Preface: I am taking a class in Race and Racism this semester with Sally Haslanger at MIT, fulfilling my deepest desires of having classes in philosophy count towards my degree. I figured I would cross-post my weekly responses and thoughts here, so that you may read them and form a few thoughts of your own.

As we continue our discussion of race and its existence, I’m beginning to wonder if the question is of race itself at all but rather ethnicity, which seems to be far less of a hot topic in the national conversation.

If the past few weeks have been any indicator, there are literally centuries of philosophical, social, biological, and anthropological thought dedicated to the existence of race itself. All of it goes to show that the concept of race is one thing for certain– unclear and likely socially constructed if it exists at all, or some tricky combination of social and biological, as Philip Kitcher argues in “Race, Ethnicity, Biology, Culture”.

The concept of race in America is billed, literally and figuratively, as black-and-white, yet many of the problems of prejudice that make us uncomfortable refer to issues in shades of gray. Blanketing the discussion in a term which might not be defined in the first place obscures the conversations about what exactly it is that causes us unrest, and also leads to oversimplification, causing more harm than good.

Take for example the complex bio-ethical issue of racial profiling and racial categorization for the sake of medicine. Now, there are two strains of racial thinking to take into consideration: one is the examination of race and health for the sake of research, and the other, more immediate use for racial categorization is in individual patient treatment. If a patient engages with a health-care provider and self-provides racial information, is it appropriate to take that into consideration? Now, what if the patient does not explicitly denote his or her race? And what if a patient is found unconscious and unresponsive? In which (if any) of these cases is racial information relevant ?

Burchard (“The importance of Race and Ethnic Background in Biomedical Research and Clinical Practice”) argues that because genetic clustering corresponds roughly to the five major racial groups, and genetic variation accounts for medically significant differences in disease outcome, by transitive property it is important to consider race as a factor in treatment and research.

Root (“The Use of Race in Medicine as a Proxy for Genetic Differences”), in response, would classify the above as an example of mistakenly using race as a proxy for other, more accurate genetic factors. Such habits are dangerous at the individual level, leading to statistical discrimination. Furthermore, racial data should not be considered even at the research level, because this reinforces racial groupings that are detrimental and politically harmful. Racial profiling is unacceptable in medicine because it is often a bad indicator of ancestry or other more import factors, such as environment.

But what if race was taken out of the arguments entirely, and substituted with ethnicity? By the logic above, it seems that at least part of Roots argument for the immorality of race considerations disperses for ethnic categorization is far more associated with hereditary factors and cultural practices, and thus a better indicator of health. Burchard’s argument in favor of racial information due to the correlation of socioeconomic factors still holds if we were instead to consider ethnicity in lieu of race. Would we still feel moral discomfort towards the blatant use of ethnicity as a factor in healthcare?

My instinct tells me yes; profiling is still discriminatory under any name. It seems already that Burchard’s examples point to ethnic groups rather than racial groups; “Ashkenazi Jews, French Canadians, the Amish, or European gypsies” are not a race and neither are Japanese people. But would a patient willingly be labeled as a “Jew” or a “Mexican”, and “American” or a “French Canadian”, even if that label provides more accurate insight into his or her health than a broader category? Such a practice would appear to dig up a whole slew of political and social issues; possibly concerns of anti-Semitism and nationalist interests.

Too often, it seems that the topic of race serves as a proxy for the real issues that we fear to discuss– issues of xenophobia, class, and social categorization, none of which are black and white, and exist whether or not race does.

 

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Preface: I am taking a class in Race and Racism this semester with Sally Haslanger at MIT, fulfilling my deepest desires of having classes in philosophy count towards my degree. I figured I would cross-post my weekly responses and thoughts here, so that you may read them and form a few thoughts of your own.

In this past week of class, we continued to mull on foundational questions of race itself core to the discussion of racism. Once again, we asked– what is race, and does it exist, at all?

These are not questions that I had really considered before our class readings, and goes to show how ingrained racial thinking is on our minds. Even though I am quite aware of the notion of gender as a social construct, not once did the idea of race as a social construct occur to me, even after four years of schooling in a progressive college, whilst living in one of the most liberal and metropolitan cities in the world.

Sally drew this chart on the board classifying the views of some of the authors we read that I found very helpful.

 

Beliefs

Real 

 

Not

Biological

Race Realist

Race Eliminativist

Social

Social Constructionist

???

Thus, someone who believes that race is not biological is a race eliminativist; someone who believes that race is real, but only socially is a social constructionist, someone who believes that race is a real biological phenomenon is a race realist, and as far as we are aware there isn’t much of a name for people who believe that race is not socially real, since there are probably very few who think of it as such. Then there are also various combinations of the boxes above, and partial beliefs, such as race naturalists who believe that there are races biologically, but they could be very, very different from what we assume of races (and that is socially constructed).

Appiah, one of the thinkers we discussed, argues against the existence of race from two fronts– both ideationally (there exist no human beings that satisfy our assumptions of race) and refrentially (our usage of the term “race” have no human groupings to back them up). He might be someone we call a “race eliminativist”, although he approaches the concept from the usage of the term itself.

Yet, again, I argue, does this make the term any less valid? The ideational theorest would say that the concept/ideas associated with a term can be wrong and not apply to the referent– for example, when I say “I have arthiritis in my thigh”, when in fact, no one does. But clearly, there is some sort of pain in my thigh, and whether or not I refer to it as arthritis, it still exists.

What strikes me the most of all the authors we have read and discussed so far, along with our own discussions of race, is what appears the desire to seek biological or logical proof, of the existence or non-existence of race. There is such a great emphasis to dispute, with sequential logical proofs, whether or not race exists, when the ramifications of race existing and all the issues that come with it are overwhelmingly related to the fields of politics, economics, and social class that have very little to do with biology (aside from testing and treatment of certain diseases and genetics, which is not to be dismissed). We seek a logical, scientific proof of the existence of race, yet issues of racial thinking and racism clearly cannot be approached in such matters.

In the 21st century we laugh easily at the Social Darwanist who so ignorantly argues about the skull size and brain size of different races, as this is clearly “scientifically incorrect” and racist thinking. Yet, we neglect that the science was in fact “correct” in that era, for science is never an absolute truth, but a function of time and place. That is something we often forget– that science, is not objective but subjective, and grounded in its own system of human beliefs and ideologies. Behind every hypothesis is an inquiry about what we consider even worthwhile researching at all, and in every algorithm, human-chosen features to evaluate.

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