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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 October 2019

Ann Morning*
Department of Sociology, New York University
Hannah Brückner
Division of Social Science, New York University Abu Dhabi
Alondra Nelson
School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study
*Corresponding author: Professor Ann Morning, Department of Sociology, New York University, 295 Lafayette St. Rm. 4118, New York, NY 10012. Email:


In recent decades, dramatic developments in genetics research have begun to transform not only the practice of medicine but also conceptions of the social world. In the media, in popular culture, and in everyday conversation, Americans routinely link genetics to individual behavior and social outcomes. At the same time, some social researchers contend that biological definitions of race have lost ground in the United States over the last fifty years. At the crossroads of two trends—on one hand, the post-World War II recoil from biological accounts of racial difference, and on the other, the growing admiration for the advances of genetic science—the American public’s conception of race is a phenomenon that merits greater attention from sociologists than it has received to date. However, survey data on racial attitudes has proven to be significantly affected by social desirability bias. While a number of studies have attempted to measure social desirability bias with regard to racial attitudes, most have focused on racial policy preferences rather than genetic accounts of racial inequality. We employ a list experiment to create an unobtrusive measure of support for a biologistic understanding of racial inequality. We show that one in five non-Black Americans attribute income inequality between Black and White people to unspecified genetic differences between the two groups. We also find that this number is substantially underestimated when using a direct question. The magnitude of social desirability effects varies, and is most pronounced among women, older people, and the highly-educated.

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Copyright © Hutchins Center for African and African American Research 2019 

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