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Racism: A Moral or Explanatory Concept?

Published in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

Pre-print available here.

This paper argues 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. The paper defends this interpretation of racism as an explanatory concept through a critical engagement with Urquidez's moral-philosophical account of racism. 

Institutional Racism and the Conceptual Inflation Challenge

Under Review

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.

The Role of Motivation in Structural Explanations of Oppression

Paper in the works

This paper undertakes a critical engagement with the literature on structural explanations of durable oppression (Cudd 2006, Haslanger 2016). On the standard story, structural constraints on agency explain why members of oppressed groups sometimes contribute to their own oppression, which in turn explains the durability of oppression. While sympathetic to the standard story, this paper offers a complementary explanation of durable oppression that focuses not on the victims of oppression, but on its beneficiaries. In particular, my explanation seeks to make sense of why well-meaning members of privileged groups often act (or fail to act) so as to maintain oppression. In addition, my account provides a more complete picture of the role that social structures play in the reproduction of oppression. Whereas the standard story focuses on the constraining power of social structures, my account also considers the motivating power of social structures on the agency of individuals. More specifically, I introduce the concept of positional interests (viz. interests that attaches to individuals qua occupiers of a position in a social structure) as crucial for understanding how social structures motivate those who benefit from an oppressive social structure to act (or fail to act) so as to sustain such structures. In other words, positional interests explain the tendency for oppression-maintaining action among privileged agents, and in so doing, explain the durability of oppression.

Is Culturally-Induced Moral Ignorance Blameless?

Paper in the works

I argue against the widespread claim that an agent's culture may limit their access to morally relevant facts to the point of exculpating them for partaking in unjust social practices. I do so by challenging four reasons commonly used by defenders of this view: anti-moralism, the 'ought implies can' maxim, the control principle, and the assumption of moral ignorance as an honest mistake.

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

Under review

A key insight from contemporary anti-racist movements is that institutions can be racist partly in virtue of their negative impact on subordinate racialized groups. Philosophical accounts that aim to capture this impact-based feature of institutional racism must be careful not to over-inflate the concept to the point where it loses its analytical and explanatory value. Tommie Shelby’s two-pronged theory of institutional racism accommodates cases of impact-based institutional racism under the category of “extrinsic institutional racism”. However, his account is over-inclusive—it would categorize institutions that enact affirmative action policies as (extrinsically) racist. This problem in Shelby’s account stems from his understanding of the connection between extrinsically racist institutions and racist ideology. For Shelby, the connection is one whereby extrinsically racist institutions reinforce racist ideology in the form of racial prejudices and stereotypes. I propose an alternative account, according to which racist ideology reinforces extrinsically racist institutions by masking and legitimizing their racist impact. My proposal solves the over-inclusion problem and allays the conceptual inflation worries surrounding impact-based theories of institutional racism. In addition, it clarifies how the concept of institutional racism contributes to the anti-racist project of explaining the reproduction of racial inequality.

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 of 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.