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date: 15 November 2019

(p. 421) Contemporary Social Issues: Education, Health, Medicine, and Sports

Abstract and Keywords

Philosophical reflection on racial profiling takes one of two forms. The first sees it as an example of “statistical discrimination,” raising the question of when, if ever, probabilistic generalizations about group behavior or characteristics can be used to judge particular individuals. The second is concerned with how racial profiling illuminates the reproduction of hierarchies of power and privilege based on skin color and morphology. Insights from both approaches can be synthesized to clarify what, if anything, is wrong with racial profiling and what broader conclusions for equality and security follow from the study of profiling.

Keywords: racial profiling, statistical discrimination, crime, security, statistical discrimination, achievement gap, segregation, integration, oppositional culture, middle-class children, mass incarceration, HIV/AIDS, health disparities, criminal justice reform, HIV/AIDS infection rate, racial classification, racial variation in health, race in epidemiology, race in medicine, health care and blacks, race, intelligence, stereotype threat, measurement invariance, intelligence tests, color-line in sports, philosophy of history, black women as Amazons, Jackie Robinson myth, black athletes

The history of political ideologies of race, the revision of posits of biological racial taxonomy in the sciences, differing approaches to race in philosophy, the complexity of racism, and a certain amount of expert disagreement and confusion regarding racial identities, altogether suggest that there would be ongoing, evident social problems regarding race. And, of course, there are. Racial identities, differences, relations, offenses, and injustices, recognition based on race, race in entertainment, racial representation in media, fashion associated with race—these are only a very few of the topics involving race that get public attention in the early twenty-first century.

When “race” is in the news, the public accepts it at face value. Everyone knows what it is, even though few could define it or would have the patience to endure scholarly treatments of it. Contemporary social discourse involving race may begin by accepting disparities as a normal part of ordinary life, but when solutions to specific problems are aired, discussion is apt to become controversial or contentious. Both the initial awareness and ensuing disagreement often occur without prior intellectual consideration of great depth. It is therefore sometimes appropriate to approach some examples without extensive prior theorizing.

The authors in this section are very much aware of how the subjects or contemporary problems they analyze are already broadly understood and discussed. Their starting point is common sense or public opinion. But that does not mean that what they have to say is a mere (p. 422) matter of “applied philosophy” or, in this case, applied philosophy of race. Rather, philosophical consideration of contemporary social issues pertaining to race yields insights that may inspire or revise more theoretically specialized attention.

From 2012 through 2015, mass and social media riveted public attention on a succession of police killings of unarmed young black men, which followed local practices of racial profiling (selecting and engaging suspects based on racial appearance). These incidents very rarely resulted in indictments or convictions of the officers responsible. It was never clarified during this time whether the onslaught of often-videotaped brutal police attacks was a new practice or a customary practice receiving new attention. The ethics and legality of police racial profiling have not been settled through the ubiquity and intensity of media coverage. Despite or because of its urgency, the subject of racial profiling requires philosophical analysis.

Annabelle Lever distinguishes between two academic approaches to racial profiling: the question of whether it is morally right to apply statistical group characteristics to individuals, and how the association of black people with crime is part of or reflects unjust racial hierarchies, or racial inequality and oppression. Philosophically, Lever is concerned with “whether the mere fact that a society has a racist past, whose consequences are still manifest in racial inequalities and injustices in the present, is sufficient to render all forms of racial profiling unjust.” Specifically, her focus is on police action that relies on the race, ethnicity, or national origin of an individual, to intervene for crime prevention. She asks, “Is there is something about racial generalizations themselves that makes racial profiling an unjustified form of statistical discrimination? And her answer is that background racial injustice contributes to a disproportionate burden on black people who are racially profiled, so that even in the absence of police brutality, preemptive racial profiling is unjust.

In the United States, high black crime rates have been associated with lower educational achievement, as well as disadvantaged opportunities and resources. Lawrence Blum notes that education or learning has a long history in terms of race, because as soon as blacks and other nonwhite racial groups were identified as such, their intellectual inferiority to whites was taken for granted. Blum examines how different socioeconomic backgrounds and barriers to education have contributed to lower educational achievement among blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans, compared to American whites and Asians. He believes that the failure of legal integration to close the racial achievement gap is the result of prejudice on the part of teachers, as well as a scarcity of culturally relevant curricula materials for nonwhite children. As a plausible solution to these problems, Blum refers to recent studies showing that poor children do better in classes where middle-class children are also present. The rationale is that middle-class children already have habits and values that support success in the educational system. Integrated schools are not sufficient, because they are often divided into “tracks” that reproduce racial segregation. Blum also suggests that racial diversity in the K-12 classroom is fruitful preparation for civic engagement in a pluralistic society made up of citizens from diverse backgrounds.

Racial health disparities in major diseases, as well as in general well-being and longevity, have been in public awareness for some time. Laurie Shrage examines recent studies revealing a correlation between HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases among African American women and high rates of incarceration among African American men. A plausible explanation is that HIV/AIDS is spread to the wider community by men who have sex with other men in prison but are otherwise heterosexual. However, these connections (p. 423) have not received much attention, because blacks are too readily stigmatized for unhealthy and immoral lifestyles, which makes it easy to blame them for their vulnerability to certain diseases. Shrage discusses research that blacks are in fact less likely to engage in illegal drug use or risky sexual behaviors than whites, but that their disproportionate incarceration for minor offenses increases their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS as inmates. She also observes that other areas for concern, further study, and reform, include high rates of rape and sexual coercion among prison populations, as well as the large segment of the inmate population suffering from untreated mental illness.

The next two essays in this section consider several underlying theoretical issues related to race and medicine and race and IQ tests. In “Race in the Biomedical Sciences,” Michael Root begins with a distinction between the use of race to explain morbidity and mortality on a population level and the use of race to diagnose and treat individuals in clinical settings. Both epidemiological and pharmacological research find significant differences in disease rates and drug reactions, associated with race. Physicians often select treatment for individual patients by applying statistical variations on the level of racial populations, to them as individuals. And although self-reports of health are notoriously inaccurate, it is widely assumed that self-reports of race are accurate. The physicians use these self-reports to categorize patients racially. However, a number of factors may complicate the accuracy of self-reports of race: different criteria for how much black ancestry a person who is white can have; complexities of mixed race; lack of family information. Moreover, genes that determine drug response vary independently of race, and there is no guarantee that the criteria for race used by researchers are the same used by doctors in clinical settings. Also, responses to drugs may vary as much within races as between them. Root therefore concludes as follows:

The question at the population level is not whether race should be used as a population variable in health research but which racial categories should be used and how members of a population should be assigned to them. The question at the individual level is whether race should matter at all, given the variation within each race in the response of patients to medical treatments.

Mark Alfano, Andrew R. A. Conway, and LaTasha Holden first take on the task of updating philosophers on “the state of the art in the scientific psychology of intelligence.” They then explore several theoretical issues pertaining to the measurement invariance of intelligence tests, or the fact that blacks, Latinos, women, poor people, and other marginalized groups perform worse than average on a variety of intelligence tests. But Alfano et al. also consider the skepticism now surrounding measurement invariance, specifically in terms of stereotype threat or the correlation of decreased performance level with prior exposure of test takers to stereotypes about themselves. (Stereotype threat also applies to majority groups, so that, for example, white males do worse on math tests when reminded that Asians outperform whites.) The authors conclude with suggestions for counteracting the pernicious aspects of stereotype threat based on research that people’s conceptions of intelligence influence how their own intelligence is expressed. They stress the importance of emphasizing that intelligence is not an essential or racially determined property, so that “inducing people to give up the idea that intelligence is an entity might shield them from academic underachievement.” In a recent study, students at risk of dropping out of high school benefited from this kind of intervention, with higher grades and better performance in core courses.

(p. 424) Finally, it is obvious that race is a huge factor in contemporary sports and that sports are a vital, pervasive part of US life. At different times, specific sports have been dominated by distinct racial or ethnic groups as a means for socioeconomic advance in the United States. (Basketball, for instance, was invented by a Canadian physical education instructor for young white men in Massachusetts during the late nineteenth century and then spread through the YMCA and the US Army. Professional basketball was dominated by Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century.) At present, it is still widely believed that athletics provides an opportunity for fair advancement, based on talent and discipline.

While John H. McClendon III in “ ‘Race’ to the Finish Line” does not doubt the importance of sport to African Americans, he argues through historical examples in basketball, baseball, football, golf, boxing, and horse racing that progress in sports requires the same dismantling of racism, as progress in any other area of US life. In reviewing the history of twentieth-century sports and race, McClendon shows how struggles for nonwhite opportunity and recognition in athletics have been parallel to such struggles in wider society. He writes, “Racism is not just an attitude or belief that there exist inferior and superior races. More important, it is behavior and institutions that lend material support to such attitudes and beliefs by the actual suppression of the supposed inferior group.” McClendon concludes that part of what needs to change in athletics is the perceived requirement for white recognition of black excellence, in addition to whatever has been required and achieved for black excellence itself. The bottom line is that in sports, as in the rest of society, despite inspiring myths and ideals, there never has been a magical or effortless escape from racism.

Goodman, Sander L., ed. (2013). Race in Contemporary Medicine. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Gould, Stephen Jay. (2006). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton.Find this resource:

Smith, Earl. (2013). Race, Sport, and the American Dream. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.Find this resource:

Stevenson, Howard C. (2014). Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences That Make a Difference. New York: Teachers College Press.Find this resource:

Zack, Naomi. (2015). White Privilege and Black Rights: The Injustice of US Police Racial Profiling and Homicide. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.Find this resource: