|Summary||Conceptions of Race: General Problems
If our recent history has taught us anything, race seems to be extremely important in determining issues such as the likelihood of being incarcerated, getting a quality education, access to healthcare, and adequate housing, just to name a few. So what race we are taken to be seems to be an incredibly important determinant in our life prospects. And if race helps determine our life prospects wouldn’t it have to exist?
Second, we seem to be quite good at categorizing people into different races. Now there are some individuals that are hard for most people to racially categorize. For instance, the Public Broadcasting System has a webpage that provides a very difficult Racial Sorting Task http://www.pbs.org/race/002_SortingPeople/002_00-home.htm which is worth taking for anyone who thinks that it is always clear what race someone belongs to. That being said, for the majority of people, we seem to agree with others in our community as to what race someone is. And if that’s the case, wouldn’t races have to exist?
It is particularly hard to even figure out how to start answering this question. To show why we can look at three closely related challenges to developing an account of race. Let’s call the first challenge “the Domain Problem”, the second “the Expertise and Deference Problem” and the third “the Mismatch Problem” or as it is more commonly known, “the Mismatch Argument”.
The Domain Problem is best captured by the question, “If there are races, what kind of thing are they?” For instance, we might think that races are natural categories and that for someone to be a member of a race is for them to have a set of natural properties some of which are shared with other members of the same race. Natural properties are properties that exist in the world independently of the way we categorize it. So for instance, having the property of being a hat is not a natural property, whereas having the property of being made of wool is. Let’s say that if this is the right way to think of races, then the right domain from which to study races would be the natural domain. This was a common approach to race in the 19th and 20th centuries and natural historians such as Johann Blumenbach, Thomas Huxley, and Friedrich Ratzel saw investigations of race as falling within this natural domain. Today, some philosophers view race as being explainable in terms of a subset of natural properties we refer to as biological properties.
But around the end of the 20th century we started to see the development of arguments which suggested that race is not a natural phenomenon, but a socio-historical one. What follows from this is that the important racial properties associated with race are not natural but socio-historical. For instance, in W.E.B. Du Bois’ groundbreaking 1897 speech “The Conservation of Races” he tells us that while races, “transcend scientific definition” they “nevertheless are clearly defined to the eye of the Historian and the Sociologist”.
That might be a bit hard to understand so let me give you an example. In the U.S., we have quite a few doctors. When they are working, they are normally easily identifiable. They often wear white coats with stethoscopes around their necks, they work in hospitals and universities, and often talk in ways that suggest a high level of medical expertise. And in order to be a practicing doctor in the US, you have to graduate from an accredited medical school, complete a residency program, and obtain a license to practice in a particular state or jurisdiction. But the fact that doctors have the properties of having medical degrees and licenses depend on the existence of institutions which can be explained historically and socially. And while doctors, and virtually all other people share in natural properties like having a brain, the properties that make a person a doctor are social properties. Because of this, doctors can be thought of as socio-historical constructs.
Now there is a big difference between being considered to be of a particular race and being considered to be a doctor; but, the idea is that racial properties are largely determined by our history and social institutions. Since W.E.B. Du Bois’ speech, the idea that race falls within the domain of sociology and history has been increasing in popularity and I think I can safely say is the dominant view among academics (or at the very least sociologists and historians).
Another possibility is that racial properties are not just natural properties, or socio-historical properties, but a combination of these two. If this is the case, then to get a grasp on what races are may involve research in both the natural and the socio-historical domain.
So what we can gather from this discussion is that figuring out what races are seems really difficult because there is still substantial debate about what is the proper domain of investigation.
A related problem is “the Expertise and Deference Problem”. The idea is roughly this: language seems to work in such a way that there are lots of specialty terms that we can meaningfully use without being in possession of much information. For instance, I might say that my friend Julio has tuberculosis without being able to tell you what tuberculosis is. I know that it is not good to have tuberculosis, and that it is a medical condition; but, this doesn’t distinguish tuberculosis from lots of other conditions that are medical and also bad. So if I can’t distinguish tuberculosis from other bad medical conditions, in virtue of what do I get to say I am speaking meaningfully about tuberculosis, and not, let’s say, cancer? To answer this question, the theory of semantic deference claims that I can speak meaningfully about tuberculosis because there are experts in my community (namely research doctors) that do know what tuberculosis is and how to tell it apart from other bad medical conditions. To put the point more generally, I can meaningfully talk about things in the world even though I don’t know much about the things I’m talking about because I can defer to experts for fixing the meaning of the terms. As the philosopher Hilary Putnam once said, we should think of language less like a singular tool and more like the running of a complex steamship in which many of us have different and cooperative roles to play.
So now that we have an understanding of the role of semantic deference and expertise in the role of fixing the meaning of medical terms, we can ask, “Do racial terms work in the same way as medical terms like ‘tuberculosis’?” It does seem hard for many of us to say much meaningfully about race, so maybe we can just defer to race experts in the way I deferred to research doctors in the tuberculosis example. This seems like a good solution, so what’s the problem? Well, there are several problems. For starters, experts normally occupy a domain, and as we’ve already seen, it’s not clear in which domain we should locate our experts. For instance, would we consult a biologist, a historian, a sociologist, or a philosopher? Additionally, there is little agreement even within these domains as to how to characterize races. For instance, take the naturalist’s domain: are races the kind of things in which all members share some sort of underlying essential properties? Should races be primarily defined in terms of ancestral relations or geographic locations? Or perhaps races can be picked out by referring to groups that have a higher frequency of non-coding DNA in common. Even though we are working within a singular domain, there is still massive disagreement on what races are within that domain. In short, it’s not clear there is a unified group of experts to defer to even if we can solve the Domain Problem. So we don’t seem to have a solution to the Expertise and Deference Problem.
Finally, there is the Mismatch Problem, or as it has been coined by philosopher Ron Mallon, the Mismatch Argument. Here’s the problem: race is an area that we need to investigate and that normally involves some people specializing in race issues. And during such investigations, specialists sometimes come up with highly specialized definitions of what race is and what racial terms pick out in the world. For instance, if the specialists (or experts) tell us that races are biologically isolated populations of individuals then it might turn out that some of the things we thought were races actually aren’t races while other things we thought weren’t races actually are. For instance, as the philosopher Anthony Appiah suggests, the Amish might meet this definition of race even though we don’t tend to think of Amish as a race. The worry here is that what experts tell us racial terms pick out ends up deviating substantially from what we normally think racial terms pick out. And if this happens, then our expert accounts of what race is may not match up with our ordinary account of race and all the important explanatory work such ordinary accounts of race play in our everyday lives.
The Domain Problem, the Expertise and Deference Problem, and the Mismatch Problem are three problems that any account of race will need to deal with.-David Miguel Gray
|Introductions||Mills 1998 Appiah 1994|
Material to categorize
Race as a Biological Kind
Using PhilPapers from home?
Create an account to enable off-campus access through your institution's proxy server.
Monitor this page
Be alerted of all new items appearing on this page. Choose how you want to monitor it:
David Bourget (Western Ontario)
David Chalmers (ANU, NYU)
Rafael De Clercq
Ezio Di Nucci
Jack Alan Reynolds
Learn more about PhilPapers