Reconstructing Race: A Discourse-Theoretical Approach to a Normative Politics of Identity

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Philosophy on 2012-02-08 04:30Z by Steven

Reconstructing Race: A Discourse-Theoretical Approach to a Normative Politics of Identity

The Philosophical Forum
Volume 43, Issue 1 (Spring 2012)
pages 27–49
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9191.2011.00409.x

Andrew J. Pierce
Loyola University, Chicago

The claim that race is “socially constructed” has become something of a platitude in social science and philosophy. At a minimum, such a claim means to reject the notion that conceptions of race have some biological or “scientific” foundation and suggests instead that the notion of race is a purely human invention—a conventional way of ordering societies rather than a natural fact about the world. But the political and normative implications of this basic agreement are far from clear. Some have taken it to mean that we ought to stop talking about “races” as though they were real and work to develop other kinds of identifications to replace so-called “racial” identities. Others have suggested that though race may not be ontologically real, political structures that take races as basic make race an unavoidable social reality, such that as a matter of political practice, it is unwise to eliminate talk of race. And others still have argued that racial identity can be reinterpreted in such a way as to shed its deterministic connotations, but retain important features that have come to flourish under the oppressive force of, say, black identity. In short, the fact that race is “socially constructed,” important an insight as it is, tells us relatively little about what role, if any, race ought to play in a more just social order and in the construction of healthy collective identities. This paper aims to get clear on the normative implications of the “social construction” thesis, not just for political practice in nonideal societies where racial oppression remains, but in “ideal” (presumably nonracist) societies as well. That is, I am interested in the question of whether race and/or racial identity would have any legitimate place in an ideally just society, or to state it another way, whether the concept of race can be extricated from the history of racial oppression from which it arose. The position I defend is a version of what has come to be called a “conservationist” view. I argue that racial identities could be normatively justified based upon modified principles of discourse (which, I argue, are appropriately applied to contexts of collective identity formation), though I do not endorse the stronger claim that racial identities are an inevitable feature of any form of social organization that societies now structured by race could aspire to, as some other conservationists claim. Moreover, I do not take conservationism to imply that future racial groups would be the same as current racial groups, a point I illustrate through an analysis of whiteness.


The social construction thesis has led some to argue that since the concept of race has no real referent (and moreover, since “race-thinking” is often morally problematic), it should be discarded altogether. Kwame Anthony Appiah, one of the most fervent proponents of this kind of eliminativism, argues succinctly that “there are no races. There is nothing in the world we can ask race to do for us,” in short, that race “refers to nothing in the world at all.” Given, in other words, that modern science has failed to identify any discrete entities called “races,” use of the term lacks a referent and so is, strictly speaking, meaningless. Continued employment of the term rests on a conceptual mistake, one that is frequently morally pernicious besides.

But one may wonder, does the lack of a scientific foundation for race really mean that our everyday race terms lack reference? After all, do we not know who we mean when we talk about blacks, whites, Latinos, etc.? Perhaps not. Naomi Zack shares Appiah’s skepticism about the existence of races, and in Race and Mixed Race, she provides similar arguments to show that race has no scientific foundation and further, that folk criteria of race, which attribute racial membership based primarily upon heredity, fail to achieve their purported goal of completeness (such that all persons would have a designated racial membership) since mixed-race persons do not fit within their classificatory scope, and further, since there is no defensible way to distinguish mixed race persons from “pure” race persons. For example, there is no logical reason why a person with three white grandparents and one black one should be considered black, while a person with three black grandparents and one white one should not be considered white. And insofar as most if not all persons in racialized societies like the U.S. (not to mention Latin American nations) are “mixed” to some degree, then folk criteria of racial membership are fatally flawed as well.

But there are good reasons for hesitating to make the leap from this ontological claim (that races do not exist) to the normative claim that we should retire racial categories from our vocabulary, and so, presumably, from our laws and policies as well. This hesitance is based on the recognition that racial categories are useful for picking out, for example, “persons whose ancestors were victims of American chattel slavery,” and who might have legitimate moral claims based on that ancestry. That is, one intuitively plausible answer to the question, “why continue to talk about ‘races’ if there are no such thing?” is that, though race is not “real” in any ultimate metaphysical sense, it is still an important concept for understanding contemporary social reality, given that racial categories still structure the experiences of individuals and the functioning of institutions in “racialized” societies. One need not believe in God to understand the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition (or to use Appiah’s example, one need not believe in witches to understand the functioning of the concept of witchcraft in early colonial New England). One can continue to hold that such concepts have a social reality, even if one denies that they are real in the deeper senses above. In relation to race, such a position has come to be called constructivism. Racial constructivists accept that race has no biological foundation, yet they argue that as a result of human action and the widespread, consequential successes of pseudoscientific and folk theories of race, race has come to be inscribed in the institutions and practices of contemporary societies in ways that cannot be illuminated without recourse to some conception of race. Accordingly, they hold that race does have a sociohistorical reality, even if it cannot be linked to biologically significant “racial” differences…


Is it the case, one might wonder, that whites, when confronted with a confusing array of diverse racial identities, might simply “shrug and call themselves white?” That is, could whiteness continue to exist as an option for racial identification under nonracist conditions, and if not, what options does this leave for persons traditionally considered white? The question is an especially pressing one if collective identity is of the kind of constitutive importance that many have argued it is, and since one might think that the lack of a positive reconstruction of white racial identity leaves a void that is too often filled by traditionally racist, white supremacist conceptions of whiteness. The answer, I believe, is that white identity is not discursively justifiable, mainly because it is inherently coercive and exclusionary, failing, at least, the first and fourth conditions of discourse. Yet, I will argue this lack of justification need not cause too much worry since white identity lacks the intersubjective resources and benefits of other kinds of collective identity, such that, in the absence of other, illegitimate kinds of benefits (i.e., all of the economic, political, psychological, and social benefits associated with being in a position of relative dominance) one would not expect it to remain of much value to those it purported to describe anyway. That is, in precise opposition to the standard view that sees whiteness as the norm and nonwhiteness as the deviation or exception, I will argue that white identity is actually the anomalous identity, one that, when uncoupled from the system of racial oppression in which it formed, fails to provide the benefits typical of collective identity. If this is true, then one should expect that white identity would eventually be replaced by more useful and democratic forms of collective identification. The outlines of such alternatives are already visible even in our own society and demonstrate that the illegitimacy of white racial identity does not leave white people “marooned” without any resources for collective identification.

In order to begin to understand why white racial identity is illegitimate, one must understand its history, and the conditions under which it formed. Presumably, white racial identity stands in some relation to European heritage, though one should be cautious about equating the two. Previous to the eighteenth century, the idea of race as denoting specific lines of descent still marked a division between the “noble races” of European stock and their ignoble, though nonetheless similarly pigmented, countrymen. At its most general, this idea of race allowed for a commonality among nations or peoples, circumscribing the membership of the French, German, or English “races.” It was only in the New World, where English and other Europeans were confronted with the reality of slavery, that whiteness came to denote a commonality among Europeans of different types. Putatively setting aside old and deeply ingrained internal inequalities, the express purpose of such an identity was to distinguish the free European from the enslaved African, based upon the latter’s supposedly inherent dependency. In this way, slavery could be reconciled with the nascent values of liberalism. This opposition of slave and freeman is at the root of the U.S.’s binary racial system, a system into which successive waves of immigrants would be forced to assimilate…

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Toward a Cleaner White(ness): New Racial Identities

Posted in Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Philosophy, Social Science on 2011-10-21 03:47Z by Steven

Toward a Cleaner White(ness): New Racial Identities

The Philosophical Forum
Volume 36, Issue 3 (Fall 2005)
pages 243–277
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9191.2005.00203.x

David Ingram, Professor of Philosophy
Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois

The essay critically examines some arguments advanced by Henry Giroux that ‘whiteness’ can be appropriated within pedagogical settings as a positive force in combating racism. I question his assumption that racial identity can be rethought in terms of ethnicity. Nonetheless, I concede that, from a folk-psychological perspective, ethnic and racial ‘identities’ are fluid. Although blurring the distinction between race and ethnicity erases important distinctions between different types of groups, it also tends to deconstruct identity as an inherited and ascriptive—as distinct from voluntarily affirmed—locus of solidarity. Drawing on cognitive psychology, sociology, and cultural studies, I conclude that whiteness is less a form of cultural identity than a structure of power.

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