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Race: Racial Ontology #1 (Introduction)

In the first of this four-part Wireless Philosophy series, “Racial Ontology: A Guide for the Perplexed,” David Miguel Gray (Colgate University) introduces general problems philosophers face when they ask the question “What kind of thing is Race?”. In particular, what fields of inquiry should study race, if there can be racial ‘experts’, and what an account of race should look like if it is to capture the issues we care about.

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Video transcript

hello my name is David Miguel gray I teach philosophy at Colgate University and today I want to talk to you about race in particular I want to talk about the question what kind of things are races if they exist now to many people this sounds like a funny question to ask because it just seems obvious the races exist well today I'm not going to talk about the answers philosophers scientists and social theorists have given to the question that will be the topic of the next three videos rather I'm going to talk about why it's so hard to figure out how to approach this question in particular I'm going to focus on three closely related challenges to developing an account of race the domain problem the expertise in deferens problem and the third the mismatch problem or as it is more commonly known the mismatch argument the domain problem is best captured by the question if there are races what kind of thing are they for instance we might think that races are natural categories meant for someone to be a member of a race is for them to have a set of natural properties some of which are shared with other members of the same race natural properties or properties that exist in the world independently of the way we categorize it so for instance having the property of being a hat is not a natural property or is having the property of being made of wool is let's say that if this is the right way to think of races then the right domain from which to study races would be the natural domain this was a common approach to race in the 19th and 20th centuries today some philosophers view races being explainable in terms of a subset of natural properties we refer to as biological properties but around the end of the 20th century we started to see the development of arguments which suggested that race is not a natural phenomenon but a social historical one what follows from this is that the important racial properties associated with race are not natural but socio-historical for instance in W EB Dubois is groundbreaking 1897 speech the concert of races he tells us that while races transcend scientific definition they nevertheless are clearly defined to the eye of the historian and the sociologist that might be a bit hard to understand so let me give you an example in the US we have quite a few doctors when they are working they are normally easily identifiable they often wear white coats with stethoscopes around their necks they work in hospitals and universities and often talk in a way that suggests a high level of medical expertise and in order to be a practicing doctor in the u.s. you have to graduate from an accredited medical school complete a residency program and obtain a license to practice in a particular state or jurisdiction but the fact that doctors have the properties of having medical degrees and licenses depend on the existence of institutions which can be explained historically and socially and while doctors and virtually all other people share in natural properties like having a brain the properties that make a person a doctor or social properties because of this doctors can be thought of as socio-historical constructs now there is a big difference between being considered to be of a particular race and being considered to be a doctor but the idea is that racial properties are largely determined by our history and social institutions since W EB Dubois is speech the idea that raised falls within the domain of sociology and history has been increasing in popularity and I think I can safely say is the dominant view among academics or at the very least sociologists and historians another possibility is that racial properties are not just natural properties or social historical properties but a combination of these two if this is the case then to get a grasp on what races are may involve research in both the natural and the social historical domain so what we can gather from this discussion is the figuring out what races are seems really difficult because there is still substantial debate about what is the proper domain of Investigation so that's the domain problem a related problem is the expertise and deference problem the idea is roughly this language seems to work in such a way that there are lots of special terms that we can meaningfully use without being in possession of much information for instance I might say that my friend Julio has tuberculosis without being able to tell you what tuberculosis is I know that it's not good to have it tuberculosis but it's a medical condition this doesn't distinguish tuberculosis from lots of other conditions that are medical and also bad so if I can't distinguish tuberculosis from other bad medical conditions in virtue of what do I get to say I'm speaking meaningfully about tuberculosis and not let's say cancer to answer this question the theory of semantic deference claims that I can speak meaningfully about tuberculosis because there are experts in my community namely research doctors that do know whichever closest is and how to tell it apart from other bad medical conditions as the philosopher hilary putnam once said we should think of language less like a singular tool and more like the running of a complex steamship in which many of us have different in cooperative roles to play so now that we have an understanding of the role of semantic deference and expertise on the role of fixing the meaning of medical terms we can ask to racial terms work in the same way as medical terms like tuberculosis it does seem hard for many of us to say much meaningfully about race so maybe we can just defer to race experts in the way I deferred to research doctors in the tuberculosis example this seems like a good solution so what's the problem for starters experts normally occupy a domain and as we've already seen it's not clear in which domain we should locate our experts would we consult a biologist a historian a sociologist or a philosopher additionally there is little agreement even within these domains as to how to characterize races take the naturalist domain our race is the kind of things in which all members share some sort of underlying essential properties should races be primarily defined in terms of ancestral relations or geographic locations or perhaps races can be picked out by referring to groups that have a higher frequency of non-coding DNA in common even though we are working within a singular domain there is still massive disagreement on what races are within domaine in short it's not clear there is a unified group of experts to defer to even if we can solve the domain problem so we don't seem to have a solution to the expertise and deference problem finally there's the mismatch problem or as it has been coined by philosopher Ron Malan the mismatch argument here's the problem race is an area that we need to investigate and it normally involves some people specializing in race issues and during such investigations specialists sometimes come up with highly specialized definitions of what race is and what racial terms pick out in the world if the specialists or experts tell us that races are biologically isolated populations of individuals then it might turn out that some of the things we thought were races actually aren't races while other things we thought weren't races actually are is the philosopher anthony appiah suggests the amish might meet this definition of race even though we don't tend to think of Amish as a race the worry here is that what experts tell us racial terms pick out ends up deviating substantially from what we normally think racial terms pick out and if this happens then our experts accounts of what race is may not match up with our ordinary account of race and all the important explanatory works such ordinary counts of race play in our everyday lives the domain problem the expertise and deference problem and the mismatch problem are three problems that any account of race will need to deal with in the next set of entries on racial ontology I'll talk about some of the major positions on race and their advantages and disadvantages you