No doubt, racism is one of the most important evils in our pluralistic, open societies need to confront. And various programs are meant to do so. But what are the odds that these programs will work? Psychology can help us answer this question.

There are roughly two distinct ways to fight against racism. One can attempt to weaken people’s disposition to classify themselves and others into races. The thought goes as follows. Suppose people treat race as they treat eye color—viz. as an irrelevant, superficial, psychologically and morally meaningless physical character. Then, people would not despise, hate, envy, be afraid of, etc., others because of their race. After all, we do not despise, hate, envy, etc., others on the basis of the color of their eyes.

Alternatively, one can leave people’s disposition to classify themselves and others into races as it is, and attempt to eliminate people’s negative attitudes (such as their negative emotions) toward members of other races. If this approach were to work, people would still view themselves as Black, White, and so on, but they would have no negative attitude toward other individuals qua members of specific races.

Now, will the attempts of fighting racism that are inspired by these two approaches work? What can psychology tell us about their chances of success? It is fair to say that lawmakers and social activists have ignored the potential contributions of psychology to answering these questions. In this post, I want to make a case for the relevance of psychology with respect to the design of anti-racist programs. I will first focus on the first way to fight racism, leaving the second one for another occasion.

So, what does psychology tell us about the attempts to fight against racism by eliminating or weakening our disposition to classify into races? To answer this question, we need to turn toward the research on the nature and evolution of the cognitive mechanisms underlying racial categorization. This is what I will do in the remainder of this post. In my next post (in a week or so), I will explain why it matters to anti-racist programs.

The literature on racial classification is too vast to be reviewed here (see, e.g., Machery and Faucher, 2005b for an overview of what evolutionary have to say on the topic). I will merely present what I take to be the best hypothesis (Machery and Faucher, 2005a).

Following anthropologist Francisco Gil-White, I have proposed that we evolved a capacity to determine to which cultural group people belong to. We pay attention to cues or markers that indicate people’s affiliation to specific groups. These markers include accents, clothes, behaviors, and maybe subtle physical features; many cultures physically shape the body of their members: think, e.g., about the Padaung Giraffe women, about the split and cut penises in Papua New Guinea, about our own tattoos.

Why did this system evolve? Well, the idea is that it is important to know whether people belongs to one’s own or to another culture when one undertakes some cooperative ventures with them. In the latter case, they might comply with different norms, have different expectations, etc., which might prevent success.

Now where does racial classification come in? The idea is that our disposition to identify cultural markers and to infer cultural membership misfires. We take various racial properties (skin color, etc.) to be cultural markers and as a result, we draw distinctions between races. Racial classification is thus some kind of accident. We have not evolved to classify into races, but, rather, into cultural groups. And we mistake races for cultural groups.

In my next post, I will explain why this matters for anti-racism. Stay tuned!

Finally here are some relevant references:

Gil-White, F. 2001. Are Ethnic Groups Biological ‘Species’ to the Human Brain. Current Anthropology, 42, 515-554.

Machery, E., & Faucher, L. 2005a. Social Construction and the Concept of Race. Philosophy of Science, 1208-1219.

Machery, E., & Faucher, L. 2005b. Why do we Think Racially?. In H. Cohen and C. Lefebvre (eds.), Handbook of Categorization in Cognitive Science, Elsevier (pp. 1009-1033).

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