Reconsidering Race in the Genetic Era

"When we talk about the concept of race, most people believe that they know it when they see it but arrive at nothing short of confusion when pressed to define it." E. Higginbotham (1992, p. 253)

Race is a topic that has been explored throughout the history of social psychology research. Typically, this research has focused on how our conceptions (or preconceptions) of race affect our attitudes and behaviors. There is a long line of research examining phenomena such as prejudice, stereotypes, discrimination, in-group bias, stereotype threat, self-fulfilling prophecies, and a whole range of related issues. One could argue that an underlying assumption of this research is that all humans are fundamentally equal, regardless of race. In the academic world, there has been consistent support this notion (Anderson & Nickerson, 2005Sternberg, Grigorenko, & Kidd, 2005); however, folk notions of race, as a fundamental biological difference, still persist in the United States and many countries around the world (Jayarantne, Ybarra, Sheldon, Brown, Feldbaum, et al., 2006;Smedley & Smedley, 2005Williams & Eberhardt, 2008).

These folk notions, sometimes referred to as  biological essentialism, suggest that there are distinct races with distinct physiological and mental characteristics. Nonetheless, scientific research consistently indicates that race is primarily a social construct that does not reflect any significant biological differences (Ossorio, 2006Smedley & Smedley, 2005). Why then do these folk notions persist? It can be explained, in part, by a lack of education about race; however, efforts to educate the public can, ironically, reinforce misunderstandings about race. This article will discuss how folk notions of race relate to prejudice, stereotyping, and racism, as well as, how media coverage of genetic research may inadvertently reinforce those views. Also, I will explore research from social psychology, evolutionary psychology, and genetics in an effort to demonstrate that race is fundamentally a social construct.

Traditional folk notions of race in the United States were often based on the notion of biological essentialism—different races reflect distinct biological groups (Smedley & Smedley, 2005). For many years, this belief helped to fuel racist beliefs and to justify discrimination. While one could argue that traditional explicit forms of racism have declined in the United States, stereotyping, prejudice, and racism remain a major social problem. Moreover, recent social psychological research indicates that these racist attitudes continue to find justification in biological explanations (Bastian & Haslam, 2006Jayarantne, et al., 2006Keller, 2005;Williams & Eberhardt, 2008). For instance, Jayarantne and colleagues using randomized phone interviews found that approximately 51% of white adults in the United States believe that there is a genetic explanation for racial differences in individual’s drive to succeed, math ability, the tendency to act violently, and intelligence (Jayarantne, et al., 2006).

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