One question that often comes up in discussions of race is whether or not such categories (black, white, Asian, Latino, etc.) have a real foundation or whether such categories are primarily social constructs.
Of course, there is also the question of what it means to even claim that racial categories have a real foundation. Oversimplifying things a bit, there seem to be two main possibilities: physical and metaphysical.
If there is a physical foundation to the racial categories, that would mean that such distinctions are grounded in biological traits. To be more specific, an example of this sort of view would be that the racial categories are grounded in real genetic differences. Naturally, there are many different possible views even if one accepts the general thesis. These views can be sorted out in terms of the degree to which a person’s traits are said to be determined by their genetic race. On one end of the spectrum would be the view that the racial categories are founded on genetic differences that determine certain aspects of physical appearance (skin color, for example). On the other end of the spectrum would be the view that there is a genetic basis to race and these “racial” genes determine all or almost all of the individual’s traits (mental and physical).
The general idea that genes are the dominant factor in determining a person’s attributes and behavior is a popular one this days and, not surprisingly, is the result of the success of the theory of evolution (and natural selection in particular). The thesis that there are “racial” genes has often been suggested, but most scientists contend that there is no genetic basis for the racial categories. If this is true (and no other physical foundation exists), then it must be accepted that race is either based on a metaphysical foundation or that it has been created by the human mind (as some say, a social construct).
If there is a metaphysical foundation to the racial categories, that would mean that the racial types have an ontological reality to them. That is, to put it is more informal terms, there is a non-physical aspect of reality that divides humans into distinct racial types.
Since at least the time of Plato, philosophers have debated whether the division of the world into types is based on a metaphysical foundation or not. Plato believed that things in this world imitated (or participated in) the Forms. These Forms were said to be perfect, timeless entities that were purely what they were and nothing else. For example, the Form of Beauty would be perfect Beauty and all beautiful things would be beautiful because they participate in or imitate this Form. Naturally, there are many other views in regards to the nature of the qualities of things. Roughly put, though, these views can be divided into two camps: realists and anti-realists.
If you are a realist about categories, then you think that the categories have an actual metaphysical basis. We are not, to put it crudely, just making things up when we divide the world-assuming, of course, that we are dividing things into categories in the right way. Being a realist does not mean being a realist about everything. For example, a person could be a realist in regards to the division between humans and cats, but reject that the racial categories have a metaphysical foundation.
If you are an anti-realist, then you believe that the categories (or at least some specific categories that you are an anti-realist about) are not grounded on a metaphysical foundation. Such categories are, most likely, just made up by us. In the Middle Ages this view was often called “nominalism.” This is the view that things are grouped into categories based on how we name them. For example, on this view all that white people have in common is that people call them by the term “white.”
Turning back to the main question-is there a metaphysical basis for race? The answer with the highest initial plausibility is, of course, “no.” This is because proving the existence of metaphysical entities is rather difficult and proving the existence of metaphysical entities that correspond to human races seems to be vastly more difficult. This is not to say that it is impossible; but it is to say that the burden of proof rests on those who would claim that such entities exist.
One final question is whether people should investigate claims about race having a metaphysical or physical basis. Some might argue that such research should be rejected out of hand on moral and political (or politically correct) grounds. While this has some appeal, it is wise to always be very careful when declaring certain topics as forbidden. Doing this impedes the search for truth and can create the impression that people are trying to conceal something that is worth hiding. Of course, this is a complex matter and hence something that will need to be addressed in another essay (blog).