Philosophy of Race

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Naomi Zack provides an overview of the subfield of philosophy of race, and strives to balance opposing perspectives.

  1. What is Race? Provide an overview for our audience who are interested in
    thinking, talking, and writing about Philosophy of Race to key ideas of race in the
    canonical history of philosophy.
    When most people say we have to talk about race, they mean we have to talk
    about racism. Racism is a societal vice that is a form of injustice. Philosophy
    of race is more broad than that. It grew out of African American Philosophy
    to include all racial groups and study how the very idea that humans are
    divided into races or can be categorized by races, based on biological science.
    Racial injustice is important and ongoing, but so are our very ideas about race
    as a system of human categorization. These ideas have a history and you
    cannot understand racism without knowing something about that history.
    The modern period beginning in 17 th c. saw the emergence of a universal idea
    of race. Before then, it was understood that there were peoples defined by
    where they lived and their ancestries and the word “race” in European
    cultures often meant a line of descent—families and ancestors. There was no
    system of race. This changed when Francois Bernier published his “New
    System of the Earth” in the first leading scholarly journal in Europe, Journal
    de Scavans. Bernier proposed that all humankind could be divided into 4 or 5
    races—everyone belonged to one of these races based on physical traits but
    the European race, who he referred to as “we” was the first race. Other
    biologists and philosophers expanded this idea that held sway until the mid
    20 th c, adding moral and intellectual capacities, as well as aesthetics to their
    theories of race. Ideas of race developed along with the new sciences of biology
    and anthropology. Influential philosophers such as David Hume, Immanuel
    Kant and Wolfgang Hegel took them up, with no empirical evidence. Always,
    the white race was superior. This was a convenient idea through the
    Enlightenment that otherwise preached human equality, because enslaved
    peoples and others conquered though European colonialism could be
    categorized as deserving of their treatment because they belonged to lesser
    races. Comparative measurements of brains were falsified, endless speculative
    theories about skin color were posited and the whole of Western society
    became organized according to theories of race that posited whites as superior
    among all races—the First Race.
    Before the end of WWII and the Nazi holocaust, anthropology had became
    more empirical and studies of non-European cultures led thinkers such as
    Franz Boas and Claude Levi-Strauss to shrink their ideas of race to biological

categories alone. But at the same time, the physical sciences yielded no
foundation for human races—no essences were found, no distinctive blood
types, and there were discovered greater variations in racial traits within so-
called races than between them. If you cannot distinguish at least one race,
there is no system of races.
After World War II, scientists resorted to the ideas of populations. But the
definition of a population is somewhat arbitrary, because depending on how
the theorist divides them up, there are hundreds or thousands of human
populations and they do not line up with social ideas that there are 3 or 4 or 5
races. When the human genome was mapped in the early 2000s, there was no
distinct DNA discovered that aligned with social ideas of race. The idea begun
by Bernier is not a useful scientific concept.
But there are human groups and differences—ethnicities or ethnic groups.
However, there is no uniform way to characterize them. Some ethnicities work
like races because they identified by appearance, others are based on customs
and traditions, still others religions, or national origins. No one knows how
many human populations there are and while scientists may study
backgrounds of peoples, there is no system of ethnicities.
There are apparent holdouts
Race in sports – traits of group that has found a sport useful for upward
mobility come to be dominant in that sport. Basketball, first white men, then
Jewish men, then black people.
Race in medicine – higher rates of hypertension, obesity, diabetes among
minorities, but that is because of their living conditions.
Higher morbidities during Covid-19 in minority communities because of their
pre-existing co-morbidites. And reports of those statistics accurately related
them to resources and living conditions, including historically justified
distrust of the medical system, rather than to racially-based biological factors.
However, it takes society about or at least 100 years to come to terms with
scientific information such as the unreality of human races. And we are left
with racism as an ongoing social injustice.
Race is unreal and has been used to justify racism in society. Racism is real
and difficult to disperse. Old racial myths endure, now literally in the ethers
of the air, to be drawn down arbitrarily at unpredictable times. Politics has
also become racialized so that instead of addressing injustice and unfairness,

our leaders lead through party politic divisions that take up sides in the
cultural wars within society.

  1. Speak to key thinkers and their ideas in fields outside of philosophy, as well as
    philosophers.
    I’ve already discussed key thinkers who enabled the universal idea of race,
    including esteemed philosophers whose writings on race we now consider
    racist. Development of resistance to racist ideas outside of philosophy included
    abolitionists such as Fredrich Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois who in his late 19 th
    century studies of African Americans in Philadelphia showed how social
    disadvantages had social causes and were not due to innate biological
    inferiority. In the 1930s and ongoing, anthropologists such a Claude Levi-
    Strauss and Franz Boas separated ideas of culture, intellect and morality from
    biological racial developments. Over the second half of the twentieth century,
    many geneticists and anthropologists emphasized the biological emptiness of
    the idea of race. Along with DuBois, other 19 th century thinkers emphasized
    the importance of education for African Americans, for instance Anna J.
    Cooper. At the same time, Booker T. Washington became famous and highly
    praised among white supremacists for advocating that black Americans
    accept second class citizenship and segregation while focusing on training in
    physical labor skills—agriculture, building, and so forth. The Civil Rights
    Movement of the 1960s, especially as led by Martin Luther King took up
    voting rights and the integration of public facilities with at least formal
    success. Still most progressive observers believe that racism against people of
    color persists in institutional practices and other legacies
    of Jim Crow. Old practices die hard.
  2. What of ideas of ethnicity and the overlapping of meanings with race
    The old idea was that race referred to biology and ethnicity referred to
    culture. But in reality, race does not refer to biology and ethnicity refers to
    what used to be inaccurately called “race” as well as culture. The term
    “ethnicity” like race arose out of historical events such as wars—
    contemporary Palestinians are an ethnic group in this sense—and
    immigration. National groups that were not considered ethnic groups in their
    countries of origin, became ethnic groups in the United States. At first US
    European ethnic groups were considered distinct races but then they were
    identified as ethnic groups or in the case of Europeans, became generically
    white. Immigrants from Asia and Latin America have not been assimilated in
    the same way. Unlike Germans, Irish, Jews, Italians, and Poles, they have not
    become generically white. There is no one standard for what determines an

ethnic group—national origin, religion, traditions, and violent events can each
or all be factors.
But the concept of ethnic groups is very important, because they are real.
There are over 800 ethnic groups globally identified but no exact number or
taxonomy. In reality, ethnic groups are peoples in the pre-modern, pre-
Bernier sense, and they are real, but not in a system as biological race was
posited.- While the universal system of a few races has no foundation in
biology, ethnic groups have foundations in history. Ethnic groups are real and
we have to recognize their existence now that we know that races are not real.
And within some ethnic groups there are groups that remain racialized. This
is true of Hispanic/Latin Americans who have black members and African
Americans themselves who have a distinct culture.

  1. Discuss the social construction of race, with accounts and analyses of how race
    has been socially constructed through colonialism
    Race was socially constructed first by scientists and in an overlapping way
    through practical projects such as the enslavement of Africans and genocidal
    actions against indigenous peoples. Throughout the world, the aim was to
    wipe them out in order to seize their lands and resources. That was the
    colonial process, undertaken in an historical period that otherwise proclaimed
    universal human value and freedom.

Image courtesy of interviewee

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