Naomi Zack Naomi Zack is a professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon. Her books include Race and Mixed Race (1993), Bachelors of Science: Seventeenth Century Identity, Then and Now (1996), Philosophy of Science and Race (2002), Inclusive Feminism: A Third Wave Theory of Women’s Commonality (2005), Ethics for Disaster (2009), and The Ethics and Mores of Race: Equality after the History of Philosophy (2011).
Building upon the clear scientific evidence that there is no biological basis for race, Zack argues that in order to dismantle racism and its foundation, we will need to progress through two phases. The first phase requires those in all significant societal positions, from education to policy-making, to be scientifically literate regarding the absence of biological races. The second phase requires a thorough paradigm shift in all cultural, economic, and political practices and institutions. Evident throughout Zack’s essay is the paradox that while races are not real, racism is and must continue to be treated as a separate issue from race, “even though the facts about race represent its [racism’s] ultimate demise, now in theory, later in practice.” “Philosophy of Science and Race” by Naomi Zack. Copyright 2002 by Taylor & Francis Group LLC––Books. Reproduced with permission of Taylor & Francis Group LLC––Books in the format Textbook via Copyright Clearance Center.
The public, which is broadly committed to the results of the physical sciences as a source of information about reality, now maintains anachronistic beliefs about race. The present challenge to members of both oppressive and liberatory traditions regarding what they continue to assume about racial taxonomies is, to begin with, an intellectual challenge. In “The Conservation of Races,” after Du Bois claimed that the notion of race overflowed the scientific definition of it in 1897, he asserted that the history of the world is the history of races and that “he who ignores or seeks to override the race idea in human history ignores and overrides the central thought of all history.” 1 Race lacks the basis in biology assumed by late-nineteenth-century scientists, and as Anthony Appiah showed, by Du Bois himself in his definition of races as families with common histories. Therefore, it cannot be the case that the history of the world is the history of races. Neither is the history of the world the history of the idea of race, because world history extends further back in time than the modern period, when the idea of biological race was first constructed, and the history of the world that lies ahead will have to take the fact that race is biologically unreal into account—somehow. So, we can now say simply that Du Bois is mistaken here. It is time to put to rest his fantasy that African Americans could acquit themselves within a false taxonomy, much less that they should.
All of the discussion about science is accessible to educated communities. Most of it is no more difficult to understand than information routinely absorbed in senior high school and introductory college courses. The contemporary information from population genetics, the study of phenotypes, transmission genetics, genealogy, and their relevance to anthropology does not require special talents for absorption by liberal arts educators and their students. What is required is a willingness to acquire scientific literacy relevant to a subject that is one of the major preoccupations of present life in the United States (at least). I would submit that this racially relevant scientific literacy is an obligation for all scholars of race, particularly those who teach and especially those who teach future teachers.
The burning questions evoked by this scientific literacy are social and political. I want to finish with suggestions about how those questions can be answered, but, beforehand, some additional philosophical issues need to be addressed: the connection between “race” and “IQ” and race as a social construction.
As Stephen Jay Gould lucidly notes, assumptions of nonwhite and particularly black intellectual inferiority in comparison to whites have always accompanied modern racial taxonomies. The recurrent debate about the connection between race and IQ is thus no more than a contemporary version of nineteenth-century debates about different racial cranial capacities and intelligence. 2 Ashley Montagu points out that no one can say exactly what intelligence is, and Gould has explained how the notion of a general IQ factor, referred to as g or “general intelligence,” is highly dependent on the statistical methods used in designing and scoring IQ tests. 3 Nonetheless, the numerical nature of IQ test scores casts an illusory mantle of scientific authority over popularized presentations of statistical correlations between IQ scores and membership in social racial groups. In the 1970s, Arthur Jensen presented arguments against integration and funding programs intended to improve the opportunities of African American schoolchildren, on the grounds that IQ cannot be changed because it is biologically determined in ways that correspond to race. 4 During the 1990s, Robert Herrnstein and Charles Murray presented essentially the same arguments, with more statistics. 5 Montagu notes that both Jensen’s and Herrnstein’s and Murray’s publications appeared at times of federal fiscal retrenchment and should therefore be interpreted as politically motivated. 6 But, though this may be true, it does not address the content of the claims.
IQ, as measured by available tests, is broadly considered to be 60 to 80 percent heritable within the white population in the United States. This heritability of IQ is “the proportion of a population’s IQ variability attributable to genes.” 7 However, biologists do not equate heritability with biological determinism that is invariant over changing environmental and developmental factors. Height is highly heritable from parents to children within groups if environmental factors are constant, but if dairy products are freely added to diets previously lacking them, the height of a whole generation may increase. Ned Block, among others who have written forcefully about the limits to the genetic component of heritability, painstakingly explicates the ways in which the heritability of a trait does not mean that its expression is independent of environmental conditions. 8 Many evidentiary claims have been made against the conclusions drawn by Jensen and Herrnstein and Murray, including references to studies in which IQ scores have risen as environmental conditions have changed. 9 Furthermore, the 60 to 80 percent heritability figure does not take maternal effects in the womb into account. When those effects are allowed for in statistical studies of identical twins reared apart, the genetic effect on IQ appears to be only 48 percent when the total effect of genes on IQ is calculated. But the genetic effect is only about 34 percent when the additive effect of genes on IQ is calculated and that figure is more relevant in evolutionary arguments.
If conservatives have been strongly motivated to link IQ and race, the liberatory motivation to disprove alleged connections between race and IQ has been passionate. The 1998 American Anthropological Association Statement on “Race” was partly prompted by a desire to correct the public misinformation cast by Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve. 11 The 1998 AAA Statement on “Race” began with a claim that biological human races did not exist. However, if races do not exist, then regardless of whether or not there is some g or “general intelligence” factor and regardless of whether, or to what degree, that factor has a genetic component or is heritable, it is logically impossible that there could be a connection between the genetics of IQ and the genetics of race. While discussion of the heritability, malleability, and distribution of “intelligence quotients” and of the cultural objectivity of IQ tests is of considerable interest in its own right, such discussion is irrelevant to race in any biological sense.
Publications such as The Bell Curve distress many people because they know that there are millions of young African Americans who do not do as well as their white contemporaries on IQ tests. The reasons for that are social, not biological, but in the absence of a biological foundation for racial difference, there seems to be no difficulty in identifying the different groups by race. For this case and other statistically compelling ones, such as race-related differences in public health and imprisonment, it is necessary to give an account of how people are able to sort others into races, and of the coherent persistence of racial identities. Since races are not natural kinds, they must be social constructions, and indeed, mention of the biological emptiness of race is often now followed by the proclamation that race is nothing but a social construction. But that alone is mild news ontologically, because almost all of the important ingredients of contemporary life are social constructions: money, marriage, social class, education, work, gender, beauty, and perhaps even health itself (physical as well as mental). Anything that is the result of human interaction and intention in contexts where past actions, decisions, and agreements have present consequences is, trivially, a social construction. It is therefore necessary to dig a little into the meaning of “social construction” before it can be informative to park race in that category. Ian Hacking observes that the label “social construction” is currently applied to matters of concern to signal that they are not inevitable when it is otherwise assumed that they are inevitable. Imputation of contingency is an important starting point for change, because, usually, the thing asserted to be socially constructed is also believed to be harmful and/or unjust. 12 Hacking also points out that objects, interactions, people in specified social roles or with specific ascribed identities, processes, and results of processes have all been viewed as social constructions in this way. 13 Applying Hacking’s insight to race, we could say that each of the following is a social construction: the common sense notion of race, race relations, black, white, Asian, Native American, mixed, and any other racial identity, the histories of the foregoing, and the present results of those histories. So far, we know the point of saying that race is a social construction, and we know what particular aspects of “race” are social constructions, but we do not know what constitutes something like race as a social construction, that is, how saying that race is a social construction, can give an account of the way race works in society. We need an answer to this question: If race is not biologically real as people think it is, how does it come to be real in society, which it surely is?
Here is an answer to how race is real in society, but no more than a social construction. Racial taxonomy, or the conceptual scheme whereby everyone belongs to one of three or four races, is a simple scheme of classification, much simpler than astrology, for instance. This taxonomy is taught to children early on in their socialization. Along with the classification go physical, cultural, and psychological stereotypes for each race, which are less complicated than the (astrological) traits of Aquarius, Pisces, Leo, and so forth. More complicated, however, is the epistemology of racial sorting, and that is the most interesting part of the social construction of race. People are sorted into racial categories based on criteria that differ for different races and different individuals within the same race. To consider the big three: blacks require but one black ancestor to be black, but they can have any number of nonblack ancestors; whites require no nonwhite ancestors and a white appearance; Asians require ancestors from a list of countries believed to be “Asian.” All of the failed scientific bases of race, except for genetics, which is assumed because it is not visible in ordinary experience, are used to sort people into relevant races. Appearance or phenotype is always the favored criterion, but it has to be confirmed by geographical location of ancestors and the race of an individual’s social family. If the sorting cannot be done by direct observation, because the individual is filling out a form, or the individual’s appearance is ambiguous, the individual can be asked, directly or indirectly, crudely or with finesse, “What race are you?” Thus, stated racial membership is another criterion (except for cases of “passing”).
We can see from this account that first of all, the taxonomy of race, like all taxonomies, is socially constructed in the trivial way. People invented and embellished the taxonomy as a symbolic system. Once the taxonomy was broadly accepted, specific traits of individuals could be used to construct the races of those individuals. Conveniently, racial sorting did not have to take place on an individual basis, but entire geographical groups have been, and still are, lined up with components of the taxonomy, for example, inhabitants of Africa were, and still are, designated members of the black race. Racial sorting is a complicated, dynamic system, and since it changes over history and has different nuances within the United States and over the world, it is arbitrary.
However, it is not the problems with the epistemology of race, which qualify it as a social construction in the nontrivial sense, but the fact that the taxonomy of race is itself fictitious—it does not have the physical basis that it is assumed to have. If people viewed race as what used to be called a “parlor game” and did not regard the taxonomy itself as real, there would be no problem with it. It might even be a good social construction in a part of social reality, as many games are. The problematic aspect of race, which underlies what qualifies it as a social construction in the harmful sense that Hacking draws attention to, is twofold: people regard the taxonomy as biologically real; the components of the taxonomy have different connotations of human psychic worth.
The ingredients of a racial paradigm at any given time would include a taxonomy of race, the criteria for membership in different races and theirapplication to individuals, social customs and laws that pertain to race, moral beliefs about different race relations, expectations for change in social areas pertaining to race, ideologies of race, and beliefs about the connections between physical race and human psychic attributes. Because beliefs, rules, practices, and formal social structures are all parts of it, a racial paradigm is not merely a symbolic system but its accompanying life world, as well. From this theoretical perspective, we can distinguish at least three paradigms of race. The first, from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth, had hierarchical racial taxonomies favoring whites, which rankings were believed to be unchanging and morally just. Different human psychic capacities and their expressions were held to be determined by racial heredity, as were physical characteristics.
The second paradigm of race took up most of the twentieth century, and except for revisions in the biological sciences, where they were previously racialist, and philosophical inquiries such as this one, it remains culturally dominant. Ideas of human psychic endowments have been disengaged from physical racial taxonomies. The white-supremacist customs and institutional practices that were considered morally right under the first paradigm have been subjected to intense criticism, with considerable progress toward their elimination.
The third paradigm of race would be the last one. Its core positive belief and principle underlying action is that race is biologically unreal. Once social racial taxonomies are eliminated, the correction of racialist white-supremacist customs and institutional practices would continue. But, the theoretical basis on which they are corrected will likely move away from direct or emic conceptualizations of race, in favor of the descriptions of beliefs and empirical descriptions of economic and social inequalities that can be addressed by changes in education and public policy.
People believe that race is real, and their belief has been enlivened by greed, fear, anger, and cruelty that often have nothing to do with race, as a motivating idea. But the belief in race has also itself been suffi- cient to occasion distinctive emotions, motives, and moral attitudes. The results have been racist psychic states and dispositions and racist practices. Racism has been the main use for the social construction of race.
Racism consists of individual and social preferences and aversions based on different racial identities. It has both deliberate forms and socially mechanistic ones that perpetuate themselves in the apparent absence of ill will toward victims. For example, some philosophy professors assume that African American students are not likely to want to learn philosophy, so they reserve their intensive pedagogy for white students. Over their careers, these academics tend not to recruit many or any African American philosophy majors or graduate students. Over time, the field of philosophy does not change in its predominantly white membership. Where blacks were once explicitly excluded as a consequence of their more general exclusion from higher education, they now simply—not that anything like this is ever simple—continue to fail to develop enduring interests in philosophy. 15 Furthermore, some philosophers do not believe that the present situation is racist, because many of the white philosophers involved do not have self-acknowledged feelings of hatred, aversion, or contempt for blacks. But if one views the situation in terms of a concept of institutional racism, it is racist.
When victims of racism racially identify themselves in order to resist and combat racism, they positively affirm the very identities that are used by racists in ways that have victimized them. Even if they have transvalued the oppressive identities within communities of resistance, the identities still refer back to their racialist or racist origins. There would be no point to the transvaluation if external racism did not exist as something to be resisted and overcome. If racial identities were biological facts, then those identities would not be part of racial injustice. Racial identities have not been biological facts as those are understood by biologists since the early twentieth century, and persistent racial taxonomies depend on an ontological commitment to the existence of race as something that can be studied by science. Moreover, all racial taxonomies make a division between whites and nonwhites, which was originally posited by European whites for their own advantage. For these reasons, the affirmation of nonwhite identities probably has an intrinsic ceiling concerning the degree of justice that it can achieve. Such affirmation has been the road most traveled ever since Du Bois cautioned American blacks against minimizing racial difference, because he believed that they needed to strive to fulfill the destiny of their race.
The lack of a biological basis for race is not a political issue. Still, interested parties will want to know exactly how that information will affect the politics of race as it has thus far developed in the service of social justice. If politics is a struggle for power and advantage or decreased disadvantage, the scientific facts are irrelevant unless they can be translated into motivating and empowering rhetoric. For such rhetorical purposes, emic racial identities are probably more useful because they require less intellectual effort to evoke. But stating it this way expresses a cynical condescension toward politicians, activists, and their public(s). Politics, political action, and rhetoric should be principled, with the aim of bettering the human condition and not merely obtaining more desirable relations of power. The core of good politics is a commitment to the life and dignity of all human beings. Such universalism would be compatible with common sense racial taxonomy if it were a system of mere variety and not one of value-laden difference. Twentieth-century liberatory racial politics was a series of footnotes to Du Bois played out as an insistence on the compatibility of existing racial taxonomy (containing an ontological commitment to biological race) with universal equality. Many liberatory and radical activists and scholars of race do not trust whites not to discriminate and behave unjustly to nonwhites unless nonwhite racial identities are explicitly mentioned, noticed, and acknowledged. Legal critical race theorists have argued that the race-neutral language of egalitarian law does not address existing racism, because it assumes it is possible to view all citizens as though they had no racial identities. In fact, unquestioned and pervasive discrimination on the basis of race often excludes nonwhites completely, so that contexts in apparent compliance with legal race neutrality are often contexts inhabited exclusively by whites. 17 The resulting political strategy has been to insist on visible and recognized nonwhite racial identities as integral ingredients in a new democratic pluralism.
What would happen if it became common knowledge that race in the emic biological sense did not exist? Possibly, new pseudobiological grounds for discrimination and aversion would be constructed. Certainly, there would continue to be social injustice against the poor, because they are the most vulnerable component of the capitalistic global corporate enterprise. But it is an empirical question exactly whether and how the present victims of racism might benefit from being relieved of false biological identities. It will require great courage to allow such a question to be answered through the actions of others, whom those most concerned with outcomes have no direct influence over and small reason to trust. The individual and small group project of relinquishing false biological notions of race will have two phases. The first is the acquisition and distribution of the required information about human biology. This scientific literacy will proceed at a slow pace through the academy until it is disseminated at the secondary and primary school levels. On the way, the resistance of the mass media to educated opinion that is not sensationalistic about race will have to be worn down, something that will probably happen only as the three-race generation is replaced by the norace generation in research, business, and policymaking positions. That is the cognitive phase of the project.
The second phase of relinquishing false biological notions of race is the practical one of rethinking, undoing, and redoing those aspects of ordinary life and discourse, both oppressive and liberatory, which rely on assumptions that racial taxonomies and individual racial differences are real in ways that can be studied by biology. This revision will require a reexamination of received texts and the discovery and creation of new ones in many different fields. So far, the racial liberatory focus has been confined to issues of racism and reactions against it. Needed now will be concentration on the ways in which ungrounded taxonomies of race inform discourse. It will be necessary to reach a lucid understanding of what it literally and metaphorically means to use words and phrases such as these: black, Indian, Jewish, or any kind of racial blood, bloodlines, mixed blood, pure blood, racial solidarity, brotherhood, sisterhood, black ancestry, racial heritage, racial identity, or racial authenticity. These are just a few polite examples.
Discourse affects perception. It has become a sign of astuteness for African Americans to claim that when they look into the mirror, they do not see a man or woman before the glass, but a black man or a black woman. It has also become a sign of social awareness for everyone to notice whether or not a group or institution is racially diverse. Both self-perception and the perception of others as racially identified presuppose that racial identity is given in perception, whether one makes a point of noticing it or not. Suppose one looked at oneself and others and merely noted those physical characteristics that are used to socially construct race, without thereby constructing race? What will we see? How will what we see affect the humanity we take for granted or withhold from ourselves and others?
Where general discourse is embedded with a persistent idea, the idea has an effect on actions and institutions that go beyond the medium of discourse. For instance, is it racism that keeps the United States residentially segregated, or might it not also at core be racialism? Much more would be at stake in the shift from the second to the last paradigm of race, than cognition, perception, discourse, and social habit. Economics and politics would be involved, and it is money that could speed up a process of cultural change otherwise requiring centuries. It is not a coincidence that the widespread presence of women in the American workplace accompanied the shift from a manufacturing to an informational and service economy during a period of inflation that made it necessary for women to contribute to household income. Slavery was a profitable form of agricultural business for the South, and during the period of intense segregation, blacks in the workforce continued to be exploited by whites who despised them socially and excluded them politically. The hatred and genocide of Native Americans accompanied their dispossession from ancestral lands. In the West, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Asian immigrants were a source of cheap labor for railroad construction and agriculture, and they were treated with great cruelty and contempt. Today, disproportionate numbers of African Americans are “in” the criminal justice system, and some critics now call it “the prison industrial complex,” because inmates represent jobs for prison personnel and profits for contractors.
I don’t want to milk what alert adolescents now know or put too great a burden on neoMarxian insights. But, it is important to realize that while the racial identities assigned to those exploited have oiled the wheels of exploitation, those identities have often been extrinsic and ad hoc to the brute facts of exploitation. It couldn’t have been otherwise, given that there never existed any such thing as biological race. The more brutal the exploitation, the greater the vilification of its victims by those benefiting from their servitude and death. The fulcrum for historical change on behalf of the victims of exploitation is not a matter of how they are identified before, during, or after exploitation, but the material conditions that make them vulnerable to exploitation in the first place. Because American economic exploitation is mostly a matter of profit, and the business of America is still business, material conditions are most of the story. This subject exceeds the scope of this paper, but it is the next subject after the disabuse of “race.”
As a practice, the revision of biological ideas of race will reach so deeply into lives based on racial affinities and aversions that the world will not merely become a more just place in issues of race, but it will no longer be the same world. 19 Even the most dedicated and idealistically motivated, and especially them, barely have enough minutes in the day to fulfill their present work, family, social, and civic obligations. How will they have time to effect such change, and with little thanks at the outset? As the practical project of revising life worlds imbued with false ideas of race progresses, it will free up the time and effort presently consumed by race. Because race is a construction requiring constant sorting and identification, it is a dynamic, ongoing, performative process. There is nothing about anyone’s racial membership that is simply attached once. Racial membership must constantly be tended, remembered, enacted, and reenacted. Some nonracial part of consciousness must always be ready to assess what is required from a racial self. Under Jim Crow, black men had to remember not to look at white women, and today they have to remember not to scare white women if they encounter them alone at night on city streets. Whites have to remember that they can count on certain unearned advantages that increase directly with the degree of racism in the context. Asian Americans have to remember to let white Americans know that they were born in the United States and to forgive them for assuming that they were instead born somewhere “in Asia.” As I revise this manuscript, the current war following September 11, 2001, is contributing to many things that Islamic Americans will have to remember about how they are perceived. Children of all races need to be periodically reminded of their racial membership and of what their elders consider to be the obligations or “dues” that accompany it. Given all this, it’s probably not a matter of finding the time to undo race, but of appreciating in retrospect how much time was spent doing it, andand making good use of the resources thus liberated.
In immediate pragmatic terms, interested parties will want to know how, while this great revision is occurring, they are expected to view contemporary laws against racial discrimination, as well as the remnants of affirmative action. Will the acknowledged demise of biological race render such measures redundant? I think that anyone who is familiar with race relations in the United States, both past and present, anyone who lives in the culture with a modicum of awareness of how advantages and disadvantages get distributed, would sense that the acknowledged biological emptiness of race is no guarantee that old epistemologies of common sense race won’t continue to operate, or that biological race will not still be constructed. But the construction will be driven underground. Witches were believed to be real, the majority thought that they could identify them, and when it was convenient, they tormented and persecuted them. After it came to be generally acknowledged that witches did not exist, it was witch hunters and witch tormentors, in a word, “witchists,” who were on the defensive. Even private social discrimination against witches in cultures failing to believe that witches existed would be difficult to imagine. We have already seen such a process at work between the first and second paradigms of race. The first paradigm belief that inferior psyches and cultures accompanied nonwhite racial identities has been rejected as an unacceptable form of racism under the second paradigm. However, the pragmatic answer to the above question is that all of the laws protecting nonwhites against racism, and probably more such laws, are necessary until racism no longer exists, no matter how long that takes. In short, racism must be treated separately from the facts about race, even though the facts about race represent its ultimate demise, now in theory, later in practice. （254）
During the mid 1990s, an erudite and well-published African philosopher of my acquaintance, who had been an American citizen for several years, applied to be nominated for a university affirmative action position in a department of philosophy, also of my acquaintance. The candidate gave a talk about his work to the philosophy department and was interviewed on campus. The members of the philosophy department who participated in the interviewing process were all white males. Much to his disappointment, the candidate was not accepted for nomination by the philosophy department, because they did not think he was “really” a philosopher. He was a mature man, much traveled, and educated in England, so he was aware firsthand of the history of colonialism and postcolonialism in Africa and beyond. He said to me, “Oh, I know these white guys from way back. They don’t change much. Maybe an inch a century.”
There remains much ongoing institutional racism in the United States, as well as recalcitrant pockets of overt and deliberate individual racism against nonwhites. However, given that the public still lives within a racial paradigm, the civil rights, voting rights, and immigration rights secured by nonwhites in the United States over the twentieth century are at least an inch of change. The next inch will have to be gained first within educated liberatory movements that have disabused themselves of empirically ungrounded biological notions of race, races, racial identities, and individual racial projects.
Some will say, “So what if race is a social construction? Ordinary racist life will not be disturbed by this so-called news of the lack of biological foundation.” How do they know that this news will have no effect, when the belief that race is biological is embedded in “race” as a social construction? Race is like the liar who says he speaks the truth, the social construction that is constructed around denial that it is a social construction.
The notion of race as biological is not an abstract fact that is independent of other vital beliefs held by people. Race as biological has been a vast network of practical ideas and thought, which to name a few includes: ideals of beauty, sexuality and forms of gender, notions of special skills, ideas about character, virtue, vice, wealth, the family, and superiority and inferiority. And each of those ideas and more has been lived out in emotion, experience, and behavior.
Du Bois’s envisioned dawn was an idea of legal equality and economic and educational opportunity for blacks in America. The civil rights legislation of the 1960s was the historical face of Du Bois’s dawn. That time has been succeeded by morning and the fatigue of late morning. We are now at a High Noon, when war, terror, new projects of racialization, the complete corporate colonization of the world, and its attendant ecological depletion, demand a degree of vigilance, against which attachment to identities based on outdated science is frivolous. It would also be frivolous for me, here, to attempt further rhetoric toward getting those who think “left” to recognize a basic scientific truth about humankind. Those to the “right” are still not off the hook concerning institutional racism. We should all think straight about this matter that runs deeper than politics.
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