Here’s how the argument goes. Some people are born with outstanding talents, easily mastering basketball, mathematics, languages or piano, if given the right environment in which to grow. What biologist or social scientist could argue with that? But alongside that genetic understanding, an old and pernicious assumption has crept back into the American conversation, in which aptitudes are supposedly inherited by race: certain peoples are thought to have rhythm, or intellect, or speed or charm. That’s a fast track toward the old 19th- and early 20th-century problem of “scientific” racism.
Consider a recent paper that argues that ethnic conflict throughout history is a result of genetic diversity among communities. The authors argue that genetic diversity is the dominant force behind conflict among groups. It pushes religious communities into battle, causes distrust among neighbors and dictates support for problematic social policies. Such an argument places the history and future of human conflict in genes, as if human interaction and environmental influences cannot match their power.
In the recent issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, we invited experts in anthropology, evolutionary biology, government, law, medicine, public policy and sociology to examine the return of racial essentialism and biological determinism. Those are separate but related. Racial essentialism is the concept that people of different racial and ethnic groups possess specific traits and behaviors unique to their group. Biological determinism is the belief that race is a genetic reality that regulates how we behave.
Two of the studies included in the volume look at how misguided beliefs in genetically distinct races with differing capabilities underlie our everyday conversations about race and inequality.
The first study, “A Level Playing Field? Media Constructions of Athletics, Genetics, and Race,” examines news media coverage implying that genetic differences lead particular racial groups to succeed more often at sports, and focuses on how that belief shows up within journalism. Collaborating with University of Connecticut doctoral student Devon Goss, Matthew W. Hughey researched nearly 24,000 English-language newspaper articles across the globe from 2003-2014. Among the articles that discussed race, genetics and athletics, Hughey and Goss found that nearly 55 percent of these media narratives uncritically parroted and perpetuated the belief that African-descended groups excel in athletics, such as sprinting, because of genetic racial differences — despite the research debunking that belief.
For instance, in the wake of the 2012 Olympics, nearly one-third of the news articles that evoked race, genetics and athletics posited that African American and West Indian sprinters are fastest because they descend from testosterone-heavy ancestors who survived the brutal conditions of transatlantic slave trade—a belief that found resonance and widespread acceptance in a BBC-produced documentary entitled, “Survival of the Fastest.” But there is no gene or allele for “speed,” and no direct link between testosterone and speed (while sprinters may have high testosterone, not all high-testosterone people can sprint).
Sociological data suggest that the social behavior of both slaves and slaveholders better explains mortality rates than do physiological qualities of health, speed or strength. In particular, groups of rebellious young men were were most likely to die than those who passively acquiesced, while the economically well-off slaveholders were more likely to kill slaves than those who could not afford to lose property. In sum, the social forces of organized rebellion and the political economy of slavery are better explanations for mortality rates than abstract appeals to “genes” or “natural selection.”
Hughey’s and Goss’s work finds that such explanations have actually proliferated in an era that many argue is “colorblind” or “post-racial,” from MSNBC’s Chris Matthews who proudly said that he forgot, for a moment, that Obama was black, to a 2011 New York Times article that referred to interracial marriage as “a step toward transcending race,” to the claim that “all”— not “black” — lives matter, as presidential candidate Rand Paul recently insisted.
White supremacist groups use news from increased research on genetics and racial differences to explain not only athletic results, but larger racial inequalities in the world. For example, Dylann Roof — the alleged Charleston, S.C., massacre shooter — wrote in his manifesto: “Negroes have lower IQs, lower impulse control, and higher testosterone levels in generals. These three things alone are a recipe for violent behavior.” These ugly racial stereotypes of group capabilities that have varied throughout U.S. history, even as these stereotypes supported white supremacy: whether through the late 1800s contention that African Americans are biologically predisposed to go extinctor through the “black brawn vs. white brains” contention that African Americans are cognitively inferior but physically superior to whites and should be kept in professions that emphasize physical rather than mental prowess. People of varying social and political views employ these explanations in order to legitimate the claim that racial inequalities occur naturally.
We’ve been through this before. It sounds like the Social Darwinist and eugenics movements of the early 20th century, whereby scientists in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., proposed eliminating the poor, disabled and people of color through sterilization — a vulgar pseudo-science that young German scientists learned from and then employed during the Third Reich.
Those racial assumptions lead to problematic policy decisions, another studyfound. Through a series of statistical models using survey data collected from more than 2,200 whites in the United States, W. Carson Byrd in collaboration with Victor E. Ray of the University of Tennessee found that whites generally believe that personality traits and behaviors are influenced more by environmental influences than by genetics. However, these same respondents believed that genetics were slightly more influential over the traits and behaviors of blacks than whites.
We then looked to see how these beliefs might predict attitudes toward opposition for policies often used to address racial inequality. Some white people believed that black people’s traits and behaviors were genetically determined — and they also believed that racial inequality results from failed individual efforts. Those who believed both were, surprisingly, more willing to support policies that reduced racial economic gaps, such as affirmative action. Why do these beliefs combine and increase support for policies that, depending on the specific policy, fully 60-90 percent of whites have solidly opposed for over 40 years?
The answer: It’s natural. This set of beliefs presents racial inequality as resulting from one person’s individual efforts — efforts that are genetically limited. Gone are any consideration of social and political factors like past or present discrimination, New Deal and postwar law and policies that helped whites acquire property and excluded people of color, the “school-to-prisonpipeline,” or any other structural cause.
If white people believe that genetic limitations cause blacks’ traits and behaviors, and lower social positions are a result of individual efforts overwhelmingly dictated by such genetic causes, then they arguably view affirmative-action policies as helping genetically inferior people in an equal-opportunity and colorblind society. This dangerous synthesis of beliefs limits policy redress of racial inequality, as the fact that inequality is the result of man-made efforts is dispensed for a supposedly scientific answer: Inequality is a genetic reality.
Recent controversies illustrate how such beliefs about race, difference and inequality can influence discussions of societal development and policies. A highly-praised volume by journalist Nicholas Wade, “A Troublesome Inheritance,” posited that recent genetic and genomic research suggests that Africa’s underdevelopment was a result of genetic inferiority of the communities on the continent, eschewing the devastating effects of colonialism.
Former Heritage Foundation policy analyst Jason Richwine’s highly criticized immigration reform approach, a proposal based on his doctoral research, used deterministic beliefs that IQ scores could select who could immigrate to the United States, and framed Latino immigrants as permanently less intelligent than whites.
Such views exacerbate racial inequality, twist history and circumvent effective policy strategies, as these two studies and the other contributions to the recent issue of the Annals indicate.