The Philosophy of Race by Albert Atkin (review)
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The Philosophy of Race By Albert Atkin. Durham, NC: Acumen, 2012. vi + 194 pp., $24.95. ISBN: 978-1-84465-515-1

Albert Atkin’s The Philosophy of Race addresses a central question: What does the study of race have to gain from philosophical engagement? His initial answer involves delineating what he calls “the ordinary concept of race,” which he claims is marked by three nonnegotiable features: (1) race and races are marked by somatic differences; (2) race is inherited from one’s parents; and (3) race is tied to particular geographical areas in terms of origin (28–32). But not one of these features is supported by contemporary genetics. For example, somatic markers that we believe differentiate one race of people from another are clines and “do not cluster into the kinds of groups that we would need them to if they were to be markers of our ordinary race concept” (33). For this and other important reasons, the ordinary concept of race, judged by the standards of science, is unreal (46). But if the investigation ended here, we would be missing something crucial. For independent of its scientific validity, race is a “robust social phenomenon bound down in our sociohistorical practices, behaviours, conventions and institutions” (47). With this truth in hand, Atkin outlines three ways of reading this social reality of race: (1) strong social constructionism—a view that the social facts behind race are reality [End Page 248] conferring; (2) weak social constructionism—the view that race is not a social kind; and (3) reconstructionism—the view that highlights the malleability of race concepts.

Atkin turns next to the task of assessing three contemporary views concerning the value of race-talk: eliminativism, preservationism, and reconstructionism. Closely aligned with the weak social constructionist view, eliminativists argue that we should abandon race thought and talk. Convinced by the strong social constructionist view, preservationists think we should retain the concept of race. Over the last decade, Atkin argues, some philosophers have begun to move away from the eliminativism/preservationism dilemma and toward reconstructionism. According to the reconstructionists, we should reconfigure the concept of race to serve our epistemic purposes and to contribute to ameliorative social projects.

Atkin’s next task is an analysis of racism. After offering a cogent definition of racism (116), he explains why this definition is merely a starting point, for racism is a complex phenomenon; some forms of racism are overt, others are avert, some are direct, others are indirect. Moreover, racism operates at various social levels, such as the interpersonal, institutional, and cultural. After explicating this complexity, he examines three contemporary models of racism, each of which offers a distinct interpretive framework for analyzing racism as a social phenomenon: (1) the belief/ideology model, (2) the behavioral model, and (3) the affective model. Although these models seem to get most things right, they all fail to “meet the philosophical ambitions behind giving a philosophical account of racism in some way” (39). Moving forward, Atkin suggests that we offer “hybrid” accounts of these and other models that do not fit neatly into these three categories and that we explore if there is something more basic that unifies these disparate accounts that might capture the phenomenon of racism.

Atkin concludes his work with social policy questions, focusing primarily on issues of racial profiling. What is philosophically interesting about racial profiling is that while many of us think that profiling a person by using racial categories is immoral, it appears that we are also impressed by the utility of this process. So is racial profiling ever acceptable? Atkins thinks it could be, if the practice does not cause unacceptable harms or contribute to the persistence and magnification of preexisting harms. These possibilities, however, might be enough to dissuade us from believing that racial profiling is ever morally justified. [End Page 249]

One question Atkin could have explored here is: Ought a medical doctor profile her patients? The inclusion of this question and Atkin’s reflections upon it would perhaps have allowed him to explain further how the contextualization of experience and the uniqueness of a given social practice allow one to resolve, or...