The Roots of Racial Categorization

Abstract

I examine the origins of ordinary racial thinking. In doing so, I argue against the thesis that it is the byproduct of a unique module (e.g. a folk-biology module). Instead, I defend a pluralistic thesis according to which different forms of racial thinking are driven by distinct mechanisms, each with their own etiology. I begin with the belief that visible features are diagnostic of race. I argue that the mechanisms responsible for face recognition have an important, albeit delimited, role to play in sustaining this belief. I then argue that essentialist beliefs about race are driven by some of the mechanisms responsible for “entitativity perception”: the tendency to perceive some aggregates of people as more genuine groups than others. Finally, I argue that coalitional thinking about race is driven by a distinctive form of entitativity perception. However, I suggest that more data is needed to determine the prevalence of this form of racial thinking.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For example, see https://home.chicagopolice.org/about/contact-us/how-to-describe-a-suspect/

  2. 2.

    Kramer and colleagues’ (2017) use of the term “accurately” needs to be qualified, for if racial categories are not real, there is nothing for the model to be accurate about. Rather than presupposing realism, we can interpret Kramer and colleagues’ statement as follows: the model’s categorization of an individual as Black was “accurate” only if that individual would be considered Black by the folk; and the model’s categorization of an individual as White was “accurate” only if that individual would be considered White by the folk. This interpretation fits with Kramer and colleagues’ methodology, for the faces they fed into the model were found on Google Images, with search terms, such as “Black women,” and “White men.”

  3. 3.

    Below, in section 2.3, I defend a somewhat weaker claim.

  4. 4.

    I have been focusing on face recognition, but it is worth pointing out that in recognizing others, people utilize non-facial bodily cues as well (e.g., see Rice et al. 2013). This is compatible with the recognition-byproduct hypothesis.

  5. 5.

    According to convention, the modern era began with the arrival of Columbus in “The New World,” in 1492. Hochman (2019) argues that the concept of race actually emerged in late medieval Spain, just before the start of the modern era. Obviously, this is still well after our capacity for face recognition first emerged.

  6. 6.

    In what follows, I use the term “essentialism” to denote broad essentialism (as defined above in section 3.3).

  7. 7.

    No doubt, various other factors have a role to play in explaining this sort of case. For example, knowing that Italian-Americans immigrated from the same geographical region may have caused some to construe them as sharing an inherited essence. Moreover, there is evidence that people with a “social dominance orientation”—i.e. a general preference for social inequality—tend to biologize and dehumanize social outgroups (Costello and Hodson 2010).

  8. 8.

    The account I have just defended is compatible with the view that racial categorization is a modern phenomenon. Plausibly, before the modern concept of race emerged, the most salient social groups cut across racial lines. For instance, Ivan Hannaford argues persuasively that before the Renaissance and the Reformation, “one’s identity and social status were determined by one’s political and religious commitments, not the color of one’s skin” (Hannaford 1996, pp. 147−148). Once racial markers became salient cues for group membership, this would have engaged the mechanisms responsible for categorical entitativity perception, thereby fueling the acquisition of distinctively modern, essentialist conceptions, of race. What might have caused racial markers to become salient, though? A large body of research has found that people tend to form social networks with those who are similar to them. Psychologists refer to this as homophily (for an overview, see McPherson et al. 2001). There has been little research into how people weigh the different dimensions of similarity (e.g. race versus age) when forming social networks. Plausibly, if one’s social standing is largely determined by one’s religious and political beliefs, the visible markers of race will not be especially salient. However, in a society in which these beliefs are less powerful drivers of social standing, racial markers may be salient enough to shape the emergence of homophilous social networks. The emergence of these racially skewed networks will, in turn, increase the salience of racial markers. Of course, there is a lot more to be said about the historical and psychological factors that drive racial segregation. Suffice it to say that additional research into the multidimensional nature of homophily may provide important insights.

  9. 9.

    See Wilkerson (2020) for a discussion of the resemblances between social castes and racial groups.

  10. 10.

    For helpful discussion and feedback, I would like to thank Edouard Machery, Ron Mallon, Adam Hochman, Joshua Glasgow, and members of the WashU Mind and Perception Group. I would also like to thank two reviewers for their extensive and insightful feedback.

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Phillips, B. The Roots of Racial Categorization. Rev.Phil.Psych. (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-021-00525-w

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