Student Conceptions of Race and Racial Attitudes.

Date01 August 2023

The United States continues to experience growth of its racial minority population, and with it, staggering racial disparities in wealth, health, and well-being. The persistence of the systemic and structural racism which create such disparities, coupled with increased attention on social issues which disproportionately affect minority groups, such as police violence, has led to heightened civil unrest in recent years. As a result, it is crucial that the relationship between race conceptualization and attitudes toward racial minorities, as well as the influence of social institutions on these variables, are studied. The present research examines how American college students conceptualize race and the relationship between these conceptions and their attitudes towards racial minorities. While previous research has heavily focused on attitudes towards Black Americans, this paper expands to all racial minority, or non-white, groups. It additionally explores the relationship between these conceptions and education. Based on research from various disciplines, this paper forwards the view of race as a social construct and argues that the conception of race as a biologically determined category coincides with decreased awareness of systemic racism and corresponding racial issues, as well as decreased recognition of the impact of these issues on the social status of racial minority members.

In Western culture, including the United States, the conceptualization of race has traditionally been rooted in biological essentialism. At its core, essentialism is the belief that social categories reflect an underlying essence (i.e., nature) that is necessary for the existence of such categories. Therefore, as it relates to the conceptualization of race, essentialism is the understanding of race as an innate, fixed, genetically and biologically rooted source of human division. (1) Over a century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois expressed increasing concern for race being used as a biological explanation for social differences between race groups. Since then, and particularly in recent history, scholars across disciplines have increasingly found and demonstrated that racial categories do not exist as universal, natural, or biological distinctions, but as socially defined groups--that is, race is socially constructed. (2) Despite the evidence presented by these scholars that racial categorization is a product of historical and cultural context, and agreement that such categories cannot be reliably measured in a biological sense, and are not genetically discreate or scientifically meaningful, research suggests that such biologically-rooted understandings of race persist among the U.S. public. (3) The prevalence of such views may be attributable to the misrepresentation of race in or the lay public's misunderstanding of heavily publicized scientific research, such as the Humane Genome Project, and resulting popularization of DNA testing in the last two decades.

This paper conceptualizes these two views of race--social constructionism and biological essentialism--as opposing ends of a continuum of an individual's understanding of race. It is important to note, however, that the view of race as a social construct does not negate its importance as an indicator of cultural orientation and social identity, nor its meaningful use in studying the experiences of and patterns among different racial groups. (4)

The historical analysis of the implications of essentialism suggests that this view of race is more likely to be used in justifying racism and supporting racist ideology. Consequently, if constructionism is the opposite of essentialism, it should subside with increased awareness of social issues related to race and a greater understanding of the forces of minority social status. Previous research has shown that essentialism correlates with stereotype endorsement of outgroups, prejudice towards Black people, attribution of behavior of outgroup members to dispositional causes, an increased acceptance of racial inequalities, and decreased interest in interacting with racial outgroup members. (5)

The present research aims to build on earlier work by further investigating patterns of race conceptualization, the implications of these opposing views, and the influence of education on which view is held. This paper shall pursue this goal by first presenting a review of the literature, then examining conceptions of race and attitudes towards racial minorities using data collected from a survey of university students. The findings of this analysis, and their implications, will be discussed further in the conclusion.

Literature Review

Across disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, social psychology, biology, and genetics, scholars have contributed to the discussion on racial categorization and whether racial categories are inherently natural and biologically distinct. The consensus among these scholars is that racial categories are not genetically distinct and therefore cannot be reliably measured nor scientifically meaningful as biological divisions of humankind. (6) Rather, racial categorization is a product of its historical and cultural context. Dr. Martin Marger defines racial categorization as the arbitrary selection of certain hereditary, physical characteristics, such as skin color, to differentiate groups of people from each other. (7) Similar definitions, which serve to emphasize the role of social context in racial group categorization, can be found across many sociological, social psychological, and anthropological texts.

Evidence which supports the social construction of race is abundant. Beginning with a historical analysis of racial categorization, one example can be found in the social status of white ethnic groups in the United States. Until the early twentieth century, Irish Americans were not considered white like other European Americans. Other white ethnic groups, such as Italian and Jewish Americans, were also historically considered to be non-white, or "less white," in the United States. (8) Over time and through assimilation, these white ethnic groups slowly came to be considered white, but not before being subject to anti-immigration sentiments and racism. The history of racial categorization of white ethnic groups in the United States is only one example that demonstrates the malleability of racial categories.

Further demonstrations of the influence of social context on racial categorization can be found in many places. For example, Dr. Eleanor R. Townsley of Mount Holyoke College successfully demonstrates the social construction of race to her students through a classroom activity. In this activity, students are presented with photos of persons whom they must place into the racial categories listed on the US Census--inevitably, students find themselves disagreeing on the racial categorization of several individually, particularly those considered "racial ambiguous." (9) Essentialism would suggest that racial categories are consistent and, being biologically determined, should be easy to identify based on physical characteristics. However, this is not always the case, as participants in this professor's classroom activity have discovered.

Although racial categorization based on physical appearance is not always "easy" or consistent, those who hold essentialist views may turn to examples of perceived biological and genetic differences as evidence for their understanding of race. However, biologists and geneticists have also rejected the idea that biological differences belie racial categories. (10) Differences between racial groups, such as differences in health outcomes, are often misinterpreted as being rooted in innate, biological differences between these groups, but can often be explained through careful examination of social inequalities. For example, members of racial minorities are more likely to live in impoverished neighborhoods and have less wealth than their majority counterparts, which may lead to decreased access to adequate amounts of nutritionally beneficial foods, thereby contributing to differences in rates of health outcomes, such as obesity. Dr. Christopher Kuzawa and Dr. Elizabeth Sweet found that "exposure to racism in one's own lifetime includes a higher risk of hypertension, diabetes, stroke, and other conditions." (11) Indeed, many of these conditions which are experienced at higher rates by racial minorities, are associated with and can even result from consistently heightened levels of stress and anxiety. As individuals of racial minorities are more likely to experience increased stress and anxiety due to experiences of racial prejudice and discrimination, and systemic racism, their likelihood of developing such conditions throughout life increases.

Some of these differences between racial groups that are commonly misinterpreted as indicators of inherent, biological racial categories, can additionally be explained by epigenetics, the study of gene expression in response to environmental conditions. For example, Dr. Clarence Gravlee argues...

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