A Realist Metaphysics of Race: A Context-Sensitive,Short-Term Retentionist, Long-Term Revisionist Approach

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Linda M. Alcoff


Eliminativism, Natural kinds, Race, Realism, Social construction, Social philosophy

Subject Categories



There are three main metaphysical positions on race. Anti-realists deny that there are races. Natural-kind positions find sub-groups of homo sapiens with scientific importance and call them races. Social-kind views consider races to exist because of contingent social practices. I argue for a view closest to the third camp. Chapter 1 makes room for racial natural kinds, provided a minimal-enough sense of a natural kind. However, the groups we arrive at by nonarbitrary scientific means are not the socially-important groups that we ordinarily call races. Thus the groups we normally call races are not natural kinds. Chapter 2 argues that anti-realist arguments fail by relying on experts rather than ordinary language-users, using historical rather than contemporary data, and making unjustified conclusions from thought experiments and ordinary use. Chapter 3 makes room for a social-kind view, showing (1) the contingency of the categories, (2) the fact that arbitrary socially-determined facts determine the structure of racial classification (3) the instability of racial categories. Racial groups would exist without social constructions, since they are just groups of people, but the social constructions make particular group classifications socially important and allow us to name them as races. Chapter 4 argues for context-sensitivity in racial constructions, with fluidity from one context to another even for the same person. Different factors might be relevant in different settings to change which racial labels might apply. Chapter 5 argues that we should use racial categories to identify problems in how our racial construction is formed, including harmful effects, rather than seeking to eliminate the categories in any direct way, but we should also make efforts to change the conditions that generate those problematic elements, so we can retain only the unproblematic aspects. Some elements of racial identity-formation can be good.


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