PHI 420/555 - Race Causality Discrimination

Fall 23

Marcello Di Bllo -

Tue 10:30-1:20 PM in Tempe, COOR 3301 3323

Office hours: Tuesday after class or by appointment


Claims of racial discrimination and structural racism are ubiquitous today. On one hand, studies in the social sciences show that, after controlling for variables other than race, racial disparities still persist in incarceration, health outcomes and wealth. Thus, race appears to be a key variable for explaining racial disparities. On the other hand, many point out that, again after controlling for variables other than race, the same racial disparities significantly decrease. Thus, they think that the explanatory role of race has been exaggerated. This debate leaves out a crucial question, however. What causal and explanatory role (if any) can race play in the first place? If, as many hold, race is a social construct emerging from the fabric of social interactions, does it make sense to isolate it and control for other variables?

The course aims to untangle the assumptions about the causality of race that inform the ongoing debate about racial discrimination and structural racism. Readings will be drawn from the literature in the social sciences on racial inequalities, the statistical and philosophical literature on causality, and the philosophical literature on theories of race.


This course is meant for advanced undergraduates and graduate students. You will become familiar with current debates in philosophy and the social sciences about the nature and study of causality, with a focus on questions about race and discrimination. You will sharpen your critical thinking skills, in reading and writing, for the analysis of theoretical concepts and their application to current social and political questions. You will read academic papers in philosophy and the social sciences, and develop an appreciation for their distinctive contributions.

Course Materials

Readings and other course materials are available on this website. For readings covered by copyright, please check the Canvas page of this course.
Course materials are divided into “essential” and “additional”. You are only expected to study the essential ones, but I recommend that you have a look at the additional materials for at least one or two weeks.



Please attend class regularly and participate (10% of your grade). This is a “seminar style” course. You are expected to take an active role in the discussions. Please study the assigned materials before class and be ready to discuss them.


In addition, you should write ten Pass/Fail précis as well as three graded essays or a research paper (90% of your grade).


Every week please write a one-page précis of one of the papers assigned for that week. The précis should describe: (a) topic of the paper; (b) main thesis (or main theses, if there are more than one); (c) supporting arguments; (d) objections to these arguments, complications or difficulties that the author considers (if any). Submit your précis each week through Canvas before the beginning of class. You should receive a PASS in at least ten précis, or else a full letter grade will be subtracted from your final grade: A would become B; B would become C; etc.


There will be three main graded assignments for this course, 5 pages each.

1. Write a critical essay that discusses the manipulationist account of causation. Your essay should begin with a careful theoretical summary of the key ideas in the manipulationist account (1-2 pages). After that, you should apply the account to a specific example in the social sciences and show how the account can be useful in modeling causation (1-2 pages). Finally, you should raise problems and difficulties for the account (1-2- pages). Please draw from the course readings as needed and demonstrate thoughful engagement with them.

2. After doing independent research, collect and summarize a case study that illustrates the challenges of investigating the causal role of race. The first part of your essay (1-2 pages) should describe your case study. Topics for your case study could include, but are not limited to, health care, criminal justice, education, hiring. The second part (3-4 pages) should draw from the readings on the philosophy of race.

3. Write a philosophical argumentative essay that examines the topic “Philosophical Challenges to the Study of Racial Discrimination”. In examining this topic, you should draw from the course readings on racial discrimination. You may (but need not) build on the case study you discussed in your second essay. Your essay can be primarily negative, e.g., you argue that the challenges are insurmountable. Your essay can also be more positive, e.g., you describe the challenges and propose ways to address them.

Research paper

If you are a grad student or advanced undergrad with research experience, you may combine the three 5 page essays into one 15-20 page research paper. The research paper should engage closely with a subset of the course materials including the additional ones. It is neither necessary nor recommended that you use materials outside those already included in the course materials.

Please come talk to me before you start working on the research paper.


Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5 | Week 7 | Week 9 | Week 10 | Week 11 | Week 12 | Week 13 | Week 14 - workshop | Week 15



Week 1: Introduction

Racial disparities are well-known and widely studied. However, it is more difficult to study the causal effects of race on outcomes. For example, in a 2017 study Harvard economist Ronald Fryer argued that available data show no racial bias against black men in police killings. In fact, Fryer’s study showed that black civilians are less likely to be killed by the police compared to similarly situated white civilians. Many rejected this conclusion despite the study’s meticulous reliance on data and rigorous statistical modeling. What makes it so difficult to study the causal effects of race? Are data-driven social sciences inadequate for this task?

Essential readings

Additional readings and materials


Week 2: Causation as Manipulation in Statistics

How should we understand the nature of causality and how should we study causality? A prominent account in both statistics and philosophy is the so-called manipulationist account. This week and the next will be devoted to understanding this manipulationist account. (Since the main reading requires an understanding of conditional probabilities, you can check out this video if you are unfamiliar with this notion.)

Essential readings

Additional readings and materials


Week 3: Causation as Manipulation in Philosophy

We continue on the same topic as last week, focusing on work by philosophers.

Essential readings

  • Handout - Week 3

  • Woodward (2003), Causation and Manipulation, Chapter 1 and 2 of the book Making Things Happens, Oxford University Press - check Canvas

Additional readings and materials


Week 4: Race and Manipulation

The manipulationist account of causation faces several challenges when it comes to investigating the causal role of social categories, in particular, race. The main challenge is that race cannot be a cause insofar as race cannot be manipulated. And yet, even if race is not a variable that can be manipulated, it could still play a causal role, just like class or gender can have a causal role. The slogan “no causation without manipulation”, then, seems overly restrictive.

Essential readings

Additional readings and materials

  • Krieger (2014), Discrimination and Health Inequities. (This article reviews the literature on the causal effects of race, as found in studies in epidemiology and health. It illustrates how the causal effects of race can be studied empirically without necessarily presupposing that race is a variable to be manipulated.)


First essay due

Week 5: Audit Studies

How do social scientists respond to these challenges? We will look at a few examples of studies in sociology and economics that make causal claims about race. In these studies, race (or to be more precise, a variable that is an indicator of race) is still manipulated. Is the manipulationist account, then, secure from objections when it comes to social categories such as race?

Q&A with Lily Hu

The last part of the class will consist in a Q&A session with Lily Hu, a philosopher at Yale interested in how the social sciences study the causal effects of race. Hu is the author of one of the readings assigned for today.

Essential readings

Additional readings and materials


Week 6: Race as a Bundle of Sticks

Today we look at the theory of race as a “bundle of sticks” and the possibility of manipulating other characteristics that may then be used as indicators of the causal role of race.

Essential readings

Additional readings and materials


Week 7: Race as a Social Construct

It is time to examine philosophical accounts of race. Admittedly, we cannot talk about whether race is a cause without asking, what is race? So we ask this question now. We’ll start with social constructionist views of race.

Q&A with Sally Haslanger

The first part of the class will consist in a Q&A session with Sally Haslanger, a philosopher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology interested in social practices, social structure, structural explanation with an emphasis on the materiality of social practices and the role of ideologyn. Sally is the author of one of the readings assigned for today.

Essential readings


Week 8: Fall Break, No class


Week 9: Race as Real or Unreal

This week we will look at accounts of race as biologically real and as an illusion.

Essential readings

Additional readings and materials


Second essay due

Week 10: Measuring Racial Discrimination

Having clarified what we could mean by race, let’s return to our original question: how can we study the causal effects of race? We will focus in particular on racial discrimination, one crucial way in which race can have causal effects. What is discrimination and how is it measured?

Essential readings


Week 11: Testing for Discrimination

Now, if race is socially constructed, how can it be subject to statistical analysis by manipulating it as a variable or controlling for other variables? What are the pitfalls of this standard way of studying discrimination?

Q&A with Naftali Weinberger

The first part of the class will consist in a Q&A session with Naftali Weinberger, a philosopher at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy, Germany, interested in causally modeling and causal issues related to discrimination. Naftali is the author of one of the readings assigned for today.

Essential readings

Additional readings and materials


Week 12: Structural Explanation and Group Oppression

Instead of thinking of race as a single variable, race can be thought of as embedded in a complex social structure. This week we examine an idea that is often mentioned, even in the mainstream media, namely “structural injustice”.

Essential readings

Additional readings and materials


Week 13: Social Structures as Causes

To what extent can a manipulationist account of causality model the causal role of race in a structural sense? Some think this framework can capture the structural picture. How do such accounts model the causal (structural?) role of race?

Q&A with Lauren Ross

The first part of the class will consist in a Q&A session with Lauren Ross, a philosopher at University of California, Irvine interested in causal reasoning and the nature of explanation. Lauren is the author of one of the readings assigned for today.

Essential readings

Additional readings and materials


Week 14: Workshop

Students will workshop their research papers by giving short presentations accompanied by either a handout or slides and followed by Q&A. Each presenter will have 30 minutes to be split between the presentation itself and Q&A at the discretion of the presenter. The list of presenters is below.

10:30 | Scout | Measuring Structural Manipulations”

11:00 | Annah | The Role of Race in the Retention Rates of College Students

11:30 | Megan | The Invisible Test for Social Structural Explanations

12:00 | Break

12:20 | Sunil | Resumes, Audit Studies, and Challenges to Studying Discrimination

12:50 | Yashin | Against (Anti-)Racism: Racial Anti-Realism and the Case for a Non-Racist Politic


Week 15: Conclusion

What have we learned about race, causality and discrimination? What questions are still left open and what lines of inquiry seemed more promising?

Third essay or research paper due December 1st

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