A Philosopher's Blog

Race Nominalism

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on June 19, 2015

As it is wont to do, the internet exploded again—this time because the question was raised as to whether Rachel Dolezal, the former leader of Spokane’s NAACP chapter, is black or white. Ms. Dolezal has claimed that she is African-American, Native American and white. She also has claimed that her father is black. Reporters at KXLY-TV, however, looked up her birth certificate and determined that her legal parents are both white. Her parents have asserted that she is white.

While the specifics of her case are certainly interesting to many, my concern is with the more general issues raised by this situation, specifically matters about race and identity. While this situation is certainly the best known case of a white person trying to pass for black, passing as another “race” has been a common practice in the United States for quite some time. However, this passing was the reverse of Ms. Dolezal’s attempt: trying to pass as white. Since being accepted as white enables a person to avoid many disadvantages, it is clear why people would attempt to pass as white. Since being accepted as black generally does not confer advantages, it is not surprising that there has been only one known case of a white person endeavoring to pass as black. These matters raise some interesting questions and issues about race.

Borrowing language from metaphysics, one approach to race could be called race realism. This is not being realistic about race in the common use of the term “realistic.” Rather, it is accepting that race is a real feature of reality—that is, the metaphysical and physical reality includes categories of race. On this view, black and white could be real categories grounded in metaphysical and physical reality. As such, a person could be objectively black or white (or a mix). Naturally, even if there are real categories of race, people could be wrong about them.

The stark alternative is what could be called race nominalism. This is the idea that racial categories are social constructs and do not line up with an underlying metaphysical and physical reality. This is because there is no underlying metaphysical and physical reality that objectively grounds racial categories. Instead, categories of race are social constructs. In this case, a person might engage in self-identification in regards to race and this might or might not be accepted by others. A person might also have others place her into a race category—which she might or might not accept.

Throughout history, some people have struggled mightily to find an objective basis for categories of race. Before genetics, people had to make use of appearance and ancestry. The ancestry was, obviously, needed because people did not always look like the race category that some people wanted them to be in. One example of this is the “one drop” rule once popular in some parts of the United States: one drop of black blood made a person black, regardless of appearance.

The discovery of genes provided some people with a new foundation for race categories—they believed that there would be a genetic basis to categorizations. The idea was that just as a human can be distinguished from a cat by genes, humans of different race categories could be distinguished by their genetic make-up. While humans do show genetic variations that are often linked to the geographical migration and origin of their many ancestors, the much desired race genes did not seem to be found. That is, humans (not surprisingly) are all humans with some minor genetic variations—that is, the variations are not sufficient to objectively ground race categories.

In general, the people who quested for objective foundations for race categories were (or are) racists. These searches typically involved trying to find evidence of the superiority of one’s race and the inferiority of other races. That said, a person could look for foundations for race without being a racist—that is, they could be engaged in a scientific or philosophical inquiry rather than seeking to justify social practices and behaviors. As might be suspected, such an inquiry would be greeted today with charges of racism. As such, it is no surprise that the generally accepted view is that race is a construct—that is, race nominalism rather than race realism is accepted.

Given the failure to find a metaphysical or physical foundation for race categories, it certainly makes sense to embrace race nominalism. On this view, the categories of race exist only in the mind—that is, they are how people divide up reality rather than how reality is carved up. Even if it is accepted that race is a social construct, there is still the matter of the rules of construction—that is, how the categories are created and how people are placed in the categories.

One approach, which is similar to that sometimes taken in regards to gender, is to hold that people can self-identify. That is, a person can simply declare her race and this is sufficient to be in that category. If race categories are essentially made up, this does have a certain appeal—if race is a fiction, then surely anyone can be the author of her own fiction.

While there are some who do accept this view, the outrage over Ms. Dolezal shows that most people seem to reject the idea of self-identification—at least when a white person endeavors to self-identify as black. Interestingly, some of those condemning her do defend the reverse, the historical passing as white by some black people. The defense is certainly appealing: blacks endeavoring to pass as white were doing so to move from being in an oppressed class and this can be justified as a form of self-defense. In the case of Ms. Dolezal, the presumption seems to be that the self-identification was both insincere and aimed at personal gain. Regardless of her true motivation, insincere self-identification aimed at personal gain seems to be wrong—on the grounds that it is a malign deception. Some might, of course, regard all attempts at passing to gain an advantage as being immoral and not distinguish based on the direction of the passing.

Another approach is that of the social consensus. The idea is that a person’s membership in a race category depends on the acceptance of others. This could be a matter of majority acceptance (one is, for example, black if most people accept one as black) or acceptance by a specific group or social authority. The obvious problem is working out what group or authority has the right to decide membership in race categories. On the one hand, this very notion seems linked to racism: one probably thinks of the KKK setting its race categories or the Nazis doing so. On the other hand, groups also seem to want to serve as the authority for their race category. Consistency might indicate that this would also be racist.

The group or authority that decides membership in race categories might make use of a race credential system to provide a basis for their decisions. That is, they might make use of appearance and ancestry. So, Ms. Dolezal would not be black because she looks white and has white parents. The concern with this sort of approach is that this is the same tool set used by racists, such as the KKK, to divide people by race. A more philosophical concern is the basis for using appearance and ancestry as the foundation for race categories—that is, what justifies their use?

This discussion does show an obvious concern with policing race categories—it seems like doing so uses the tools of racism and would thus seem to be at least a bit racist. However, arguments could be advanced as to why the policing of race categories is morally acceptable and not racist.

 

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 19, 2015 at 10:35 am

    Christians are true Jews

    “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” ~ Saint Paul (Romans 2:28-29)

    From Jenner to Dolezal: One Trans Good, the Other Not So Much

    “By far the most intellectually and politically interesting thing about the recent “exposé” of Spokane, WA, NAACP activist Rachel Dolezal’s racial status is the conundrum it has posed for racial identitarians who are also committed to defense of transgender identity… How do we know that Dolezal may not sense that she is “really” black in the same, involuntary way that many transgender people feel that they are “really” transgender?”

    Read more: From Jenner to Dolezal: One Trans Good, the Other Not So Much – http://goo.gl/hu9HRk

    • ronster12012 said, on June 19, 2015 at 11:04 am

      AJ

      So was Paul talking about jews or Christians?

      As for Dolezal, if she is ‘transracial’ (and the usual retards are pushing that line) then it is on for young and old.

      Every ‘white’ person can now tick every box regarding afro american status and get free stuff……and if anyone refuses them can sue the arse off them. Blacks of course will not be too keen on this development, but their racial status is merely a ‘social construct’ regardless of what they think(or so the current meme demands).

      It’s going to be fun times ahead so best to pull up a comfy armchair, grab a beer or 10 and watch the progressive class devour itself…..bon appetit ,

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 19, 2015 at 3:59 pm

        Interestingly, people have been saying that the progressive class will devour itself for as long as I can remember. Reminds me a bit of Marx’s claim that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction.

        Fortunately, the majority of Americans don’t actually buy into the extremes. Presumably the sensible middle keeps the country going. Mostly by doing the work while the politicians talk.

        • ronster12012 said, on June 21, 2015 at 7:06 am

          Michael

          True that most people in most countries are not extremists and their inertia actually keeps things ticking over.
          However, extremists do often manage to influence those in power and do actually move the middle ground (however slowly)beneath the feet of the majority.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 22, 2015 at 11:18 am

            True. American politics is heavily influenced by people on the extremes. For example, most Americans favor expanding gun control to make it harder for criminals to get guns. But, the NRA is very good at crushing all attempts to impose limits.

  2. ronster12012 said, on June 19, 2015 at 10:44 am

    Michael

    So if race is a social construct then all affirmative action needs to be abandoned immediately as it is fraudulent, no? All ‘integration’ is an absurdity as there is nothing to ‘integrate’.

    All racial discrimination legislation is now invalid as there are no ‘races’ and is fraudulent too.

    All race based organizations are now redundant and can shut up shop and go and do other things now that race has been abolished.

    Where am I wrong?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 19, 2015 at 3:56 pm

      That can be seen as something of the “paradox” of race: if one argues that it is but a construct, then (as you note) all the race stuff would seem to have no foundation. If one argues that race is real, then that seems to be racist.

      One argument that people do advance is that while race is a construct and not real, some people use their categories in order to target their misdeeds (like slavery and murder). As such, when combating these categories and their historical (and current) impact one must acknowledge the categories, while at the same time repudiating them.

      To use an analogy, consider the caste system in India. That is clearly made up, yet clearly impacts people. To address this injustice, one must acknowledge the victims by using the classification system of the oppressors-their victims are defined by who they identify as untouchable.

      • ronster12012 said, on June 20, 2015 at 10:24 am

        Michael

        I am curious after hearing that this and that are ‘social constructs’ and therefore not real( a great delegitimizing tactic, hats off to whoever thought that one up), but what then is real? Is love real, or beauty or anything beyond the simple existence of the material world?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 22, 2015 at 11:14 am

          That is a classic fundamental question.

          Folks in metaphysics (like Plato, Aquinas, Galileo, Locke, and Anselm) tend to take the view that the real has a distinct existence from the mind. A good example of this is Anselm’s famous ontological argument: he focuses on the distinction between existing within the understanding and existing for real. The dispute between nominalists and realists about metaphysical properties also focused on this distinction: some nominalists take categories to exist only within the mind while realists take then to be part of the make-up of the external world. In Plato’s words, carving the beast of reality along the joints.

          Other thinkers, such a Hobbes, do argue for the existence of social/political bodies-they are real for him.

          Some prefer to cast the matter into the objective-subjective distinction. Objectively real things exist apart from us. For Galileo, the primary qualities (such as extension, mass, volume and density) are real in that they are objective and not mind dependent. Subjective things, like color, flavor and warmth, exist within the mind and are not objectively real. For example, taste is not in the world, it is in the mind. So there is no real taste of food-just what it tastes like to you.

          Love and beauty are good choices to ask about. Plato regarded beauty as real-one of the forms. But, later thinkers came up with the phrase everyone knows: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” which is the view that beauty is subjective. Now, it could be argued that the beauty is real insofar as the person has that mental state that makes up what is beauty (or love), so they really think something is beautiful (or really think they are in love).

          Some folks, such as Newton and Hume, were sick of all the metaphysical speculations about real essences and rejected much of metaphysics (although Newton still devoutly believed in God). This eventually led to the view that all that is real is what can be measured and quantified.

          It is certainly tempting to call BS on all this, but determining what is real and what is not seems important. After all, much of science is sorting out what is and what is not (such as luminous ether).

      • ronster12012 said, on June 20, 2015 at 10:56 am

        Michael

        It just occurred to me that this:

        “One argument that people do advance is that while race is a construct and not real, some people use their categories in order to target their misdeeds (like slavery and murder). As such, when combating these categories and their historical (and current) impact one must acknowledge the categories, while at the same time repudiating them.”

        is a bit like having your cake and eating it too. Repudiate race but still get to blame another non existent race for something that the present generation(and the majority of the people at that time) had nothing to do with but is expected to atone for(with $$$$).

        So, 1/ is collective responsibility(and punishment) in any way valid and 2/ is there a cut off limit, a statute of limitations for 1? 3/ is all this just quite discriminatory in favour of the blacks as white people never go on about the huge numbers of white people who have been enslaved over the centuries. Should the blacks just be told to shut up,harden up and stop whining?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 22, 2015 at 11:15 am

          That is certainly a problem. To say “race is not real” while also saying “people of race X are entitled to scholarships for X people, while people of race Y are not” is certainly problematic.

  3. ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 19, 2015 at 9:58 pm

    “What if, instead of assuming Dolezal is a fraud, we acknowledged that all of us have, to varying degrees, composite identities, and some of us identify in ways that are at variance with our biology, even if those ways aren’t always publicly recognized or socially acceptable? What if we acknowledged the fact that, at some point or another, each of us ends up checking off boxes because our social systems ask us to, even though those boxes don’t fully articulate who we are? And what would it look like if, instead of trying to label people as this or that identity, or worry about who we are placing in the right category, we honored each individual in the fullness of their complexity and in the dignity of their own self-determination?

    “These are particularly worthy questions for contemporary Jews to consider for several reasons.

    “Firstly, because Jewishness is, in an important sense, also a social construct similar to race and gender. As Shaye Cohen argued in “The Beginnings of Jewishness,” “Jewishness, like most – perhaps all – other identities, is imagined; it has no empirical, objective, verifiable reality to which we can point … Jewishness is in the mind … it exists because certain persons want it to exist and believe that it exists. It can be willed into and out of existence” (p. 5)…”

    Read more: Why is Rachel Dolezal any different from Caitlyn Jenner? http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/rabbis-round-table/.premium-1.661550 @RabbiKnopf

    • ronster12012 said, on June 20, 2015 at 10:36 am

      AJ

      So jewishness is just a social construct too it seems………..but is it antisemitic to point that out? And further, if jewishness is not real then presumably antisemitism isn’t real too lol because how can one be accused of being an opponent of a non existent thing….sort of like being an anti Santa Clausian?
      So in addition to abolishing the black race as just a made up hoax we can do the same to the jews and presumably the white race too. Who can the people previously known as the jews and blacks etc try to guilt now since the white race has been abolished too? Some are going to experience a huge void in their lives and no more free stuff.

  4. nailheadtom said, on June 20, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    Certainly race is a social construct and so is nationality. Does it make sense to assign a nationality to an individual simply because he was born in a certain geographic location? There’s a significant controversy about this right now:

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/chinese-nationals-charged-in-birth-tourism-crackdown-in-california-1430447175

    Upon their return to China, will these children be regarded in the future as Americans? Probably not.

    A major issue with German officials in the “Forest Boy” episode wasn’t Forest Boy’s race but his nationality.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2159725/German-Forest-Boy-identified-Dutch-man-Robin-20-wanted-start-new-life.html

    Forest Boy’s imaginary history isn’t appreciably different than that of Rachel Dolezal’s, in that it’s purely imaginary. Yet he is regarded as a fraud liable for the expenses related to the investigation of his origins and Dolezal has become something of a celebrity.

    • ronster12012 said, on June 21, 2015 at 7:03 am

      Tom

      ……………………………………………
      “Certainly race is a social construct and so is nationality. Does it make sense to assign a nationality to an individual simply because he was born in a certain geographic location? There’s a significant controversy about this right now:”
      ……………………………………………

      Race is a social construct? Says who besides Franz Boas, who certainly didn’t give up his jewishness on the grounds it was a mere ‘social construct’?

      Of course it makes sense to assign nationality on the basis of geography, as that is how the world is organized with borders……..and how it must necessarily be organized. Unless you could suggest a viable alternative?

      Borders too are ‘social constructs’ but are just as real as anything, you could easily get killed ignoring them.

      ……………………………………………

      “Upon their return to China, will these children be regarded in the future as Americans? Probably not.”
      ……………………………………………

      Duh! Why on earth would you think that they would be in any way considered ‘american’….that is just a paperwork thing and has nothing to do with their ethnic identity. Unlike brainwashed, deracinated, soon to be displaced, naive, arrogant, morally vain and dumb as pigshit whites who think everyone in the world wants to be them(as opposed to just having their stuff), most non europeans are glad of their ethnic identity and see us trying to abnegate our racial identity as a sure sign that we have lost the fucking plot….

      • nailheadtom said, on June 21, 2015 at 11:45 pm

        “Jewishness”, whatever that is, is a race? Really? I always thought it was a religion. Is Catholicism a race as well? Are Scientologists a separate race?
        ………………………………

        Wait a minute, you can’t have it both ways. If being born in an area with borders makes you a national of that area, then the Chinese tourist babies are positive Americans, per the bureaucratic paperwork. That’s why the state wants to prosecute the enablers, even though they’ve broken no law. It ain’t against the law for a pregnant woman to visit the country and it ain’t against the law for them to have a child in the US. Evidently the bureaucrats in charge are terrified that some Chinese baby born in Orange County will return someday and successfully run for president of the US of A and then change around the health care system.

        The nationality of an individual can’t be determined by their DNA or any other physical characteristic. Without the required paperwork no one knows what their “true” nationality is, if there even is such a thing. Race is much the same thing in that it’s based on outward appearance more than anything else. I know two girls that are half Eskimo. Most people take them for Mexicans, which aren’t a race, or some kind of Asians, which they kind of are, at least in part. However, they are both of the same species, homo sapiens, which should be good enough.

        • ronster12012 from Oz said, on June 22, 2015 at 9:31 am

          Tom

          Thanks for that reply.

          ………………………………………
          ““Jewishness”, whatever that is, is a race? Really? I always thought it was a religion. Is Catholicism a race as well? Are Scientologists a separate race?”
          ……………………………………….

          Of course it is racially based as otherwise there could not be such a thing as a jewish atheist…..and there are plenty of those who are no less jews than the religious jew. Judaism the religion is therefore incidental to being a jew.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who_is_a_Jew%3F so you see it is only a matter of having a jewish mother.

          I merely pointed out that the founder/promoter of the ‘race as social construct’ idea was a racial jew and remained so.

          ………………………………………………….

          “Wait a minute, you can’t have it both ways. If being born in an area with borders makes you a national of that area, then the Chinese tourist babies are positive Americans, per the bureaucratic paperwork.”
          …………………………………………………..

          They may technically be ‘americans’ and entitled to a passport and residency but that is just a bureaucratic thing and the chinese are just being opportunistic(or smart, take your pick). There is no chance whatsoever that an american who happened to be born in China would ever be thought of as chinese by other chinese.
          The same goes for most places.

          …………………………………………………….

          “Evidently the bureaucrats in charge are terrified that some Chinese baby born in Orange County will return someday and successfully run for president of the US of A and then change around the health care system.”
          ……………………………………………………..

          No, they just don’t like to be made fools of and will prosecute them for something. Meanwhile, your elites are bending over backwards to flood your country with hispanics. Never mind, if you are a white american you are redundant and your more easily controlled replacements are coming across the border as we speak lol. Could you please leave quietly……………

          ……………………………………………………………

          “The nationality of an individual can’t be determined by their DNA or any other physical characteristic. Without the required paperwork no one knows what their “true” nationality is, if there even is such a thing. ”
          ……………………………………………………………

          Of course the nationality can’t be defined by DNA, that is what passports are for.

          As for ‘true nationality’, it is probably the country you were born and raised in. That is the basis of all human society and culture, a connectedness to the place,people and culture of one’s character forming years. Only confused westerners would doubt this.

          ……………………………………………………………….

          “I know two girls that are half Eskimo. Most people take them for Mexicans, which aren’t a race, or some kind of Asians, which they kind of are, at least in part. ”

          ………………………………………………………………..

          Why don’t you ask them what race they are? They will probably tell you.

          ………………………………………………………………..

          “However, they are both of the same species, homo sapiens, which should be good enough.”
          …………………………………………………………………

          It may be good enough for for propagandizedn westerners who have endured a cultural revolution over the past few decades which has deligitimized their ethnic and cultural solidarity, but, believe me………99% of the non white,non western world knows who they are, where they are from, what their culture is and whose side they are on.

          This idea that we are all the same species and that is enough to make the world into some kumbayafest is severely retarded. White people have been conned into believing that millions of third worlders can come to our countries and will be magically transformed into self hating nihilistic western consumers is mistaken…………they will merely make the first world third world. It is all about numbers. Ask yourself this……….in X years when whites become a minority in the US, will they bend over backwards to accommodate you as you are doing for them now? If the answer is no then ask yourself why that is so. Then ask how this came about….

          cheers

  5. magus71 said, on June 29, 2015 at 10:18 pm

    I just can’t help myself.

    • ronster12012 said, on June 30, 2015 at 7:43 am

      Magus

      Excellent video. All this trans shit (maybe that’s the next ‘trans’ on the list) needs to be mocked and trolled into oblivion, partly for amusement as it is fun, but more importantly to break the spell that seems to have a hold on the more impressionable amongst us(polite term for idiots).

      Have you seen cases of imbecilic parents who for some unfathomable reason decide to bring up their child genderless? FFS, where does this insanity stop?

      • magus71 said, on June 30, 2015 at 12:22 pm

        I’ve actually seen cases in which parents begin giving their young children hormones because the child says they feel like a different sex. We’ve gone insane. There is no turning back. The fact that we cannot see the most fundamental truths means we will never see the complex, subtle ones.

        • ronster12012 said, on June 30, 2015 at 12:35 pm

          Magus

          We really have lost the plot. Either denying a child a gender or chemically changing it should really be classed as child abuse…….instead this shit is tolerated but someone who slaps a misbehaving child stands to lose them.

          • WTP said, on June 30, 2015 at 12:47 pm

            Hey, better that 1000 children be poisoned with the wrong hormones than one single leftist philosophy be discredited. The news, entertainment, and academic media will ensure that, so long as they last.

            • ronster12012 said, on June 30, 2015 at 12:53 pm

              You do have a point there, better keep poisoning the kids….

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 30, 2015 at 3:47 pm

          I would think that giving hormones to kids would be a bad idea medically. I certainly expect kids to be confused and experimental, but modifying them is certainly problematic. Once they become adults, then it is up to them-but before then, it is probably wisest to not do any lasting or permanent modifications (I am, however, not including actual medical treatments to correct medical problems).

    • WTP said, on June 30, 2015 at 8:26 am

      I hate ducks. Expect no apologies. Think of me what you will.


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