Sources of Racialism

Sources of Racialism

Journal of Social Philosophy
Volume 41, Issue 3 (Fall 2010)
Special Issue: New Thinking in Race Theory. Edited by Paul C. Taylor and Ronald Robles Sundstorm
pages 272–292
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9833.2010.01498.x

Ron Mallon, Associate Professor of Philosphy
University of Utah

Work in social philosophy on racial classification generally shares a commitment to “social constructionism” in two quite distinct senses of that term. In the first sense, to be constructionist is to hold that race (the subject of racial classification) does not exist as a biological kind in the way ordinary or folk ideas of race seem to assume and is therefore “merely a construction.” Call this constructionist view anti-racialism and the folk view it opposes racialism. As we understand it here, racialism involves the idea that humans can be divided into natural groups whose members have characteristic, unseen differences that explain group-typical properties, including physical, psychological and characterological properties, and anti-racialism is the denial of this view.

But much of this work is also committed to social constructionism in a quite different, empiricist sense: it holds that racial classification itself is primarily the product of social and cultural practices, which is to say that we (as individuals and as cultural groups) have the theoretical representations of race that we do, rather than some other theories or no theories at all because of historically and culturally specific conventions, decisions, practices, and so forth. Call this second sort of social constructionism representational constructionism.

Recent work by evolutionary and cognitive psychologists, anthropologists, and philosophers has posed a challenge to representational constructionism (e.g.. Gil-White 1999. 200la.b; Hirschfeld 1996; Kurzban. Tooby. and Cosmides 2001; Machery and Faucher 2005a.b). While these theorists join in the endorsement of anti-racialism, they go on to explain folk racial theories at least in part as the result of cognitive mechanisms which are culturally canalized, species-typical and domain-specific. To call them “culturally canalized” is here to say that they have a property associated with (and often considered a condition for) innateness: they develop stably across a wide range of different cultural environments.’To say they are “species-typical” is to say that, like having two arms and legs, eyes, ears. hair, and so forth, these cognitive capacities are traits that humans typically possess. And to say that they are “domain-specific” is to say that, unlike domain-general cognitive capacities (like memory, attention, or perception) that are employed across a wide range of problem domains, these mechanisms are specialized for solving a particular sort of problem. But while evolutionary-cognitive theorists hold that racial cognition is subserved by culturally canalized, domain-specific mechanisms that were shaped by evolution in ways that adapted them to solving certain problems, they do not hold that these mechanisms are adaptations for…

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