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On Kwame Anthony Appiah's "Race, Culture, Identity: Misunderstood Connections" (1994), Charles Mills's "But What Are You Really?, The Metaphysics of Race" (1998), and Neven Sesardic's "Race: A Social Destruction of a Biological Concept" (2010).
Coleman Hughes rejoins Mark, Seth, and Dylan to differentiate "race" as population genetics uses the term from racial identity. Mills argues that the latter has been historically constructed to track several markers that don't always go together, e.g., parentage vs. skin tone (consider siblings with different skin tones). Race in this sense is real, in that it's a socially established categorization that has real effects on how people are treated and how they see themselves. But conventions like the "one-drop rule" by which in America folks with mixed black-white ancestry are considered black are historically contingent; our racial thinking does not match the biology involved.
Appiah gives a longer, intellectual history of racialist thinking: He sees our current use of the term as faded detritus of the theories of thinkers like Matthew Arnold, Thomas Jefferson, and W.E.B. Dubois, all of whom thought of race as an essence that could be analyzed, for example in talking about how the spirit of a people informs their artworks (this idea perhaps originated with Herder). Appiah thinks that nothing in reality actually corresponds to such a "spirit," and that no biological categories track with our everyday concept of race, so really, races don't exist. We only need talk about them insofar as to understand the historical persecution of "witches," we would need to understand what the foolish persecutors meant by the term.
Sesardic thinks that by arguing only against this essentialist concept of race, Appiah (and many other thinkers in this area) have constructed a straw man. He thinks that philosophers talking about race need to actually look at the current science of population genetics, and that this field actually does find a genetic break-down that approximates the common racial division of Caucasian/African/Indigenous American/Asian. He rejects the common argument that because there is more within-group variation than between-group variation, races aren't biologically real.
In this discussion, we agree with the first two thinkers that the biological argument is rather beside the point, but since Appiah and Mills are still making arguments that involve scientific facts, even if their overall point is social and ethical, work is needed to figure out how exactly to evaluate their arguments and hence the disagreement between them.
Read Appiah's paper online. Read Mills's paper online or buy the book containing it. Read Sesardic's paper online. We also read The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article section "Do Races Exist? Contemporary Philosophical Debates" by Michael James (2008, updated 2016), but didn't end up talking about it.
This discussion is a continuation of ep. 227. It continues with part two; get your full, ad-free Citizen Edition. Please support PEL!
Mills picture by Olle Halvars.
seems to be some dancing around reification/misplaced-concreteness, for example does say the State of NY exist or is it really a figure (well many actually) of speech, and if we say ‘it’ exists what is it composed of (what is in or out and how do we know?), how does ‘it’ act, etc? This is part of the issues at hand in structuralism vs post structuralism debates,one of the better books along these lines comes from Stephen Turner The Social Theory of Practices: Tradition, Tacit Knowledge, and Presuppositions, the wiki has a surprisingly good line:
In The Social Theory of Practices as well as in other writings Turner argues against collective concepts like culture: what we call culture (and similar concepts), he argues, needs to be understood in terms of the means of its transmission. There is no collective server by which it is simply downloaded and “shared”. What we take as “collective” is really produced through experiences of interaction which are different and produce different results for different individuals but which also produce a rough uniformity through mechanisms of feedback rather than “sharing”.
joe blow says
Race can be most clearly understood as a signifier when it’s understood as a product of power – of colonialism, imperialism and material relations of exploitation, more generally. For instance, when waves of immigrants were arriving from Italy, Mediterranean was a race, correspondingly for Irish or Slavs – a couple more once generally accepted races. As somebody said, it’s not that you see this “natural” difference and then impose the discrimination – it’s that you engage in a process of discrimination (subordination, exploitation) and then look for the markers you can use to “justify” it.
joe blow says
Which is also the reason that, even though race is social construction, you can’t just decide to be a different race: it’s SOCIALLY determined (and not just individual or personal decision).
Richard B. Keys says
Thanks for that Joe.
As many critical race and post colonial theorists discuss our understanding of race is so tied up with the history of colonialism, and nation building etc. I think its fundamentally important to foreground how these categories operate socially, in terms of regimes of power and exclusion, and how they have been constructed historically when discussing these issues. As you say the concept is not simply derived through a neutral/apolitical mode of inquiry and then comes to determine social practices after the fact, but rather it emerges through the interplay of entangled discourses and practices.
For example in Australia, where I live, the construction of race, of “blackness” and “whiteness,” was and still is inherently tied up with dispossessing Indigenous Australia’s of their land. Through seeing them as effectively sub human, due to European Enlightenment conceptions of race and racial superiority that had emerged through the European colonial project. Seeing them as sub human allowed the colonists to claim that the land was unoccupied. In declaring it terra nullis they justified British occupation of the land without recourse to a treaty or land purchase etc etc.
During Australia’s nation building phase the Government went on to pass a act called The Immigration Restriction Bill colloquial known as the White Australia Policy wherein non Anglo-Saxon’s were effectively excluded from migration. When numbers of the desired nationalities were not enough to sustain the demands of a growing economy for labor etc the policy was relaxed to include European nationalities that were seen to previously be non-white such as Southern and Eastern Europeans, and Jewish folks such as my ancestors who of course were often not seen as fully white in Christian Europe. In doing so they effectively expanded what constituted “whiteness” in order to build a white Australian nation.
These categorizations still have real effects as Indigenous Australians continue to be disposed of land, marginalized socially, and have their social lives regulated by the state, are killed by police etc etc.