Skip to main content Accessibility help


  • Ann Morning (a1), Hannah Brückner (a2) and Alondra Nelson (a3)


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.


Corresponding author

*Corresponding author: Professor Ann Morning, Department of Sociology, New York University, 295 Lafayette St. Rm. 4118, New York, NY 10012. Email:


Hide All
Apostle, Richard A., Glock, Charles Y., Piazza, Thomas, and Suelzle, Marijean (1983). The Anatomy of Racial Attitudes. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Barkan, Elazar (1992). The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States Between the World Wars. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
Bliss, Catherine (2012). Race Decoded: The Genomic Fight for Social Justice. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.
Bliss, Catherine (2018). Social by Nature: The Promise and Peril of Sociogenomics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Bobo, Lawrence D. (2001). Racial Attitudes and Relations at the Close of the Twentieth Century. In Smelser, Neil J., Wilson, William Julius, and Mitchell, Faith (Eds.), America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences, pp. 264301. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Bobo, Lawrence, and Kluegel, James R. (1993). Opposition to Race-Targeting: Self-Interest, Stratification Ideology, or Racial Attitudes? American Sociological Review, 58(4): 443464.
Bobo, Lawrence, Kluegel, James R., and Smith, Ryan A. (1997). Laissez-Faire Racism: The Crystallization of a Kinder, Gentler, Antiblack Ideology. In Tuch, Steven A. and Martin, Jack K. (Eds.), Racial Attitudes in the 1990s: Continuity and Change, pp. 1542. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo (2003). Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Brubaker, Rogers (2015). Grounds for Difference. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Carlson, William L., and Thorne, Betty (1997). Applied Statistical Methods for Business, Economics, and the Social Sciences. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Cavalli-Sforza, L. L., and Bodmer, W. F. (1971). The Genetics of Human Populations. San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman.
Condit, Celeste M., Parrott, Roxanne L., Harris, Tina M., Lynch, John, and Dubriwny, Tasha (2004). The Role of ‘Genetics’ in Popular Understandings of Race in the United States. Public Understanding of Science, 13(3): 249272.
Condit, Celeste Michelle (1999). The Meanings of the Gene: Public Debates about Human Heredity. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
Conley, Dalton, and Fletcher, Jason (2017). The Genome Factor: What the Social Genomics Revolution Reveals about Ourselves, Our History, and the Future. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
Cooper, Richard S. (2003). Race, Genes, and Health: New Wine in Old Bottles? International Journal of Epidemiology, 32(1): 2325.
Davis, Darren W. (1997). Nonrandom Measurement Error and Race of Interviewer Effects Among African Americans. Public Opinion Quarterly, 61 (1, Special Issue on Race): 183207.
Duster, Troy (1990). Backdoor to Eugenics. New York: Routledge.
Fowler, Floyd J. (1995). Improving Survey Questions: Design and Evaluation. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Frankenberg, Ruth (1993). White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Fujimura, Joan H., and Rajagopalan, Ramya (2011). Different Differences: The Use of ‘Genetic Ancestry’ versus Race in Biomedical Human Genetic Research. Social Studies of Science, 41(1): 530.
Gergen, Kenneth J. (1998). Constructionist Dialogues and the Vicissitudes of the Political. In Velody, Irving and Williams, Robin (Eds.), The Politics of Constructionism, pp. 3348. London: Sage.
Graves, Joseph L. (2001). The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Hasson, Katie, and Darnovsky, Marcy (2018). Gene-edited Babies: No One Has the Moral Warrant to Go it Alone. The Guardian, November 27. <> (Accessed May 23, 2019).
Heine, Steven J. (2017). DNA Is Not Destiny: The Remarkable, Completely Misunderstood Relationship between You and Your Genes. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Imai, Kosuke (2011). Multivariate Regression Analysis for the Item Count Technique. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 106(494): 407416.
Jackman, Mary R. (1973). Education and Prejudice or Education and Response-Set? American Sociological Review, 38(3): 327339.
Jackman, Mary R., and Muha, M. J. (1984). Education and Intergroup Attitudes: Moral Enlightenment, Superficial Democratic Commitment, or Ideological Refinement? American Sociological Review, 49(6): 151169.
Jayaratne, Toby E. (2002). White and Black Americans’ Genetic Explanations for Perceived Gender, Class and Race Differences: The Psychology of Genetic Beliefs. In 2002 Human Genome Lecture Series, National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH. Bethesda, MD.
Johnson, M. K. , and Marini, M. M. (1998). Bridging the Racial Divide in the United States: The Effect of Gender. Social Psychology Quarterly, 61(3): 247258.
Jones, James (1993). Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. New York: Free Press.
Kane, E. W., and Macaulay, L. J. (1993). Interviewer Gender and Gender Attitudes. Public Opinion Quarterly, 57(1): 128.
Kevles, Daniel J., and Hood, Leroy (Eds.) (1992). The Code of Codes: Scientific and Social Issues in the Human Genome Project. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Krysan, Maria (1998). Privacy and the Expression of White Racial Attitudes. Public Opinion Quarterly, 62(4): 506544.
Kuklinski, James H., Cobb, Michael D., and Gilens, Martin (1997). Racial Attitudes and the ‘New South’. Journal of Politics, 59(2): 323349.
Lee, James J., Wedow, Robbee, Okbay, Aysu, Kong, Edward, Maghzian, Omeed, Zacher, Meghan, Nguyen-Viet, Tuan Anh, Bowers, Peter, Sidorenko, Julia, Linnér, Richard Karlsson, et al. (2018). Gene Discovery and Polygenic Prediction from a Genome-wide Association Study of Educational Attainment in 1.1 Million Individuals. Nature Genetics, 50: 11121121.
Lee, Sandra S. J., Mountain, J., and Koenig, B. A. (2001). The Meanings of ‘Race’ in the New Genomics: Implications for Health Disparities Research. Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law and Ethics, 1(1): 3375.
Lieberman, Leonard (1997). Gender and the Deconstruction of the Race Concept. American Anthropologist, 99(3): 545558.
Lieberman, Leonard, and Jackson, Fatimah Linda C. (1995). Race and Three Models of Human Origin. American Anthropologist, 97(2): 231242.
Lippman, Abby (1991). Prenatal Genetic Testing and Screening: Constructing Needs and Reinforcing Inequalities. American Journal of Law and Medicine, 17(1-2): 1550.
Littlefield, Alice, Lieberman, Leonard, and Reynolds, Larry T. (1982). Redefining Race: The Potential Demise of a Concept in Physical Anthropology. Current Anthropology, 23(6): 641655.
Morning, Ann (2008). Reconstructing Race in Science and Society: Biology Textbooks, 1952-2002. American Journal of Sociology, 114(1): 106137.
Morning, Ann (2011). The Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Moseson, Heidi, Gerdts, Caitlin, Dehlendorf, Christine, Hiatt, Robert A., and Vittinghoff, Eric (2017). Multivariable Regression Analysis of List Experiment Data on Abortion: Results from a Large, Randomly-selected Population Based Study in Liberia. Population Health Metrics, 15(1).
Nelkin, Dorothy, and Lindee, M. Susan (1995). The DNA Mystique: The Gene as Cultural Icon. New York: Freeman.
Nelson, Alondra (2016). The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Novembre, John, and Barton, Nicholas H. (2018). Tread Lightly Interpreting Polygenic Tests of Selection. Genetics, 208(4): 13511355.
Panofsky, Aaron (2014). Misbehaving Science: Controversy and the Development of Behavior Genetics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Phelan, Jo C., Link, Bruce G., and Feldman, Naumi M. (2013). The Genomic Revolution and Beliefs about Essential Racial Differences: A Backdoor to Eugenics? American Sociological Review, 78(2): 167191.
Press, J., and Townsley, E. (1998). Wives’ and Husbands’ Housework Reporting: Gender, Class and Social Desirability. Gender & Society, 12(2): 188218.
Reardon, Jenny (2004). Decoding Race and Human Difference in a Genomic Age. Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 15(3): 3865.
Roth, Wendy D., and Lyon, Katherine (2018). Genetic Ancestry Tests and Race: Who Takes Them, Why, and How Do They Affect Racial Identities? In Suzuki, Kazuko and von Vacano, Diego (Eds.), Reconsidering Race: Cross-Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Approaches, pp. 133169. New York: Oxford University Press.
Schuman, Howard, and Bobo, Lawrence (1988). Survey-based Experiments on White Racial Attitudes Toward Residential Segregation. American Journal of Sociology, 94(2): 273299.
Schuman, Howard, Steeh, Charlotte, Bobo, Lawrence, and Krysan, Maria (1997). Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Shakespeare, Tom (1998). Social Constructionism as a Political Strategy. In Velody, Irving and Williams, Robin (Eds.), The Politics of Constructionism, pp. 168181. London: Sage.
Shanklin, Eugenia (2000). Representations of Race and Racism in American Anthropology. Current Anthropology, 41(1): 99103.
Sniderman, Paul M., Piazza, Thomas, Tetlock, Philip E., and Kendrick, Ann (1991). The New Racism. American Journal of Political Science, 35(2): 423447.
Stark, Jerry A., Reynolds, Larry T., and Lieberman, Leonard (1979). The Social Basis of Conceptual Diversity: A Case Study of the Concept of ‘Race’ in Physical Anthropology. In Jones, Robert Alun and Kuklick, Henrika. (Eds.) Research in Sociology of Knowledge, Sciences and Art: Volume 2, pp. 8799. Greenwich, CT : JAI Press.
Stepan, Nancy (1982). The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain 1800–1960. London: Archon Books.
Theriault, S., and Holmberg, D. (1998). The New Old-Fashioned Girl: Effects of Gender and Social Desirability on Reported Gender Role Ideology. Sex Roles, 39(1): 97112.
United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (1952). The Race Concept: Results of an Inquiry. Paris: UNESCO.
Wailoo, Keith (1999). Drawing Blood: Technology and Disease Identity in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.



  • Ann Morning (a1), Hannah Brückner (a2) and Alondra Nelson (a3)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed