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Can Biology Class Fight Racism? Doubtful.

Logically, the world would be less racist if we all knew we were 99.9 percent genetically similar. Of course, that's assuming racism is logical.

A new study done by the University of Toronto proposes that better genetics education could help combat racism. Humans have about 99.9 percent of the same genetic makeup, but the average participant in this study thought there was only about a 56 percent overlap between two random people on Earth. The less overlap people believed they had, the more they seemed to remember people by their racial cues. So if belief in genetic variation is correlated with people’s tendencies to categorize faces by race, logically it would make sense that genetic education is the key to a colorblind society.

This sounds nice, but there’s a hitch: racism is not logical. It’s formed by a variety of factors—what parents and peers tell us; our own experience, fears, and insecurities. It’s formed by the town and household we live in, the schools and churches that raise us. While it seems to be true that blatant racism is hard to sustain after a rigorous education, I find it hard to believe this has much to do with science.

Because people do look different. That fact is more visceral than a statistic about DNA. So even if we are taught that all people are equal, we’re still going to make distinctions between them visually, including the color of their skin. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; acknowledging difference and having racial prejudice are two completely different things. Anti-racist activists don’t usually claim that we’re all the same—even if it’s basically true in the DNA sense. In fact, the concept of “colorblind” rubs people the wrong way just as much as “post-racial.”

Of course, there are studies that suggest even the most egalitarian among us harbor unconscious racist sentiments; the University of Toronto study posits that the 99.9 percent statistic would be most useful for “people without a strong motivation for prejudice.”

Still, I’d be willing to bet that the onslaught of systemic inequality in this country is more to blame for some people's unconscious attitudes than a lack of correct scientific information. The latter is intriguing, sure, but the former is what we should be focusing on.

photo (cc) by Flickr user ynse

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