A Tactical Retreat for Race Denial
F. Roger Devlin, American Renaissance, June 9, 2017
Michael O. Hardimon, Rethinking Race: The Case for Deflationary Realism, Harvard University Press, 2017, $39.95 hardcover
American academics have spun so many fantastic theories about race and “racism” that it almost seems they are willing to embrace any position, no matter how implausible. Perhaps the most implausible is that although there is an enormous amount of “racism” in America, there is no such thing as race. Finally, an academic seems to have realized how silly this sounds, and, in a dense volume published by Harvard University Press, has tried to come up with something a little less silly.
Michael Hardimon, son of a white mother and black father, is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California at San Diego. He strongly identifies with the “anti-racism” of the academic Left, but criticizes the absurdity of race denial. He realizes that to deny biological race is to fly in the face of both popular perception and scientific evidence, so he tries to build a case for the view that even if there is such a thing as race, it doesn’t matter. He describes his own position rather grandly as “deflationary realism.”
Prof. Hardimon sets out four concepts of race, which he labels 1) minimalist, 2) populationist, 3) the racialist, and 4) his favorite, the socialrace [sic] concept.
He defines race in the minimalist sense as a group of human beings
- that, as a group, is distinguished from others groups by patterns of visible physical features.
- whose members are linked by a common ancestry peculiar to members that group, and
- that originates from a distinctive geographical location.
Needless to say, there is no reference in this definition to behavioral traits. With that exception, it roughly corresponds to the way the man on the street thinks of race. And Prof. Hardimon manages to acknowledge that races in this minimal sense exist. In the oppressive environment of the American academy today, this is enough to make waves, but perhaps his African ancestry helps; race denial is a white invention.
Prof. Hardimon defines the populationist concept of race as
a subdivision of Homo sapiens that exhibits a distinctive pattern of genetically transmitted phenotypic characters that corresponds to the group’s geographical ancestry and belong to a biological line of descent initiated by a geographically separated and reproductively isolated founding population.
The populationist concept of race is essentially a scientifically gussied-up version of the minimalist concept, using the technical language of biology—but once again ignoring behavior. Toward the end of the book, Prof. Hardimon even explains that the minimalist and populationist concepts of race allow for the use of racial classifications in medicine. Certain medications appear to work on specific racial groups and not others, and few would wish to deny anyone proper medical care in order to maintain the pretense that race is a social construct. So perhaps the author’s minimalist race concept will do a modest amount of good in this respect.
But this is as far as Prof. Hardimon is willing to go in the direction of race realism; he even describes his book as an effort to provide “a new philosophical foundation for antiracism.” To make antiracism consistent with his recognition of the existence of race in the minimalist sense, he explains a mistaken concept—“the racialist concept of race”—as follows:
- Each member of a race exhibits a fixed set of heritable physical, moral, intellectual, and cultural characteristics common and peculiar to that race.
- There is a strict correlation between a race’s distinctive pattern of visible physical features and its moral, intellectual, and cultural characteristics.
- Race possesses a hidden or underlying biological structure—a biological essence [Prof. Hardimon’s emphasis] that acts on each member of the race and accounts for the correlation between a race’s distinctive pattern of visible physical features and its moral, intellectual, and cultural characteristics.
- Races can be ranked on the basis of their characteristics.
This appears to be what Prof. Hardimon thinks “racists” believe. Since all of these assertions are questionable, it is therefore easy for him to “prove” that “racists” are wrong.
The first two assertions maintain that all members of a race must possess all of the race’s distinctive traits, including the behavioral traits left out of the minimalist and populationist concepts. In other words, Prof. Hardimon believes that when race realists make generalizations such as “Asians are good at math,” they deny the existence of any Asians who are not good at math. Of course, all informed racialists today understand that the facts of population biology are statistical, not “strict.” Races do share a common genetic profile called a genotype, but there are very few distinctive racial traits that have arrived at fixity, i.e., are found in all members. Even then, mutations are always possible.
In including “cultural characteristics” among the hereditary racial traits in the racialist concept, the author commits those he calls racialists to strict biological determinism—a position few have ever taken.
The author’s third characterization of the racialist race concept refers to an alleged biological essence of race in which racialists supposedly believe. This aspect of Prof. Hardimon’s argument is part of the contemporary academy’s polemic against “essentialism.” Among professors, nothing is considered more disgraceful than being an “essentialist.” To explain what they mean by that requires a digression.
Essence is a philosophical term. It seldom occurs in fact-based writing on race of the kind in American Renaissance, and there is no reason why it should. In philosophy, the essence of a thing is that which makes it what it is. Dogs normally have four legs, but a dog which has lost one leg does not thereby cease to be a dog. So “having four legs” is not essential to being a dog; it is not part of the essence of the concept “dog.” On the other hand, being alive and being descended from a male and female dog are essential properties of any dog. No imitation of a dog, however realistic, could really be a dog in the absence of at least those two essential preconditions.
Does race—or anything else, for that matter—really have an “essence?” Here is an analogy: We speak of doing something “for John’s sake,” but does John really have something called a “sake?” Only in a semantic sense, i.e., in the limited sense that it is meaningful to speak of doing something “for John’s sake.”
The “essence” of race is similar. It is possible to specify the conditions under which a group may properly be spoken of as a “race,” and Prof. Hardimon does this in defining his minimalist and populationist concepts. We could call those conditions the “essences” of those concepts. So Prof. Hardimon’s minimalist and populationist concepts of race are in reality no less “essentialist” than the racialist concept supposedly held by “racists.” Of course, the essence of race (or of any other concept) is nothing more than a set of semantic criteria—not an occult entity haunting races and acting on their members to make them behave in stereotypical ways, as Prof. Hardimon implies. There is therefore little basis for the conviction of today’s intellectuals that they are more sophisticated than their “essentialist” predecessors.
The author’s fourth characterization of the racialist race concept is that races must be rankable from superior to inferior. He concedes that someone might hold the first three beliefs about race without holding the fourth; in a note, he says W. E. B. DuBois was such a person.
But Prof. Hardimon does not consider the possibility that races can be ranked in many different ways. J. Philippe Rushton measured races for 77 different traits, and his results could be described as “rankings,” although not necessarily from best to worst—only from more to less of particular traits. Richard Lynn and Edward Dutton have gathered statistics on athletic performance by race in 50 different sports. These too could be described as rankings, but they are different for different sports: West Africans do well at sprinting, East Asians at badminton, whites at field events such as shot put, etc.
Races can also be ranked by average intelligence, and for various desirable or undesirable traits. But no such ranking is by itself a definitive ranking of the races “from best to worst.” American Renaissance has certainly never claimed that any such definitive ranking exists. (This is not to deny that a trait such as intelligence may have greater practical importance than a talent for badminton.)
The author’s racialist race concept is perhaps little better than a straw man, but we are not quite done with it. His whole discussion of racialist race is meant to lead up to the conclusion that science has refuted it. “Science” turns out to mean Richard Lewontin’s 1972 paper “The Apportionment of Human Diversity.”
Prof. Lewontin’s celebrated finding was that there is greater genetic diversity within races than between them. Specifically, he found that 85.4 percent of human variation occurs within races, while 6.3 percent occurred between races and 8.3 percent between subraces. This finding has been substantially replicated.
Yet it does nothing to justify Prof. Lewontin’s conclusion that:
Human racial classification is of no social value and is positively destructive of social and human relations. Since such racial classification is now seen to be of virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance either, no justification can be offered for its continuance.
In the first place, Lewontin included so-called junk genes in his survey. These are genes that have no phenotypic effects; they cannot increase or decrease an organism’s chances of reproductive success, and therefore natural selection cannot operate on them. So it is not surprising that they are distributed randomly among the races of mankind—which are, of course, the product of natural selection. If junk genes were left out of account, the disproportion between within-race variation and between-race variation would be significantly smaller.
But Prof. Lewontin’s results are misleading in a more important way. He focuses exclusively on individual traits, for which racial differences tend to be statistical rather than absolute; for any particular trait, there is likely to be overlap between races. But for groups of traits, the overlap will be smaller, and for large groups of traits it will approach zero. Examining the genome as a whole allows for the precise determination of race. Lewontin’s exclusive focus on individual traits ignores these facts.
(See “The Genetics of Race” by Howard Stowe in the July 2006 issue of American Renaissance for a more detailed discussion of what Lewontin’s findings do and do not mean.)
Prof. Hardimon actually lays out a second definition of racialist race by working backward from Lewontin’s paper, including conditions such as “the fraction of human genetic diversity between populations must exceed the fraction of diversity within them.” There is probably no race realist who has ever included this in his definition.
Finally, we come to the author’s fourth concept of race, which he calls the socialrace concept (we need not examine his preference for this neologism over the more obvious “social race”). This concept is his solution for getting around the practical problems of race denial. If there is no such thing as race, it is hard to grant racial preferences, nor would we know whom to blame for slavery, colonialism, and genocide; Ta-Nehisi Coates would have nothing to write about.
Clearly there must be some way of letting race carry on an existence in the brave new anti-racist world, and this is the function of socialrace. The people considered black under the minimalist, populationist, and racialist conceptions of race are the same people considered black under the socialrace conception, but socialrace considers these same people as a class whose disadvantaged position has been forced on them by people who believe in the racialist concept of race. Prof. Hardimon therefore acknowledges that socialrace “piggybacks” on the racialist concept, but it is free of essentialism and of any acknowledgement of behavioral race differences. Its purpose is to refute and destroy the racialist concept of race, and thus Prof. Hardiman calls it “emancipatory.” Perhaps its purpose also is to emancipate whites from their money and status.
Watching Prof. Hardimon work his way from minimalist race to socialrace reminded me of the old sideshow trick of “sawing the lady in half.” He saws the concept of race into many small pieces, but at the end of the show, the same old girl jumps out of the box.
Most of Prof. Hardimon’s book is dry conceptual analysis, but occasionally he lets his passions show. For example, he writes that the socialrace concept may help explain why people of a certain race are a certain percentage of the prison population (p. 135, top). If I understand him correctly, he is implying that without widespread belief in the racialist concept, blacks would not be overrepresented in prison. It is this evil concept rather than their own behavior that explains why so many blacks are in jail.
The author speaks of the members of various socialraces being “assigned” to specific social positions. “Members of dominant socialraces,” he writes:
have the power to repress or enforce frustrations of some preferences of members of subordinate socialraces. The institution [of socialrace] is also characterized by the unequal distribution of such social goods as . . . income and wealth. This unequal distribution of goods is a function of the unequal distribution of power.
No one assigns or distributes wealth and power; most of the time they are achieved, sometimes inherited. Building wealth, for example, requires planning, making the right choices, working hard, and delaying gratification. These abilities are not necessarily distributed equally across the races, but that does not mean whites “assign” less wealth to blacks than to themselves.
Prof. Hardimon calls racialist race an ideological concept—in a pejorative sense—because it “supports and legitimizes domination,” without it ever occurring to him that anti-racist ideology legitimizes domination of a different kind.
At one point early in the book, Prof. Hardimon gets beyond his straw man concept of racialist race long enough to acknowledge that:
The refutation of racialist race does not preclude scientific racists from advancing nonessentialist racist conceptions of race, such as conceptions that assert statistical correlations between race and intelligence and attempt to ground these correlations in genetics.
This, of course, is exactly what American Renaissance has been doing for nearly three decades. Prof. Hardimon calls it “neoracialism.” Yet there is disappointingly little discussion of neoracialism in this book. The key sentence is: “It seems to me likely that much of the argument against contemporary scientific racists will come down to straightforward empirical arguments about their lack of evidence [!] for genetic correlations.”
Of course, Prof. Hardimon does not concede there is a correlation between race and intelligence, and appears to be astonished that anyone would look seriously for genetic causes of this correlation. As he admits in a footnote, “The necessity of acknowledging this point was brought home to me by an anonymous reader for Harvard University Press.”
It sounds as though someone pointed out to him after he had written the book that there is actually some science behind the idea that genes contribute to racial differences in behavior, and that no intelligent “racist” believes in his racialist race concept. This means that he wrote an entire book beating a straw man to death, and leaves any critical reader no more convinced than before of what he obviously hopes is true: that race may be a biological reality but has no social significance.
This book is not likely to have any influence at all outside a small circle of academics. “Socialrace” is not likely to enter our vocabularies. But Rethinking Race is a good example of the logical and semantic tangle leftists find themselves in because of their unwillingness to face the scientific evidence of race differences in intelligence and other behavioral traits.