Race: April 2004 Archives

What Is Race?

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Some have argued recently that there's no such thing as race. Anthony Appiah's In My Father's House and Color Conscious are probably the two most notable discussions. Scientists often take this view without realizing all the philosophical leaps in reasoning they've made to get to the view (see, for example, this article, registration required). Others think it's merely a social category (most philosophers who write on the topic, usually on the same basis as the scientists above but with more sensitivity to issues about human language and social catgegorizations. There are also two possible positions according to which it's a genuine biological category, one of which I think is easily refuted by the data. The other seems to me to be a legitimate view that hasn't been discussed by philosophers or scientists to my knowledge (though I think economist Thomas Sowell may have suggested such a view -- I'm not quite sure yet). Below are the arguments for developing and sorting out these various views.

Before you read this it might be helpful to look at my first two posts in this (sort of) series. First is a set of cases to test your intuitions on racial classification, with the followup giving the data from my students' answers to those same questions.

Electric Venom noticed a recent story about three heterosexual couples who got kicked out of a hotel for being straight. She raises some worthwhile questions. First of all, this was in fact illegal in a town that has laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It makes me wonder what kinds of parallels can be drawn between this and affirmative action, which quite obviously discriminates on the basis of race, which we amended our Constitution to make illegal. (As my forthcoming post on affirmative action will explain, I don't think it's immoral to discriminate on the basis of race when you have a good reason to do so, and affirmative action in some cases might be a good reason, but it is in fact unconstitutional, as three Supreme Court justices realize).

She mentions that some will simply take delight in seeing this as the shoe now being on the other foot for these straight couples. I can testify that this kind of thinking is extremely common among groups who perceive themselves to be oppressed or discriminated against (whether correctly or incorrectly -- what matters for this psychological phenomenon is that they perceive themselves to be a certain way). It shows a weird sort of delight in a second wrong like the one done to oneself. Isn't that suprising? After all, doesn't the person who really knows what it's like to be oppressed or discriminated against know enough to know that they wouldn't wish it on anyone? That suggests to me that people who make such claims don't know real discrimination or oppression, not the kind that really did take place against black people in this country only half a century ago. This at least raises questions about how much of the complaining about kinds of discrimination today is mere victimology and not a serious charge of victimhood. (This isn't to say that there isn't real victimhood. It's just that people crying out about victimhood who would be prone to take delight in the situation being reversed probably aren't real victims.)

The previous post lists the questions that are prerequisites for this post. Don't read further if you don't want the exercise spoiled. The first post contains a number of cases and asks questions about the race of the person involved in each case. The idea is to draw out what people's first thoughts on classifying people racially who might not easily fit the most obvious ways we classify people. Once you've gone through the cases without looking at what others have said, you can see how my students answered these questions.

I'll repeat each question and then list how the student responses went before moving on to the next question.

I did some conceptual analysis of racial classification with my students this semester, and I've finally compiled the results. In this post I'll list the questions and in the next post go through how my students answered them. If you'd like to do this yourself to see what you would have answered, don't read that post until you're done. The cases come from Charles Mills, "But Who Are You Really?: The Metaphysics of Race" in Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race.

Case 1: Someone with some black ancestry and a white appearance decides to live in two worlds, so to speak. When in public, he never draws attention to race, and people assume he�s white. No one knows of his ancestry. When he�s with his family and their friends, he acts as part of the black culture and considers himself black. Is he black, as he claims? Is he white? Is he both? Is he something else instead?

Case 2: Someone with some black ancestry and a white appearance decides to live in two worlds, so to speak. He considers himself white, and people believe him. No one knows of his ancestry. Is he white, as he claims? Is he black? Is he both? Is he something else instead?

Case 3: Someone with some black ancestry and a white appearance was adopted by a white family at a very young age. He considers himself white. No one, even him and his family, have knowledge of his ancestry. Is he white, as he claims? Is he black? Is he both? Is he something else instead?

Case 4: Mr. Oreo has black ancestry and appearance and knows of it but considers himself white, has adopted white culture, and has experiences more in line with the average white person, though he also has experienced some racism because of his appearance. He considers himself white. Is he white, as he claims? Is he black? Is he both? Is he something else instead?

Dodd's apology

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Chris Dodd has offered an apology for his Lottist remarks in honor of former KKK Senator Robert Byrd. He said he wasn't thinking about his KKK past or about his vote against the civil rights act, just as Lott has said that he wasn't thinking about Thurmond's segregationist policies and was thinking more about Thurmond's foreign policy and fiscal conservatism. I argued that the cases are parallel, and Dodd's apology continues the parellel. My hypocrisy charge, given Dodd's previous criticism of Lott, stands.

I've said this before somewhere or other that I'm not going try to find (maybe not even on my own blog). Hypocrisy charges are a prima facie matter. Repentance can demonstrate that it's not hypocrisy but a matter of slipping below one's own standards temporarily. We all do that. In this case, Dodd admits by his own words that what he did was very similar to what he had previously criticized Trent Lott very strongly for doing. That's not repentance, and by his own earlier standards he should repent. His apology had the sound of being sorry for those who misinterpreted what he said, not apologizing for the wrongness of what he said. That's fine if there isn't anything wrong with what he said, and he realizes that there isn't anything wrong with what he said. However, he's already gone on record saying that there's something dreadfully wrong with politicians saying this sort of thing.

Hat tip to Instapundit.

Update: In an effort to put off my large pile of grading to get done by early next week as long as possible, I decided to search anyway to see if I'd said anything about the hypocrisy thing on my own blog. I did say something briefly about it when discussing Senator Clinton's Apu flap, which she apologized for (and I'm not sure her case is that much different from Lott and Dodd's in general). I don't think I said it as clearly there as I thought I'd said it somewhere, so it must have been in a comment on someone else's blog, perhaps someone criticizing someone of hypocrisy who did in fact repent. I think I even remember whose blog and what post, and unfortunately the comments there all got zeroed out from switching to built-in comments on a new location.

Silence on Dodd

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La Shawn has more about the silence from Democrats since Chris Dodd's Trent Lottism. It really is deafening. You can't hear anything.

My previous post on the topic has made it into this week's Carnival of the Bush Bloggers. I haven't read the other entries, so I won't recommend them. I just had to mention it, since The Christian Carnival isn't exactly a highly selective venture (they want to increase its size), whereas this one rejects posts to keep it small.

Black Heritage

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Sam's posted some thoughts on black heritage, black culture, knowing one's ancestry, and honoring those survived and thrived in the New World, mostly stuff deemphasized by black culture in the U.S. today.

Air America's racism?

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According to John Rabe (the link he gives is dead, so I don't have access to his source), the adoption of Air America (the new liberal reaction to the long-time success of conservative talk radio) at WLIB in New York City, until now a traditionally black radio station (about which see comments by Baldilocks here and here) has led to the firing of a number of black employees, one of whom said the following:

"How is this going to impact the Black community? As far as I've heard, they've got a couple of Whites who just really want to go after Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and all the others. You can't convince me that that's going to be something good for Black and Hispanic people."

John R has a number of other observations in the same post, some of them worth noticing.

Update: I found more on this from Bryon York at NRO. It's more widespread than just New York (via little green footballs).

Chris Dodd earned my respect in opposing the petty Democratic revenge plot to prevent John Ashcroft from being confirmed as Attorney General. He saw through the misleading statements and baseless criticisms of a man who is eminently qualified for the job he now holds. For many it was their way to express their outrage at Bush's victory after a bitter recount battle. For others it was simply hatred of anyone who could possibly hold the most reasonable consistent pro-life view that being caused to come into existence by a crime doesn't rob one of one's (relative) innocence. Either way, the two Democrats who retained their spines were Chris Dodd and Russ Feingold.

So it's with a note of sadness that I have to label him a hypocrite. He's pulled a Trent Lott, this time with Robert Byrd's racist past (involving the KKK many years ago and the n-word on CNN not too long ago) replacing Strom Thurmond's segregationist policies during the mid-20th century. The statements of both Lott and Dodd revealed something, but it wasn't any outright racist attitude on the part of either senator. What it showed is that the concerns of many black people are not on the mind of either senator enough to prevent them from saying such things. John McWhorter cogently argued this with Senator Lott's case, and I think it's true of Dodd as well.

Now if only black voters would start seeing that Democratic lip service to civil rights values is too often no more than lip service. Dodd's case shows at least that the myth of Democratic caring and Republican indifference can often be mistaken. The fact that Democrats are more inclined to continue destructive policies (such as resisting the recent welfare reform requiring more responsibility) along with resisting the truly progressive ideas Republicans are offering (regardless of the fact that they may not be the best versions of those ideas around -- at least they're offering them, which I can't say about most Democrats) shows that the indifference will be found among more than just this one senator showing his indifference in a moment of devotion to an honored party member.

In Dodd's case, his comments about Lott are now coming back to haunt him (see the links above for more on this). At least Lott didn't have that to deal with. This smacks of a much stronger hypocrisy than simply spouting off civil rights phrases but not doing anything about any real problems. Now he's made the exact mistake he had criticized Senator Lott for making. His call for Lott's resignation brings his own condemnation down on himself.

Or is this just something about their names? If so, I guess it's a good thing we don't have any senators named Fogg, Hopp, or Momm. (Check out Instapundit for more on this.)

More classic Parableman. From 4 July, 2003, my discussion of the affirmative actions cases last summer, just before the first time I ever covered this issue in an ethics class. I've changed my views a bit since then (which I hope to get to shortly), but I haven't altered anything here except to put links in for the biblical references and to add a title. For those who don't get the double entendre, it refers to both the underrepresented minorities of affirmative action policies and (more importantly) the small minority of Supreme Court justices (two out of nine) whose position became law through these cases.

On 23 June, 2003 the United States Supreme Court decided two cases on affirmative action. Two lawsuits against the University of Michigan, one involving the law school admissions and the other for undergraduate admissions. Here are the fundamental issues.



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