The Political Ontology of Race

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Philosophy, Politics/Public Policy on 2011-12-01 22:59Z by Steven

The Political Ontology of Race

DOI: 10.1057/pol.2011.15

Michael Rabinder James, Associate Professor of Political Science
Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania
Race theory is dominated by two camps. Eliminativists rely on a biological ontology, which contends that the concept of race must be biologically grounded, in order to repudiate the very term, on grounds that it is epistemologically vacuous and normatively pernicious. Conservationists use a social ontology, in which race is based on social practices, in order to retain racial categories in remedial social policies, such as affirmative action and race-based political representation. This article attempts to reorient this debate in two ways. First, it challenges the idea that racial identity is entirely unchosen by defending a political ontology of race that, unlike the biological and social ontologies, affirms the role of non-white agency in determining the political salience of ascribed racial identity. It then transcends the normative impasse between eliminativism and conservationism by contending that all three ontologies are potentially valuable and dangerous, depending on where they are applied. The biological ontology is defensible for evolutionary and medical research, the social ontology for affirmative action and anti-discrimination policy, and the political ontology for political representation.

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