Science Behind: Racism


In her best-selling novel, Caste: Origins of our Discontents, author Isabel Wilkerson reasons that the modern concept of race was developed during the making of the New World. 

It was in the making of the New World that humans were set apart on the basis of what they looked like, identified solely in contrast to one another…on a new concept called race. It was in the process of ranking that we were all cast into assigned roles to meet the needs of the larger production.”

In her book, Wilkerson emphasizes how the emergence of race as a new concept led to the development of racism. Essentially, with the inception of categorizing members of society by “race,” humans opened the door for discrimination toward certain groups of people.  

Ultimately, science can’t justify racism, but through the appropriate utilization of science — it can definitely be a crucial player in combating racism. 

“We are responsible for our own ignorance or, with time and openhearted enlightenment, our own wisdom,” Wilkerson says in Caste.

 Dr. Hilary Bergsieker, Associate Professor at UW’s Department of Psychology, shared her insights about socially constructed racism, scientific and systematic racism. Dr. Bergsieker’s research focuses on interpersonal dynamics of intergroup interactions and relationships. Her publications have also appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, and DuBois Review, among various other journals. 

“Racism is a modern construct,” Bergsieker, like Wilkerson in Caste, explained. “Racism is about combining prejudice and power to essentially allow some groups to assert dominance over others through mistreatment.” 


Race is not a biological reality but a social one 

Although race is a social construct, science has often been used as a crutch in an attempt to identify and define race through a biological lens. However, advancements in science have led to the diminishing of the biological notion of race, further solidifying that race as a social construct. 

“We need to understand that race is not a biological given,” Bergsieker said. 

“The kinds of groupings that people treat as self-explanatory such as Black or white or Latino or Asian – those don’t actually map well to the genetic variation that we see within people.” 

Bergsieker said within each racial group there is a lot of diversity. If society grouped people by their genetic propensities, like lactose intolerance or sickle cell anaemia, the groups would look much differently.

 “Yes, people look different from each other, but it’s when we layer on those differences and treat them as separate groups of people with different essences in centralized notions [of prejudice and biases] – that’s when we get in trouble. When we recognize that these groups themselves are extremely diverse, but they have been defined differently over time and there are overlaps of traits across intergroups – that helps us in identifying that there isn’t a biological reality, but a social reality assigned by what we[society] make for the groups.”


Psychological Motives

Group affiliation can be a core psychological motive in explaining our inclination towards certain groups over others. In 2009, in the Journal of Social Neuroscience, Kirsten Gesine Volz demonstrated the importance of group membership to peoples’ identities.  

“Group membership is part of an individual’s identity, the more likely they are to show in-group [one’s own group] bias and consequently derogate the out-group,” Bergsieker said. “A sense of belonging and understanding” can develop within the in-groups. 

“It takes minimal conditions to treat groups unequally,” Bergsieker said. A common social experiment used to prove this idea involves groups being divided, with members being given either red or blue shirts. Group members would incline to those who had the  same T-shirt colour as them.  

We are predisposed to consider the out-group as more homogenous, thereby allowing negative stereotypes to easily end up being applied to them, especially as these stereotypes are propagated by systemic racism,” Caroline Wyatt, an Experimental Psychology student at Oxford University, said.

“We [humans] have a desire to control our motivations, racism has a powerful notion on controlling.”

Cultural motives can also be intertwined with psychological motives that lead to out-group discrimination. “In some cultures, we see the existence of certain hierarchies. The commonality with psychology is that the in-group feels that they are the best possible group,” Bergsieker said. 


Status Quo, Value Systems, and Dissonance

“When a system is in place, everybody grows up in the system [and] thinks it’s natural. They think the status quo is good, what is given is good. It takes a lot to challenge the system,” Bergsieker said.

Bergsieker points out that when an economy is powered through unjust means, but leads to prosperity of one group over others, and eventually a prosperous economy, disrupting that system becomes difficult. 

However, inequalities within the system often incite dissonance. “If you live in a system that certainly does not treat everybody the same way, that creates dissonance. Sense of dissonance can be psychologically uncomfortable to confront a contradiction between values of fairness, and the reality of injustice,” Bergsieker said.

Moreover, challenging social hierarchies becomes difficult when there is a presence of strong economic interests and personal moral values.

“Powerful economic-rested interests can also contribute to the discomfort of having to confront injustice and hypocrisy in the system given the status-quo biases. It is also the idea that, if you have an expanded conceptualization of morality that includes concepts like preserving the purity of your ingroup then it becomes difficult to challenge the unjust hierarchies to benefit the outgroup biases,” Bergsieker said.

Political and social value systems such as conservatism or liberalism can also factor in with the conceptualization of morality. “Value systems also come into play. Conservatives tend to have moral codes with more dimensions as opposed to liberals. Conservative theory of morality includes the importance of hierarchy or loyalty to your in-group. There would be systems in place, such as appointed rulers and leaders in charge, who would set out the distinctions of what was right and wrong,” Bergsieker said. 

Dissenting and challenging the leaders by expressing the concerns of the ingroup’s prosperity over those oppressed also meant defying the conservative moral code of loyalty. However, throughout history there were always people or groups who marched forward in fighting to end racial inequalities in their system.  


Self-affirming sense of identity 

“There are positive meanings to race too. For some people, their racial identity is extremely important for them, in a self-affirming sense – without being about derogating others. We are not here to erase the concept of race – but racism,” Berskieger said. 


Scientific Racism

Science has also been exploited in ways to rationalize racism, which led to the surfacing of scientific racism, or racist scientific theories. 

“Scientific racism came into prominence in the 1800s and we have seen that [throughout history] science has been used and abused to justify social hierarchies – often in hypocritical and contradictory ways – always with the intention for the benefit of the in-group.” 

“Scientists attempted to prove the superiority or inferiority of racial groups using scientific tools such as measurements and shapes of skulls and their resemblance to primates.”

Bergsieker provided a narrative of a famous French researcher studying brain sizes – he concluded that men who have larger brains are more intelligent than women. However, his conclusion lacked context. The research also showed that Germans have larger brains than the French. On this notion, he [the researcher] argued that Germans are taller than the French on average. Therefore, this doesn’t translate into the difference of intelligence. 

“The research didn’t apply the same standard to a judgment when it came to differentiating based on biological sex – because it made their group [male group] look better as opposed to differentiating based on nationality – which made their group look worse.” 

“There’s a lot of inconsistency and motivated reasoning there.” 

Parallels from the study of the French researcher can be intertwined with race and its implications in scientific racism. 

“Scientific racism was also linked to the eugenics movement. During Nazi Germany, state supported scientific racism became the law of the land, leading to the annihilation of people deemed to be racially inferior by the law,” Bergsieker said. 

In Caste, Wilkerson points out the atrocities carried out on African-Americans by white doctors during the slavery-era – because the doctors claimed African-Americans to have a higher pain threshold. Therefore, medical experiments were often conducted on African-Americans without consent or anesthesia. 

However, genetic discoveries in the 21st century have disapproved many of these racist theories. “As we now know in modern genetics, there aren’t any reliable racial essences, that in some way underlie the groups that we constructed in society to explain our world,” Bergsieker said. 


Science to Combat Racism: Inclusivity and Awareness


How can we effectively use science to combat racism? Bergsieker emphasizes inclusivity.  “We need to make sure science is inclusive – diverse participation in science is important. Making sure voices and perspectives of people who have been marginalized [help]form the science is important. These perspectives were missing 150 years ago, and scientific racism at the time was really burgeoning. In the past, people [those conducting research] were either from the social class, or ethnic background or gender and these people were setting the tone for everybody.” 

Awareness in the various scientific fields is just as vital. “In my field of psychology – we can’t be contempt to study just one type of people.” 

“There are important differences across cultures in terms of how people understand various concepts,” Bergsieker noted. One of the ways in which awareness in science can be raised is through essentially examining variability in human experiences in a cross-cultural, cross-societal or racial context. “Science can help understand variation in human experiences in a really rich way.”.

Bergsieker believes educating people on the existence of racism and inequities that exist within the system. Including the science of stereotyping and biases can be challenging but is also imperative in combating racism. 


Science to Combat Racism: Gathering evidence-based data for seeking solutions

“Science can be helpful for giving us actual evidence – we can use evidence-based data driven best practices to combat racism. People don’t always necessarily know of the right solutions.” There are certain assessments that may be required. Bergsieker mentions the questions that can arise in taking initiative such as “what kind of policy changes will make a difference?”, “do we focus on reducing racial bias?”, “do we try for bias mitigation?” or “do we try to focus on the negative consequences of bias?” 

“There are a lot of questions and part of what we need is data – when we attempt something. I think the approach in combating racism is both structural and psychological,” Bergsieker said. 


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