Reconsidering Race in the Genetic Era

In another study sampling college students, Keller (2005) found that participants’ belief in biological essentialism correlated with increased levels of stereotyping and prejudice. This suggests that belief in biologically distinct races may reinforce stereotyping and prejudiceWilliams and Eberhardt (2008) conducted a study that examined the relationship between biological conceptions of race and individuals’ motivation to crossracial boundaries. They found that participants who conceived of racial groups as biologically determined were more accepting of racial inequalities and less interested in interacting with racial out-group members. In light of this research, one could argue that folk notions of race continue to justify and reinforce stereotypes, prejudice, and racism; however, there has been little research conducted to determine how these notions are formed and maintained.

Condit and colleagues conducted a study that may shed some light on this issue. They found evidence that the media coverage of developments in genetic research may reinforce the public’s folk views of race (Condit, Parrott, Bates, Bevan, & Achter, 2004). In one study, they presented individuals with a mock public service announcement that described the potential links between race, genes, and heart disease. A group of predominately white college students from a large university in the southeastern United States were randomly assigned to one of four audio messages: 1) linked heart disease and genes (no race specified), 2) linked heart disease and genes (specifying "Blacks" as participants), 3) linked heart disease and genes (specifying "Whites" as participants), and 4) was a control condition where the participants received no message. After hearing the message (or not in the case of the control group), participants’ levels of racism and their belief in a genetic basis for that racism were measured using a variety of scales. These scales included the Modern Racism Scale (McConahay, Hardee, & Batts, 1981), the Racial Denial Scale (Entman & Rojecki, 2000), and the Genetically-Based Racism Scale (Condit, Parrott, Harris, Lynch, & Dubriwny, 2004, all scales cited in Condit et al, 2004). The participants who listened to the message linking heart disease to genes for "Black" participants were found to exhibit significantly higher levels of racism, as well as, an increased belief in a genetic basis for that racism, when their results were compared to those of participants in the other conditions. In other words, just hearing that some  genetic markers for heart disease are more likely to be found "among black men and women" appears to increase racism, and more disturbingly, seems to provide a quasi-scientific basis for that racism (p. 404).

This is not the first time that scientific discoveries have been used to support racist ideology. In the early twentieth century, for example, Darwin’s theory of evolution was appropriated by those who believed that distinct races existed and that some races were inferior to others. For instance, the  Eugenics movement, also known as  Social Darwinism, suggested that we should selectively breed humans to enhance desirable traits and reduce undesirable traits (Hawkins, 1997). Based on this quasi-scientific rhetoric, there were efforts in the United States and other countries to forcibly sterilize those with physical and mental impairments (Larsen, 2004). In the most extreme example, Eugenics was the backbone for the Nazi’s notions of racial purity and part of their justification for genocide (Proctor, 1988).

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