This is the second in a series of four articles that will explore racism from the perspectives of genetics, evolution, biology, and psychology.

Ferguson, Missouri. August, 2014. Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed an African American man named Michael Brown. Was this shooting motivated by racism? The idea evoked strong emotions throughout the United States and beyond.

The U.S. Department of Justice decided that Wilson did not violate Brown’s civil rights. However, it did find that the Ferguson Police Department routinely violated the rights of African Americans by using racial stereotypes.

In other words, Darren Wilson did not demonstrate explicit racism. But he was trained in an environment that fueled stereotypes and resulted in implicit racial biases. That means racism likely played a role in this tragic story.

Predator or prey, friend or foe?

Where do stereotypes, and resulting implicit biases, come from? Some say evolution. The ability to sort the outside world into simple categories offered an important advantage to your distant ancestors. If they could quickly distinguish “prey” from “predator” (and do so correctly!), they were were more likely to survive, reproduce, and pass on their genes.

Of course, there are disadvantages to knee-jerk reactions based on appearances alone. For example, mistaking prey for a predator could cost you a valuable meal. On the other hand, mistaking predator for prey…well, you might not live to tell the story! But since quick categorization generally improved chances for survival, it became an inherited trait in humans.

Did you know? In 1859, biologist and geologist Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, a ground-breaking work outlining the theory of evolution by natural selection.

As a result, the human brain tends to categorize other humans into simple, easily identifiable groups. Just as with predators and prey, humans ancestors who could quickly label a stranger as “friend” (part of the in-group) or “foe” (part of the out-group) had a better chance of surviving, having children, and passing their traits on to future generations.

Keep in mind, though, that the categorizations you make today are a combination of instinctual (inherited) behaviours and learned bias. In other words, you not only have instincts to make quick judgements about the world around you, but you also learn from your environment whether making those judgements is acceptable and whether they are correct.

Skin colour and implicit association

Skin colour is an appearance-based category your distant ancestors could have used to quickly determine if a person was part of the in-group or out-group. But remember: there is no scientific evidence that supports the idea that categorizing people into races is an inherited trait. Races are culturally constructed. This means that society gives us cues as to what generalizations to make about a specific race.

Figure 1: An illustration of the Implicit Association Test. In block 1, participants are asked to associate black faces with negative words and white faces with positive words. In block 2, they must associate white faces with negative words and black faces with positive words. The idea is that the group who the participant prefers will be paired more quickly and more often with positive words.

However, there is overwhelming evidence that racial categorizations frequently occur implicitly. How did researchers find this out? By using the Implicit Association Test, which measures how strongly a person associates a “target concept” (such as race) with an “attribute concept” (words like “good” or “bad”). Because participants must answer questions in a split second, these test results are considered implicit. In other words, people taking this test have no time to consciously choose how to categorize someone from a particular race.

Psychological research has provided strong evidence that most people have implicit, racially-biased thought patterns. One study gave 700,000 people an Implicit Association Test in which they were prompted to describe black or white faces as either “good” or “bad”. More than 70% of participants revealed an implicit bias by associating white with “good” and black with “bad”.

Interestingly, these studies are not only conducted with adult participants, but also with childrenwho you might think are too young to have strong learned biases. However, research suggests that children implicitly associate the in-group (their own race) with positive attributes and the out-group (other races) with negative attributes to the same degree as adults.

From biases to stereotypes

Implicit categories based on appearance may have helped your distant ancestors, but they can be harmful when they form the basis of racial stereotypesor when they lead to essentialism. Essentialism refers to a belief that something is true, even if there is no empirical evidence to prove it. For example, many people think race is an essential category, even though there is no scientific evidence linking races to differences in genetics.

Figure 2: Comparing an essentialist view of race to human genetic diversity (Marissa Lithopoulos, based on research by Dr. Jeffrey Long)

To understand the difference, have a look at Figure 2. Illustration A shows how an essentialist might see racial differences. Illustration B shows the scientific reality of racial differences from the perspective of human genome variation. As you can see, essentialism isolates groups into distinct racial categories. The only overlap involves mixed-race children. On the other hand, the accurate depiction of race (based on genetic evidence!) is that there are no genetically distinct racial groups, only variation among populations.

Did you know? For natural selection to occur, there must be diversity (differences) in heritable traits in a population. Some of these traits may be more likely than others to allow individuals to survive and reproduceand these are the traits that get passed down.

It is tempting to simply blame Darren Wilson or the Ferguson Police Department for the tragedy discussed earlier in the article. Or to dismiss the whole incident because Wilson did not set out to kill Michael Brown because of his race. But scientific research suggests that the story is much more complicated than “bad people” consciously choosing to be racist.

While the ability to categorize others based on appearance is an evolved trait, the category of “race” is a learned bias. This categorization often occurs implicitly, outside of a person’s conscious control. So is that it? Will racism always be a part of human life? Actually, research in biology offers hope for overcoming racial biases.

The next article in this series will focus on biology and learn about the power of the human brain.

Learn More!

Websites with general information on human genetics, evolution, and essentialism:

Essentialism in Everyday Thought (2005)
S. A. Gelman, American Psychological Association

Human genetic variation: The mechanisms and results of microevolution (2004)
Understanding J.C. Long, American Anthropological Association

Theory of Evolution (2014)
Bitezise, BBC

Natural Selection (2016)
University of California Museum of Paleontology, Understanding Evolution.

News and magazine articles discussing racial bias:

Darren Wilson Is Cleared of Rights Violations in Ferguson Shooting (2015)
E. Eckholm & M. Apuzzo, New York Times

The Science of Why Cops Shoot Young Black Men (2014)
C. Mooney, Mother Jones

The Science of Your Racist Brain (2014)
I. Viskontas & C. Mooney, Mother Jones

Scientific articles on topics related to evolutionary psychology:

Implicit and explicit categorization: a tale of four species (2012)
J.D. Smith, M.E. Berg, R.G. Cook, M.S. Murphy, M.J. Crossley, J. Boomer, et al., Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 36 Link to summary.
Registration or subscription required to view full text.

Implicit social cognition: From measures to mechanisms (2011)
B.A. Nosek, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 15 Link to summary.
Registration or subscription required to view full text.

The development of implicit intergroup cognition (2008)
Y. Dunham, A.S. Baron & M.R. Banaji, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 12 Link to summary.
Registration or subscription required to view full text.

Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The implicit association test (1998)
A.G. Greenwald, D.E. McGhee & J.K.L. Schwartz, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74

The Medicalization of Race: Scientific Legitimization of a Flawed Social Construct (1996)
R. Witzig, Annals of Internal Medicine 125

Implicit Social Cognition: Attitudes, Self-Esteem, and Stereotypes (1995)
A.G. Greenwald, Psychological Review 102 Link to summary.
Registration or subscription required to view full text.

Marissa Lithopoulos

I was born and raised in Ottawa and am a proud University of Ottawa student. I completed my undergraduate studies with an Honours degree in Biomedical Science and a Minor in Philosophy. I am now a PhD Candidate in Cellular and Molecular Medicine. I enjoy travelling, rhythmic gymnastics, and playing the guitar. I joined Let’s Talk Science as an outreach volunteer in 2014 and have absolutely loved it! I think science is wonderful because it allows us to ask (and sometimes answer) deep questions about our universe.

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