What Is Race?

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

What is it

Is race a discredited pseudo-scientific category? Or a real dimension of difference among humans? Or a socially constructed reality? What difference does it make? John and Ken question the category of race with Anthony Appiah from Princeton University.


Listening Notes

What are human races? There are no deep, salient differences in people based on “racial” differences. Even if races aren't biologically real, could they be socially real, that is, socially constructed? Do racial categories map onto multi-racial children? John introduces Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor at Princeton. Appiah claims that racial categories are empty biological categories. Do people still use racial categories to try to track biological phenomena? Medical studies try to get statistics from different racial groups. Does a higher level of stress hormone in African-Americans mean that African-American is a biological category?

Should we do away with racial identifications? Appiah thinks that racial identities are important for the wellbeing of many people and that these identities should not be dropped. Are racial categories just shallow instead of tracking some deep, important properties? Can we replace race with ethnicity? In America, European ethnic groups tend to be divided in a fine-grained way while groups from other parts of the world are lumped together. Even if racial categories are not biologically real, why can't Ken say, “I am not a black man”?

If races are not meaningful categories, then should we have color-blind policies? Appiah thinks that this does not follow. He thinks that a society that cares about equality should pass laws to help or protect the people that have been discriminated against. Is it more appropriate for black person to empathize with the suffering of slaves than for a white person? The ancients, such as Plato, did not think about race. It is a modern notion.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 04:50): Amy Standen interviews two people that claim heritage from multiple races about their experiences with racial identification.
  • Sixty Second Philosopher (Seek to 36:55): Ian Shoales gives a rapid-fire biography of W.E.B. DuBois.
  • Conundrum (Seek to 48:22): Andy from San Francisco calls to ask whether he should give money to a homeless people on the street corner. Do you want to help them? Do you want satisfaction for giving them money? Do you want to empathize with him?

Kwame Anthony Appiah, Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor Of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values, Princeton University


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