The Race Delusion

10 August 2014

Race is important. It has huge ramifications for the ways that we live our lives. As University of Pennsylvania law professor Dorothy Roberts observes,

Race determines which church most Americans attend, where they buy a house, what persons they choose to marry, whom they vote for, and the music that they listen to. Race is evident in the color of inner city and suburban schools, prison populations, the US Senate, and Fortune 500 boardrooms.[1]

Most philosophers are skeptical of the claim that races represent genuine divisions of the human family. Of course, this view flies in the face of popular opinion. It is indisputable most people believe that race is real. But then again, there was a time when nearly everybody believed that the earth was the center of the universe. Merely believing that something is real doesn’t make it real. Before we can draw any conclusion about the reality or unreality of race, we need to figure out what races are supposed to be.  

What do we purport to talk about when we talk about race?

Races are supposed to be kinds of people, but not just any kind of kind of people. Some kinds of things are dependent on social practices. Consider the category “husband.”  For husbands to exist, the institution of marriage has to exist. It’s obvious that there wouldn’t be any husbands in a world where marriage didn’t exist. So, we can say that husbands are a socially constructed kind. In contrast, those kinds of things that philosophers call natural kinds don’t depend for their existence on social institutions. They would exist even if human society didn’t. Natural kinds exist “out there” in the world, independently of our social institutions and classificatory practices. They include things like oxygen, stars, bosons, and porcupines.  

Here’s the question: Are races natural kinds, or are they socially constructed kinds? Is being a member of a certain race more like being a boson than it is like being a husband, or vice versa? 

Most present-day philosophers think that races are social constructions. In other words, they think that racial categories—categories like ‘black,’ ‘white,’ ‘Asian,’ and so on— are rather like the category ‘pet’. Pets are animals adopted for companionship or care—that’s pretty much all there is to being a pet. Very importantly, there aren’t any biological characteristics that all pets share (there are no biological characteristics that are unique to dogs, cats, goldfish, and boa constrictors). A person could know everything there is to know about biology and still not know whether or not a certain animal is a pet, because distinguishing pets from non-pets requires knowledge about social practices rather than knowledge of biological facts. Philosophers tend to think of races as social constructions because there aren’t any biological facts about the members of a given race that demarcates them from members of other races. Strange as it may sound, a person could know all there is to know about human biology and still not know whether two people are members of the same or different races. 

Having taught classes on the philosophy of race for years, I’m well aware that you are likely to regard this claim as ludicrous. “Surely,” you might argue, “members of a certain race look alike. They resemble one another more closely than they resemble members of other races.”  If this is your view, I’m afraid that you are in the grip of a powerful and pervasive illusion.  Let me try to change your mind. 

There are a couple of reasons why similarity of appearance can’t underwrite race. For starters, consider the notion of similarity. The fact is that any two things are similar in some respects and dissimilar in other respects. Thimbles, cupcakes, and hamsters are all similar in certain ways (for instance, they are all larger than hydrogen atoms and smaller than planets). Likewise, any two people are similar in some ways and dissimilar in others. Now, bearing this in mind, consider three people: Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Hillary Clinton. Question: Does the First Lady resemble Ms. Winfrey more closely than she resembles Mrs. Clinton? If you think that it’s just plain obvious that she does, it’s because you are privileging only a few characteristics—skin color, hair texture, and certain features of facial morphology. But two people might be similar in these few ways while being dissimilar in most other ways. Nobody has carried out an exhaustive comparison of the physical features of these three women. Consequently, neither you nor I nor anyone else knows whether Mrs. Obama is more similar to Ms. Winfrey than she is to Mrs. Clinton. And if these reflections haven’t dislodged the feeling that people of the same race are especially similar, try entertaining a different question. This time, ask yourself whether Mrs. Obama resembles Mike Tyson more closely than she resembles Secretary of State Clinton. Do you still think that members of a given race are especially similar?

The second, deeper reason why notions of race can’t be cashed out in terms of appearance is that it’s possible for a person to be a member of a certain race without having the sort of appearance that’s stereotypically associated with that race. This is beautifully illuminated by an account in Killers of Dream, Lillian Smith’s memoir about growing up in the segregated south at the dawn of the 20th century. Smith recounts how a young, ostensibly white child—a little girl—was spotted living with an African-American couple in what was then called “colored town.” Members of the all-white Ladies Club were convinced that she had been kidnapped. They alerted the sheriff, who removed the child and fostered her with the Smiths, a white family. 

Her name was Janie.

Janie and Lillian formed a very close relationship, living like sisters, until a phone call from an African-American orphanage put an end to it. The Smith’s were informed that Janie was black, and that the couple from whom she had been forcibly taken were her adoptive parents. Casting her mind back to the moment that her mother informed her that Janie must go, Lillian recalled:

In a little while my mother called my sister and me into her bedroom and told us that in the morning Janie would return to Colored Town…And then I found it possible to say, “Why is she leaving?....

“Because,” mother said gently, “Janie is a little colored girl.”

“But she’s white!”

“We were mistaken.  She is colored.”

“But she looks—“

“She is colored.  Please don’t argue!”[2]

What, if anything made Janie black? This story teaches us that race is not primarily a matter of how a person looks. If that were the case, it would be possible to change one’s race cosmetically (an idea lampooned in Harlem Renaissance writer George Schuyler’s 1934 deeply insightful novel Black No More). What made Janie black had nothing to do with her physical attributes. Her supposed blackness (in common with Lillian’s putative whiteness) was a matter of social convention rather than biological reality.

You might be persuaded by my arguments that race isn’t based on superficial physical attributes but hold on to the idea that race is based on something biologically deeper. Perhaps you believe that race is somehow inscribed in our genes, and racial membership is based on genetic similarity rather than similarity of surface traits. This is an increasingly popular view, but it’s a wrong-headed one. In my next blog posting I’ll put it under the philosophical microscope to show how and why it fails.



[1] Roberts, D. (2012) Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Recreate Race in the Twenty-First Century.  New York: New Press, p. 3.

[2] Smith, L. (1994) Killers of the Dream. New York: Norton, pp. 13-14.

Comments (4)

Guest's picture


Sunday, August 10, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

David, I certainly don't

David, I certainly don't disagree with your conclusion; I hope that it's becoming increasing clear to people that race is not a biological category. 
However (just as, as you mention, people once believed that the Earth is the center of the universe) analytic philosophers continue to believe that there is a important distinction between social convention and reality, and that that distinction is firmly rooted in the latter (it's not a socially constructed distinction.)
In my view, racial prejudice can be seen as, in some sense, continuous with metaphysical distinctions like that between appearance and reality. Such extramundane distinctions lead to a worldview that privileges some categories over other categories (so, those who find themselves subsumed under the category of "gay" are inferior because the category somehow defies "what Nature intended", etc.)
Racists don't believe that group B is inferior to group A simply because it is pragmatic, or socially agreed upon, that group B ought to be considered inferior; they believe that there is something deep in nature that makes it so. That "cutting at nature's joints" is the more general delusion that encourages particular delusions like racist thinking.
Once we accept that the genealogy of nearly all of our categories ultimately reveals nothing but a history of conceptual and semantic stipulation and legislation by us collectively (including natural kind categories, natural laws, modal necessities, moral acts, etc.), we are no longer inclined to give in to superstitious thinking that tends to encourage and justify racial (ethnic, gender, gay, etc.) prejudice. (I say "nearly" all because it is plausible that certain basic concepts are 'hard-wired', as some psychologists believe...but that needn't open the door to a heavy-duty realist view that opposes the real to the merely conventional.)
In order to argue that race is not biological, there is no need to appeal to a reality/society distinction at all, and therefore no need to put race into the category of the socially constructed, if that is meant to be opposed to metaphysically ?Real?. (But, maybe I'm anticipating Part Two of this blog.)

David Livingstone Smith's picture

David Livingsto...

Monday, August 18, 2014 -- 5:00 PM


Thanks for your thoughtful response to my blog posting.
I certainly reject the claim that social convention is somehow distinct from reality.  Social conventions are, after all, real social conventions. So, claiming that racial categories are socially constructed is not tantamount to saying that race is unreal. Anti-realists about race have to take the argument a step further, and argue that there?s nothing that answers to the concept of race?that is, that there aren?t any groups of people that possess the attributes that races are supposed to possess.
This brings me to your next point.  I think that we agree that the ordinary concept of race is bound up with a kind of folk-metaphysical theory about the relation between appearance and reality (or, as I prefer to think of it, appearance and essence).  The folk-metaphysics that underpins racial thinking is false, but this doesn?t impugn the general notion of natural kinds.  One can be a realist about natural kinds while rejecting the view that races are natural kinds.  I think, by the way, that when we let our philosophical hair down we are ALL realists about natural kinds, and essentialists to boot.  Longstanding philosophical beliefs are often underpinned by stubborn psychological biases?biases that we philosophers rather ludicrously dignify as ?intuitions.?  As Kant understood very well, there?s no escape from the architecture of the human mind, although it?s too bad that he didn?t deploy this insight to interrogate his own racist beliefs.

Guest's picture


Tuesday, August 19, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Thanks David. I think I agree

Thanks David. I think I agree with what you say. If I had been more careful I would have said this. Realism doesn't require the traditional metaphysical story, which takes for granted that claims about, e.g., natural kinds and their modal properties, are made true by the way the world is independently of ways in which we conceptualize / talk about it. I think that it's that story that seeks to justify deep and stubborn psychological biases; it induces us to think of our preferred beliefs (including the results of our best biological science) as deriving their truth from Laws of Nature that govern from outside our conceptually-saturated empirical observations and counterfactual reasoning. I favor the kind of "simple realism" that Amie Thomasson has argued for.
I have no issue with the general notion of natural kinds or their essences, and of course one can be a realist about such things while denying that races are like this. But I also think it's important to remove the temptation (succumbed to by philosophers and non-philosophers alike) to be realist in a 'heavy-duty' sense. Removing this temptation, I think, will go a long way toward making apparent that our stubborn psychological biases are just that; they are not rooted in some extra-linguistic Reality since there just is no such thing.

onitamills's picture


Monday, June 24, 2024 -- 8:42 PM

I think race has historically

I think race has historically been used to categorize and classify people based on physical characteristics such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features. However, these classifications have been used to justify discrimination, oppression, and inequality throughout history. merge fruit is interesting.
Many scientists and scholars now agree that race is not a scientifically meaningful concept. Instead, they emphasize the importance of understanding human genetic diversity in a broader context, such as through the study of population genetics.

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