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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. 

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.

On the Connection Between Institutional Racism and Racist Ideology

Paper under review

The claim that racism can be predicated of institutions challenges the mainstream view that racism is a matter of individuals’ beliefs, volitions and dispositions. However, this claim is essential to an adequate understanding of the persistence of unjust racial inequality in the post-civil rights era. Tommie Shelby has developed a philosophical account of institutional racism, which despite holding promise, requires revision in order to properly articulate what makes certain institutions racist. In particular, Shelby must rethink the connection between racist ideology and a certain type of racist institutions in order not to end up with an over-inclusive account of institutional racism (as it currently stands, Shelby’s account would count affirmative-action institutions as racist). In criticizing this aspect of Shelby’s account, I propose that we conceive of racist ideology—which in the present context takes the form of colorblind ideology—as accommodating institutions that reproduce unjust racial disadvantage. In other words, what makes such institutions racist is not the work they do for racist ideology (as Shelby argues), but the work that racist ideology does for them.

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.

Institutional Racism and the Conceptual Inflation Challenge

Paper in the works

I address the challenge that the concept of institutional racism inflates the term 'racism' without proper analytical rigor. 
Conceptual inflation critics argue that the concept of institutional racism undermines our assessment of race-
related wrongs, gets in the way of cross-racial dialogue, and weakens the explanatory power of the concept of 
racism. In response, I show that my account of institutional racism actually improves our understanding of 
race-related wrongs and contributes to the explanation of durable racial inequality. Moreover, the aim of 
having a concept of institutional racism is not to facilitate cross-racial dialogue, but rather to articulate the 
mechanisms behind the reproduction of racial inequality

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.