This essay employs a qualitative and quantitative audience study to explore the reception of racially controversial books, such as The Bell Curve, and their dominantly negative reviews in the popular press. Findings do not support the hypothesis that reviews increase racism by recirculating racist views under cover of disapprobrium. Instead, responses suggest that audience members can incorporate components of both genetic and environmental accounts to their prior views. Thus, relative acceptance of genetic vs. environmental accounts of human difference did not correlate with racist attitudes; rather those whites who had strong negative affect toward persons of other races appropriated both genetic and environmental accounts to bolster their racism, while both blacks and whites with more egalitarian attitudes were able to incorporate genetic accounts into their schemas. We conclude that the agenda setting effects of the book and its reviews may have encouraged a less than ideal stasis point in the debate, focusing the debate on nature vs. nurture as causative agents for individuals rather than focusing on issues of individual vs. social responsibility. We suggest further exploration of the functioning of popular book reviews and of audience interpretations of popular reception of mass mediated arguments about race.
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