NY City area with colored dots representing the race of every person living in the mapped area. Source: http://goo.gl/KCGozv

This is a pretty cool map. It shows a dot for every individual counted in the 2010 U.S. Census in their home location along with their race/ethnicity. Looking at the residential housing patterns in my hometowns, Lubbock and St. Louis, is pretty interesting. I did not look for the Obama family in Washington, D.C. (the map loads pretty slowly due to its size, supposedly there are 308,745,538 dots), but the fact that you can is a pretty impressive technological feat in my book.


But some people don’t have the gee-whiz response to this cartographical achievement that I do. Reader comments regarding the map at the National Geographic News Watch quickly jumped to the idea that race is an imagined characteristic, or, as one reader put it, a “socially constructed concept.”

I don’t want to debate this idea of race as a social construction. Skin color is a phenotypic trait that is “highly heritable.” This means genes play a large role relative to non-genetic factors such as social beliefs. In other words, there may be social construction going on, but genetic construction plays a much larger role. (For more on the biological bases of race, see, for example, statements from the National Coalition for Health Professional Education in Genetics and evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne).


Differences in skin color are not the problem, though. The real problem is how we react to differences in people in general. We have what are most likely evolutionarily derived psychological mechanisms for categorizing people and objects. We categorize to keep from being overwhelmed with information; we’re the infamous “cognitive misers.” 

Suppose you fully process all the sights you see walking down the street. For example, imagine seeing a billboard on a bus stop. You can: (1) see the billboard, read it, and think about the advertisement on it, or (2) see the billboard, know it’s an ad because it’s a billboard, and ignore it. Multiply each process by the thousands of inputs you see in even a single block, and the day-long crawl down the block under full processing makes the need for categorization obvious. 

And the only reason to categorize is to quickly differentiate between categories (again, avoiding information overload). With categorization, we have more time to notice the people and objects that are more important to pay attention to, such as the car careening down the sidewalk toward us or, in social situations, the individuals approaching us who may be ingroup compatriots or outgroup competitors. In evolutionary terms, the distinction between in- and outgroup may be the difference between sharing resources and fighting for survival. 

In which category we place a person is malleable, but racial information (sex and age, too) is almost impossible for people to ignore because of its extremely low cost and ease of acquisition. As long as there are any consequential differences between groups/categories regarding race (or other characteristics) that convey useful information, regardless of whether those differences are biologically meaningful or not, that information will be used.


Want to see if you’re a racist, sexist, ageist, or some other kind of categorist? Try taking one of the Implicit Association Tests (IAT) at Harvard’s Project Implicit. The IAT measures attitudes and beliefs that people are unwilling to report because they don’t want to embarrass themselves by admitting to a socially undesirable attitude or are unable to report because they’ve convinced themselves that they don’t have an undesirable attitude. You may say you’re not an ‘ist, but don’t get too comfortable in that assessment until you’ve tried these tests. 


Take a look at the dot map. It’s cool. And if you don’t want to ponder whether race really exists or not, see if you can find your neighborhood among the 308,745,538 dots…and try not to think of all the ‘ists out there.  

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