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Racism: A Moral or Explanatory Concept?

Published in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

Pre-print available here.

I argue that racism should not only be conceived as a moral concept whose main aim is to condemn severe wrongs in the domain of race. The paper advances a complementary interpretation of racism as an explanatory concept—one that plays a key role in explaining race-based social problems afflicting members of subordinate racialized groups. As an explanatory concept, the term “racism” is used to diagnose and highlight the causes of race-related social problems. The project of diagnosing race-based social problems contributes to the pragmatic anti-racist end of developing better political and policy strategies for solving these social problems. This social-philosophical project builds on and contributes to social-scientific approaches to the study of racism. It includes clarifying methodological (e.g. the debate between methodological individualism and holism) and ontological issues (e.g. the nature of “race”, “white supremacy”, “implicit bias”, “institutional racism”) that feature in social-scientific explanations of race-related social problems.  

Is Affirmative Action Racist? Reflections Toward a Theory of Institutional Racism

Published in Journal of Social Philosophy

Pre-print available here.

I defend impact-based accounts of institutional racism against the criticism that they are over-inclusive. If having a negative impact on non-whites suffices to make an institution racist, too many institutions (including institutions whose affirmative action policies inadvertently harm its intended beneficiaries) would count as racist. To address this challenge, I consider a further necessary condition for these institutions to count as racist—they must stand in a particular relation to racist ideology. I argue that, on the impact-based model, institutions are racist if they have a negative racial impact AND this impact is legitimized by racist ideology. Racist ideologies limit social criticism of and collective action against institutions that have a negative racial impact, and in so doing, lend stability to systems of racial domination. 

Structural Explanations in Social Philosophy

Paper in the works

I identify three challenges for accounts of structural explanation in social philosophy. The first challenge posits that social structures can only have explanatory power at the cost of determining human agency in a way that conflicts with human autonomy and rationality. The second challenge is that social structural explanations either refer to obscure metaphysical entities, such as social wholes and structures, or can be reducible to explanations in terms of individuals. The third challenge is that social structural explanations are too broad in a way that abstracts away from important aspects of the individuals whose behavior they aim to explain. I argue that existing accounts of structural explanation are unable to solve all three challenges simultaneously and that this inability has to do with their choice of individual behavior as the explanandum of social structural explanations. Instead, I propose that we conceive of social structural explanations as aiming to explain the persistence of social facts. I show how this shift from explaining individual behavior to explaining the maintenance of social facts allows social structural explanations to solve all three challenges. I also argue that many structural explanations in recent social philosophy work better as explanations of the persistence of social facts. 

Positional Interests and Structural Explanations of Oppression

Paper in the works

I challenge structural explanations of oppression in recent social philosophy. According to the standard story, structural constraints on agency explain why members of oppressed groups tend to contribute to their own oppression, which in turn explains the durability of oppression. I advance a complementary explanation of the durability of oppression that focuses not on the victims of oppression, but on its beneficiaries. My explanation seeks to answer why “well-meaning” members of privileged groups often act (or fail to act) in ways that maintain oppression. While the standard story homes in on the constraining power of social structures on oppressed agents, my account emphasizes the motivating power of social structures on privileged agents. To this end, I introduce the concept of positional interests (viz. interests that attach to individuals in virtue of their position in a social structure) to explain how social structures motivate those who benefit from an oppressive social structure to act (or fail to act) so as to sustain those structures. Positional interests explain the tendency for oppression-maintaining (in)action among privileged agents, and in so doing, explain the durability of oppression. 

Paper on Institutional Racism and the Conceptual Inflation Challenge

Under review (R&R)

There is a generalized concern that the concept of racism has become overly inflated. The charge of conceptual inflation is often leveled against wide-scope conceptions of racism that go beyond the traditional understanding of racism as individual race-based prejudice and discrimination. Wide-scope conceptions of racism inflate the traditional meaning of “racism” to account for racial phenomena such as implicit bias, microaggressions, and institutional racism. Theories of institutional racism are a recurrent target of conceptual inflation critics, especially when they ascribe racism to institutions in virtue of their impact on subordinate racialized groups. Critics of the conceptual inflation of “racism” argue that overly extending the meaning of the term can undermine our moral understanding of racial phenomena, hinder our ability to explain the causes of racial inequality, and even undercut struggles for racial justice. In this essay, I argue that theories of institutional racism, properly understood, are immune to all three versions of the conceptual inflation challenge.

Structural Racism and the Explanation of Racial Inequality

Dissertation Abstract

My dissertation argues that the concept of structural racism is vital to anti-racist theory and practice because it helps us explain the durability of racial inequality. To develop this explanatory claim, I elaborate an account of structural racism in terms of racially oppressive social structures. A defining feature of oppressive social structures—racial and otherwise—is that they systematically disadvantage a social group, while simultaneously benefitting another. Structural racism explains durable racial inequality insofar as it motivates agents who benefit from relations of race-based advantage/disadvantage to act in ways that preserve those advantages. This motivational effect of structural racism ensures the support (active or passive) of enough advantaged agents to maintain racial inequality. My dissertation develops this explanatory claim with reference to a recent sociological case study of a U.S. high school in which white parents support social practices that reinforce racial disparities in students' educational attainment. As the case study makes clear, white parents' support for these social practices is rooted in their desire to preserve the competitive advantages that their children derive from them.