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On the subject of race. Why is there a tacit assumption that all persons are

On the subject of race. Why is there a tacit assumption that all persons are white unless identified as some different race? Example: Maybe a guy is lost from his group at a big convention or something and he tells someone that he is looking for "these three guys... one of them is black, and one of them has a big nose ring?" Like black-ness is an unusual trait to be used to pick somebody out of a crowd or a police line up, like a scar or a tattoo. I hope this made at least some sense.

I agree with Richard. But there is also another sense in which racism leads people to underestimate the number of 'whites'. I am thinking here of the practice of counting somebody as unequivocally 'black' if their ancestry is half European and half African, or even 80% European and 20% African. If skin colour were not considered to be socially and politically significant, this would make no sense at all.

If people of different "races" can have clear physical difference (appearance,

If people of different "races" can have clear physical difference (appearance, or even immunities to certain diseases), could this not also mean there could be differences in ability to learn, or mental differences altogether?

Of course there could be all kinds of differences between races, including differences in native intelligence, ability to learn, and so forth. The only significant question is whether there are such differences, and there has never been any decent reason to believe that there are.

Part of the problem here is that people often speak as if "race" is a well-defined notion, perhaps even a notion with biological significance. But it is not.

In upholding the concept of "race," do we make racism possible?

In upholding the concept of "race," do we make racism possible?

Yes, I think we do--generally speaking. For this reason, one of the purposes of philosophical interrogation of the concept of "race" must be to undermine it. In my teaching I try to do this where possible, and in ordinary conversation I have been experimenting with either trying to avoid racial terms altogether or using "lighter-skinned" and "darker-skinned" as descriptive terms. These terms, unlike "black" or "white" are comparative and suggest gradations and continuity (which I think accurate to the biological facts of the matter). Ethnic terms like "African" are useful, too, but don't quite bear the same force of inclusion and continuity. Nevertheless, I don't think their use terribly pernicious, except when their use is exceptional. That is, using ethnic rather than racial terms may sometimes still serve to "other," separate, subordinate, etc. when members of other groups are not desgnated with ethnic terms.

There are situations, however, where using the concept of race can serve morally desirable purposes. ("Using," of course, is different from "upholding.") Such cases typically involve using the concept to subvert itself. I more or less agree with Linda Alcoff's concept of "positionality," which acknowledges a certain kind of social reality to the concepts while not implying that they are fixed, natural, or necessary. Understanding this one might, for example, use the concept of "race" as it exists in some context to advance affirmative action and diversity policies, to teach black literature courses, to run anti-racism workshops, to analyze judicial decisions, to criticize housing and banking practices, to prosecute hate crimes etc. Rather than "upholding" race, these uses of it can help to eliminate it.

I do think it true, however, that improperly used--even in these sorts of contexts--using the concept can reinforce the concept. Taking steps to problematize the concept whenever while engaged in these sorts of practices, therefore, is morally advisable in order to minimze or eliminate this result.