The discussion on race has historically had significant contributions from behavioural psychology and genetics. However, relatively recent discoveries in neuroscience, which looks at the functioning of the brain, particularly in regards to the amygdala, mean that this field has the potential to be significantly important to the future discussion of the issue. This essay seeks to understand how the findings of neuroscience compare to those from behavioural psychology and genetics, and how they advance and hinder the discussion. Therefore, the essay will conclude by discussing whether neuroscience deserves greater appreciation within the race debate.


Behavioural Psychology


A substantial body of the literature regarding race comes from behavioural psychology, which analyses racial patterns in behaviour. Arguably, the main finding from this body of literature is that the issue of racial inequality is perpetuated by implicit and subconscious thoughts, actions, and processes that underpin what David Wellman describes as ‘a system of advantage based on race’ (Wellman, 1977: 4). As Beverley Daniel Tatum argues, ‘racism cannot be fully explained as an expression of prejudice alone… [There exists] a system involving cultural messages and institutional policies and practices’ (Tatum, 1997: 7). For Tatum, one of the main issues is misinformation, in that there are limited opportunities for people, particularly young children, to interact with people from other races (Tatum, 1997). Misinformation thus leads to stereotypical depictions of both the in-group and out-group, taking in this context as being Whites and Blacks respectively, with Blacks not fully embracing their “Black identity”. These depictions are therefore the fundamental basis for “the system of advantage based on race”.


Tatum and Wellman’s arguments of implicit racism are strongly supported by the work of David Sears, who agrees that ‘considerable racial inequality remains in many areas of society’ (Sears, Van Laar, Carrillo, and Kosterman, 1997: 16). Sears describes this racial inequality as “symbolic racism”, in that individuals have strong, long-standing attitudinal predispositions, which can be easily evoked by appropriate political symbols (Sears, 1993). While most Whites will consciously fully support general principles of equality, there is a “principle-implementation gap” (Schuman, Steeh, and Bobo, 1985), shown by a lack of White support for Black political candidates for example, meaning that implicit racial attitudes overshadow non-racial attitudes such as political ideology, morality, and individualism (Sears et al. 1997). This is further supported by the work of John Dovidio, who shows that there is a ‘negative response-latency bias’ among participants, meaning that there were more negative-word completions and less positive-word completions following Black faces than following White faces, thus again highlighting the existence of implicit racial attitudes (Dovidio, Kawakami, Johnson, Johnson, and Howard, 1997: 534).


The “system of advantage based on race” is coherently supported by the work of James Sidanius, who develops a “social dominance theory”, which ‘begins with the observation that all human societies are group-based hierarchies and inherently oppressive’ (Sidanius, 1993: 196). For Sidanius, group-based social hierarchies are driven by three processes: aggregated individual discrimination (ordinary discrimination between individuals), aggregated institutional discrimination (differential allocations of social resources to different social groups), and behavioural asymmetry (deference and self-handicapping). These processes are driven in part by legitimising myths such as meritocracy, classism, and reciprocality (a false belief that it is equal), the latter of which, one could argue, can in particular be seen in Sears and Dovidio’s works on implicit racism and the “principle-implementation gap”. Group identity processes and social dominance orientation in turn affect these legitimising myths, with men being significantly more social dominance orientated than women (Sidanius, 1997).


From the literature discussed, it would be easy to assume that all White people are implicitly racist, thus posing a major obstacle to reducing racial prejudices. However, this is not necessarily the case, particularly in non-American contexts, as Robert Ford shows in his analyses of racial prejudice in Britain. Whilst Ford acknowledges the existence of an “ethnic penalty” (Heath and Cheung, 1997) and the general existence of a “system of advantage based on race”, he also shows that there has being ‘a large decline in expressions of prejudice among the cohorts who have grown up since immigration begun’ (Ford, 2008: 610). Furthermore, Whites have become much more exposed to Black and Asian Britons than ever before, meaning that minorities now occupy ‘a much more prominent place in the “imagined community”’ (Ford, 2008: 611). Therefore, there is not such a hard-line distinction between Black and White cultures as is made by the likes of Tatum. Furthermore, Paul Sniderman shows that what limits support for policies aimed at Blacks is not that they are race-specific, but that they are group-exclusive, with universalistic arguments on behalf of government assistance of minorities being persuasive for most Whites (Sniderman, Carmines, Layman, and Carter, 1996). In addition, Giles and Buckner show that whilst support for racist political candidates can be seen to correlate to the concentration of Blacks living in a parish, the negative effects of income, education, urbanism, in-migration, and youth work to undermine the effectiveness of racist campaigns (Giles and Buckner, 1993).


Therefore, the behavioural psychology literature has significantly broadened our understanding of race, firstly by showing that historical overt racism has been replaced by implicit forms of racism, which create structures and processes that restrict minorities. Secondly, it has highlighted that there are positive areas of progress, which can be explored further in the attempt to deal with the issue of race.




Arguably the main contribution from the field of genetics to the discussion on race is that races are not as homogenous as is perhaps stereotypically suggested, thus meaning that historical justifications such for racial prejudice based on genetics, such as that of the Nazi Party, are unfounded. Tishkoff and Kidd argue that ‘although populations do cluster by broad geographic regions… the distribution of genetic variation is quasicontinuous in clinal patterns related to geography’ (Tishkoff and Kidd, 2004: 21). Therefore, racial classifications refer to heterogeneous groups (Tishkoff and Kidd, 2004: 25). This is supported by the work of Jorde and Wooding who argue that ‘correlations are imperfect because genetic variation tends to be distributed in a continuous, overlapping fashion among populations’ (Jorde and Wooding, 2004: 28). Whilst, for example, there is substantial population variation in the frequencies of null CYP2D6 alleles, ‘these variants are present in all populations’ (Jorde and Wooding, 2004: 32). Furthermore, Bamshad and Olson highlight that ‘the major human groups have separated from one another too recently and have mixed too much for such differences to exist’, with the easiest ones to separate being those that are furthest from each other geographically. (Bamshad and Olson, 2003: 81). Therefore, as Jorde and Wooding conclude, ‘there is no scientific support for the concept that human populations are discrete, non-overlapping entities’ (Jorde and Wooding, 2004: 32).




In regards to race, the neuroscience literature has tended focus on the amygdala, which is a ‘subcortical structure known to play a role in emotional learning and evaluation’. The amygdala’s role in humans extends to ‘the expression of learned emotional responses that have been acquired without aversive experience’ (Phelps, O’Connor, Cunningham, Funayama, Gatenby, Gore, Banaji, 2000: 729). Therefore, by analysing amygdala activity patterns can be seen that can help aid our understanding of race. One such pattern comes from the work of Phelps, whose work shows that Whites showed ‘greater amygdala activation when viewing unfamiliar Black compared to White faces’ (Phelps et al., 2000: 732). This is in spite of the subjects consciously expressing pro-Black beliefs and attitudes, thus providing further support for the work of Sears and Dovidio. However, Phelps’ second experiment showed that there was ‘no consistent pattern of amygdala activity when White subjects viewed well-known Black and White faces’ (Phelps et al. 2000: 733), therefore meaning that racial attitudes are not necessarily about race per se but about stereotypes, thus implying that unknown Whites and Blacks are viewed differently.

This is something that Schreiber and Iacoboni explicitly reference, stating that ‘racial stereotypes are more about the stereotypes than race per se’ arguing that amygdala activity appears to be ‘driven by norm violation’ (Schreiber and Iacoboni, 2012: 1). They look at activity in the prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which previous work has suggested might be diminished while viewing social outgroups (Freeman, Schiller, Rule, and Ambady, 2010; Harris and Fiske, 2006), thus potentially a pattern of dehumanisation ‘wherein the individual thinks of an other as an “it” rather than another human of equally social cognitive status’ (Schreiber and Iacoboni, 2012: 5). Schreiber and Iacoboni find that, in line with the implicit racism literature, whilst images of Blacks appear to activate the amygdala, norm-consistent images of Blacks neither significantly activate nor deactivate the amygdala, whereas norm-violating images of Whites do activate it. Therefore, ‘we may perceive norm-violating African-Americans as threats and dehumanise them, but we do the same with norm-violating European-Americans’ (Schreiber and Iacoboni, 2012: 7). However, they make the valid point that ‘implicit attitudes are not the only kind’ (Schreiber and Iacoboni, 2012: 12). They argue that explicit perceptions and attitudes often override implicit ones, with social situations being heavily contextualised, thus suggesting caution when reading the likes of Sears and Dovidio, as well as neuroscientific studies like that of Phelps.


The research of Lieberman supports the above research that Black faces produce a greater response in the amygdala than White faces (Lieberman, Hariri, Jarcho, Eisenberger, and Bookheimer, 2005). However, Lieberman adds to this discussion by showing that ‘verbal processing of race diminishes the experience of threat (Lieberman et al., 2005: 722). Activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC) has been shown to be inversely correlated with amygdala activity, which means it has a role in dampening amygdala activity (Hariri, Bookheimer, and Mazziotta, 2000). Lieberman found that ‘greater RVLPFC activity was observed during verbal, relative to perceptual, encoding of African-American targets’ (Lieberman et al., 2005: 721). This then leads Lieberman to the conclusion that verbal processing is contributing to the ‘further development of verbal stereotypes’ as it reinforces views of negatively stereotyped group members through emotional relief (Lieberman et al., 2005: 722).


Another neuroscience contribution to the discussion on race is that of Golby, who shows that ‘memory difference between same-race and other-race faces correlated with activation in left fusiform cortex and right parahippocamapal and hippocampal’ (Golby, Gabrieli, Chiao, and Eberhardt, 2001: 845). An area in or near the fusiform gyrus has been identified as essential for face processing, with prosopagnosia, a deficit in face recognition, being associated with the area (De Renzi and Spinnler, 1966; Ellinwood, 1969; Benton and Van Allen, 1968). Golby found that there was ‘significantly greater signal change within the functionally defined FFA [fusiform face area] for same-race versus other-race faces’ (Golby et al., 2001: 846), thus meaning that people are better at recognising their own race than faces of other races. Therefore, ‘variations in social experience’ are important in the organisation of the neural systems, thus influencing initial perceptions of faces and people (Golby et al., 2001: 849).






It is important to note that there are issues with neuroscience, such as the ‘gigabytes of data’ that each experiment produces, thus meaning that repeated patterns can be easily overlooked (Schreiber and Iacoboni, 2012: 12). However, on the whole, neuroscience significantly advances our understanding of race. As Schreiber and Iacoboni argue, neuroscience provides ‘more direct evidence about how the brain is engaged in social cognitions and what neural mechanisms might be active (Schreiber and Iacoboni, 2012: 11). Thus, neuroscience provides further support for several key concepts highlighted in the existing literature on race from behavioural psychology and genetics. Firstly, through analysis of the amygdala and RVLPFC, neuroscience makes discernable the implicit racist attitudes highlighted in the behavioural psychology by the likes of Wellman, Tatum, Sears, Dovidio, and Sidanius, thus giving them extra validity. However, neuroscience’s value arguably comes from the unique way in which it analyses nuances in racial attitudes, such as positively viewed Black individuals, norm-consistent and norm-violating images, verbal processing, and facial recognition. Through this, the more positive aspects of the behavioural psychology literature, from the likes of Ford, Sniderman, and Giles and Buckner, can be understood better, and thus attention can focus on the ways in which racial prejudices can be reduced and ultimately eradicated. Secondly, neuroscience can be seen to support the work of genetics by showing that racial attitudes are due to racial stereotypes per se, rather than due to race and any outright neural differences between groups. Instead of inherent, fixed differences between races, it is instead stereotypes and, as highlighted by Golby, the extent of social experience that affect individual attitudes, with these attitudes capable of being altered and eventually removed in certain contexts. Therefore, whilst neuroscience has developed separately from behavioural psychology and genetics, it can be seen that, as Golby puts it, ‘social experience must be important in brain functioning’ (Golby et al. 2001: 849). Thus, neuroscience must be integrated with behavioural psychology and genetics, as the three are so interlinked in their explanations of contemporary attitudes towards race.




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