The Building Bricks of Race

Traditionally, people (and peoples) have been divided into races based on three criteria:3

  • 1. Ancestry
  • 2. Geographical origin
  • 3. Physical characteristics (skin color, facial structure).

Sorting humankind into races, in and of itself, need not be pernicious, any more than sorting humans into other categories (gender, sexual preference, socioeconomic class, Zodiacal signs) or sorting LEGO bricks by color or shape is inherently immoral. The important question is what we do with these categories. And it is hard to imagine a division of people into kinds that has been associated with more immorality than divisions based on race. Historically, race has been used to justify differential treatment based on the idea that one race is more human, or more capable physically or mentally, or religiously chosen, or more pure, or superior in some other way, when compared to another (or all) other races. Fortunately, many of us have moved beyond explicit acceptance of such morally repugnant views.

Here, however, we are less interested in the negative effects of racism, and more interested in how we should understand race itself. Again, this is not to say that the latter is more important than the former. Quite the contrary. But the examination of race in LEGO has more to teach us about the nature of race—what it is, and what it is not—than it has to teach us about the consequences of racism.

The concept of race is relatively new. The ancient Greek and Roman worlds had no notion of race. This is not to say that they were all very nice people who never discriminated. The Greeks and Romans treated people differently based on their gender and based on whether or not they spoke the right language (so-called “barbarians” did not).4 But they didn’t divide people into different races, and the word “race” did not even enter the English language until the early sixteenth century.5 Thus, it has not always seemed evident to everyone that humanity is naturally divided into distinct races.

Until the mid-twentieth century the traditional, three-part conception of race mentioned above was explained in biological terms: a person was a member of a particular race based on some objective biological property had by that person. This is the biological essen- tialist account of race. One of the first challenges to biological essen- tialism came from Franz Boaz, a German-American anthropologist, who showed that there was no measurable relationship between race and cranium size (at the time this was a popular essentialist account of the nature of the supposed physical and cognitive differences between different races). Later research demonstrated that race could not be explained in terms of genetics. This research, and research like it, eventually led the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to issue a statement denying the existence of any biological foundation for race in 1950. Unfortunately, despite this evidence, the idea that race has some kind of biological underpinning remains widely accepted.

If race, and the categorization of people into distinct races, has no biological foundation, then how do we explain race? One option is to abandon the concept altogether, arguing that there is no such thing as race in the first place. On this view our world is very much like the allyellow minifigure world of the non-licensed LEGO sets, where there are no races, and hence no need to distinguish races based on the color of plastic or skin. Some philosophers, including Anthony Appiah6 and Naomi Zach,7 have defended this eliminativist approach, but it comes with several drawbacks. One is that, if race does not exist, then it is hard to explain the systematic oppression of various groups throughout history such as blacks, native Americans, and Asian-Americans. After all, that oppression has often focused on racially identifying its targets. Racial self-identification has also typically been central to the struggles of those who resist that oppression. Thus, if there is no such thing as race, then it is difficult to understand or endorse social and political movements, or legislation, predicated on the notion of race. For example, if there really is no such thing as race, then what effect could or should laws prohibiting discrimination based on race have?

We can solve these problems by adopting a view called racial constructivism. According to racial constructivism, race is a real category, and particular people do, or do not, belong to various races. These categories are not determined by biological factors (e.g., particular genes), however, but are instead determined by various activities, conceptions, conventions, behaviors, agreements, and decisions we make with regard to how to categorize people into races. The division of the population of the world into particular races is, on the constructivist view, not something that we discover in the world, but rather something that we build out of our attitudes and behaviors. In short, we don’t treat people differently because they are members of different races—rather, they are members of different races because we treat them differently!

On this view we don’t live in the all-yellow minifigure world of the non-licensed LEGO sets, where there are no races, but not because race was there all along. Rather, our actions and attitudes gradually transformed our world from one that resembled the world of the nonlicensed all-yellow minifigure into one that more resembles the racially divided world of licensed LEGO sets.8

We can explain the role that geography, heritability, and physical characteristics like skin color play in our understanding of race by noting that the various attitudes and activities we have adopted make these characteristics important ingredients in determining to which race a particular person belongs. In short, ancestry, home, and skin color (among other things) are relevant to determining whether a person is white, black, Asian, or a member of another race solely because we have (often unconsciously) adopted rules for using the concept of race in a way that makes these factors salient.

The constructivist approach has some advantages over the elimi- nativist approach. For example, because it retains the idea that races are real, albeit socially constructed, categories, it allows us to use the concept of race legitimately in legislation and social programs. But, perhaps more importantly, on the constructivist account we are not forced to claim that a black person's status as black cannot play any legitimate role in explaining and understanding their experiences: this view allows particular members of various racial categories to use race to help them understand themselves and their place within and relationship to a racially categorized world.

There is another aspect of racial constructivism that differentiates it from both biological essentialism and eliminativism: the idea that racial categories can be (and in fact are) dynamic, changing, and at times unstable. Since our beliefs, behaviors, customs, agreements, and laws can change over time, the nature of the racial categories that arise due to these practices can differ over time as well. In addition, such practices vary not only from one time to another, but also from place to place. Philosopher Michael Root notes that the conventions and rules regarding racial classification in Brazil differ from those at work now in the United States, and both differ from the rules at work in the United States in the past. Thus, there exist people who are categorized as black in New Orleans, as white in Brazil, and would have been categorized as octoroon in New Orleans in the nineteenth century.9 According to essentialism, at least two of these judgments must be wrong (and according to eliminativism they are all wrong), but the constructivist can accept all three judgements as correct with respect to the contexts in which they are made: The person in question really is black in the U,S, and white in Brazil. This both illustrates the flexibility and instability of race (without denying the reality of race) and explains the very different experiences such a person can have when, for example, attempting to flag a taxi in Manhattan versus flagging a taxi in Rio de Janeiro.

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