Rethinking Race: The Case for Deflationary Realism, by Michael Hardimon (Harvard University Press), £28.95/$39.95
People in the U.S. have classified one another by race since the nation’s founding, although the racial categories they have used have changed over time. No other way of classifying people, except perhaps by sex, has played a more prominent role in private and public life or so affected policies and choices at every level of government than race has. Nevertheless, there are disagreements, including among philosophers, over the nature and even reality of race and over how or on what basis individuals should be assigned to a racial category or even whether they should be assigned to any racial categories at all.
Michael Hardimon’s book, Rethinking Race: The Case for Deflationary Realism, aims to resolve many of these disagreements by rethinking the concept of race. According to Hardimon, there is not one but a variety of different race concepts; philosophers who write about race often disagree over the nature or reality of race because they rely on different concepts while thinking they rely on the same.
There are four race concepts, according to Hardimon, four different meanings that can be attached to race. According to the first, the racialist concept, people of different races are essentially (in mind and body) different and some races, in virtue of the differences, are better than others. According to the second, the minimalist concept, people of different races are distinguished by differences in visible, bodily traits (skin colour, hair texture, facial features) resulting from differences in geographical ancestry. According to the third, the populationist concept, people of different races descend from different founding populations. According to the fourth, what Hardimon calls socialrace, races are social groups (mistakenly) taken to be racialist races. While the first concept of race is normative, the others are not.
Hardimon calls his account of race deflationary and realist. Realist because, given the minimalist concept, race is real; humans do belong to different minimalist races. Deflationary, because, given the racialist concept, race is not real; humans do not belong to different racialist races for there are no such things. Hardimon calls his book an essay in metaphysics, for the book asks what race is or whether race is real rather than how we know what race we are.
Hardimon’s account of each of his different concepts of race is well informed and based on a close reading of the philosophical literature. However, Hardimon does not explain how the different concepts are connected to racial classification, to the racial categories commonly used to classify individuals by race, or how they might help us know or decide what race anyone is. What Hardimon calls minimalist races might be real, but how do we know whether anyone belongs to them?
Hardimon is primarily interested in ontological questions, questions about the nature and reality of race, but in the social and biological sciences, as well as ordinary life, classificatory questions are as, if not more, important.
Epidemiologists, for example, use racial categories to describe or explain differences within a population in the risk of death and disease and economists use race to describe or explain differences in income, wealth, schooling and housing. They are less interested in the concept or meaning of race than in how best to assign individuals to racial categories used by members of a population to classify themselves or employed by agencies of government in population surveys. The U.S. government currently recognizes five racial categories (Black, White, Asian, American-Indian or Alaskan Native, Native-Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander) into which members of the U.S. population are to be classified or grouped whenever their race is counted or reported. Though the government identifies the categories, it is silent on how members of the population should be assigned and how to decide to which of the categories a member belongs.
Hardimon’s account of racial concepts is of little or no use in racial classification, in assigning individuals to any of the five U.S. categories. Consider, for example, his concept of minimalist race, the one according to which, on Hardimon’s view, races are real. Hardimon says that there are human groups that exhibit patterns of visible physical differences that correspond to differences in geographical ancestry. However, if being wholly of a particular geographical or continental ancestry is necessary for belonging to a race in the minimalist sense of race, then not many in the U.S. are members of one of the five official races and many who count themselves or are counted by others as members are not.
In the United States, between 20 and 30 percent of self-reported Blacks as well as Whites have mixed African and European ancestry, and the median proportion of European ancestry among self-reported Blacks is 18.5 percent. While social-isolation mechanisms (racial bias, as well as housing, employment and discrimination) discourage interbreeding, people counted in the U.S. as different races, especially Blacks and Whites, are not reproductively isolated and, as a result, have mixed ancestry, both African and European. What in population genetics is called admixture, having genes from different founding populations, is not only a problem for Hardimon’s populationist concept of race, but for his minimalist concept as well.
Hardimon offers a detailed and comprehensive account of recent writing in philosophy on the nature and reality of race and an extremely balanced and thoughtful reading of each of the many views he discusses. Any philosopher interested in a survey of the literature would be well served by his book. If the book has a take-home message, it is this. Race is not a single thing. We cannot capture something as complex as race with a single definition or concept; race has a number of different dimensions, and one concept or definition cannot capture all of the different ways race affects our lives or the health or well-being of members of a population.