The Consensus Against Racialism: Practical Sense or Social Narrative?

[Summary: When you break it down, the statement that races are not real most often translates to racial and ethnic differences should not be significant for you. It is not an argument about empirical reality, but about social expectation. The statement that Races are not real, at least when sold to Europeans, often just says that you ought not think of racial and ethnic differences. A social fiction is being sold under another guise. No doubt the sellers argue that this narrative is more justified than its counter-pose, racial essentialism, but it is nonetheless just a social narrative. You can tell the sheep from the free-thinkers by those who do or do not buy into this.]

In “Race and Racial Cognition,” the authors characterize two types of racialist positions, that which they call thick racialism and that which they call thin racialism:

Thick racialism:

“The doctrines that divided human beings into putatively natural categories. Such doctrines the held that ‘‘natural’’ races exist, and that sorting people into racial groups on the basis of phenotypic features like skin color, hair type, and body morphology also served to sort them according to a range of other underlying properties that expressed themselves in a variety of physical, cultural, moral, and emotional differences among the various races.”

Thin racialism:

“i.e. the idea that racial categorization might be useful in identifying some important genetic differences or other biological properties—for example, properties that might be useful for epidemiology, medicine, and forensic science.”

They then describe the consensus against Thick Racialism:

“With the advent of modern genetics in the early twentieth century, it seemed obvious that the appropriate interpretation of such thick racialist claims was in terms of this emerging science of human heredity. In particular, it seemed that beliefs about the putative cultural, moral, and emotional differences between races would be vindicated by the discovery of specific and systematic genetic differences between races. However, subsequent research in biology, anthropology, social theory, as well as cognitive, social, and evolutionary psychology has brought about a consensus that thick racialism is false. The reasons for this ontological consensus that thick racialism is false are many, but an increased understanding of human genetic variation played an important role in undermining the supposition that there are genetic characteristics shared by all and only members of a race.”

The idea is that races were thought of as natural kinds and that this was conceptualized in terms of genetics; but, and this is where the issue gets murky, later a consensus came about that thick racialism was false. I would suggest that the murky part is something that those who think about this issue need to explore. How exactly does one go from human Natural kinds to human biological kinds to the current state of affairs?
Appiah:

The truth is that there are no races: there is nothing in the world that can do all we ask ‘‘race’’ to do for us. The evil that is done is done by the concept and by easy—yet impossible—assumptions as to its application.

Wasserman:

A nonracist society would be one in which the race of an individual would be the functional equivalent of the eye color of individuals in our society today. In our society no basic political rights and obligations are determined on the basis of eye color. No important institutional benefits and burdens are connected with eye color. Indeed, except for the mildest sort of aesthetic preferences, a person would be thought odd who even made private, social decision by taking eye color into account.

Now recall what we are talking about again:

“A core question of contemporary social morality concerns how we ought to handle racial categorization. By this we mean, for instance, classifying or thinking of a person as Black, Korean, Latino, White, etc”

We have moved from thinking in terms of descendant populations/ancestral groups as metaphysical kinds is bad, to thinking in terms of ethnic groups is bad. And of course, somehow, the reality of the latter has been shown to be non-real. Let us start by untangling the web. ‘Race,’ as the etymology implies, implies one of three things:

“people of common descent,” c.1500, from M.Fr. razza “race, breed, lineage,” possibly from It. razza, of unknown origin (cf. Sp., Port. raza). Original senses in Eng. included “wines with characteristic flavor” (1520), “group of people with common occupation” (c.1500), and “generation” (c.1560). Meaning “tribe, nation, or people regarded as of common stock” is from c.1600. Modern meaning of “one of the great divisions of mankind based on physical peculiarities” is from 1774 (though even among anthropologists there never has been an accepted classification of these). Klein suggests these derive from Arabic ra’s “head, beginning, origin” (cf. Heb. rosh). O.E. þeode meant both “race” and “language;” as a verb, geþeodan, it meant “to unite, to join.”

1. an ethnic group which is conceived as having a common historic ancestry
2. an empirically distinct/distinguishable biological population
a. a biological descendant population which is empirically a1) distinct or a2) distinguishable enough to warrant taxonomic classification
b. a biological autochthonous population which is empirically b1) distinct or b2) distinguishable enough to warrant taxonomic classification
3. an ethnic group which is conceived as representing a distinct/distinguishable biological population
Then there is the separate issue seeing races as “natural kinds.” This is where things get really murky, given that there is little consensus on what counts as a natural kind. What does “putatively natural categories” mean?

Look at the introduction that Mike over at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives:

“The concept of race[1] signifies the grouping of individual humans by some set of perceived physical characteristics, often called “phenotypes,” which are thought to be inherited through some blood-borne factor. Which specific set of perceived, shared physical characteristics constitute a race varies historically, geographically, socially, and politically. Indeed, there is no biological or genetic foundation for the grouping of individual humans into a racial group. Instead, humans themselves choose (consciously or unconsciously) which physical characteristics constitute a racial group. Consequently, racial groups are presently thought to be social constructions, or a category created not by biological nature but by human invention.

As a result of this biological conception, racial groupings are typically thought of as discrete, meaning that the boundaries between them are determinate. Where one racial group ends, a distinct other racial group begins.”

He argues that biological ‘race’ (2) necessarily means ‘discrete’ groupings and that populations don’t represent meaningful empirical sets, on the basis that major descendant populations are not really empirically different (2a) enough. But this is really not what he argues, because to argue this, from the basis of descendancy (2a), he would have to define what counts as ‘distinct enough’ or “distinguishable enough.” The question is — Are different descendancies empirically different (distinct or distinguishable) enough to make talking (or thinking) about different (distinct or distinguishable) descendancies meaningful? Where, ‘different’ and ‘meaningful’ will vary by context. Again, the question is not: are the descendancies wholly other, discrete, etc. And the question does not stipulate that different means having a specific set of perceived factors. Obviously if there were no average or probably observable differences, it probably would be difficult to argue that there were empirically meaningful differences — but this is not the point.

The point of arguing from phenotype, is so one can show that there are no specific set of difference in phenotype, possessed by all; that way, one does not have to start with objective reality (ie biohistory) and argue that there are no population differences significant enough to be worthy of consideration. La-di-da.

So we are left with: are different descendancies empirically different (distinct or distinguishable) enough? Philosophically speaking, that same ‘distinct enough’ argument, of course, applies to species, subspecies, continents, measurements, and a whole host of conceptions and categories we use. So we don’t mean philosophically speaking, let alone political-Philosophically speaking –after all now that Europe is becoming the EuroMed, maybe the politically expedient consensus should be that continents don’t exist? Do they? What we mean is: relative to other commonly accepted, though by no means official, biological classifications are there enough differences to warrant consideration? While it may come in reaction to them, this is not a debate on the nature of the Western conception of ontological categories and discrete groupings; this is a practical question about thinking about differences.

Which brings us back to Thin racialism. Thin racialism, as defined, is just saying that (my definition) “there are different descendancies which are empirically different (distinct or distinguishable) enough to make talking (or thinking) about different (distinct or distinguishable) descendancies meaningful” as limited to the fields of “epidemiology, medicine, and forensic science.”

What then is Thick Racialism? The authors argue that ‘thick race’ necessarily means ‘natural’ groups don’t exist, and therefore ‘thick racialism’ is incorrect. But this is really not what they argue, because to argue this, from the basis of Nature, they would have to define what counts as Natural. The question is –” Are there different races (whether 1-3) which are different (distinct or distinguishable) enough to make talking (or thinking) about different races (whether 1-3) meaningful, where, ‘different’ and ‘meaningful’ will vary by context.” Again, the question is not: are the different races, as so conceived, wholly other, discrete, and so on? And the question does not stipulate that different means whatever is thought to have been shown to not be different on the basis of “research in biology, anthropology,social theory, as well as cognitive, social, and evolutionary psychology.” Obviously if there were no average or probably observable difference, people probably wouldn’t make the distinction — (assuming, of course, a non-Marxian universe.)

The point of arguing from Nature, is so one can show that there is no Natural or essential differences; that way, one does not have to start with subjective reality (biopsychological predispositions) or objective reality (biohistory) and argue that there are no group differences significant enough to be worthy of consideration. Again La-di-da.

It’s as if there was a historical political agenda that marshaled questionable science to prove that Europe was separate from Eurasia, and now there is a counter political agenda out to prove that we all live in Pangaea — in between there is human perception and geological fact. And the Pangaeaists are arguing that the geology is wrong because the perception is biased, and the perception is wrong because there is no geological basis on which the perception could be based.

But getting back to the above question…How exactly does one go from human Natural kinds, to human biological kinds, to the current state of affairs? Under all the discussion is the real question: Are population/group differences real? Or more correctly: should the differences that are noticeable between populations and groups be considered as Real, where Real means significant? If we look back over the diversity of definitions for ‘race,’ amongst them, we see a differential sense of common or a common sense of difference. And the arguments boil down to: How Real are the differences between populations or groups?

How we get from human Natural kinds to human ethnic/ racial/ population eliminism (their terminology, not mine) is through the thinking about significant differences is especially dangerous theorem, particularly in the context of Multiculturdom.

Elsewhere I argued that Truth in the West unraveled; it seems that Reality has not yet. To say that races are real, where that implies: you should (you ought, or it would be irrational to not) think of them as rather significant for yourself is clearly a social narrative. To say that races are not real, where that implies: you should not (you ought not, it would be irrational to not) think of them as rather significant for yourself is also clearly a social narrative. Between those narratives lies one’s individual sensibilities and practical sense.

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6 Responses to The Consensus Against Racialism: Practical Sense or Social Narrative?

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