13 The Theory of Race

The contemporary examination of the concept “race” by philosophers causes significant disquiet. Most of us (me included) have these ideas and categories firmly in our conceptual system, which is reinforced everyday by our social perceptions. Many people deal with these difficulties in the topic by turning away from it. I appreciate your willingness to address it straight on. It is not my job to convince you of a position and I won’t try to, but I do want to help you understand why it is an important issue.

You may ask; “If race isn’t biological, why do we look different?”

A category or set is defined by the common characteristics of its members.  We cannot define a category or set solely by its members’ differences from other categories.

Good question, but please note that the Theory of Race (i.e. that there are biologically distinct human groups) does not seek to explain why people look different.  The Theory of Race is supposed to explain why some people look alike – at least within a single group.  The biological theory of race (Racial Naturalism) posits that all and only the members of a racial group share some common traits that are biologically determined. This is about what makes people in a group alike.  It is not

biologically determined that I look different from you.  It is biologically determined that I look similar to my father.  It is similarity (identities) not difference that the theory of race asserts.

If Racial Naturalism is correct, then we should be able to observe the common characteristics within a racial group. This is where the trouble begins, because as soon as we start measuring human characteristics accurately, science finds that there are no such common characteristics within the racial groups.  Or, I should say, that is the claim of the contemporary critics of Racial Naturalism.

If that criticism is correct, then what is really going on?  Why do we perceive people as racially grouped if there are no genuine essential traits.  My answer is this: we are not really perceiving commonalities when we see races, we are perceiving differences by comparison.  On this view, it is not necessary that any people have a common skin pigment factor, it is only necessary that they are perceived them as “not white.”

Here is the key philosophical point: a category or set is defined by the common characteristics of its members.  We cannot define a category or set solely by its members’ differences from other categories.

It is similarity (identities) not difference that the theory of race asserts.

It is as if we were to run a dog show by setting exclusive criteria categories such as “dogs that are not poodles” and “dogs that are not brown” and “dogs that do not have pointy ears.”  That would be a confused and unsuccessful category system.  Instead, dog shows function with categories of inclusive criteria. Dog pedigrees are carefully defined by committees and even a minor deviation from the prescribed range of measured criteria is sufficient to deny a dog a pedigree. Pedigree dog breeds do not really conform to a biological facts; rather pedigree dog breeds are constructed by excluding variations. That

is a human invention.  The traits that make a breed are certainly biological.  Yet, no one will argue that their dog must be a beagle “because it is smaller than a German Shepard” (i.e. it looks different).   However, some people still argue that there must be biologically determined races of humans “because people look different.”  My point: “looking different than” cannot be a criterion for inclusion in a set.

I believe that the everyday theory of race – the one that shapes our everyday perceptions operates on exclusive criteria categories; i.e. “people look different.”  I doubt that we formed our ideas of race from pure observation, such as looking closely at people and seeing how similar some their skin pigmentations are.  The test is this: do groups of people really share a common (identical) skin pigmentation?  It seems to me that these questions can be tested and answered empirically.  Figure out a way to measure skin colors (I’m not sure how to do that or what will be measured), get ten people together, and check.

According to most contemporary anthropologists, you will find that within the common racial categories there is great variation in skin pigment.

“In the United States both scholars and the general public have been conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions within the human species based on visible physical differences. With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, however, it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within “racial” groups than between them. In neighboring populations there is much overlapping of genes and their phenotypic (physical) expressions. Throughout history whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species.” (1978, American Anthropological Association) [1]

That is the general consensus among contemporary anthropologists and geneticists.  Try it for yourself.  Is your own skin color (whatever that is) the same as that of other people in your racial group?  Check and see.  If you look critically, you will find that people within any racial people look different from one another.  We all look different from one another.  If I am right about that, how could “looking different from” constitute a category of sameness?

For that matter, is the color of your hand the same as the color of your thigh?  Exactly?  Are you only one color all over, or is reality more complex than that?  Look and see.

So you may ask (again); “If race isn’t biological, then why do we look different?”  Well, you have to ask that same question within the racial groups.  “Looking different” turns out not to be an accurate basis for grouping people.   “Looking alike” may be, but that is what science is having a hard time finding (or has found is not the case).

The huge philosophical question for me is: if the theory of race turns out to be objectively false, what accounts for why we really do perceive race in the world?  Is it a perceptual illusion?   Are our perceptions a function of our beliefs and learned concepts?  Is it possible that we could, though conceptual investigation (i.e. philosophy) change how we perceive the world?  That would change our reality.  That’s a stunning thought.  What does it look like to you? In good spirit,


[1]  American Anthropological Association Statement on “Race.”  May 17, 1998.