Philosophers on Race and Racism

Gannett is a rather adroit anti-racist/socialist philosopher.

Gannett, 2009. Questions asked and unasked: how by worrying less about the ‘really real’ philosophers of science might better contribute to debates about genetics and race.

Hull compares racists to creationists, and he is quite correct to claim that racists, like creationists, use whatever they can from science and ignore the rest. But just as religious traditions permeate society and affect ecumenicals, agnostics, and atheists despite their professed beliefs, so are scientists and liberals not immune to racism. Asking questions about scientific racism is, however, ruled out by the dichotomization of scientist-expert and nonscientist-commonfolk conceptual schemes.

What emerging genomics research tells us about the biological reality of race is a hot topic these days, for scientists and nonscientists, philosophers and non philosophers alike. Race: The Reality of Human Differences, the 2004 book written by Vincent Sarich (a scientist whose late-1960s doctoral research contributed to the development of the molecular clock and the then-radical but now widely accepted date of separation of ape and hominid lineages) and Frank Miele (a philosopher who is senior editor at Skeptic magazine), advances a number of controversial claims about biology and race. I have neither the space nor inclination to go into these in any detail; suffice it to say that they are rather horrid, including, for example, the postulation of significant cognitive differences arising during the past 10,000 years among geographically separated human groups as cultures came to differ more in their “achievements” and a “statistical reality” that makes it inevitable that racial groups will be disproportionately represented at the extremes of values for traits like being a criminal or having a high-paying job. Like Wade, Sarich and Miele question whether race is “a mere social construct” or “an underlying biological reality” and are greatly impressed with recent scientific developments: they believe that DNA data gleaned from the “latest genetic technologies” provide decisive evidence for the biological reality of race and that “recognition of the reality of race” is making a difference in the “life-and-death” matters of pharmacogenetics and DNA forensics: “If ‘race’ were a mere social construction based upon a few highly visible features, it would have no statistical correlation with the DNA markers that indicate genetic relatedness” (p. 23). Sharing the persecution complex of so many Galileo-inspired defenders of unpopular and uncomfortable truths, Sarich and Miele consider those of us who are resistant to their claims to be dupes of propaganda spread by “colleges, universities, or PBS” about the social construction of race or just too PC to admit to what stares us in the face.

Finally, I am brought to a third concern about the tendency of philosophers of science to take a metaphysical approach relying on theories of natural kinds when it comes to debates about race’s validity as a category of classification in biomedicine and reality as a biological phenomenon at the level of the genome. Recall that my first concern questions the ability of metaphysically invested approaches to natural kinds to contribute to these debates, and my second concern is that approaching these debates by asking questions about the metaphysical reality of race as a natural kind leaves other questions—often socially and politically important questions—unasked. My third concern is that no matter how much philosophers of science would like to challenge the racist agenda of a book like Sarich and Miele’s Race, their critical stance is limited by the role played by the assumptions about the ‘really real’ inherent in theorizing about race as a natural kind. There is a dichotomous framing of possible alternatives: race is either socially constructed or biological reality, a fiction like phlogiston or a genuine natural kind, a merely linguistic or a projectible predicate. This framing mirrors Sarich and Miele’s dichotomy of race as “a mere social construct” or “an underlying biological reality.” And thus, despite their best anti-racist intentions, philosophers of science might contribute to sustaining a stagnant and unproductive, at times even corrosive, debate in the public sphere between biological race realists and social constructionists

Of course, we have to dig through her past work to find what “racism” means:

Gannett, 2001. Racism and Human Genome Diversity Research: The Ethical Limits of “Population Thinking”.

There can be no doubt that “population thinking” is a tremendous improvement over “typological thinking” in countering racist thought and action. But it has its ethical limits. The problem with the argument that “population thinking” is inherently anti-racist is that it assumes a specific–and limited–conception of racism. “Population thinkers” can be what we might call “statistical racists.” “Population thinking” precludes stereotyping of the form “person A is a certain way because all individuals belonging to that group are that way” and the differential treatment of entire groups. But “population thinking” is consistent with the stereotyping of individuals based on the statistical properties of the group. Such stereotyping takes the form: “person A is probably/likely/may be a certain way because most/many/some individuals belonging to that group are that way.” “Statistical racism” is also manifested with respect to entire groups. “Population thinking” and its attention to statistical differences among groups–differences in mean trait values or the range of values exhibited for traits–could be used to justify differential representation of certain racial/ethnic groups in various occupations or educational groups and to challenge programs like affirmative action. It is also conceivable that arguments that appeal to statistical differences among populations in the frequencies of genes associated with particular dispositional traits could be used to sanction differential social treatment–for example, “racial profiling” by police. “Population thinking” is not inherently anti-racist.

Discussions such as these are so inverted that it’s difficult to know where to start when critiquing them.

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6 Responses to Philosophers on Race and Racism

  1. JL says:

    Well, I’m certainly a “statistical racist”. It is depressing how much of fashionable academic thinking these days amounts to a sort of anti-knowledge. They want us to know less and understand less.

  2. B.B. says:

    Gannet said:
    Sharing the persecution complex of so many Galileo-inspired defenders of unpopular and uncomfortable truths

    Wait. Were all the claims of death threats, vandalism, assaults, hate speech prosecutions, firings, suppression of academic freedom, shit in the mailbox, etc purely inventions of the fevered minds of Jensen, Eysenck, Shockley, Brand, Ellis, Gottfredson, Rushton, Levin, et al.

  3. Kiwiguy says:

    *** “Population thinking” is not inherently anti-r@cist.***

    She’s right, it isn’t. The Cavalli-Sforza squid ink didn’t fool her 🙂

  4. nikcrit says:

    “their critical stance is limited by the role played by the assumptions about the ‘really real’ inherent in theorizing about race as a natural kind. There is a dichotomous framing of possible alternatives: race is either socially constructed or biological reality”

    I don’t think the anti-racists have framed or proven their case better, but by my lights, this is key dilemma confronting hereditarians, which I suggest without any particular dissent or critique.
    Is there a way to explain this in a good-faith, accessible manner? Do you consider this a bad-faith argument? I know there could be a biological explanation that is beyond my grasp, but to me this is the question that I naturally come to when considering biological explanations.

    • Chuck11 says:


      In the cited passage, Gannett is not critiquing race realists so much as urging antiracists, with whom she identifies, to move beyond metaphysical disproofs of differences and begin looking at the data. Basically, she recognizes that recent genomic research has undermined many philosophical anti-racist stances and she is urging philosophers to take a more scientific approach.

      As for social construction versus biological reality, my guess is that she would be quite happy with the dichotomy if it continued to augment the “race as social construction” position — this false dilemma, after all, was an antiracist construction; she is concerned, however, that given the recent findings the dichotomous frame will lead to the conclusion that race is a biological reality. I have see this concern expressed in a number of other articles.

      In short, I don’t think she is seeking a nuanced position in good faith; rather, she is concerned that the loaded presentation given by anti-racists will backfire. (It’s akin to using the “IQ identicality” versus “innate “inferiority: Hitler, Hitler! — dichotomy as a bludgeon to stall research on IQ differences and then contending,after the evidence for differences becomes indisputable, that a more nuanced approach needed).

      Ok. But is a nuanced position possible? Yes, of course. Individuals on Anti-anti-racists blogs and forums — and a few oddballs –aside, proponents of the biological view are much less susceptible to absolutism. The problem is that there is an asymmetry, which forces such proponents to be less nuanced — or more incisive — then ideal; otherwise their points get lost. If your concern is that a sort of biological mania will sweep academia and lead back to 19– then it might be helpful to read up on some of the researchers and their views:

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