- Bucking previous trends, more and more researchers have been coming to endorse the proposition that race is real. Realist constructivists maintain that our practices' astoundingly significant consequences compel us to recognize that race has a social reality. As the saying goes, try telling a black person trying to hail a cab that race isn't real. It's real enough for discrimination, for reduced or privileged access to health care and education and car loans, and for being the glue that bonds identities. And that, say constructivists, is real enough to be real. At the same time, biological racial realism has also mounted a comeback lately. Fascinating new scientific data and complementary theoretical architecture, along with a commitment to relegating racist science to the past, have jointly provided powerful support for the doctrine that races are, very roughly, biologically real breeding populations.
- Despite the advances partisans of these views have been making, here I want to bolster the case for racial anti-realism. I'll go about this indirectly, by getting into some conceptual troubles that seem to have afflicted all three of these camps in the debate over race's ontological status. In discussing these troubles, my primary stalking horse will be biological realism, so I'll have less to say about constructivism. However, a quick look at a basic argument against constructivism provides a glimpse of the thorny conceptual background against which our discussion takes place.
- The constructivist's basic thesis is that races are social kinds. Now constructivists disagree amongst themselves on exactly how races are social kinds, but the common thread is that if we think that some other social kinds are real, we should grant that races are real, too: if we allow that professional kinds, such as journalist or justice of the peace, though not biologically real, are nevertheless real in some other (social) sense, then we should also allow that races are real in the same (social) way. In very rough outline, Al Gore and Tony Blair are both white because certain social facts about them are true, while the Dalai Lama and Kofi Annan are not white, because other social facts are true of them. In this way, the relevant social facts, which might revolve around our practices of classification, access, discrimination, privilege, and so on, make race real as a social category.
- One objection to this view is that the groups structured by social forces - to which constructivists rightly direct our attention - are not races, because racial terms, by definition, are meant to refer to something biological, rather than social. We might follow Lawrence Blum (2002) and others who call those groups structured by social forces 'racialized groups,' but whatever we want to call them, they aren't appropriately called ‘races,’ at least if one constraint on appropriate labelling is conformity to ordinary discourse.
- As this objection illustrates, the truly metaphysical debate over race often boils down to semantic issues. Ron Mallon (2006) points out that otherwise opposed race theorists have actually formed an 'ontological consensus' concerning many facts about race, such as that there are no racial essences and that race-related social forces affect us. Thus the real question about specifically racial constructivism is not whether groups structured by social forces are real, but whether it is appropriate to call them 'races.' More broadly, pursuing what Mallon calls the 'semantic strategy,’ many of the participants in the race debate aim to constrain the meanings of racial terms such that, when joined with some ontological premises, those meanings either allow race to be real or guarantee its illusory status. So generally speaking, anti-realists maintain that 'race' is defined biologically, which is to charge that when constructivists talk about something social that they call 'race,' they aren't really talking about race, at least not in the relevant, ordinary, folk sense of the term.
- Again, I will not be defending this criticism of constructivism here, but it illustrates how the semantic strategy might be used. What I want to do next is to pursue that strategy in another direction, by defending some of the conceptual premises in a parallel argument against the new biological realism, premises that have been called into question lately by Robin Andreasen, arguably biological realism's most dedicated partisan in philosophy. Since these issues are the bedrock source of a significant chunk of the contestation, the hope is that if we make progress at the conceptual level, we might make some metaphysical headway.
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