The concept of race is deeply entrenched in society, and it has serious implications for the way that people think about and discuss their own identities. It also influences the ways in which individuals and groups of people are viewed by others. In addition, it is used to justify a variety of policies and practices that confer benefits and privileges on some people and withhold them from others.
Philosophers have discussed the nature of race for centuries. Many have argued that the notion of race is scientifically grounded, while others have questioned its logical coherence and the existence of discrete essentialist races. In the latter camp, thinkers like the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who coined the term race in 1883, argue that there is nothing in human biology that would distinguish groups of people based on physical characteristics as being distinct biological races.
In fact, many of the characteristics that are traditionally associated with the concept of race can be attributed to different types of genetic variation rather than to discrete races. For example, one’s skin tone or hair color could result from a mixture of genes or from the mutation of certain genes over time. The same is true for the characteristic of eye color, which can be traced to both a mixed-race ancestor and a single-race ancestor. Thus, there is no underlying, natural biological foundation for the idea of race (Bernasconi and Lott 2000, vii).
Some thinkers have rejected the notion of biological races entirely, while others have embraced it but modified the concept. In the former category, the thinkers rely on the work of thinkers in the analytic tradition who have discussed race in terms of real or imaginary categories, as well as in terms of the real or not-real status of the racial groupings that are assigned to these fictitious or imagined categories.
Other scholars, however, have argued that the concept of race is not just a social construct but that it is a morally meaningful category that has significant normative significance in the world. Among these scholars, the most influential have been those working in the traditions of continental philosophy. They have emphasized the importance of understanding how the concept of race works in our everyday lives and have drawn on the ideas of such thinkers as Foucault, Fanon, and Merleau-Ponty.
The debate over the meaning and status of race has profound moral and philosophical implications, and it continues to influence important public policy issues in a wide variety of domains. These include affirmative action, racial profiling, residential racial segregation, and the general question of whether we should or should not be concerned about racial disparities in various areas of our lives. The controversy over the meaning and status of race has prompted important ethical questions regarding the appropriate role of science in these debates. It has also highlighted the dangers of ignoring race, which can lead to serious injustices in our daily lives. For example, the fact that a person is assigned to the same racial category as other people can lead to the denial of access to jobs, housing, and educational opportunities.