REVIEW: In These Fraught Times, Is there a Better Way to Think About Race?


Rethinking Race: The Case for Deflationary Realism by Michael O. Hardimon

Harvard University Press, 226 pp.

By Rayyan Al-Shawaf

In an American context, saying that “race” is a loaded term misses the point. Taking things a step further and suppressing discussion of racial differences and even race itself, as some left-liberals and hyper-politically correct types try to do, is plain unreasonable. Better to come to grips with the reality that the terms “white” and “black” are loaded, what with the lingering and widespread belief that far more than physical attributes attach to these and other racial categories of people, and recognize that it behooves us to have a sincere and fact-based conversation about their (in)significance. For a useful primer, albeit a pedantic and plodding one, on how we might go about this, try Michael O. Hardimon’s Rethinking Race: The Case for Deflationary Realism.

Hardimon, who teaches philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and is the author of Hegel's Social Philosophy: The Project of Reconciliation, has given the subject of race a good deal of thought over the years. This derives in part from the fact that he is biracial (born to a white mother and a black father, as he mentions in the foreword) and has had to contend with peers who consider him a curiosity. The outcome of all that thinking? A quixotic blueprint for how we should talk about race.

The author pinpoints four concepts of race, and proceeds to dissect and examine them. He also makes his case for which of these four notions (he admits they aren’t exhaustive) we should discard and which we’d do well to cultivate. And, of course, he explains just how certain concepts of race – the ones worth keeping – are deflationary in their effect, given that they poke holes in longstanding racist assumptions.

According to Hardimon, and many others besides, races are characterized by nothing more than outward physical differences and health-related biological susceptibilities, the likes of which correspond to the various longtime geographic homelands – in Africa and later across the globe – of the human species. This, in a nutshell, is “the minimalist concept of race.” Hardimon classifies “black Africans, Caucasians, East Asians, Amerindians, and Oceanians” as the world’s races. He concedes that “the boundaries between races may be blurry,” and that even within a single racial group, not all members share the physical or biological attributes with which it is associated. “Whether an individual is a member of a minimalist race is not determined by his or her individual characteristics,” he explains. “It is determined instead by his or her parentage.”

As for those physical and even biological differences between the races, to go from acknowledging their existence to claiming that “races have intrinsic biological essences, are distinguished by normatively important features such as intelligence and moral character, and can, on the basis of these features, be objectively ranked as superior and inferior” constitutes a leap Hardimon will not make. Such suppositions constitute the core of what he terms “the racialist concept of race,” which has no foundation in science (“racialist races do not exist”) and is demonstrably harmful, yet retains a certain vogue.

The minimalist and racialist understandings of race, both quite popular, stand at either end of the spectrum of how society, in particular American society, conceives of racial differences. Yet Hardimon also devotes considerable space to two other prisms through which race is viewed: “the populationist concept of race,” and “the concept SOCIALRACE” (both the closed compound and the capital letters are deliberate).

The populationist concept of race, which remains somewhat ill-defined despite Hardimon’s best efforts to set it apart from the minimalist concept, consists of the latter plus a heavy dose of science that purports to explain the whys and hows of racial peculiarities. It goes like this: the largely superficial physical and biological differences between the races, of the kind acknowledged in the minimalist concept, developed over tens of thousands of years through climate-induced evolutionary adaptations and the relative reproductive isolation of groups of people separated by oceans and continents.

The populationist concept of race may not feature prominently in lay discourse, but enjoys a healthy circulation in the scientific community. Whether the concept’s distinguishing feature – namely, the theory that evolution and relative reproductive isolation account for the visible differences among the races – is entirely true remains another matter. Hardimon ventures that it probably is, but cautions that there is no definitive proof.

Following Hardimon’s argument when it comes to the next category he outlines entails grasping a somewhat tricky yet crucial distinction. The concept SOCIALRACE eviscerates the phenomenon of socialrace by exposing it as a toxic state-of-affairs in which “a social group…is taken to be a racialist race” and treated accordingly – either privileged or discriminated against. (Instead of choosing two different terms for the concept and phenomenon, which would have been helpful, Hardimon generally attempts to make the distinction clear by using all caps for the former.) Think of it thus: the concept SOCIALRACE, which is helpful so long as it doesn’t confuse you, lays bare the nature of the phenomenon of socialrace, which is injurious.

The concept SOCIALRACE enables us to understand that the phenomenon of socialrace might apply to a group that constitutes a race, but could equally apply to a group that does not. According to Hardimon, “Latinos, to the extent that they are racialized (taken to be a racial race), constitute a socialrace, but Latinos are not a minimalist race.” Of course, whether Latinos (or Hispanics) are indeed racialized in the contemporary popular imagination is debatable, given the visible fact that they include mestizos, whites, blacks, and others, as well as the constant reminders from officialdom – the author himself cites the national census – that they can belong to any race, but Hardimon’s observation is not without merit. He is on even firmer ground when pointing to the situation of the Irish and the Jews in years past; today, both are generally subsumed within the white/Caucasian race. (A socialrace needn’t be coterminous with an ethnic group, though in practice it often is.) Ultimately, the point is that the group in question was/is perceived as a (racialist) race, and that, during the period of time in which such a perception holds sway, a society accustomed to considering certain races superior to others will assign this or that socialrace an immovable slot on the racial totem pole. 

By now, it should be apparent that, of the four concepts under discussion, only one counts as objectionable. Given that the notion of racialist race is both pseudoscientific and destructive, you should not only steer clear of it, but refute it, with vim and vigor, at each and every opportunity. And the deflationary trio? Well, SOCIALRACE the concept is really only useful once, as a means for you to make sense of socialrace the phenomenon – and proceed to oppose the racial favoritism the latter brings in its wake. As for the theory of populationist race, it may help you understand the reasons for otherwise puzzling racial differences, but – according to the author, at any rate – it remains in need of further evidence. (Plus, in certain contexts, you run the risk of sounding pretentious when voicing it.) Minimalist race is your best bet. Races – and even sub-races – demonstrably exist, while the minimalist understanding of them, as Hardimon observes, “lets the essentialist and hierarchical ‘air’ out of the [racialist race] concept,” thereby wholly deflating it.

If you don’t burst the bubble that is the myth of racialist race, its aficionados inevitably impute racial causes to people’s successes and failures, exaggerate the differences between the races, and even arrange them in hierarchical order. Hardimon, who tends to get caught up in theory, does little to relate all this to contemporary phenomena. He might have explained that, since correlation doesn’t mean causation, the disproportionately high rate of young black men among the perpetrators of violent crimes (a favorite subject of self-proclaimed “race realists” such as Jared Taylor and those associated with his white nationalist American Renaissance website), while certainly a social problem, doesn’t demonstrate a natural propensity for violence on the part of male – much less female – members of their race. Similarly, the unequal distribution of IQ scores across the races (another favorite) should not be interpreted as indicating inherent differences in intelligence. As it happens, scientists are only beginning to succeed in their efforts to isolate the intelligence-related genes. Also worth noting is that intelligence, several aspects of which are difficult to assess, is only partly heritable, with the other part acquired through the interplay of various social and environmental factors in a person’s upbringing.

Intriguingly, for all his delving into the four major conceptualizations of race in America today, Hardimon wrote his book in response to a fifth: “eliminativism about race.” Eliminativism is the idea that we should eschew discussion of racial differences and even race altogether, in line with the ideologically driven view of several influential 20th century anthropologists and their contemporary acolytes that, despite admitted physical and biological differences between population groups, races as such do not exist and constitute an arbitrary classification system. To his immense credit, Hardimon takes a firm stand against this position, which is essentially obscurantism masquerading as science for the sake of averting discrimination and facilitating social harmony, and insists on continued public examination of issues such as the rare but real “medically relevant genetic differences between minimalist races.” In today’s politically charged climate, it has become commonplace for the “race realist” contingent of the alt-right to allege that the politico-cultural establishment has squelched all discussion of racial differences. The claim is an exaggeration, to be sure, though its increasing currency among conspiracy mongers coupled with the fact that some voices do indeed call for such a clampdown makes Hardimon’s measured resistance all the more necessary, and renders him and similarly minded people as more deserving of the (sadly corrupted) “race realist” label.

Whether the author’s push-back on this issue will have an effect, and whether his more important larger proposition about how we should approach the subject of race will find any takers, remain unclear. The extent to which a book can transform or even just modify a cultural phenomenon by slicing through the woolly assumptions underlying it is quite limited. This holds true even in a country – such as the U.S. – that boasts mass literacy. One thing, however, is obvious: the more academic a book sounds, the lower the probability of its registering a social impact. That’s the main drawback from which Rethinking Race suffers. And Hardimon’s involved exposition and finicky prose style only exacerbate matters.

For these reasons, chances are slim that Rethinking Race will gain a wide readership, let alone spur people to reframe the national conversation regarding its subject. Yet Hardimon might take some consolation in the fact that his book, irrespective of its self-circumscribed reach, serves as a corrective to many an apocryphal notion of race in American culture. And as such, it may well shatter the race-based illusions of those otherwise ordinary individuals, however few in number, who do prove willing to slog through it. 

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Lebanon.