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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. V. C. A. & Emil Froeschels (1948). The Human Race. Journal of Philosophy 45 (24):668.
  2. Kwame Anthony Appiah (2006). Xv*—How to Decide If Races Exist. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 106 (3):363-380.
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  3. R. Meade Bache (1895). Reaction Time with Reference to Race. Psychological Review 2 (5):475-486.
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  4. Oliver S. Buckton (2016). Dickens and Race. The European Legacy 21 (5-6):594-596.
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  5. George F. Dales & S. S. Sarkar (1968). Ancient Races of Baluchistan, Panjab, and Sind. Journal of the American Oriental Society 88 (3):647.
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  6. W. E. B. DuBois, The Conservation of Races.
    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, (...)
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  7. Sara Eigen & Mark Larrimore (eds.) (2007). The German Invention of Race. State University of New York Press.
    _Illuminates the emergence of race as a central concept in philosophy and the social sciences._.
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  8. Arnold Farr (2002). Can a Philosophy of Race Afford to Abandon the Kantian Categorical Imperative? Journal of Social Philosophy 33 (1):17–32.
  9. T. Gavanescul (1892). L'Evolution Juridique Dans Les Diverses Races Humaines. International Journal of Ethics 2 (3):399-401.
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  10. Joshua Glasgow (2008). A Theory of Race. 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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  11. lan Hacking (1997). An Aristotelian Glance at Race and the Mind. Ethos 25 (1):107-112.
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  12. Stephen Nathan Haymes (2002). Race and Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Radical Philosophy Review 5 (1/2):165-175.
  13. Lawrence A. Hirschfeld (1998). Making in America: Cognition, Culture, and the Child's Construction of Human Kinds. 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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  14. Michael James (2008). Race. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  15. Jonathan Michael Kaplan, Ludovica Lorusso & Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther (2014). Race, Genomics, and Philosophy of Science. Critical Philosophy of Race 2 (2):160-223.
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  16. Erin Kenneally (2015). How to Throw the Race to the Bottom. Acm Sigcas Computers and Society 45 (1):4-10.
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  17. Philip Kitcher (2007). Does 'Race' Have a Future? Philosophy and Public Affairs 35 (4):293–317.
  18. Chris Lloyd (forthcoming). Kalpana Rahita Seshadri: HumAnimal: Race, Law, Language. Feminist Legal Studies.
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  19. Tommy L. Lott (1999). Invention of Race. 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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  20. Mary A. M. Marks (1900). The Treatment of Subject Races. Ethics 10 (4):417.
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  21. Henry Rutgers Marshall (1901). Our Relations With the "Lower Races". Ethics 11 (4):409.
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  22. Henry Rutgers Marshall (1901). Our Relations With the "Lower Races". International Journal of Ethics 11 (4):409-423.
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  23. Steven Martinot (2007). Motherhood and the Invention of Race. Hypatia 22 (2):79-97.
  24. Steven I. Miller & Frank Perino (2007). Race, Kinds and Ontological Commitments: Issues for Social Policy Clarification. Journal of Applied Philosophy 24 (1):1–15.
  25. Michael J. Monahan (2006). Race, Colorblindness, and Continental Philosophy. Philosophy Compass 1 (6):547–563.
    The "colorblind" society is often offered as a worthy ideal for individual interaction as well as public policy. The ethos of liberal democracy would seem indeed to demand that we comport ourselves in a manner completely indifferent to race (and class, and gender, and so on). But is this ideal of colorblindness capable of fulfillment? And whether it is or not, is it truly a worthy political goal? In order to address these questions, one must first explore the nature of (...)
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  26. Anthony Monteiro (1998). From Racialized Philosophy to Philosophy of Race: Lucius T. Outlaw's on Race and Philosophy. Radical Philosophy Review 1 (2):157-174.
  27. Greg Moses (1998). Race-Ing Justice: Randall Kennedy's Race, Crime, and the Law. Radical Philosophy Review 1 (2):150-156.
  28. James W. Nickel (1974). Classification by Race in Compensatory Programs. Ethics 84 (2):146-150.
  29. Lucius Outlaw (2016). On Race and Philosophy. 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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  30. David A. Oyedola (2015). Appiah on Race and Identity in the Illusions of Race: A Rejoinder. 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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  31. Jemima Pierre (2002). Race in 21st Century America by Curtis Stokes, Theresa Melendéz, and Genice Rhodes-Reed, Eds. Philosophia Africana 5 (2):71-77.
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  32. S. Plous (1988). Modeling the Nuclear Arms Race as a Perceptual Dilemma. Philosophy and Public Affairs 17 (1):44-53.
  33. Gregory Radick (2008). Race and Language in the Darwinian Tradition (and What Darwin's Language–Species Parallels Have to Do with It). Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C 39 (3):359-370.
    What should human languages be like if humans are the products of Darwinian evolution? Between Darwin’s day & like the peoples speaking them are higher or lower in an evolutionarily generated scale This paper charts some of the changes in the Darwinian tradition that transformed the notion of human linguistic equality from creationist heresy., our own, expectations about evolution’s imprint on language have changed dramaticallyIt is now a commonplace that, for good Darwinian reasons, no language is more highly evolved than (...)
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  34. Gregory Radick (2008). Race and Language in the Darwinian Tradition. 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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  35. Robert Richards, Race.
    The term “race” and its equivalent in several languages gained currency in the seventeenth century to describe descendents of the same family or house. The word was also used to refer to a tribe or nation, as in the Germanic races. Only in the nineteenth century did the term take on the taxonomic meaning of a distinctive group or variety within a human or animal species.
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  36. Reviewed by Robert C. Richardson (2000). Michael Levin, Why Race Matters: Race Differences and What They Mean. Ethics 110 (4).
  37. Michael Root (2000). How We Divide the World. Philosophy of Science 67 (3):639.
    Real kinds or categories, according to conventional wisdom, enter into lawlike generalizations, while nominal kinds do not. Thus, gold but not jewelry is a real kind. However, by such a criterion, few if any kinds or systems of classification employed in the social science are real, for the social sciences offer, at best, only restricted generalizations. Thus, according to conventional wisdom, race and class are on a par with telephone area codes and postal zones; all are nominal rather than real. (...)
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  38. Josiah Royce (1906). Race Questions and Prejudices. Ethics 16 (3):265.
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  39. Josiah Royce (1906). Race Questions and Prejudices. International Journal of Ethics 16 (3):265-288.
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  40. Neven Sesardic, Confusions About Race : A New Installment.
    In his criticism of my paper on the concept of race, Adam Hochman raises many issues that deserve further clarification. First, I will comment on Hochman’s claim that I attack a straw man version of racial constructionism. Second, I will try to correct what I see as a distorted historical picture of the debate between racial naturalists and racial constructionists. Third, I will point out the main weaknesses in Hochman’s own defense of constructionism about race. And fourth, I will briefly (...)
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  41. Quayshawn Spencer, In Defense of the Actual Metaphysics of Race.
    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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  42. Anna Stubblefield (2001). Races as Families. Journal of Social Philosophy 32 (1):99–112.
  43. Ronald R. Sundstrom (2008). The Browning of America and the Evasion of Social Justice. State University of New York Press.
    Considers the effects of the browning of America on philosophical debates over race, racism, and social justice.
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  44. Andrew E. Taslitz, Wrongly Accused Redux: How Race Contributes to Convicting the Innocent: The Informants Example.
    This paper argues that there are at least five forces at work that suggest that race increases the chances of convicting the innocent: the selection, ratchet, procedural justice, bystanders, and aggressive suspicion effects.
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  45. Paul C. Taylor (2013). Race: A Philosophical Introduction. 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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  46. Paul C. Taylor (2003). Race: A Philosophical Introduction. 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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  47. Enid F. Trucios-Haynes & Cedric Merlin Powell, The Rhetoric of Colorblind Constitutionalism: Individualism, Race and Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky.
    The Court, in its race jurisprudence, has employed a narrative structure of Rhetorical Neutrality, an approach that "privileges individualism over the substantive claims of historically oppressed groups." The Louisville school case represents the Court's colorblind constitutionalism: history and context are ignored, the Fourteenth Amendment is reinterpreted so that race-conscious remedial approaches are rejected, and the present day effects of past discrimination are explained in neutral terms that perpetuate systemic discrimination. Drawing on demographic data and constitutional theory, this Article argues for (...)
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  48. Geert Verschuuren & J. S. (1971). Race and Races. Heythrop Journal 12 (2):164–174.
  49. Klaus Vondung & Ruth Hein (eds.) (1998). The History of the Race Idea : From Ray to Carus. 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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  50. Klaus Vondung & Ruth Hein (eds.) (1997). Race and State. 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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