About this topic
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
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  1. Are Our Racial Concepts Necessarily Essentialist Due to Our Cognitive Nature?Eric Bayruns Garcia - 2019 - APA Newsletter on Hispanic/Latino Issues in Philosophy 1 (19):19-24.
    Mallon and Kelly claim that hybrid constructionism predicts, at least, that (1) racial representations are stable over time and (2) that racial representations should vary more in mixed-race cultures than in cultures where there is less racial mixing. I argue that hybrid constructionism’s predictions do not obtain and thus hybrid constructionism requires further evidence. I argue that the historical record is inconsistent with hybrid constructionism, and I suggest that humans may not be innately disposed to categorize people by race even (...)
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  2. W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Conservation of Races”: A Metaphilosophical Text.Kimberly Ann Harris - 2019 - Metaphilosophy 50 (5):670-687.
    Nothing was more important for W. E. B. Du Bois than to promote the upward mobility of African Americans. This essay revisits his “The Conversation of Races” to demonstrate its general philosophical importance. Ultimately, Du Bois’s three motivations for giving the address reveal his view of the nature of philosophical inquiry: to critique earlier phenotypic conceptions of race, to show the essentiality of history, and to promote a reflexive practice. Commentators have been unduly invested in the hermeneutic readings and as (...)
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  3. Religion & Repugnance: Empiricism, Political Theology, Projective Disgust.Virgil W. Brower - 2019 - In Lars Aagaard Mogensen & Jane Forsey (eds.), On Taste: Aesthetic Exchanges. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: pp. 53-68.
    "[O]ther contributors argue that taste has a clear epistemic function. Brower cites Agamben as claiming that taste is a priveleged locus for knowledge...A phenomenology of taste, then, is no mere trivial or personal matter, but one with wide-ranging consequences. And some of these conseqences are ethical...[D]oes the debasement of taste indeed breed xenophobic oppression, as Brower is sure that it does? [sic:)] These are contentious claims. Surely a person of exemplary aesthetics and gustatory taste can still be a moral monster...aesthetic (...)
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  4. Kalpana Rahita Seshadri: HumAnimal: Race, Law, Language: University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2012, 309 Pp, 1 B&W Photo, Price: $25 , ISBN: 9780816677894.Chris Lloyd - 2016 - Feminist Legal Studies 24 (1):107-110.
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  5. “Race”, “Sex”, and “Gender”: Intersections, Naturalistic Fallacies, and the Age of Reason.Carina Pape - 2015 - In Martin L. Davies (ed.), Thinking about the Enlightenment. London, Vereinigtes Königreich: pp. 153-170.
    The terms “race” and “sex / gender” have a specific relation to the Age of Enlightenment. Both were relevant for the new discourses of anthropology or the ‘nature of men’. Both have ‘naturalistic’ and social aspects that intersect, as the double-termed idea of “sex / gender” shows explicitly. The idea of “race” is no less complex. Both terms were topics of theoretical anthropology, but were nevertheless charged with pragmatic implications which lead to naturalistic fallacies: the equation of physical features and (...)
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  6. William H. Race: The Classical Priamel From Homer to Boethius. Pp. Xii+172. Leiden: Brill, 1982. Paper, Fl. 48.Nicholas Horsfall - 1983 - The Classical Review 33 (1):136-137.
  7. Kant, Race, and Natural History.Stella Sandford - 2018 - Philosophy and Social Criticism 44 (9):950-977.
    This article presents a new argument concerning the relation between Kant’s theory of race and aspects of the critical philosophy. It argues that Kant’s treatment of the problem of the systematic unity of nature and knowledge in the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of the Power of Judgment can be traced back a methodological problem in the natural history of the period – that of the possibility of a natural system of nature. Kant’s transformation of the methodological problem (...)
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  8. Race, Multiplicity, and Impure Coalitions of Resistance.Lee A. Mcbride Iii - manuscript
    Lucius Outlaw and Shannon Sullivan have argued for the preservation of racial distinctiveness and the necessity of racial separatism. This paper articulates and challenges this push for racial separatism and the particular conception of race evoked therein. The author points out that the multiplicity, the multiculturalism, the intersectionality within these communities of resistance is typically belittled, fragmented, or erased. Recognizing the practical use of racial coalitions, the author articulates an alternative conception of coalitional agency, one that allows for multiplicitous identities, (...)
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  9. How Race Travels. Relating Local and Global Ontologies of Race. Philosophical Studies.David Ludwig - 2018 - Philosophical Studies:1-22.
    his article develops a framework for addressing racial ontologies in transnational perspective. In contrast to simple contextualist accounts, it is argued that a globally engaged metaphysics of race needs to address transnational continuities of racial ontologies. In contrast to unificationist accounts that aim for one globally unified ontology, it is argued that questions about the nature and reality of race do not always have the same answers across national contexts. In order address racial ontologies in global perspective, the article develops (...)
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  10. Strategic Conceptual Engineering for Epistemic and Social Aims.Ingo Brigandt & Esther Rosario - 2020 - In Alexis Burgess, Herman Cappelen & David Plunkett (eds.), Conceptual Engineering and Conceptual Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 100-124.
    Examining previous discussions on how to construe the concepts of gender and race, we advocate what we call strategic conceptual engineering. This is the employment of a (possibly novel) concept for specific epistemic or social aims, concomitant with the openness to use a different concept (e.g., of race) for other purposes. We illustrate this approach by sketching three distinct concepts of gender and arguing that all of them are needed, as they answer to different social aims. The first concept serves (...)
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  11. L'Avenir de la Race Blanche. [REVIEW]J. Novicow - 1898 - Ancient Philosophy (Misc) 8:291.
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  12. The Race for Consciousness.Nigel Thomas - 2001 - Mind 110 (440):1127-1130.
    This ambitious work apparently has two main aims. The first is to provide a survey of the currently burgeoning field of "Consciousness Studies", presented via the extended metaphor of a horse race whose winning post is a full scientific explanation of consciousness. The second, which receives much more space, is to present Taylor's own cognitive/neuroscientific theory, dubbed "relational consciousness", and to persuade us that it should be the odds-on favourite to win. Neither aim is very well realized.
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  13. Barzan, Jacques. Race. [REVIEW]A. Goldenweiser - 1939 - Journal of Social Philosophy and Jurisprudence 5:362.
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  14. From Racialized Philosophy to Philosophy of Race: Lucius T. Outlaw’s On Race and Philosophy. [REVIEW]Anthony Monteiro - 1998 - Radical Philosophy Review 1 (2):157-174.
  15. Race-Ing Justice: Randall Kennedy’s Race, Crime, and the Law. [REVIEW]Greg Moses - 1998 - Radical Philosophy Review 1 (2):150-156.
    This review of Randall Kennedy's book--Race, Crime, and the Law--argues that Kennedy provides useful evidence to indict the prevalence of racism at the turn of the 21st Century but that Kennedy's definition of racism, which relies on explicit discriminatory intent, is too narrow to account for the value of statistical approaches that he presents. A logic of disparate impact is necessary to diagnose and remedy the systematic oppressions of racism. The reviewer also considers a structural relationship between liberal and radical (...)
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  16. In Defense of the Actual Metaphysics of Race.Quayshawn Spencer - unknown
    In a recent paper, David Ludwig argues that “the new metaphysics of race” is “based on a confusion of metaphysical and normative classificatory issues.” Ludwig defends his thesis by arguing that the new metaphysics of race is non-substantive according to three notions of non-substantive metaphysics from contemporary metametaphysics. However, I show that Ludwig’s argument is an irrelevant critique of actual metaphysics of race. One interesting result is that actual metaphysics of race is more akin to the metaphysics done in philosophy (...)
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  17. Ancient Races of Baluchistan, Panjab, and Sind.George F. Dales & S. S. Sarkar - 1968 - Journal of the American Oriental Society 88 (3):647.
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  18. Race Prejudice. Jean Finot.Erle Fiske Young - 1925 - International Journal of Ethics 35 (2):192-193.
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  19. Race Questions and Prejudices.Josiah Royce - 1906 - International Journal of Ethics 16 (3):265-288.
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  20. Our Relations With the "Lower Races".Henry Rutgers Marshall - 1901 - International Journal of Ethics 11 (4):409-423.
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  21. L'Evolution Juridique Dans Les Diverses Races Humaines.T. Gavanescul - 1892 - International Journal of Ethics 2 (3):399-401.
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  22. Race in 21st Century America by Curtis Stokes, Theresa Melendéz, and Genice Rhodes-Reed, Eds.Jemima Pierre - 2002 - Philosophia Africana 5 (2):71-77.
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  23. The Human Race.V. C. A. & Emil Froeschels - 1948 - Journal of Philosophy 45 (24):668.
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  24. Xv*—How to Decide If Races Exist.Kwame Anthony Appiah - 2006 - Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 106 (3):363-380.
    Through most of the twentieth century, life scientists grew increasingly sceptical of the biological significance of folk classifications of people by race. New work on the human genome has raised the possibility of a resurgence of scientific interest in human races. This paper aims to show that the racial sceptics are right, while also granting that biological information associated with racial categories may be useful.
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  25. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins. London: Allen Lane, 2009. Pp. Xxi+485. ISBN 978-1-846-14035-8. £25.00. [REVIEW]Gordon Mcouat - 2010 - British Journal for the History of Science 43 (1):119-121.
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  26. Jenny Reardon, Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005. Pp. 256. ISBN 0-691-11857-4. £11.95. [REVIEW]Lisa Gannett - 2007 - British Journal for the History of Science 40 (3):462.
  27. Reaction Time with Reference to Race.R. Meade Bache - 1895 - Psychological Review 2 (5):475-486.
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  28. Appiah on Race and Identity in the Illusions of Race: A Rejoinder.David A. Oyedola - 2015 - Filosofia Theoretica: Journal of African Philosophy, Culture and Religions 4 (2):20-45.
    Whether Appiah’s concession in [The Illusions of Race, 1992] that there are no races can stand vis-a-vis Masolo’s submission in “African Philosophy and the Postcolonial: some Misleadingions about Identity” that identity is impossible, it is worthy to note that much of what is entailed in human societies tend toward the exaltation and protection of self-interest. Self-interest, as it is related to particular or individual entities, to a great extent, presupposes the ontology of different races and identities. Paul Taylor in “Appiah’s (...)
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  29. Dickens and Race.Oliver S. Buckton - 2016 - The European Legacy 21 (5-6):594-596.
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  30. Motherhood and the Invention of Race.Steven Martinot - 2007 - Hypatia 22 (2):79-97.
    This article attempts to do two things: reveal a continuity of structure in white supremacy in the U.S. between its initial invention in the seventeenth-century English colonies and the present, and advance a specific analysis of a moment in the process of that invention that involved the domination and redefinition of women. That moment was provided by the matrilineal servitude statute passed in Virginia in 1662. To highlight the meaning of this statute, the article begins with a portrait of a (...)
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  31. Race and Language in the Darwinian Tradition.Gregory Radick - 2008 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 39 (3):359-370.
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  32. Race Questions and Prejudices.Josiah Royce - 1905 - Ethics 16 (3):265.
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  33. The Treatment of Subject Races.Mary A. M. Marks - 1900 - Ethics 10 (4):417.
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  34. An Aristotelian Glance at Race and the Mind.lan Hacking - 1997 - Ethos: Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology 25 (1):107-112.
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  35. A Theory of Race.Joshua Glasgow - 2008 - Routledge.
    Social commentators have long asked whether racial categories should be conserved or eliminated from our practices, discourse, institutions, and perhaps even private thoughts. In _A Theory of Race_, Joshua Glasgow argues that this set of choices unnecessarily presents us with too few options. Using both traditional philosophical tools and recent psychological research to investigate folk understandings of race, Glasgow argues that, as ordinarily conceived, race is an illusion. However, our pressing need to speak to and make sense of social life (...)
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  36. The History of the Race Idea : From Ray to Carus.Klaus Vondung & Ruth Hein (eds.) - 1998 - University of Missouri.
    In _The History of the Race Idea: From Ray to Carus,_ Eric Voegelin places the rise of the race idea in the context of the development of modern philosophy. The history of the race idea, according to Voegelin, begins with the postChristian orientation toward a natural system of living forms. In the late seventeenth century, philosophy set about a new task--to oppose the devaluation of man's physical nature. By the middle of the eighteenth century the effort of philosophy was to (...)
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  37. Race and State.Klaus Vondung & Ruth Hein (eds.) - 1997 - University of Missouri.
    _Race and State_ is the second of five books that Eric Voegehn wrote before his emigration to the United States from Austria in 1938. First published in Germany in 1933, the year Hitler came to power, the study was prompted in part by the rise of national socialism during the preceding year. Yet Voegelin neither descended to the level of contemporary debates on race nor dismissed these debates by way of value judgments. Although still young when he wrote this book, (...)
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  38. Making in America: Cognition, Culture, and the Child's Construction of Human Kinds.Lawrence A. Hirschfeld - 1998 - Bradford.
    _Race in the Making _provides a new understanding of how people conceptualize social categories and shows why this knowledge is so readily recruited to create and maintain systems of unequal power. Hirschfeld argues that knowledge of race is not derived from observations of physical difference nor does it develop in the same way as knowledge of other social categories. Instead, his central claim is that racial thinking is the product of a special-purpose cognitive competence for understanding and representing human kinds. (...)
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  39. On Race and Philosophy.Lucius Outlaw - 1996 - Routledge.
    ____On Race and Philosophy__ is a collection of essays written and published across the last twenty years, which focus on matters of race, philosophy, and social and political life in the West, in particular in the US. These important writings trace the author's continuing efforts not only to confront racism, especially within philosophy, but, more importantly, to work out viable conceptions of raciality and ethnicity that are empirically sound while avoiding chauvinism and invidious ethnocentrism. The hope is that such conceptions (...)
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  40. Race, Genomics, and Philosophy of Science.Jonathan Michael Kaplan, Ludovica Lorusso & Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther - 2014 - Critical Philosophy of Race 2 (2):160.
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  41. How to Throw the Race to the Bottom.Erin Kenneally - 2015 - Acm Sigcas Computers and Society 45 (1):4-10.
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  42. Invention of Race.Tommy L. Lott - 1999 - Wiley-Blackwell.
    One of the most startlingly original and provocatively radical scholars currently engaged in the study of culture and the concept of race.
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  43. Race: A Philosophical Introduction.Paul C. Taylor - 2003 - Polity.
    Paul C. Taylor provides an accessible guide to a well-travelled but still-mysterious area of the contemporary social landscape. The result is the first philosophical introduction to the field of race theory and to a non-biological and situational notion of race. Provides the first philosophical introduction to the field of race theory. Outlines the main features and implications of race-thinking; asks questions such as: What is race-thinking? Don’t we know better than to talk about race now? Are there any races? What (...)
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  44. The Tragic Legality of Racial Violence: Reconstruction, Race and Emergency.Daniel Kato - 2015 - Constellations 22 (2):199-217.
  45. Race and Practice in Archaeological Interpretation.Charles E. Orser - 2004
  46. Are We a Declining Race? An Old Sailor's Verdict.Walter Hunt - 1904
  47. 'Straight Tips' for the Race of Life.George Whit White - 1886
  48. Race Against Man.Herbert J. Seligmann & Ira De A. Reid - 1940 - Science and Society 4 (2):242-243.
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  49. Race Riot.Alfred Mcclung Lee & Norman Daymond Humphrey - 1944 - Science and Society 8 (2):179-181.
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  50. This Is Race. An Anthology Selected From the International Literature on the Races of Man.Earl W. Count, Carleton S. Coon, Stanley M. Garn, Joseph B. Birdsell, George Gaylord Simpson & Ashley Montagu - 1951 - Science and Society 15 (1):68-74.
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