In today’s reading-group on racial ontology, I was asked whether an eliminativist, i.e., someone who rejects the metaphysical reality of races, is committed to “resist a policy of providing support to black-owned businesses, or any other race-based prioritization”, presumably, because such an eliminativist would be committed to reject as false the race-talk behind such measures.
Here is my longish answer:
It is a very importante point, made by Ludwig Wittgenstein, Elizabeth Barnes, Stephen Fuller, etc. that we ought to distinguish among the following questions:
1. Is the class X empty in a metaphysical sense?, i.e., whether there really are any X.
2. Are all (existence entailing) sentences about X false (or, at least, not true)? [The ‘existence-entailing’ condition aims to exclude sentences like ‘there are no Xs’. From now on, when I say X-talk I will refer exclusively to non-existence-entailing sentences]
3. Is X-talk trivial and senseless?
4. Is it a good idea to stop talking as if there are Xs.
The traditional, Quinean-Tarskian story tells us that a positive answer to (1) entails a positive answer to (2) which entails a positive answer to (3) which entails a positive answer to (4).
However, nominalism has shown us that a positive answer to (1) does not entail a positive answer to (2), Wittgenstein has given us good reasons to recognize that neither a positive answer to (1) nor a positive answer to (2) entail a positive answer to (4), while factionalism has also insisted that a positive answer to neither (1) nor (2) entails a positive answer to (3) either.
This is as much true about abstract objects as it is about chairs or social categories of gender, race, class, etc.
This means that one might well be an eliminatist about these categories, i.e., give a positive answer to question (1) without committing to giving a positive answer to any of the other questions. For example:
A nominalist, eliminativist about, say, race might reject the metaphysical reality of races while also rejecting the claim that all race-talk is trivially false, and also hold that at least some talk of races is still true, but just not about races, but about how we think and talk about them. I think this is very close to what Elisabeth Barnes (2020) defends, at least for some contextually restricted sort of gender-talk, and I imagine she would defend something analogous for race.
A Wittgensteinean, eliminativist about race might reject the metaphysical reality of races and even accept that race-talk is literally false, while maintaining that it might be wrong to stop talking as if there are races, because the alternative would be even worse. One might think that there is still something clearly wrong – or at least, not-ideal – in using race language in pursuing our emancipatory goals, while also holding that, in the current situation, we still cannot get rid of race talk and that trying to do would only exacerbate current racial injustices. Recognizing the non-ideal status of race-talk entails acknowledging the existence of some political risks – for example, of appropriation, exclusion or capture – from which we must be vigilante.
A fictionalist, eliminativist about race might reject the metaphysical reality of races and even accept that race-talk is literally false, yet maintain that at least some race-talk, specially emancipatory, retributive race-talk is still meaningful, because its political function does not depend on its literal truth, but on other practical features of language use that are not primarily representational.
Thus, there are at least three broad paths for whoever wants to be an eliminativist, not just about race, but about any similar ontological category, while allowing for the utility of race-talk (or the relevant analogue) in emancipatory, retributive and similar projects.