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You are here: Home / Coming Up / Seminar Series: The Genomic Revolution and Beliefs About Essential Racial Differences: A Backdoor to Eugenics?

Seminar Series: The Genomic Revolution and Beliefs About Essential Racial Differences: A Backdoor to Eugenics?

Jo C. Phelan, Associate Professor, Department of Sociomedical Sciences, Columbia University
When Oct 21, 2013
from 12:00 PM to 01:00 PM
Where 0124B Cole Student Activities Building
Contact Name
Contact Phone 301-405-6403
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About the Talk

Might the explosion of genetic research in recent decades affect the way we think about race? In Backdoor to Eugenics, Troy Duster asked us to consider the effects of reports on very specific racial differences in genetic bases of disease. Duster argued that, when reading reports like this, the public might naturally ask themselves: “If genetic disorders are differentially distributed by race and ethnicity, why aren’t other human traits and characteristics?” and consequently these reports might heighten public beliefs in much more pervasive racial differences. Duster argues that this generalization from health-related differences to more general differences might be facilitated by the fact that these genetic findings are presented as objective facts whose social implications are not readily apparent. That is, many people might normally reject a message that racial groups are essentially different on the basis that such a message seems racist. But when presented as objective scientific facts, such messages will slip in the mind’s “backdoor.” We tested Duster’s ideas with a two-phase study. An analysis of stories in the New York Times and Associated Press showed that news articles discussing racial differences in genetic bases of disease increased significantly between 1985 and 2008 and were much less likely than non-health-related articles about race and genetics to discuss social implications. An experiment conducted with a nationally representative sample of 559 adults found that people who were assigned to read a news story reporting a specific racial difference in genetic risk for heart attacks (the “Backdoor Vignette”) had much stronger beliefs in essential racial differences after reading the story than did people who were assigned to read a story portraying race as “socially constructed” or who did not read any story. The Backdoor Vignette produced beliefs in essential racial differences that were virtually identical to those produced by a vignette portraying race as a genetic reality. The results suggest that an unintended consequence of the genomic revolution may be to reinvigorate age-old beliefs in essential racial differences.

About the Speaker

Jo Phelan

Jo Phelan is Professor of Sociomedical Sciences in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Her academic interests focus on social inequalities in health and mortality;  stigma and discrimination; and the impact of the genomics revolution on stigma and discrimination, including racial attitudes and beliefs.

Visit Professor Phelan's webpage

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