the point where you're not ignoring realities in society too much, but you can steer stereotypes by having lots of counter-stereotypical characters, and of course a lot of what you can do will be affected by what kind of show it is. Game of Thrones won't have anyone listening to hip-hop or being incarcerated in American prisons. The core problem seems to be, rather, that tokenism doesn't care about the people or characters enough to do much more than trot them out for the appearance. A character on a superhero show who is a token black might be stereotypical or might not be, but we won't care about the character very much, because the person isn't fleshed out very much. Tokens in college promotional literature are there for the appearance, and in a sense so are the undeveloped characters who are there just to have representation.

Now how does this relate to the use of tokenism-language in the context of affirmative action? Some conservative critics of affirmative action see it as harmful to those it's intended to help, partly because it isn't concerned with their success in college but just wants to have diversity as an element of its student body. It isn't concerned with finding students who will be as prepared to succeed, because it's more interested in showing off its diverse composition. In that sense, it would be like the case of admissions literature. But this isn't the only way to conceive of affirmative action. Even with the diversity rationale, one can be engaged with affirmative action policies in order to promote diversity, where there's a further goal for that diversity, and that can be to promote further racial justice for the sake of those who would be benefited by their being such racial policies. That motivation strikes me as not tokenist, even though the actions would seem to have roughly the same outcome with either motivation. So tokenism is not just about consequences. It's about why you engage in the actions you engage in to begin with.

I can imagine a student group at a college, maybe a religious or political group, that wants to seek more diversity. They might undertake efforts to promote their group among groups that are not well represented in their group at present. They might change their methods or approach to be more culturally acceptable to such groups. They might change their focus to include things people in those groups would care about. Is this tokenism? It seems to me that the answer depends on why they're doing it. If they want the people they're targeting merely because they want it to be true that their group is more diverse, I think it is tokenism. If they want them to be present because they think they themselves will be enriched by the experience, and the newcomers will benefit as well, then it seems to me not to be tokenism.

The same goes for inclusion in an academic conference or in high governmental positions. If a president seriously would like cabinet or judicial nominees to come from underrepresented groups, as both the last two presidents have (at least at times) shown concern for, then the crucial question is why. Is it to make the party or the administration look good, or is it out of a genuine concern for having diversity in that sphere of government? If I tried to put a conference together, and someone pointed out that none of the invited speakers were women, I might try to remedy that. Am I remedying it because I committed a faux pas and am embarrassed, or am I doing it because I think we all benefit by having more women presenting at philosophy conferences and because I think we have a systematic implicit bias against thinking first of women when thinking of the movers and shakers in a discipline like philosophy? The former might be tokenism. The latter seems not to be. But the actions are exactly the same.

This is a first attempt to think through this carefully. A number of questions remain in my mind. Are there any examples of what seems like tokenism that doesn't fit the kind of thing I'm saying here? Are there any examples that don't seem like tokenism that do have some of the characteristics I've been trying to identify tokenism with? It may well be that there's more complexity to what we typically call tokenism, and it might be that I'll need to figure out what to do when there are disagreements over what counts as tokenism. There's also the possible complication of whether tokenism is always wrong. Are there cases that we would call tokenism where we wouldn't find it morally problematic, or is it a term like 'racism' or 'murder' where we'd only use the term if we thought there was something problematic going on?

Police Reports and Race

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Police reports need to be descriptive. I think they try to include as much information as they can, and when they release information to the public they try to include as much as they have in order to aid anyone helping out the investigation. But when you have a report here or there of a robbery, and the only information the witnesses bother to give to the police of any consequence is that the robber was black, I have to wonder if it does more harm than good to include it in news reports.

Syracuse University regularly sends out notifications to the entire university community whenever a robbery or assault has taken place in my neighborhood. I don't get these anymore, but I used to get them several times a week. The reports usually described the suspect. They usually said something vague about the person's height, occasionally mentioned a not-very-distinctive aspect of the person's dress (e.g. wearing a hoodie, wearing a baseball cap). They almost always gave the person's race, which was usually black. They almost never described what the person actually looked like in any more helpful way. Often it was less than that, just the race and maybe an indication that the person was tall or something that's true of lots of people.

Knowing that some black dude robbed a house nearby recently doesn't do a whole lot more than knowing someone robbed a house nearby recently, in terms of safety and awareness, and it can foster racial stereotypes and lead people who have all the good will in the world racially speaking to suspect black people in their neighborhood dressed a certain way, which is unfortunate. Implicit bias has been demonstrated to occur in people who have zero racial prejudice in any explicit and knowing way, and all it takes to have it is merely knowing that there is a stereotype. It affects non-verbal behavior even among well-meaning people. It can lead to unconscious effects in how someone is evaluated.

I can understand how a description of a thief or assailant who is known to be currently roaming a neighborhood looking for victims can help people aid the police in finding the person, but it has to be actually descriptive to make a lot of difference. If it isn't, but it does include the person's race, we might wonder if we're doing more harm than good in notifying thousands of people the next day that the previous night it was a black guy who robbed someone's house two roads down. I wouldn't suggest leaving it out of police reports, but notifications sent out to a huge community that don't actually help in finding the person but include the person's race entirely on the ground that it might help someone find the person seem to me to be a waste of time while contributing toward some of the more hidden aspects of racial bias.

A common theme in the last few days is the tying of Romney's Birther joke to race. He joked, in his hometown, that no one had ever asked him to prove that he was born in the U.S. The idea is that Romney was playing to the deep suspicion that people inclined to accept Birtherism have of Obama, and the suspicion they have is basically racism. So Romney was deliberately invoking racist ideas in potential supporters in order to get fringe Americans who already hate Obama onto his side, while knowingly alienating the swing voters he's been desperately trying to get onto his side by trying to be as mainstream as possible without sacrificing the essentials the rightward base needs him to keep.

In furtherance of this narrative, there was a #FutureMittJokes Twitter hashtag game that trended pretty high that consisted of people inventing jokes where Romney took great delight in the privileges that come from being white, at the cost of others' having their rights violated or at least being mistreated. So Romney was projected to be likely to make jokes like the following:

"No one ever burnt a cross on *my* lawn."
"It's called the *White* House for a reason!"
"People never joke about me planting a watermelon patch on the White House lawn!"
"Nobody ever told me I couldn't attend that all White high school!"
"no one ever asked me if i was sure i was in the right place"
"No one ever told me to sit at the back of the bus. wht is a bus anyway"
"No one ever told ME I couldn't marry a White woman."
"I never get pulled over when driving one of Ann's Cadillacs"
"When the police pulls me over, they're only asking me for directions."
"No one ever burnt a cross on *my* lawn."

I'm not buying it. Romney was certainly making a jab about Obama. Anyone who denies that is being disingenuous. But what was the critique? I would have thought it had mostly to do with the repeated criticism of Obama on foreign relations. Obama bowed to foreign leaders. He accepted a Nobel Prize for not having done anything but replace Bush. He undermined national security by fighting dead battles about policies Bush abandoned in 2003. He leaked top secret information for electoral gain. He often favors our enemies over our allies. He criticizes us abroad. He is unwilling to acknowledge Muslim terrorists as terrorists or as Muslims. And so on. The list is quite long, and it's full of actual content that has nothing to do with race.

Those sorts of themes strike me as what feeds the idea that Obama doesn't have American interests at the center of his motivating structure. It's about how he behaves when dealing with other nations. I don't myself buy that entire picture. He's not always very wise in some of things he does, and it does endanger national security and embarrass the U.S. at times, but I think some of those criticisms are simply unfair. But there are those who are convinced that the U.S. president does not always have a significant concern for U.S. interests driving his foreign policy or his relations with other nations. That's completely undeniable. And there is plenty of content to the charge, particular things he's done or has been believed to have done, that does not have anything to do with his race or the fact that he was raised abroad for part of his childhood or that he was raised living as if a Muslim for some of that time. Any white dude with similar experiences and actions would arouse the same suspicion from the same people.

It's easy to see race driving this if you don't think there's any substance to those criticisms, but the fact is that a lot of people do believe there's substance to them, and it's not because Obama is black. It's because they see such behavior as unfitting of a U.S. president. They would have worried about Clinton doing any of it as much as they do Obama. It's not his race but his leftward orientation, his past as a community organizer, his privileged, elite education, and how he actually behaved when traveling abroad during his first presidential campaign that drove the suspicion that motivates people who see him as a sort of traitor to American values. And I think that, together with his Muslim influence from childhood, is what drives the Birther narrative, and it would do so even if he had been a white guy with a white, French father whose mother married a white American convert to Islam in the U.S. and then moved to Canada for a while to be enrolled in a Muslim school with extremist ties. The whole thing could just as easily have happened without the African or Indonesian elements, which means it's not race that's central. I'm sure there are some who are suspicious of him just because of his race, but I think it's been pretty clear that that's a thin sliver of those who disagree with him on policy matters. The fact that the conservative base, including the Tea Party people, could be happy with Herman Cain during the primaries seems to me to be about as close to proof as you get on such matters.

I imagine Romney agrees with a good deal of the foreign relations complaint I've outlined above, and it makes complete sense that he would make a joke at the expense of the Birthers, whom he has consistently criticized and distanced himself from. The idea is that Obama is the sort of person that crazy people can make crazy conspiracy theories about, because he fits the profile that feeds the narrative. This is because of his policies, language, and behavior toward other nations. That he was implicitly hinting at a racial narrative is not very likely. The way the story is told assumes that he was playing to the Birthers' own racism, when he was instead making fun of Birthers and invoking something that Obama's opponents take to be a serious, non-racial critique that the racial-accusers don't seem to recognize as even being part of it. The racial-narrative claim is possible if you don't think Romney could be referencing the actual content behind why people see Obama as anti-American. That a good deal of those arguments seem implausible to many on the left, I think, is what leads them to turn to other explanations. But it's poor reasoning to attribute an extreme, and psychologically unlikely, view to someone just because the more psychologically plausible view for them to be holding is one you disagree with.

Romney is not stupid enough to be doing what these critics are claiming he is doing. If he knew that people would interpret the joke the way the FutureMittJokes hashtag did, he would have considered it at the very least politically stupid (and I think he would recognize its moral offensiveness). So I'm sure he couldn't have even imagined that someone might reasonably take it to be about Obama's race. I would have a hard time imagining that if I hadn't seen people doing that and then claiming that any intelligent person must agree.

Furthermore, the joke wouldn't have had even a chance of humor if he expected people to be taking him seriously in criticizing Obama as not born in America. He has to have been making fun of Birthers for the attempt at humor even to have worked. Otherwise it would not have even been a joke. For it to be a joke, he has to be not recognizing the validity of the Birther charge and in fact making the joke at Birthers' expense.

Accusations of racism when it is not obviously present are the biggest reason so many conservatives think racism is a thing of the past, and they'll continue to fail to see the systemic and structural elements that have disparate racial effects if they're constantly made to be on the defense about issues where they are fully aware that the left is fabricating racist motives. Sometimes this is an understandable but unfortunate psychological response when there in fact is genuinely a racial element, and those who see it need to point it out, which is what some of these critics think they're doing here. But that very enterprise gets frustrated when it gets extended to situations where there's a highly plausible, even a more likely, explanation of someone's motives, as there clearly is in this case. Anyone who understands the implicit critique of Obama here is going to recognize that and will see the attempts to call it racist as shallow fabrications, which will prevent them from even recognizing racialized elements in the cases where they really are there. That's no way to further racial understanding, and that's why I think Newt Gingrich is right to see this kind of critique of Romney as frustrating racial progress, even if he's wrong in claiming that those who are making the criticism are therefore racist in doing so.

[Update 8/29: I saw a tweet today that well captures the attitude that Obama is anti-American in ways that don't rely on his race at all. It said, "Question for liberals: Why does Obama give money, guns, and oil to Mexicans but wants to take all away from Americans?"]

This morning I was listening to yesterday's segment of Tell Me More on NPR on whether same-sex marriage would legally require allowing multiple marriage. The correct answer, of course, depends on which arguments are used for same-sex marriage, because some of them do require allowing multiple marriage, and some of them don't. If you argue that people should be able to marry whoever they want, as long as it's consensual, then there seems to be nothing to rule out multiple partners at once. If you argue that it's a violation of gay people's rights to prevent them from marrying someone they have an orientation toward when straight people get to marry someone they have an orientation toward, that sort of argument doesn't easily translate to marrying more than one person at a time. You're trying to give equal rights to everyone, and the rights you give might restrict it to one partner per person.

Jonathan Rauch was one of the guests on that segment. His overall argument is that same-sex marriage doesn't threaten traditional marriage but adds to it, since it doesn't actually detract from anyone's traditional marriage. It doesn't subtract marriages but adds them, and we need more marriage, so same-sex marriage can only help. His argument isn't sensitive at all to the lines of thought involving natural purposes, as traditionally marriage has been thought of, so it doesn't touch some of the more common arguments against same-sex marriage. But his dismissal of that kind of argument isn't new. He's written much of the subject and standardly argues that way. Here's he's assuming there's no such argument without actually arguing against it, but I think he has spent time arguing against it elsewhere.

But here's an interesting argument that's new to me:

Remember, fundamentally what I tell people is when straights get the right to marry three people or their dog or a toaster, gay people should have that too. But until then, that's not what we're talking about. We just want to be able to marry someone instead of no one.

On one level, this argument is silly. There's no ban on gay people marrying anyone, and there's no ban on them marrying anyone that other people of their sex can marry. In that respect, they have the same rights as straight people of their sex in a location where there's no legally-recognized same-sex marriage. What they don't have is the rights that people of the opposite sex have, namely to marry someone of their sex. So you can't argue for same-sex marriage by saying that a gay man doesn't have the same right I have to marry a man. As a heterosexual man, I don't have that right either. A gay man has the same rights I do with respect to the class of people we can marry. (Well, technically, that's true only if he's married. If he's not, then he has a much larger group he can marry, since it's above zero. So, to be more careful, an unmarried gay man can marry anyone of the same class of people that an unmarried straight man can marry.)

But what Rauch really means is that a gay person can't marry anyone in the class of people they'd want to marry, while straight people can. He's arguing for that right for gay people too. Given that he wouldn't want to marry a woman, giving him that right doesn't help him with the actual goals he might have for himself in marriage, which would be to be married to a man.

This argument, interestingly, would not help with interracial-marriage bans. Rauch's resistance to multiple marriages from a same-sex marriage perspective is that only allowing some options is enough. It's not violating his rights if you prevent him from marrying dogs, toasters, and so on, as long as you're doing that with straight people too. By the same reasoning, though, it's not violating his rights to prevent him from marrying black people, as long as you're doing that with straight people too. He's allowed for the compatibility of same-sex marriage with opposing multiple marriage on one level, but you have to look at all the moral positions and arguments he endorses to see if his view really allows for it. You have to bring in other moral premises to see why interracial-marriage bans are wrong, for example, because his argument doesn't get you that far. The question is whether other arguments he'd agree with can supply the necessary resources to argue against interracial-marriage bans. But then there's also the possibility that moral arguments he gives for same-sex marriage would also provide resources to argue against banning multiple marriages.

So his argument here doesn't show that he can resist multiple marriage consistently. It shows that someone could support same-sex marriage and reject multiple marriage. Whether he could depends entirely on the arguments he uses for same-sex marriage, some of which do require recognizing multiple marriage and some of which don't. I do think quite a lot of them do, and many of those are presented by people who want to avoid legal recognition of multiple marriage. This issue will eventually reach the courts, and it's one that those who deal in the business of moral and legal arguments should think about more carefully.

I want to announce that I've signed a book contract with Lexington Books, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, to publish a revised and expanded version of my dissertation. My current plan is to send them the manuscript by the end of April, followed by a review process and then revisions to be due by the end of June or early July, which they say will allow them to have it in print by December. The title (for now, although it might change) is A Realist Metaphysics of Race: A Context-Sensitive, Short-Term Retentionist, Long-Term Revisionist Account.

General Overview: There are three main metaphysical positions on race. Anti-realists deny that there are races. Natural-kind positions find sub-groups of homo sapiens with scientific importance and call them races. Social-kind views consider races to exist because of contingent social practices. I argue for a view closest to the third camp, with a few wrinkles. Three distinctives of my approach are:

(a) I self-consciously argue as an analytic metaphysician, taking this to be a work of applied metaphysics in the same sense that looking at questions regarding abortion, just war theory, or the ethics of lying count as applied ethics, and its relation to theoretical metaphysics (what is most commonly called metaphysics among analytic philosophers) is analogous to how applied ethics relates to ethical theory (e.g. utilitarian, deontological, virtue, natural law, or other theoretical approaches, which was what ethics was largely restricted to until the applied ethics revolution of the late 20th century). Part of my aim is to remove the bias against seeing this sort of subject as part of what metaphysicians should be doing.

(b) I argue that race is highly context-sensitive, in more ways than most race theorists mean when they speak of themselves as holding views they call contextualist.

(c) My overall conclusion by the end is that we should not abandon race-talk, race-theorizing, or race-classification, at least not in the short-term. We need to be able to speak of such social realities to address real racial problems. However, we ought to find ways to challenge some of the social forces that work to make racial groups racialized and to form the social realities that surround race, some of which are not the way we should want them to be.

Here is the chapter breakdown:

1. Natural Kinds and the Analogy of Species:

There's a debate in the philosophy of biology about whether species are natural kinds. This chapter looks closely at that debate to argue that it is meaningful to speak of natural kinds, although species are not natural kinds in the strong sense that Aristotle might have taken them to be.

2. Natural Kinds and Race

I look at three conceptions of race as what I call minimalist natural kinds, two from philosophers and one from biologists. Al three views have potential to pick out groups useful for categorizing people according to scientific purposes but all three have problems if we want to identify the groups they point to as the same groups that we ordinarily call races.

3. Classic Anti-Realism

I argue in this chapter against certain of the traditional anti-realist arguments (especially Naomi Zack and Kwame Anthony Appiah), especially emphasizing ordinary use (as opposed to the language of experts) and changes is race-language.

4. Glasgow's Revisionism

Joshua Glasgow develops an anti-realism that takes the groups we call races to exist as social constructions, but he doesn't think those groups should be called races. I resist his arguments and argue that some of his evidence actually support a social kind view like the one I end up adopting.

5. Social-Construction and Biological Constructionism

The contingency of the racial categories, the fact that arbitrary socially-determined facts determine the structure of racial classification, and the instability of racial categories are all good evidence that races are social constructions. I conclude that races are social kinds that take their basis in biologically-identified traits, but the selection of which biological traits we use to identify races are biologically-arbitrary.

6. Races and the Metaphysics of Objects and Groups

My view is that races exist as socially-constructed entities but that they might just as well have existed without being races. Social facts don't bring races into existence but rather make existing groups into races. This chapter looks to contemporary metaphysics to see arguments that nihilists and coincident-entity theorists might make against my view. I argue against those conceptions, but even if those views were correct, much of what I say would still follow.

7. Context-Sensitive Features of Racial Assignment

This chapter argues for context-sensitivity in racial constructions, with fluidity from one context to another even for the same person. Different factors might be relevant in different settings to change which racial labels might apply.This context-sensitivity is much more diverse in terms of ways of being context-sensitive than I find in most of the philosophy of race literature. The particular ways this works will support my eventual revisionism in the next chapter.

8. The Ethics of the Metaphysics of Race

Here I argue that we should use existing racial categories to identify problems within the social constructions of race, rather than seeking to eliminate the categories in any direct way, but we should also make efforts to change the conditions that generate those problematic elements, so we can retain only the unproblematic aspects, and some elements of racial identity-formation can be good.

9. Implicit Bias and the Argument for Elimination

Recent work in psychology and cognitive science shows that our patterns of forming race-judgments rely on a more general pattern in child development that leads to implicit racial bias of an invisible but harmful sort, even among people who are explicitly anti-racist in their reflective views. I argue that there is evidence in the psychology and cognitive science literature that shows that we need to retain our racial categories to address existing implicit bias, but there is also evidence that we should rethink how we speak of racial issues with small children, to reduce the perpetuation of implicit bias in further generations, and this result fits well with (and gives further details to flesh out) the conclusion of the previous chapter.

People With Blackness

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I've discovered the need to adopt a new way of speaking about people who are recently-descended from Africans. We've learned in the last couple decades that we ought to emphasize someone's personhood above any other characteristic, and thus it's thoroughly immoral to use any adjective in front of 'person'. We need to use predicate nouns instead. We no longer have sad people, for example. We simply have people with sadness. We no longer have short people. We have people with shortness. We don't want to define people with sadness as if their sadness is more important than their personhood, so we have a moral obligation to put the noun form after the word 'person'. Grammar does always indicate metaphysics, after all.

One sphere of language in which this lesson has never been properly applied is in the area of race. Why are we still talking about black people, for instance? Do we really want to define people solely in terms of their race? Do we really want to signal that their blackness is so central to who they are that we're going to pretend that people with blackness aren't people? If we call them black people, then we are treating their blackness as if it's a greater part of our conception of people with blackness than their personhood is. People with person-firstness have instructed us that we should never put disability-related adjectives in front of a noun or pronoun referring to a person, because we don't want them identified with that condition. But we've also learned from the same people that having a disability is not negative, which means this policy is not because disabilities are bad. Therefore, we ought to apply it to other cases when something is not bad but might wrongly be taken by someone to be bad, just as we would apply it to things that are genuinely bad. If race is not to be a negative, then I am not a white person. I'm a person with whiteness. It does make it a little awkward to speak of people with Asianness or people with Australian-first-people-ness (i.e. what used to be called aboriginalness). But it's worth the awkwardness of expression to avoid any chance of identifying them with the racial or ethnic group whose membership they possess.

Even worse, it's especially pernicious to say that someone is black (or African-American or whatever racial term we might choose). After all, using predicate adjectives amounts to making identity statements rather than merely ascribing a property to someone the way we would have thought that adjectives in English, even predicate adjectives, do. It's much more preferable to say that someone has blackness than to say that she is black. People aren't anything except persons. I'm not philosophical. I have philosophicalness. Glenn Beck is not unfair to his political adversaries. He has unfairness to the people who have political adversariness with him. President Obama is not bad at speaking without a teleprompter. He has badness at speaking without a teleprompter. I shouldn't say that I am Christian. I'm a person who has Christianity. I shouldn't be identified with my faith. I should claim, rather, to possess the entirety of Christianity, as if it belongs to me. We need to avoid identifying people with any property ascribed to them other than personhood. It's much better to say that they possess the entirety of the thing that formerly we would have used to describe them.

For more explanation, please see here (except you can ignore the sections explaining how people with blindness and people with deafness have offendedness at the obviously-correct way to refer to them, and you certainly shouldn't read person-with-autism Jim Sinclair's reasons for disliking person-first language).

The Philosophical Gourmet Report, which ranks philosophy programs and gives specific listings of which departments are strongest in which areas of philosophy, will be adding the category of philosophy of race in its upcoming revision, which will take place this fall. Brian Leiter, who organizes the Gourmet Report, posted a quote from philosopher Tommy Curry about this long-overdue change:

Black philosophy continues to be lured toward the approval of whites as if their standards and acceptance can/do accurately describe the merit of our work. We have seen this in the work of whites like Sullivan and Bernansconi [sic], and now have it yet again regarding Leiter. They take Black conversations, market them as "legitimate" and benefit from them by controlling the academic "rigor" of the discourse.

Shannon Sullivan writes about race as it has affected her as a white woman and reflects on the nature of whiteness as she's come to understand it through dialoguing with non-whites and through applying philosophical skills she's learned by practicing philosophy. The idea that this must be seen as an attempt to control blacks is ludicrous. Bernasconi's work, from what I've seen, also seems motivated by wanting to understand a legitimate philosophical topic of inquiry rather than any sense of whipping those black philosophers into conformity.

Philosophers working in the area of race have complained to Brian Leiter that he's ignored an important area of philosophy where much good work has been done, and so he's finally (years later than I would have liked) added it to his surveys of which departments are seen by those in the loop of philosophy of race to be good programs for that area of study. Surely many of the people who will be commenting on this will be non-white, even if there are some people working in the area who are white.

I'm not exactly Brian Leiter's biggest fan. We've each criticized the other both publicly and privately. But I can't fathom the claim that he's motivated by wanting to exert power over black philosophers in particular. Even if you thought he was using the Philosophy Gourmet Report to control the discipline or to promote himself (rather than the more charitable interpretation that he does it to help students find the programs best suited to them, which I think is his actual motivation), his goals wouldn't be to have white people controlling black people. They would be to have an in-group of philosophers controlling which departments get seen as the best. It is true that his advisory board, whose rankings determine the report's rankings, is a pretty white group, but philosophers as a whole are a pretty white group. At worst, you might accuse him of not being concerned enough to include non-white philosophers in his advisory board.

Now there's a claim in the general vicinity of what Curry is saying that I think is not so removed from reality, although I think it's also wrong if applied to undermine the work of whites on race issues or to claim that it's illegitimate for white philosophers to evaluate the work of black philosophers. That claim is that black philosophers can have conversations about issues affecting them that white people won't understand as well. This is true. There's a kind of epistemic privilege that comes from having experienced certain things, and being black in America does bring with it some experiences that white people don't understand as well. So some conversations among black philosophers will be harder for white philosophers to step into and participate in the same way or to evaluate as good or bad philosophy. Sure.

However, there are also experiences white people have in America that involved race that also bring something to the table that black philosophers have less ccess to. I'm not claiming this is symmetrical in terms of an equal number of experiences or similar kinds of experiences, but I am pointing out that any social location can involve experiences that only people in that social location can understand. Some of the experiences whites have blind them to certain racial issues, but some of the experiences blacks have can make them less sensitive to certain race issues as well. There are experiences that someone who is white who is heavily interwoven with black Americans will have that most blacks and whites will not have. (See here for much more argumentation in this direction.)

Despite all this, it simply isn't impossible for white philosophers to do good work contributing to discussions of race, and just about all non-white philosophers have recognized this. It simply isn't impossible for white philosophers to look at these discussions and form reasoned opinions about whose arguments are better than whose. It simply isn't impossible for white philosophers to get a sense from these discussions whose work is having the most influence and therefore whose work is seen by the participants in these discussions as the best work.

So the idea that a white or nearly-white advisory board can't evaluate the work of non-white philosophers or the work of philosophers on issues that have come out of black discussions is not, because of the facts about epistemic privilege, a complete non-starter. There may be additional difficulties in it than what you already have in evaluating the work of philosophy of religion when most of the reviewers pay no attention to that subject (as is certainly the case with the Gourmet Report advisory board in general). But they have ways of dealing with this. A good advisory board member who doesn't know philosophy of religion will presumably ask people they know who do it which philosophers or which departments are strongest in that area. So in the end I don't think even the more reasonable claim in the area of Curry's criticism can justify his resistance to this or to the work of white philosophers on issues related to race.

At least twice in the last few weeks I've come across someone claiming that the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the one-drop rule in 1986. I was surprised, because shortly before the first time I saw this claim I'd come across someone else saying that the 1967 case Loving v. Virginia, which is best known for overturning Virginia's ban on interracial marriage, also declared the one-drop rule unconstitutional. So I eventually started looking into both claims. It turns out that the first is false, and the second is true. That is, the Supreme Court did overturn one-drop-rule style racial classification laws in 1967, and they did not affirm a one-drop-rule law in 1986.

What Chief Justice Earl Warren's opinion in Loving actually says in the main text is that racial classifications need to be subjected to the most rigid scrutiny, especially if they form the basis of some impact in a criminal proceeding. But this isn't a new judgment. It's a quotation of a previous decision. And it's not clear what the most rigid scruntiny is supposed to be or how it would apply to one-drop rule laws, and he never applies it to such laws. But he points out that the basis of the racial classifications used in the Virginia law were instituted specifically to preserve the conception of white purity advocated by the invidious discrimination of 1924 Virginia that was of a piece with the kind of segregation at odds with the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and that can't stand up to the most rigid scrutiny.

It's not quite clear, however, until you get to footnote 11, which says that the racial-classification system of Virgina is "repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment" (and therefore presumably unconstitutional, although he never explicitly says they're overturning that law too). Since this is the reasoning for the overturning of the interracial-marriage ban, and not some aside on a topic not necessary for guiding the current case, I think it does count as overturning one-drop rule laws, at least any justified on the basis of white supremacy or purity (as I'm sure all actual one-drop rule laws were). But I now understand how it can do that in a way that I didn't really notice before. The real work is done in a footnote.

But the first claim is simply false. What happened in 1985 was a case involving a Louisiana woman who had thought of herself as white all her life who then discovered that her birth certificate listed her parents as colored. Louisiana law, until 1983, had a 1/32 one-drop rule, which counted someone as colored for having one black ancestor out of 32 great-great-great grandparents. Her parents were classified as colored by that law. She herself actually didn't count as black by that law, since it was her great-great-great-great grandmother who was black. But her birth certificate listed her as colored because her parents were listed as colored on theirs. So it wasn't the one-drop rule law that led her to be classified as black on her birth certificate. It was the cultural practice among doctors and midwives of transferring the racial-classification of the parents to the child when both parents had the same classification. Her parents had never objected to their classifications, and corrections to birth certificates apparently had to come from the person whose birth certificate it is issuing a complaint and request for correction.

So the state court concluded that there was no legal justification for forcing the birth certificate office to issue corrected birth certificates. They then said that the repealed 1/32 one-drop rule law was not relevant, because midwives and doctors aren't subject to the prohibition on government employees' violation of the 14th Amendment, since they're not government employees. Finally, they said the one-drop rule laws involved with this did, by their judgment, violate the Constitution, but they were bound by Louisiana Supreme Court precedent on that question. None of their analysis depended on any stance on the one-drop rule law, which was no longer on the books at this time anyway and thus could not be overturned by a court in any direct way. The case apparently got appealed to the Supreme Court in 1986, and they opted not to hear it, but it seems crazy to me to take that as a sign that they would affirm a one-drop-rule law.

Swamp Rock

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An example I'm using in my dissertation is a modification of Donald Davidson's Swampman example, which is a standard enough example in philosophy to have its own Wikipedia entry.

The Wikipedia description of the Swampman example is as follows:

Suppose Davidson goes hiking in the swamp and is struck and killed by a lightning bolt. At the same time, nearby in the swamp another lightning bolt spontaneously rearranges a bunch of molecules such that, entirely by coincidence, they take on exactly the same form that Davidson's body had at the moment of his untimely death. This being, whom Davidson terms 'Swampman', has, of course, a brain which is structurally identical to that which Davidson had, and will thus, presumably, behave exactly as Davidson would have. He will walk out of the swamp, return to Davidson's office at Berkeley, and write the same essays he would have written; he will interact like an amicable person with all of Davidson's friends and family, and so forth.
My modification targets the view that being a member of a certain race requires having an ancestor of that race. Besides having an infinite regress problem (since races have to come into existence at some point), that view is at odds with what I think our intuitions would be with a Swampman-like case. Suppose an exact duplicate of Chris Rock were to appear out of nowhere, with no causal history and certainly no ancestry, never mind black ancestry. I think most people, even knowing this origin of the Chris Rock duplicate, would take the duplicate to be as black as Chris Rock. I've discussed this case with a lot of people, and almost everyone takes that to be the implication.

If that's right, then there can't be an ancestry requirement for race-membership, since the duplicate is black, and he's got no ancestors.

Incidently, my dissertation supervisor, in a parenthetical remark in the middle of an objection to this example, indicated that she thought my name for this example -- Swamp Rock -- was slightly offensive. I haven't had a chance to ask her about that, and I might not. I'm happy enough to change the name of the example or just not give it one. But I'm a little curious what led her to find it slightly offensive, unless it's something she sees offensive in the original name Davidson used. Is it that the name is all right until it gets applied to a black person, and then it's slightly offensive? If it had been someone named Dave Rock, who was white, and I was using it to show that the duplicate is white despite having no ancestors, would it be equally (i.e. still slightly) offensive?

The Other Race Effect

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I came across this article about a recent study done exploring the difficulty of recognizing differences among people of other racial groups. According to the author, Kate Shaw, this new study helps explain why it is that we have an easier time distinguishing people's faces when the people are from our own racial group. But from what she goes on to say about it, it does nothing of the sort.

What this study shows, if the research is accurate, is (1) the effect occurs and (2) there's a biological mechanism involved. They've identified, from having subjects look at faces, a tendency to have a harder time distinguishing differences among faces that belong to people who are members of a different race from the person doing the looking. They've also identified an electrical effect in the brain that, according to this article, is triggered by the sight of a human face. The effect decreases in subsequent viewings of the same face, and this is called repetition suppression. The repetition suppression effect occurred with faces of the same race but not with faces of another race.

But is this an explanation? Hardly. All it does is show that there is a neurological explanation. It shows that this effect occurs with same-race faces but not with other-race faces. It doesn't explain why that's true. It doesn't explain why the repetition suppression effect occurs with same-race faces but not with other-race faces. So it doesn't really explain why this biological response occurs, and therefore it doesn't explain, as this article was claiming, why we have an easier time distinguishing faces of people in our own race than with people of other races. For that we'd need an explanation of why this particular neurological effect, with certain repeated faces, decreases or why, with other faces, it doesn't. This study, at least from what I see in this article, hasn't even attempted to explain that, and that's the interesting question.

Tolkien and Mixed Race

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In a paragraph in my dissertation, I explain a (supposedly) pre-theoretical approach to mixed race that made sense to me when I was a kid. It seemed to me that a helpful way to explain what I would have thought (and what many Americans seem to me to think) is sort of parallel to the way Tolkien speaks of half-elves in his fictional world. In the process, I realized how Tolkien speaks of this is much more complicated than I'd though, and I couldn't in good conscience leave it the way I had initially stated it, so it led to a long clarificatory footnote that I thought a number of the readers of this blog might appreciate for its geekiness.

Here is the sentence in the text of my dissertation that led to this:

I confess that this is how I thought of these matters in my unreflective, supposedly-pretheoretical analysis of things in high school. I would have taken a Barack Obama to be half-black in the same way that I took Elrond in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings to be half-elf, his daughter Arwen to be three-quarters elf, and her children with Aragorn to be three-eighths elf.

I realized there was a complicating factor, though. Aragorn had an elvish ancestor as well, and I wanted to check to see how far back it was. In the process, I was reminded that Elrond himself wasn't the product of a full elf and a full human, and it led to a much longer and much geekier footnote than I ever expected to be putting into my dissertation, but it's hard to be fair to Tolkien without acknowledging this, and it turns out to illustrate a different phenomenon in how racial classification works in some places outside the U.S. Here is the footnote as it stands now:

Tolkien buffs may quibble here, and they would be right to, for two reasons. (1) Aragorn was the sixteenth in the line of Elros, Elrond's brother, and thus he himself has elvish ancestry, even if minuscule (I believe one over two the thirty-second power). (2) Elrond and Elros themselves weren't exactly half-elves to begin with. Their father was actually half-elf, and their mother was one-fourth human, one-eighth Maia (a kind of lesser angelic-like divinity), and five-eighths elf. That would make Elrond and Elros nine-sixteenths elf, three-eighths human, and one-sixteenth Maia. Arwen's son twenty-five sixty-fourths elf, by these measurements, not the three-eighths that would result if Elrond were literally half elf. But we get the language of half-elves for a number of Tolkien characters with mixed ancestry, regardless of actual percentages. What this suggests is that the culture of Tolkien's world seems to treat someone as half-elf for having any level of mixed ancestry, eschewing a one-drop rule in either direction but insisting on little expression of nuance or gradation among those labeled half-elves. This would presumably operate something like the label 'brown' in some Latin American and Caribbean countries, applying to anyone of mixed heritage regardless of the particular number of ancestors of each race.

This doesn't (at this point) make it into my dissertation, but compare Rowling's terminology in the Harry Potter books. There are two systems of classification, the one that is dominant until Voldemort's rise to power (and presumably again afterward) and the one operating during his reign of terror. In the method of classification that we learn throughout most of the series, someone with a magical parent and a Muggle parent is a half-blood. Harry's mother, Severus Snape, and Voldemort himself are half-bloods. Someone with no magical parentage but who has magic is called a Muggle-born. But in the generation after a half-blood, if the other parent is magical, there is no discussion of being a half-blood. Harry himself is never called a half-blood by anyone in the mainstream of wizarding society. There's no one-drop rule in either direction, but there's a sufficient-drop rule apparently, because once you get to three-fourths magical parentage you're no longer consider partial, and even if you have no magical parentage you're treated as magical in one sense. It's what you can do and not your parentage that makes the difference in terms of the law.

But then there's Voldemort's regime. Muggle-borns are Mudbloods by the pureblood mindset even before Voldemort's return to power, but once he takes control of things they simply become Muggles. They're assumed to have stolen their wands, because they're not magical. Half-bloods (other than Voldemort and Snape) are sometimes called Mudbloods, and Harry (who had a full magical parent and a Muggle-born magical parent) is considered a half-blood, because his mother was a Muggle.

There's something more like the one-drop rule operating here, although not quite. But neither of these systems of classification works out quite like Tolkien's. And keep in mind that elves in Tolkien don't think of humans as corrupting or impure. A half-elf can choose to be mortal or to be an elf in ways that don't involve just legal status. It affects whether they become mortal. Arwen, with much more elf ancestry than human, still could chose to become mortal. There's nothing parallel to that in Rowling's classifications. Perhaps if we had enough evidence for how half-orcs were classified (there are only a couple suggestions in Tolkien that there are such things but no clear cases where it's more than just simple one-human, one-orc parentage). If he treated three-fourths orcs as half-orcs in a case where the human is mixed with something seen as corrupting, we'd have a good test case for whether his principle would expand to other cases of mixing. But I know of nothing in his fictional world that gets any more complex than simple one-one mixing except when it comes to elves (and the one Maia in the line of Elrond).

Puzzling Reference to Sophists

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This is from Kwame Anthony Appiah's In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, p.11:

...there are arguments in the works of the pre-Socratic Sophists to the effect that it is individual character and not skin color that determines a person's worth.

He has an endnote that deals entirely with the first half of this sentence, which was about Homer. He gives no source for this claim, and there's no other mention of anything remotely helpful in the context.

This is a little surprising to me, because the only Sophists I know of who we have any record of what they thought about ethics were Protagoras in his relativism and Antiphon in his egoistic nihilism. I wouldn't expect either to put forward such a view as a genuine moral truth, and the others we have any indication about (Gorgias, Thrasymachus, Callicles) seem to have been with Antiphon at least in terms of the basic view.

So does anyone know of any information that Appiah must be aware of that I'm not?

There's long been a narrative among haters of Justice Clarence Thomas that he's not very intelligent and just goes along with whatever Justice Antonin Scalia does. The reverse is actually closer to the truth (but not all that close). It was Thomas' outside-the-box thinking that got Scalia to rethink a lot of the assumptions in his legal philosophy, and he was far more willing to take less moderate positions because of Thomas than he had been before Thomas was on the Court.

I've sometimes wondered if it's some kind of residual racism that's driving this narrative, with the stereotype of lower intelligence driving people to assume that Thomas is likely the less intelligent of the two, and since they so often vote together....

But no one ever suspected such a thing of Justice Thurgood Marshall, even though he so often voted with Justice William Brennan, the leader of the liberal wing of the Court for decades. So it's not just plain assumptions about black Supreme Court justices not being able to be as smart as white ones. More likely it's an assumption that no black justice who thought carefully and honestly would come up with the positions Thomas holds. Since I know people who explicitly hold such a view (when the reality is that no careful, intellectually honest, and fully-informed person could hold that view), this is highly plausible to me.

What's ironic, besides the fact that Thomas influenced Scalia more than the other way around and that Thomas is widely-viewed by Court-watchers across the political spectrum as one of the most original thinkers on the Supreme Court in decades, is that it turns out Marshall and Brennan may have in fact had the relationship that so many have accused Thomas and Scalia of having. According to a new biography of Justice Brennan by authors generally favorable to him, Brennan didn't think all that highly of Marshall as a justice. It's not that he was unimpressed at his intelligence. Anything but. He was so thoroughly impressed at his work as the chief counsel of the NAACP that he had high expectations of Marshall as a justice, and he simply failed to live up to them, except on a few issues, largely because (on Brennan's account) Marshall just didn't maintain the interest in the issues to think independently and carefully about them, pretty much just going along with whatever Brennan said in the way that many have claimed Thomas does with Scalia.

It was a complete surprise to me to read about this, because Marshall has long been heralded as a champion for liberal causes on the Supreme Court in ways that none have gone since he and Brennan left the Court. Most of the liberals on the current Supreme Court are noticeably closer to the mainstream on several issues, including capital punishment, affirmative action, and the intersection of first-amendment religion and speech rights. The idea that he chose not to think on his own and just went along with Brennan most of the time doesn't fit with the usual narrative.

Shelby Steele is often derided as a black opponent of affirmative action. One particular criticism of him is that he takes views that further white privilege by denying its significance for affirmative action. If affirmative action can be justified in part because of the white privilege that continues even when outright attitudinal racism is absent or enough removed to be less noticeable, then those who resist it because it discriminates against white people are ignoring racial realities. I've seen people make such a criticism of Steele. It occurred to me while reading him again on this for the ethics class I'm teaching this summer that the criticism is entirely inapt.

Steele's view does not ignore white privilege. In fact, he doesn't accept the argument that affirmative action is bad because of its effect on whites. There are black conservatives whose criticism of affirmative action is merely the claim that it's reverse racism. Steele himself counters such a claim. He doesn't think that's sufficient grounds for opposing affirmative action. While his most famous treatment of this (and the only thing I've read by him on the subject, or on any subject for that matter) does not go into much detail on why he sees such arguments as wrongheaded, I think it's got to be that he simply acknowledges the existence of white privilege.

His moral argument against affirmative action ignores (rightly, in my view) how affirmative action affects white people, something it can do only if the negative effect on white people simply counters some of the white privilege that he insists does exist. Before he can offer his moderated view against affirmative action that takes its start only from negative effects on the underrepresented groups affirmative action is supposed to help, he first needs to resist the argument against affirmative action based on its supposed unfairness to white people. His main point is that affirmative action has negative effects on the very people it's supposed to help. As time goes on and the negative effects of racism and white privilege that affirmative action is supposed to counter are getting somewhat less, the negative effects start to increase. At some point (and he thinks we've passed that point), affirmative action becomes no longer worth it.

So it's hardly true that Shelby Steele has isolated himself from his fellow blacks to the point where he simply no longer sees white privilege. It's part of his argument for his moderated critique of affirmative action, based on its effects on those it's intended to help rather than its reverse racism, that white privilege still operates and that the initial justification for affirmative action is still present. He just thinks the negatives for its beneficiaries are stronger than the positives. There may be other legitimate criticisms of Steele, but I don't think it's fair to him to claim that he's ignoring white privilege and thereby furthering it. He's fully taking it into account. It's part of his reason for not making the reverse racism charge, and it's what makes his argument a weighing of positives vs. negatives rather than an in-principle resistance based on absolute moral claims.

Here's another one from Jonathan Glasgow that I'll just quote his own description of:

We are all simultaneously struck by an agent that causes us forget our systems of racial classification. Any time we start to racially classify ourselves, our cognitive apparatuses short-circuit. One hour later, cognition reverts to its pre-amnesiac state, and racial classification resumes.

(Again, as with several of these, if you think races don't exist, you'll say they continue not to exist through this. But this question is for those who think they do exist.)

Do races stop existing for that period of time and then come back into existence, or does something keep them in existence during the interim period? If so, what generates their existence?

Note: Some of these thought experiments are my own, and a number of them appear throughout the philosophical literature on race. Charles Mills was a source for some of them, I think. Sveral of them have come from Jonathan Glasgow, and a few are unique to him, so I should at least give some credit here for that. I've never seen this one in particular anywhere else. Given that I'm giving him credit in this post, I'll just quote his own description of the case:

Everyone above the age of ten months is being killed by a virus that itself will expire as soon as it kills the last person who is more than ten months old. In a furious effort as they await their doom, the remaining scientists devote themselves to finding a way to finding a device that can keep the infants alive until they are old enough to survive on their own. [Jonathan Glasgow, A Theory of Race, p.121]
Do races cease to exist upon such a disaster?

A friend of mine just brought this story to my attention. There are lots of interesting questions to ask about how the census keeps track of race, and this article brings out several of them.

There's no bi-racial or multi-racial category. There used to be no option at all for those who didn't identify as just one race. You had to pick one or leave it blank. In 2000 they added the option to check more than one box. You still can't say that you're bi-racial or multi-racial, though, meaning that you don't consider yourself fully any of the races you check. You have to be fully each of them or not at all.

Given that, we might expect what this article brings out. Some children of a black parent and a white parent end up checking just "black". Others end up checking both "black" and "white". I'm sure some just leave it blank. What interests me is the percentages who think the second option is legitimate. According to the numbers given in the article, 53% of white people say President Obama is mixed race, and only 24% say he's black. But the numbers go in the opposite direction from black respondents. 55% say he's black, and 34% say he's mixed.

One reason more black people say he's black and not mixed is that they see how others identify you as definitive of what race you are. Hence the quote from the woman who said that if you put a hoodie on Obama and had him walk down a dark street you'd get everyone saying he's black. It's been my experience that the one-drop rule, which classified someone as black just for having one relatively recent black ancestor, is far more strongly operative among black Americans than it is among white Americans, especially of my generation and younger. Sam once told me that she thinks this is because a lot of black Americans have more invested in the one-drop rule. If that's true, there's a real irony there, because the one-drop rule was developed in order to serve the interests of white segregationists.

I think part of what's going on here is that a lot of black Americans (and mixed-race Americans who, by their looks, will be classified as black) experience a reality of being treated a certain way, and this applies more because of how they look than because of what racial group their parents belong to. That leads them to conclude that the one-drop rule is still operating as strongly as it ever did. One very interesting item in this article is the guy who claims to be both black and white. He did check both boxes, and it's because he really does think of himself as fully both. Check out the responses in the comments on the BET reprinting of this article to see how strong the resistance among a lot of black people will be to such a claim.

Then a lot of white Americans do something very different. They want racial problems to be over. They want to be post-racial. So they're happy to mess with traditional ways of classifying people, especially if they see those as immoral. Those who are young enough and in certain parts of the country have been in more racially-enlightened spheres of influence where they've been taught to see race as less important, and thus care a lot less what race someone is, and that's led many of them not to have ever heard of the one-drop rule or seen anyone assuming such a thing. Their natural inclination is to see mixed-race people as mixed. They'd call Obama half-black, perhaps.

This includes me, and by "me" I mean my unreflective intuitions on these matters based purely on how I was raised and the environment I grew up in, i.e. how people around me classified people according to race. I grew up thinking the child of a black parent and a white parent would be half-black and half-white, just as Elrond in The Lord of the Rings is half-elf and half-human, his daughter Arwen is 3/4 elf and 1/4 human, and her son with Aragorn is 3/8 elf and 5/8 human. (That's actually ignoring Aragorn's way-back elvish ancestry through Elrond's half-elf brother, but that's so far back that it's negligible in comparison, and, for the record, shouldn't really count as incest either.)

I'd never heard of the one-drop rule or even seen any signs of anyone assuming it until I was in graduate school, and I was taught that this was the law in the South during segregation and is still how everyone thinks about race. (It's always interesting to be told how you think about race when it's obvious to you that the way of thinking is completely new to you.)

I've long known that I have heterodox views on race. People on both the left and the right have strongly disagreed with almost every substantive view I've ever taken on race. But here I'm not just talking about my own views. If the statistics given in the article are reliable at predicting what the views of Americans in general think (and you can see the Pew source here, which seems to me to say they are), then a majority of white people in this country and a strong enough minority of black people think that President Obama is not black but mixed race. That means the one-drop rule is at best not completely operative. This is with someone whose skin is dark enough that a lot of people still do just call him black, including himself. What would people say about a child of a black and a white parent whose skin is much lighter? I'd expect the numbers to be even more strongly in favor of "mixed" rather than "black".

But then the very same survey turned up only 1% of respondents choosing more than one race for themselves, while 16% of them indicated that they're of mixed race. Does that mean they're applying the one-drop rule to themselves but not to Obama? That would be weird. But all this really shows is that there seems to be a much higher chance of getting someone to self-identify as mixed than there is to get them to identify as a member of two different races.

Perhaps that's because, as I suggested at the beginning of this post, they tend to think checking off both boxes mean they're fully both, and they don't think of themselves as fully both but only part each. Perhaps it's not because they're inconsistently applying the one-drop rule to themselves but not to others. Perhaps it's just a function of the unavailability of a mixed category. But either way, I think it's pretty obvious that contextual factors, even slight differences in wording, can have a huge impact on how we think about racial classification. Most academics who discuss racial classification seem to me to underestimate how strong such effects are.

As to the question in the post title, the answer is "yes".

Suppose we finally reach a point where we don't treat races differently in any sense that matters. There's no more even unconscious discrimination. The structural barriers that in most contexts favor whites more than other races and some non-whites over other non-whites are gone, even those instances when no one intends to do harm. There are no more people who have negative attitudes toward people because of race. (So far this is all the same as #9.) Suppose further we have abandoned the use of racial terms, not just terms like 'race' but even terms like 'black', 'white', 'Asian', and so on.

If you don't think races exist now, you'll obviously not think they exist in such a circumstance. But if you think races exist now, will they still exist under such circumstances?

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