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
Related categories

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Material to categorize
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    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 (...)
  7. Dickens and Race.Oliver S. Buckton - 2016 - The European Legacy 21 (5-6):594-596.
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    This chapter presents an essay by W. E. B. Du Bois that deals with the issue of race. He raises questions such as: What is the real meaning of race. What has, in the past, been the law of race development? What lessons has the past history of race development to teach the rising Negro people? He describes the American Negro Academy, which aims at once to be the epitome and expression of the intellect of the black-blooded people of America, (...)
  15. Review Essay:“Keeping It Real”. Race, Theory, and the Return to Identity Politics.Ishiwata Eric - 2007 - Political Theory 35 (5).
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  18. Subjectivity and Race in Heideggers's Work.Emmanuel Faye - 2012 - Rivista di Filosofia 103 (1):69-90.
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    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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  29. Race in Hobbes.Barbara Hall - 2005 - In Andrew Valls (ed.), Race and Racism in Modern Philosophy. Cornell University Press.
  30. Environment and Race. [REVIEW]L. Harrison - 1927 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 5 (4):311.
  31. Race and Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed.Stephen Nathan Haymes - 2002 - Radical Philosophy Review 5 (1/2):165-175.
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    _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. (...)
  33. Making in America: Cognition, Culture, and the Child's Construction of Human Kinds.Lawrence A. Hirschfeld - 1996 - 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. (...)
  34. William H. Race: The Classical Priamel From Homer to Boethius. (Mnemosyne Suppl. 74.) Pp. Xii+172. Leiden: Brill, 1982. Paper. [REVIEW]Nicholas Horsfall - 1983 - The Classical Review 33 (01):136-137.
  35. Are We a Declining Race? An Old Sailor's Verdict.Walter Hunt - 1904
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  37. In Ways Unacademical": The Reception of Carleton S. Coon's "The Origin of Races. [REVIEW]John P. Jackson Jr - 2001 - Journal of the History of Biology 34 (2):247 - 285.
    This paper examines the controversy surrounding anthropologist Carleton S. Coon's 1962 book, "The Origin of Races." Coon maintained that the human sspecies was divided into five races before it had evolved into Homo sapiens and that the races evolved into sapiens at different times. Coon's thesis was used by segregationists in the United States as proof that African Americans were "junior" to white Americans and hence unfit for full participation in American society. The paper examines the interactions among Coon, segregationist (...)
  38. Race.Michael James - 2008 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  39. The Cultural Theory of Race: Yet Another Look at Du Bois’s “The Conservation of Races”.Chike Jeffers - 2013 - Ethics 123 (3):403-426.
  40. PHIL 250-01, Philosophy of Race, Fall 2007.Leigh M. Johnson - unknown
    This syllabus was submitted to the Rhodes College Office of Academic Affairs by the course instructor.
  41. Race, Genomics, and Philosophy of Science.Jonathan Michael Kaplan, Ludovica Lorusso & Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther - 2014 - Critical Philosophy of Race 2 (2):160-223.
  42. The Tragic Legality of Racial Violence: Reconstruction, Race and Emergency.Daniel Kato - 2015 - Constellations 22 (2):199-217.
  43. How to Throw the Race to the Bottom.Erin Kenneally - 2015 - Acm Sigcas Computers and Society 45 (1):4-10.
  44. Do Infants Show Social Preferences for People Differing in Race?Katherine D. Kinzler & Elizabeth S. Spelke - 2011 - Cognition 119 (1):1-9.
  45. Does 'Race' Have a Future?Philip Kitcher - 2007 - Philosophy and Public Affairs 35 (4):293–317.
  46. Why Race?Krishan Kumar - 1998 - Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 1 (1):121-128.
    Ivan Hannaford, Race: The History of an Idea in the West. Washington, DC: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1996, pp. 448. 0?8018?5223?4. Richard Jenkins, Rethinking Ethnicity: Arguments and Explorations. London: Sage Publications, 1997, pp. 194. 0?8039?7677?1. Kenan Malik, The Meaning of Race: Race, History and Culture in Western Society. London: Macmillan, 1996, pp. 323. 0?333?62857?8.
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  48. After the Glow: Race Ambivalence and Other Educational Prognoses.Zeus Leonardo - 2011 - Educational Philosophy and Theory 43 (6):675-698.
    The Right has a long history of questioning the importance of race analysis. Recently, the conceptual and political status of race has come under increased scrutiny from the Left. Bracketing the language of ‘race’ has meant that the discourse of skin groups remains at the level of abstraction and does not speak to real groups as such. As a descriptor, race essentializes identity as if skin color were a reliable way to perceive one's self and group as well as others, (...)
  49. The Race Concept: A Defense.Michael Levin - 2002 - Behavior and Philosophy 30:21 - 42.
    It is argued against critics that the concept of race is well-formed. The issue is formulated in terms of the classic sense/reference distinction and shown that "race" has a sense specified in terms of geographic ancestry, and thereby a reference. Excessive constraints on "race," for instance that races must by definition have signature genes, are rejected. Empirical validation is considered, although the emphasis here is to place empirical validation in a philosophical context, not answer the empirical questions themselves. At several (...)
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