Writing recently in The New York Times, Thomas Edsall linked race, genes and political ideology. Edsall, a journalism professor at Columbia University who writes a weekly online opinion piece for the Times, has been one of the leading voices covering race and politics in the United States for the last quarter century — and his latest piece strongly suggests that he fundamentally misunderstands race, missing that race reflects social dynamics rather than genetics.
Edsall frames his essay as addressing a core question: “Why do so many poor, working-class and lower-middle-class whites . . . vote for Republicans?” To answer, Edsall turns to recent research exploring the attitudes of twins raised in separate households, a natural experiment of sorts that perhaps opens a vista onto whether it is nature or nurture that undergirds political beliefs.
Research into the genetic influence on political orientation raises pressing questions, not least about the stability of terms like authoritarianism, religiousness, traditionalism, conscientiousness and even intelligence, all characteristics Edsall suggests might be shaped by genes. But we need not engage those questions, for even to get there requires that we accept the erroneous premise on which Edsall proceeds: that race is a matter of genetics. He could not be more wrong — though he is far from alone in this blunder.
The history of racial thinking is a fascinating — and heartbreaking — story of efforts to justify social hierarchy through the myth of innate superiority and inferiority. If nature ordains that whites should rule over non-whites, then who is to say this is unjust? Even a hundred years ago, however, the falsehood of such claims was readily apparent to anthropologists — a branch of science that arose initially to systematize (that is, justify) racial divisions. As one crossed the Eurasian landmass, where exactly should one draw the bright line dividing whites from yellows? Were there three races, or five, or dozens? For instance, were the myriad peoples of India one race, or many?
These sorts of questions should open our eyes to the truth that racial divisions follow social conventions rather than genetic divisions. Only thus can one understand how persons who are black in the United States might be white in Brazil, while in England “black” includes Pakistanis, a practice utterly foreign to the American certainty that blackness is limited to those from (sub-Saharan?) Africa.
But if anthropologists have long understood that race is socially constructed, why does our society persist in assuming otherwise? Part of the answer is that race rests on meanings assigned to features, and since our morphology is obviously a matter of descent, it seems to many that our racial identity must also flow from our ancestry.
We roughly look like our parents, and this is clearly a matter of genetic inheritance. Likewise, small groups tend to share similar genes and similar features, at least when these groups persist in relative reproductive isolation — either because for cultural reasons people tend to marry within their group or because of geographic isolation.
But here’s the mistake: to think that because physical features reflect biology, race must do so as well. On the contrary, races are large, overarching social groups that are culturally — and falsely — attributed to nature. It is society, not nature, that classifies certain visages as white or black, red, brown, or yellow (to use the “races” most Americans believe exist). Biology explains why we look like our parents, but it is culture that proclaims that our kin look like one invented race or another. (I have written on the social construction of race at length here.)
So Edsall makes the common mistake of thinking that race is genetic rather than social — does it affect his insights into race and politics? Yes, deeply so.
Edsall has long been a liberal voice of caution, warning Democrats that race plays an enormous role in determining how whites vote. Indeed, his 1991 book, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics, remains one of the leading resources for Democratic strategists seeking to understand how conservatives have used racial appeals to remake the political landscape.
But if race influences voting among whites, how does it do so? In his recent piece, Edsall implies that white voters might lean Republican for genetic reasons — thus ignoring the social dynamics that offer the actual explanation. Consider the seismic shift between the 1964 election of Lyndon Johnson and the 1972 reelection of Richard Nixon: 65 percent of whites pulled the lever for Johnson, while eight years later 70 percent voted for Nixon. Had their genes suddenly mutated?
Hardly. Instead, race operated here because of increasing anxiety about the civil rights movement, agitation that “Tricky Dick” stoked by claiming to represent “the silent majority” and by promising to slow school integration in the South and “forced busing” in the North. It’s racial resentment, not racial genetics, that made white identity salient to so many voters.
Despite the thrust of his genetic musings, Edsall does not entirely miss the importance of racial antipathy. From Chain Reaction to another recent piece, Edsall frequently emphasizes the political power of white anxiety. Yet even when he does so, his naturalistic understanding of race distorts his analysis. For Edsall — and for the many liberal analysts who follow his lead — there’s an ineluctable quality to racial resentment: it’s a natural reaction to the increasing power of minorities during the civil rights era, or to the demographic browning of America today. Of course these social changes produce strong reactions. But to focus only on the reactive aspect is to give short shrift to the most powerful dynamic in US politics over the last 50 years: the purposeful stoking of racial anxiety by our political leaders.
Johnson’s ’64 victory represents the last time a majority of whites voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. Those Democrats who subsequently did well among whites — Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — won white support not by repudiating racial politics but by engaging in their own racial pandering, though even then they failed to win a majority of the white vote. From Nixon’s tirades against busing and Reagan’s blasts about “welfare queens” to Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as a way of life,” and right on up to Paul Ryan’s indictment of “a tailspin of culture in our inner cities,” politicians have been dog whistling about race, using coded terms that trigger strong racial reactions while allowing them to deny any racial intent at all.
Nor is the political power of race gradually waning. Today, GOP state elected officials are 98 percent white and the party draws roughly 90 percent of its support from whites; meanwhile, Obama in 2012 lost the white vote by a staggering 20 percent, a gap not exceeded since Ronald Reagan’s reelection three decades ago. We cannot understand the full power of race in American politics by treating racial identity and racial resentment as natural phenomena; we must see them as social products, and indeed, as partly the result of political operatives who for half a century have been surreptitiously stoking racial fears.
Edsall wraps up his race and genetics op-ed by rhetorically asking “why are we afraid of genetic research,” and then dismisses objections as a form of know-nothingism. But Edsall’s analysis exemplifies precisely why we should proceed very cautiously when exploring the genetic roots of political commitments, especially if a racial component is implicated.
Genetic speculation is dangerous when so many people, like Edsall, continue to believe that race is biological. At a minimum, naturalistic assumptions about race substantially mislead liberals in their effort to fathom race’s astringent power, shifting the focus from social dynamics to inherited essences. Further, even though Edsall is no Charles Murray, explorations of genetics all too often segue into poisonous conversations about biologically determined differences between the races in intelligence and other characteristics, calumnies that Edsall’s musings seem to support. To continue to reason about race as a matter of genetics risks buttressing retrograde notions of superiority and inferiority, even as it blinds us to how race actually works in politics and in society.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.