Race, Genetics and Voting?

July 18, 2014 | Moyers and Company |

Writing recently in The New York Times, Thomas Edsall linked race, genes and political ideology. Edsall, a journalism professor at Columbia University who writes a weekly online opinion piece for the Times, has been one of the leading voices covering race and politics in the United States for the last quarter century — and his latest piece strongly suggests that he fundamentally misunderstands race, missing that race reflects social dynamics rather than genetics.

Edsall frames his essay as addressing a core question: “Why do so many poor, working-class and lower-middle-class whites . . . vote for Republicans?” To answer, Edsall turns to recent research exploring the attitudes of twins raised in separate households, a natural experiment of sorts that perhaps opens a vista onto whether it is nature or nurture that undergirds political beliefs.

Research into the genetic influence on political orientation raises pressing questions, not least about the stability of terms like authoritarianism, religiousness, traditionalism, conscientiousness and even intelligence, all characteristics Edsall suggests might be shaped by genes. But we need not engage those questions, for even to get there requires that we accept the erroneous premise on which Edsall proceeds: that race is a matter of genetics. He could not be more wrong — though he is far from alone in this blunder.