“Race is just a social construct!” is a claim that one who ventures on this side of the internet is likely to hear. People who believe that race is a biological—and social—reality would then say that they are denying the reality of race—that they are saying that race does not exist. But think about the phrase “Race is just a social construct.” In the phrase, we should not assume that there is anything in it which states that the one who is using it is saying that “Race does not exist.” On the contrary: they ARE being realists about race, but in a social, not biological, manner.
Even those who drafted the new AAPA Statement on Race and Racism state that ““race” as a social reality — as a way of structuring societies and experiencing the world — is very real.” They further state that (my emphasis):
… race has become a social reality that structures societies and how we experience the world. In this regard, race is real, as is racism, and both have real biological consequences.
What people do not understand is that just by saying that something is “socially constructed” it does not mean that something “is not real.” For, if social constructivists about race did not believe in the reality of race, what would they have to talk about if what they were talking about did not exist?
Taking a social constructivist approach to race does not mean that one denies its reality. In fact, one of the most impactful arguments for the existence of race identifies race as a social construct of a biological reality (Spencer, 2014). We socially construct races based on what we see—what we see correlates to geographic locales. However, note the socially construct part of the previous phrase. Just that one part can denote so much when it comes to race and its reality.
Social constructivists about race deny that race exists as a biological reality but admit that it exists as a social reality. This then allows them to argue that “racial inequality becomes embodied—literally—in the biological well-being of racialized groups and individuals” (Gravlee, 2009). Gravlee (2009) explains how race becomes biologicized through people’s social expectations of certain races. So, as Gravlee argues, there are biological consequences of racializing social groups.
This is just as Kaplan (2010) argues: although the concept of folk races is false (I disagree), the fact that this concept is still deployed in American thought implies that this is part of what drives social inequalities between social groups that are racialized to be races (what Hardimon, 2017 terms “socialraces“). So, these socially/historically constructed races can and do mean big things when it comes to biology. We can biologicize social groups that we take to be racial groups (i.e., make them socialraces), and this can then drive health disparities between the now-racialized groups.
Now, when people state that “Race is a social construct without biological backing”, they are not denying that what we call “races” captures a portion of genetic diversity—it does, capturing about 4.3 percent of genetic variation between humans is accounted for by folk races (Rosenberg et al, 2002).
Spencer (2011) even identifies social constructivisits about race as realists about race in his Table 1.:
Kaplan and Winther (2014) even identify social constructivists as racial realists, writing:
Social racial realism defends the existence of distinct human groups in our ordinary discourse and social interactions. Such groups are often identified and stabilized by “surface” factors such as skin color or facial features.
(I would be the first of their racial realists, the biogenomic cluster/race, while Jensen, Lynn, and Rushton would be what they term biological racial realists. I would then put Kaplan (2010) and Gravlee (2009) into the social racial realist category.) Kaplan and Winther (2014) are antirealists about biological race. When racialists hear people denying that race exists, that’s what they mean—they are antirealists about biological race.
So, race can exist as a social and political reality, but not exist as the biological racial realists would claim. That is because what we—as a society—impute onto racialized groups, i.e., social races, does have make a difference in regard to the type of health outcomes, for example, that constructivists about race care about. So while they are antirealist about biological races, they hold that those who uphold the existence of biological races do, in part, drive negative health disparities between racialized groups.
Social constructivists about race talk about race in a social manner. When it comes to Hardimon’s (2017) concept of socialrace, it picks out three different but related social kinds: a kind of social group, a social position, and a social system. To Hardimon (2017: 131):
The concept SOCIALRACE refers to
(1) a social group that is taken to be a racialist tace,
(2) the social position occupied by a particular social group that is a socialrace, or
(3) the system of social psoitions that are socialraces.
Socialraces are social groups because they are developed by social relations and defined by social properties. In this way, socialraces are not biological at all because they are not developed by biological relations and defined by biological properties. In this way, the concept of socialrace is distinct from all of Hardimon’s (2017) other race concepts—it, and it alone, constitutes the social dimension of race (this is the difference between Hardimon’s and Spencer’s (2014) concept of race—Hardimon separates the social and biological, Spencer combines both). And so, a socialrace is a social group that is taken to be a racialist race
Hardimon (2017: 132) writes:
Socialrace (the phenomenon) is social in something like the sense in which money and marital status are. Without the requisite social practices, there would be no money, no marriage, no socialrace. Spcoa;race differs straightforwardly social instutions, however, in that its sociality is disguised. The concept SOCIALRACE represents socialraces as social groups whose sociality is hidden—not from the critical theorist already in possession of the concept SOCIALRACE, of course, but from the ordinary individual in society. Socialraces are social groups that appear to be biological. The fact that they are social races goes unseen.
So socialraces are hierarchical in nature—some socialraces, such as whites, are dominant whereas other socialraces, such as blacks, are subordinate. So members of one dominant socialrace can oppress members of another subordinate socialrace. The fact that socialraces are taken to be racialist races—that the belief that people are members of biological races is necessary for the existence of socialraces is true.
Hardimon (2017: 132) writes
SOCIALRACE is strongly nonbiological. It is logically possible tht socialreaces could be found in a world in which the apparent differences in human skin color were actually the result of the nocturnal activity of race fairies, spray-painting hues of black, brown, yellow, red, and pink on the skin of sleeping souls in the dead of night. What makes a person a member of a socialrace are social practices (which include the local application of specific criteria for individual racial classifications), not the possession of biological features. The concept SOCIALRACE is free of any implication that there are even partially biological races. It does not represent socialrace as a “social-natural” kind, representing it instead as a social kinf that falsely purports to be a biological kind.
So we can see that, in Hardimon’s view, socialraces are groups taken to be racialist races—they are falsely thought of as being biologicized, and so, the “social” aspect of these groups is hidden, and only the “apparent” biological nature of these groups is seen. Though do note how SOCIALRACE cannot be both biological and social—it can only be one and it is, of course, social.
Further, minimalist race is a correlate of socialrace. However, just because minimalist race is a correlate of socialrace does not mean that there is a corresponding minimalist race for every socialrace. The best example is “Latinos/Hispanics.” They are a group that are racialized and can be said to be a socialrace, but they have no minimalist race correlate since they are an amalgamation of different races/ethnic groups. No minimalist race functions as the correlate of “Latinos/Hispanics.” “The Irish were a socialrace at one point bu are probably not a minimalist race. We can say that Jews have been a socialrace without committing to ourselves to the claim that they are a minimalist race” (Hardimon, 2017: 136).
So Hardimon’s socialrace concept is a distinctive race concept and satisfies a genuine representational need. Hardimon’s concept puts forth a way of thinking about social groups which are then racialized as biological racial groups, the way that these socialraces occupy social positions, and the system of social structures of which those positions are parts (of which those parts are socialraces). Hardimon’s concept, indeed, does not show that race “does not exist” or “is not real”, since he even says that “‘Constructivisim’ is often used in such a way that to say X is socially constructed is to say that X is unreal. As I use the term, ‘constructivism’ carries no such implication” (Hardimon, 2017: 136). Of course, there could carry that very implication, that whatever is socially constructed does not exist outside of what is doing the socially constructing.
In sum, social constructivists about race are realists about race. Indeed, they need to be realists about race in order for their proposed solutions to work. For if they were not realists about race, what are they fighting for? When people say “Those who say ‘race is a social construct’ deny the existence of race”, they mean to bring up antirealists about biological race, not social constructivists about race. Race, whether you take the biological or social/political view, clearly exists. And accepting one concept over the other dictates what you think about the so-called racial groups in question.
While Spencer’s (2014) race concept already has the social and biological parts inherent in them, Hardimon (2017) separates them—from racialist races, to minimalist race, to populationist race and finally socialrace. Socialraces have a minimalist race correlate—though not all of them do. In any case, socialraces have certain institutions that they are more likely to inhabit. The way that these socialraces occupy social positions, and the system of social structures of which those positions are part are what the concept of socialrace elaborates on.
Therefore, social constructivists about race are realists about race—and there can be no other way for them to be about race. They may be antirealists about biological race, but they are not antirealists about race all the way—they have to believe that race exists, or else what they are doing holds no weight in the world.