Race is in our DNA

Moya and Markus argue Americans commonly revert to eight basic conversations when talking about race or ethnicity and that hinder productive discussions (“learning conversations”). “Race is in our DNA” is conversation number eight.  This summary is from a press release about Moya and Markus’s book Doing Race and can be found both at EON and Reuters. A more complete version of the conversation is on pages 15-16 of Doing Race or you can watch a video of the presentation here: http://vimeo.com/13468483.

Figures 88 & 89 from Lorenzo Niles Fowler’s “How to read character : hand-book of physiology, phrenology and physiognomy, illustrated with a descriptive chart,” (New York : s.n., 1869)

Summary of the “Race is in our DNA” Conversation:

Do you think race is genetically determined? Recent research on the human genome has led most Americans to believe that it is. The pervasive belief in this idea is one reason why Professors Moya and Markus included it as one of the eight common conversations. According to them, the “Race is in our DNA” conversation is inaccurate because it implies that a person’s race is a matter of biology or unalterable cultural characteristics.

“We social scientists know that races are a product of history and society—all of those interactions that people and institutions have with each other and that make up the world we live in,” Markus asserted. “Popular conversation has not absorbed the new scientific understandings about the source and meaning of race.”

Markus and Moya say that as research changes the way scholars think about race, a new definition of the term is emerging.

“We now know, based on all the science and scholarship that’s gone on, that race is not a quality of people, it does not inhere in individuals or in groups, rather race is much more complex than that.” (EON)


  • Have students look for examples of this conversation or scholars who refute this idea either in Race, Class, & Gender: An Anthology, 7th Edition, ed. Margaret L. Andersen and Patricia Hill Collins, Doing Race, or on YouTube.
  • In his  influential book, The Races of Man (1862), John Beddoe argued jaw structure and the shape of one’s head were indicators of the primitive nature of certain ethnic minorities in Britain.  Twentieth-century racial theories promoted by the Nazis and others often took advantage of these anatomical theories of race (Victorian Web). To discuss the early biological theories of race, have students read some of the secondary and primary sources on John van Wyhe’s History of Phrenology, particularly George Combe’s A System of Phrenology, 5th edn, 2 vols. 1853.  How does phrenology differ from the idea that “race is in our DNA”?

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