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The Racial Identity Thesis: Why Race is a Social Construct of a Biological Reality

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2250 words

Introduction

“Race” is a heavy topic. It influences many aspects of our daily lives, and in some cases, it even influences people to carry out heinous acts on groups of people deemed “inferior.” Such thoughts of “inferiority” of groups deemed (racialized as) races comes from horribly interpreting scientific studies, and in some cases, it is outright stated by the authors themselves, albeit using flowery language (eg Rushton, 2000). People that believe in the reality of race are called “race realists”, whether or not they hold a biological or social view of race.

On the socialrace side, social groups are racialized as races. “Social identities are contextual to historical and cultural elements.” “Racialization” is “the process through which groups come to be understood as major biological entities and human lineages, formed due to reproductive isolation, in which membership is transmitted through biological descent” (Hochman, 2019). Thinking about the root words for “racialization”, the two words are “racial formation.” Thus, when a group becomes racialized, it becomes a race based on societal expectations and thought.

“Hispanics” are an easy example to illustrate this case. In daily American discourse, people speak of “Hispanics”, “Spanish” people, and “Latinos/Latin Americans.” There are 33 Latin American countries to which this designation can be assigned to. In any case, what I term the “HLS distinction” (Hispanic, Latin American, Spanish distinction) is clearly a social designation and not a biological one. The group is an amalgamation of different peoples with differing amount ancestry to different countries of the world. “Hispanics” in some studies (eg Risch et al, 2002) don’t cluster in their own cluster (which would be taken to be a race, given that one has an argument for the claim), since they are an amalgam of different racial groups, it makes sense that they “clustered variously with the other groups.” Thus, “HLSs” are a social, not biological, kind.

Race concepts

Since “HBDers” call themselves “race realists” too, there needs to be a distinction between those who believe what I term “psychological race realism”—the claim that the psychological differences between the races are genetically transmitted and reduced to physical things—and regular old race realism—the claim that race exists as a social construct of a biological reality. Kaplan and Winther (2014) distinguish between bio-genomic/cluster race realism (the claim that race is real on the basis of genomic clusters from studies using programs like STRUCTURE); biological race realism affirms a kind of one-to-one mapping between social groups and clusters in DNA studies (though this not need be the case); and social race realism which is the racialization of social groups. They are anti-realists about biological race, but conventionalists about bio-genomic/cluster race. I think this is a good avenue to take, since the main program that psychological hereditarians push cannot ever be logically viable due to the irreducibility of the mental. (The “HBD” (Human Biological Diversity type racial realism is what I term psychological racial realism, while the type of racial realism I push is bio-genomic/cluster realism.)

In 2017, philosopher of race Michael Hardimon published his Rethinking Race: The Case for Deflationary Realism. In the book, Hardimon distinguishes between four race concepts: racialist races, in which it’s proponents attempt to rank-order racialized groups in socially-valued traits. Racialist races are socially constructed groups which then purport to pick out biological kinds. However, the concept of racialist race does not refer to any group in the world, genetic variation in Homo sapiens is nonconcordant, human variation is clinal, that is human groups aren’t sharply distinguished between one another on the basis of genomic data. Socialraces are groups taken to be racialist races, the social position taken by a group said to be a socialrace, or the system of positions that are social races (Hardimon, 2017: 131). So these two concepts need to be grouped together since they are hierarchical, though they need not be correlated with each other that strongly—one can be an anti-realist about biological races but be a realist about social races. This is why there is no contradiction in saying that biological race isn’t real but socialraces are. Socialraces also have a biological correlate, and these are what Hardimon terms “minimalist races”, which I will describe below.

Hardimon (2017: 69) has what he calls “an argument from the minimalist biological phenomenon of race” (Hardimon, 2017: 70):

Step 1. Recognize that there are differences in patterns of visible physical features of human beings that correspond to their differences in geographic ancestry.

Step 2. Observe that these patterns are exhibited by groups (that is, real existing groups).

Step 3. Note that the groups that exhibit these patterns of visible physical features correspond to differences in geographical ancestry satisfy the conditions of the minimalist concept of race.

Step 4. Infer that minimalist race exists.

Basically, if minimalist races exist then races exist because minimalist races are races. Contrast this argument (and Spencer’s newest argument arguing for the existence of OMB races) with hereditarian reasoning on race—basically just assume it’s existence.

The minimalist race concept does not state which populations are races, it just states that race exists. Hardimon’s populationist race concept (PRC) does, though. Although we don’t need genes to delineate race, using new technologies can and does help us to elucidate the existence of races. However, if minimalist races are populationist races, then the kind minimalist race equals populationist race. So if minimalist races are real, then so are populationist races.

Since 2014 in his paper A Radical Solution to the Race Problem, philosopher of race and science Quayshawn Spencer has been tinkering with an argument he now calls “the identity argument” (which I will provide below). The Office of Management and Budget has guidelines for the classification of people on the US census, being White, Black, Native American, Pacific Islander and Asian. The OMB never calls race a kind or a category, but they do refer to races as a set of categories or a proper name for population groups (Spencer, 2014). Spencer (2019a: 113) makes and defends 3 claims in regard to his OMB race theory:

(3.7) The set of races in OMB race talk is one meaning of ‘race’ in US race talk.

(3.8) The set of races in OMB race talk is the set of human continental populations.

(3.9) The set of human continental populations is biologically real.

In Spencer’s (2022) chapter in Remapping Race in a Global Context, A metaphysical mapping problem for race theorists and human population geneticists, Spencer has—in my opinion—articulated the best version of his OMB race argument.

Spencer’s identity argument

Of course, in the discussion of STRUCTURE and how many clusters it is told to construct from genomic data, the program is merely doing whag the human tells it to do. However, the five populations that come out in K= 5 “are genetically structured … which is to say, meaningfully demarcated solely on the basis of genetic markers” (Hardimon, 2017: 88). Hardimon (2017: 85) calls these clusters” continental-level minimalist races” whereas Spencer (2022: 278) calls these “the human continental populations” or “Blumenbachian partitions(Spencer, 2014: 1026).

K = 5 shows 5 human continental populations which are robust and have been replicated numerous times. The 5 human continental populations are Africans, Caucasians, East Asians, Native Americans, and Oceanians. K = 5 corresponds to the racial scheme used by the OMB, and by scientists and Americans in daily life. Human continental populations and OMB races correspond one-to-one in the following way: African, black; Caucasian, white; East Asian, Asian; Native American, American Indian; and Oceanian, Pacific Islander. So there is a metaphysical relation between the human continental populations in K = 5 and the OMB races. Spencer states that “identity” is what is exemplified between K = 5 and OMB races, and he then constructed this argument he calls “the identity thesis”:

(2.1) The identity thesis is true if, in OMB race talk, ‘American Indian,’ ‘Asian’, ‘Black’, ‘Pacific Islander,’ and ‘White’ are singular terms, and ‘American Indian’ means Native American, ‘Asian’ means East Asian, ‘Black’ means African, ‘Pacific Islander’ means Oceanian, and ‘White’ means Caucasian.

(2.2) In OMB race talk, the first conjunct in (2.1)’s antecedent is true.

(2.3) In OMB race talk, the second conjunct in (2.1)’s antecedent is true.

(2.4) So, the identity thesis is true.

(2.1) is true since the antecedent analytically entails the consequent; (2.2) is true based on the OMB’s intentions when they when coining the race terms, that is to provide a common language across US agencies; (2.3) is true since human continental populations are the best choices for the meanings of the OMB race terms—they posit referents which are part of the semantic content of the OMB race terms; it therefore follows that the conclusion (2.4) logically follows so the argument is deductively valid and I think it is sound.

Spencer (2019a) professes to be a radical pluralist about race—that is, there are many different race concepts for certain contexts based on American race talk. The referent “race” is merely a proper name for a set of human population groups. Race is therefore a social construct of a biological reality.

Conclusion

Race is meaningful in American social discourse—call it race talk. We should not be eliminativist about race, since there is medical relevance for certain groups deemed races. That is, we shouldn’t eliminate the concept RACE from our vocabulary, since it has a referent. RACE is a social construct of a biological reality. It must be said, though, that many people believe that since X is a social construct then X is therefore not real or doesn’t exist. But this line of thinking can be easily countered. Money is a social construct, so does that mean that money doesn’t exist so money isn’t real? No—the example perfectly shows the fallacious thinking of those who think that social constructivists are claiming that since X is socially constructed then X is not real. This couldn’t be further from the truth since social constructivists about race are realists about race. Pluralism about race is true—that is, there are many natures and realities for race based on the relevant context (Spencer, 2019: 27).

Lastly, these theories of race I have shown here do not license the claims that realists about racialist races or biological racial realists (as termed by Kaplan and Winther) have about these groups. While Hardimon distinguishes between the four concepts of race, Spencer’s concept and then argument tried to argue that race is a social construct of a biological reality.

Spencer even worries that those—like Charles Murray who don’t even have a coherent concept of race—may try to use his research for their own purposes:

Nevertheless, I do worry that politically right-winged people—for example, Charles Murray—might try to misuse my research for their own purposes. I’m also worried about the educational research that shows learning about human genetic differences in racial terms—for instance, lactase persistence alleles—increases racist attitudes among the learners.

Spencer took care of the first part as early as his 2014 paper and has reiterated it since—the DNA evidence that elucidates the reality of human races are on noncoding DNA, so Spencer (2014: 1036) states:

Nothing in Blumenbachian race theory entails that socially important differences exist among US races. This means that the theory does not entail that there are aesthetic, intellectual, or moral differences among US races. Nor does it entail that US races differ in drug metabolizing enzymes or genetic disorders. This is not political correctness either. Rather, the genetic evidence that supports the theory comes from noncoding DNA sequences. Thus, if individuals wish to make claims about one race being superior to another in some respect, they will have to look elsewhere for that evidence.

As for Spencer’s second worry, since racism is borne of ignorance, education can ameliorate racist attitudes (Hughes et al, 2007; Kuppens et al, 2014; Donovan, 2019, 2022).

Although I am a pluralist about race, the race concept I think best shows the reality of race is Spencer’s as he holds race to be a social construct of a biological reality in his OMB race theory. And we can easily see that RACE is a social construct of a biological reality with Spencer’s identity thesis by looking at the mapping between K = 5 and the OMB—the social part is the OMB designations of races, whereas the biological part are the clusters that appear in K = 5.

My thinking on race has changed a lot over the years. I used to be against the claim that race is a social construct. Though, if you know that being a social constructivist about race means that you don’t need to be an antirealist about the concept RACE as a whole, then you can state “Race is a social construct of a biological reality”, where “biological reality” means the concept RACE has some biological grounding, as seen in K = 5 STRUCTURE studies. RACE is an idea invented by people, which is the “social construct” claim. Thus, we impute racial categories onto people (the social construct part of the argument) and the racial categories we impute onto people have a biological grounding (as seen by K = 5).

P1: If RACE is a social construct of a biological reality, then RACE is not an inherent characteristic of the individual.

P2: If RACE is not an inherent characteristic of the individual, then one’s RACE is designated by the society they live in.

C: Thus, if RACE is a social construct of a biological reality, then one’s RACE is designated by the society they live in.

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