The expectable unexpected findings of research on 'genetics' and 'race'

I was forced to attend to those assumptions behind the warnings about the racist impact of genetics research because I joined with others seeking to explore the worrisome implications of ‘genetics’ in order to find ways to head them off. There isn’t space to report the processes and procedures of this research stream. But, using multiple approaches, including critical methods, audience studies, quantitative surveys, and experiments, the research smashed the assumptions of the early predictions, because it showed (1) ordinary people are more likely to attribute perceived differences in racial groups to factors other than genetics; (2) more precisely, they recognize that the features most commonly used to assign people to such groups (e.g., skin color, hair texture, eye color) are linked to genes, but they do not believe that this means that all perceived differences in racialized groups are linked to genes; (3) there are people highly predisposed to be racists, and they are likely to use genetics for their racist ends, just as they use culturally based attributions or individually based attributions for those ends; and (4) you can prompt racism with ‘genetics’ cues, though only sometimes.

This set of conclusions does not delegitimize the worry that discourses of genetics contribute to racism. Instead, it will point to revisions in the ‘commonsense’ theory of language used by critics, as described above, which will point to revisions in anti-racist strategy.

(1) Ordinary people are more likely to attribute perceived differences in racial groups (if any) to factors other than genetics

Several studies have established that, even after decades of public attention to genetics by the media, most people attribute perceived differences between racialized groups (if they harbor such perceptions) to factors other than genetics more than to genetics. In a national survey of the US population, W. Carson Byrd and Victor Ray found ‘whites attributed both blacks’ and whites’ personality traits and behaviors more readily to environmental explanations than to genetic explanations overall’ (as did black Americans).17 Similarly, Stephen Heine and colleagues found that their American mTurk (Amazon Mechanical Turk) participants assigned genetics only slightly more than a third of the variation with regard to a set of racial stereotypes.18

My own research team’s findings provided more detail.19 We developed a ‘genetically based racism’ scale that asked people how much they agree or disagree with statements attributing differences in racial groups to genetics (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree). The results showed our representative sample of people in the state of Georgia mostly disagreed with such statements. For example, with regard to the statement ‘Members of one racial group are more likely to commit crimes than another racial group because of genetics’, the rating was 1.5. All of the ratings of the linkage between genes and the specific traits we measured (scientific, academic, artistic, and musical ability, intelligence, and ambition) were equal to or less than 2.0

  • (hence, tending to average between disagree and strongly disagree). The consistency of these results across research groups and measures indicates that listening to decades of ‘gene talk’ didn’t turn most Americans into genetic detenninists about race.20
  • (2) More precisely, people recognize that the physical features most commonly used to assign people to racialized groups are linked to genes, but they do not believe that this means non-physical perceived differences in racialized groups are linked to genes

Critics have routinely worried that genetics will make people racists, because Americans readily attribute some link between genes and the characteristics used to assign people to racialized groups. Our focus groups and random-digit dial studies showed, however, that people have relatively sophisticated accounts of race—as sophisticated in their own way as those of experts (even if not usually articulated as systematically). People see that group identities are assigned partially based on physical features such as eye color, hair color or texture, and facial features, and they link these physical features to genes.21 But, they do not conclude that other features attributed to racial groups are also caused by genes, because they do not believe that genes cause non-physical attributes.

The current single best piece of research showing that people don’t attribute behavioral or personality traits to genes was completed by Jayaratne and colleagues in 2009.22 They asked a representative group of Americans how much they agreed that genes, personal choice, or environment (the latter defined as ‘the society in which they live, the people in their lives, and how they were raised’) influenced behavioral traits ranging from nurturance to athleticism to sexual orientation (where 0 = none, 1 = very little, 2 = some, 3 = a lot, and 4 = just about all). On none of the traits did the average for either black or white Americans reach the level of ‘a lot’ of influence for genes. Participants rated either social environment or personal choice as more influential than genes, sometimes substantially so (e.g., for ‘drive to succeed’ genes rated 1.1 (black) and 1.3 (white), environment 2.4 (b) and 2.7 (w), and choice 2.8 (b) and 2.7 (w); for ‘tendency toward violence’, genes rated 1.4 (b) and 1.6 (w), environment 2.5 (b) and 2.7 (w), and choice 2.6 (b) and 2.4 (w)). Genes outscored both environment and choice only with regard to white respondents’ ratings on intelligence and math aptitude, but even there, genes were assigned closer to ‘some’ than ‘a lot’ of influence (intelligence: genes = 2.3, environment = 1.8, choice = 1.4; math aptitude: genes = 2.0, environment = 1.7, and choice = 1.4). Most Americans indicate that many factors influence complex human characteristics and that genes play a variable but modest role in all but the simplest (e.g., eye color).23

Most people seem to be mind-body dualists about genes. The more a trait is assigned to a simple physical feature, the more likely they are to assign it a genetic cause. The more a trait is associated with behavior or personality, the more they attribute it to culture, society, upbringing, personal will, chance, or supernatural factors. Consequently, even though people believe that the simple physical traits (e.g., skin color or hair texture) that undergird racialization are genetically caused, most don’t believe all traits attributed to racialized groups are genetically caused. Instead, they assign social causes for any perceived differences among groups, but also personal choice by members of the group. Although the latter might seem illogical to scholars committed to the idea that the mass alignment of social preferences to mere individual will is illogical or incorrect, if that is an error, it is not the same error as attr ibuting racialized traits to genes. But, there is ironetheless bad news to attend to.

(3) Some people are predisposed toward racism, and they use genetics for their racist ends, just as they use cultural or individually based attributions for those ends

Although the news about the views of the ‘ average American’ might be good, reports of averages (or statistical means) can obscure individuals who respond as absolute genetic determinists. In the research I’ve done, there have typically been some people who attributed 100 percent of the influence on a trait to genes. Attending to people who ‘agree strongly’ with statements linking genes to all racialized characteristics seems important, especially if those are powerful people.

One of the most informative studies in this regard was done by Michele Ramsey and colleagues. Her study asked people to read reviews of The Beil Curve, a best-seller that represented racialized differences in intelligence as the consequence of heredity. Contrary to her expectation, on average, people did not endorse the unsavory aspects of The Beil Curve. However, the qualitative poition of the study explained variations hidden in the average: ‘those whites who had strong negative affect toward persons of other races appropriated both genetic and environmental accounts to bolster their racism, while both blacks and whites with more egalitarian attitudes were able to incorporate genetic accounts into their schemas’.24 People with racist motivations were happy to use ‘genetics’ to bolster their racism, but they were also happy to use any other account, as they have been throughout history (e.g., biblical justifications for slavery).

This conclusion was bolstered by John Lynch and colleagues’ study exploring whether people exposed repeatedly to mass media accounts of genetics would be pushed to become more racist. This research asked people their attitudes about race, genes, and genetically based racism before and after exposure to actual news articles, headlines, and TV programing about genetics.25 Even after coming back three different times to read and hear these news accounts, average racism did not increase, but genetic attributions for one’s racism did increase (‘genetically based racism’ increased). This aligns with the findings of Ramsey et al.; people who were predisposed to racist accounts shifted the rationales for their racism to include the genetic explanation, but other people were not pushed to be more racist. However, the next piece of the research puzzle remains incomplete.

(A) You can prompt racism with 'genetics' cues, sometimes

Some studies have shown that genetic determinism is correlated with racism and that one can increase average racism in people’s responses to racism scales by prompting them with genetic accounts, especially with genetic accounts for racial difference, and especially if one is measuring something like ‘genetically based racism’ or if one uses policy based questions as one’s proxies for racism.26 The alignments, however, are far from consistent and simple. Byrd and Ray explored a large number of variables in different models, but indicate, ‘Interestingly, whites with higher levels of both racial individualism and general genetic attribution were less opposed to racially ameliorative policies’.27 In general, therefore, how different bits and pieces of attitudes come together makes for substantial differences in expressed attitudes. These complexities were frustratingly evident in my own research efforts.

In 2004, my research team reported that a very indirect reference to race in a genetics health message substantially increased listeners’ racism in a small sample study (n = 96).28 This result shocked me, because, for ethical motivations, I had done this exploratory research with a mention of genetics so minor that I believed it could not have had this effect. I was invited to present the results at scientific conferences, and the presentations seemed to have some small positive effect. I was assured by an editor at Science that they would be interested in publishing a large representative population survey of the results when it was completed. However, the population-based study failed to find any increase in racist attitudes as a result of the same message text. I persisted, but in subsequent studies, I was unable to identify increases in racism from exposure to messages about genetics, health, and race.

One reasonable conclusion is that, as with all social scientific studies, there is some fluctuation around means, but the only studies deemed publishable are those that show the desired outcomes. If that is true, it means that really there are no racist effects, but publication biases make it appear as though there are. Given the stakes, that hypothetical doesn’t justify ignoring the more recent studies by Keller and Heine that support the existence of the undesirable effects. Another reason different social scientific studies produce different results about the same phenomenon is that the factors social scientists study are complex, and minor variations matter. This is especially true in the issues of racism and genetics.

Perhaps studies that seem to show—or not show—that people’s level of racism changes don’t really show either, because the whole idea that people harbor something like ‘an amount of racism’ is an incorrect assumption deriving from the simplistic theory of language described in the opening. Instead, people respond to specific scenarios in ways that vary according to how the scenario activates and aligns different interests and goals. Thinking about language as a pliant tool in use instead of as a set of stable contents thus requires rethinking even what it means to attribute ‘racism’ to people.

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