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Race and IQ, Heredity and Oppression

[Liberty Bell, Showing Crack]

By J. P. Farr, Ed.D

Ask not for whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee...

The measurement of intelligence is psychology's most telling accomplishment to date. Nowhere else has there arisen so potent an instrument as the objective measure of intelligence. According to Gall, Borg, and Borg (1996), "intelligence tests provide an estimate of an individual's general intellectual level by sampling performance on a variety of intellectual tasks. These tests often include items on such tasks as vocabulary choice, mathematical problem solving, reading comprehension, and short-term memory of digits."

The concept of intelligence testing and its intended use has remained steadfast since its roots in the early post-Darwinian era. Surprisingly, so has the question of geneticsVs environment. What is not surprising is that the question has not been answered definitively, and the furor and controversy its implications continue to provoke.

The question of cultural bias and I.Q. tests seemed to catapult itself into mainstream society almost without warning in 1971. It appears that Dr. Alvin Poussaint, in response to a September 1971 Atlantic Monthly article is credited with "spreading the message of racial equality" (Hernnstein,1971).

In the United States, African Americans bunch disproportionately at the lower end of the social scale, although progressively less so in recent years, as shown in average income and unemployment figures, geographical dispersion, average educational level, etc. "African Americans test about one standard deviation below the whites, which for the non-statistically trained implies that the average white is superior to 84% of the African Americans. About 16% of African Americans do better than the average white" averred Miller (1995). What is striking, says Miller is how the number of African Americans with IQ's over 120 is scarcely visible, while there are actually more African Americans with IQ's below 80 than there are whites."

Although it is not known why African Americans bunch towards the lowest end of the scale, cultural factors, general surroundings, and racial discrimination seems to complicate the analysis. It is believed by many, that the disproportion could be the outcome of racial prejudice or other social disadvantages, instead of a genetic handicap. Many African Americans and whites believe neither the theory of genetics nor environment. Instead, they believe that there were no real differences in ability and insisted that cultural deprivation of African Americans and the cultural bias of the I.Q. tests were responsible for the disparities.

Are the tests biased against African Americans? Miller (1995) concluded that in spite of the impression left in popular discussions, the experts have concluded that they are not. One reason given is that "the racial differences on the parts of the test that seem most culturally based (general knowledge), are actually smaller than on the more abstract problem solving parts. The tests predict school and job performance equally well for both races, although the media appears to believe otherwise."

Is part of the difference in I.Q related to socioeconomic status? Yes, The Bell Curve(Herrnstein & Murray,1994) concludes that 37% of the difference between the races is stastically related to socioeconomic differences. Of course, this does not mean that these socioeconomic differences are causing the I.Q disparities. Rather, what The Bell Curve, also Jensen, 1980, maintain is that those of low intelligence end up with low socioeconomic status.

Intelligence, the genetics of intelligence, and racial differences in intelligence are not well covered in anthropology textbooks. In many circles, they are not considered suitable topics for discussion. Textbooks either ignore them or present what in America is called the politically correct view, without mentioning that any other views are widely held by respectable scholars, or even providing references to the scientific literature. The Bell Curve does provide a short, though somewhat provocative, discussion of these topics along with references to the primary scientific literature.

The literature overwhelmingly supports a century old dogma that suggests that "a large proportion of the variability in intelligence in America is genetic." It also concludes that it seems likely that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. Although it was mildly upsetting and many opponents disagreed, including the media, Snyderman and Rothmann (1988) showed that "there were three times as many who thought it was both genetic and environmental, as thought it was solely environmental." The authors of The Bell Curve are even more emphatic about their assertion that "races differ in intelligence. Many racial disparities shrink or disappear when intelligence is controlled and, in particular, discrimination is not needed to explain low African Americans income or occupational status."

The rhetoric has not changed, only the provocateurs. Popham (1993) states that "too many tests of achievement, aptitude, and even affective dispositions have been constructed, tried out, and 'normed' using mostly middle-class, white children. Only in the past decade or two have test developers become sensitive to the fact that this sort of ethnocentric test development results in serious disadvantages for individuals from divergent ethnic or cultural backgrounds."

Gall, Borg, and Gall (1996) assert that "obvious sources of personal bias in test observers should be looked for and eliminated if found. For example, to use an observer with a negative attitude toward African-Americans in a study involving observations of the creative endeavors of African Americans and other children of color would be inappropriate. The observer's bias almost certainly would lead to seeing more creative behavior among the other children and either ignoring, misinterpreting, or minimizing the creative efforts of African American children in the group."

Virtually every child grows up in some culture or another, and his intelligence score must reflect his sensitivity to it. Children who reside outside the U.S. cannot sensibly be tested on a Western intelligence test. They would do poorly, as they would in most other contacts with Western society. The children may be bright, dull, or average, but only a test applicable to their cultural environment can accurately demonstrate which. If virtually everyone shares substantially equal exposure to the opportunities for learning the answers, then culturally specific questions belong on intelligence tests. Equalizing educational opportunities may harm the inborn intellectual differences between people. It may instead be better to diversify education, providing multiple pathways instead of just one.

Although there are scraps of evidence for a genetic component in the African Americans-white difference, the overwhelming case is for believing that African Americans have been at an environmental disadvantage. To the extent that variations in the American social environment can promote or retard I.Q., African Americans have probably been held back.

The United States is the most ethnically diverse nation in history, but this fact has not increased their tolerance for differences. We have regarded our society as a melting pot and have blinded ourselves to its inherent diversity. Our wish to forget cultural variations and to encourage common norms, though understandable, has been an idealistic and fallacious goal.

There are still many education professionals in the U.S. who are being trained with hardly a reference made to ethnicity. In fact, most of us have gone through our entire professional education without a word mentioned about ethnicity. It is not surprising that educators and professionals have not appreciated the role of ethnicity in developing classroom models, textbooks, and testing materials. Problems, whether educational, physical or mental, cannot be addressed nor treated without some understanding of the frame of reference of the person with whom you are dealing.

Psychological theory, research and practices have advanced for decades without giving significant attention to the role and implications of race. Some deny that there is any such thing as African American culture. Attempts have been made to deny, or ignore many aspects of African American heritage, and there have been many pressures for accommodations to the mainstream. However, there is a set of core values and behaviors, which remain distinctively characteristic of, and understood by, a majority of African Americans people.

McGoldrick, Pearce and Giordano (1982) suggested that "it is impossible to discuss cultural considerations in working with African American families without taking into account the social, economic, and political realities of being African Americans in this society." With this in mind, how can we as responsible professionals continue to advance and accept the theory that socioeconomic status is the result of low intelligence and not discrimination or social oppression?. Are we continuing to Blame the Victim? Color is the predominant distinguishing fact of life for all African Americans, the doctrine of color blindness by professionals has outlived its usefulness.

Hale (1982) opined that the American educational system has not been effective in educating African American children. The emphasis of traditional education has been on molding and shaping African American children so that they fit into an educational process designed for white middle-class children. This would make it easier to continue developing measurement tests for middle-class America, without having to make any significant change and to continue to ignore the overwhelming implications of the disparities in the test scores between the races. We know that the system is not working because of the disproportionate number of African American children who are labeled hyperactive and who are being given drugs as tranquilizers. Some African American children are able to control their behavior; those who are not are usually in the lower- income levels and are labeled as disruptive, prescribed medication, and placed in problem classes where expectations are low. We know that the system is not working because of the disproportionate number of African American children who are being suspended, expelled, pushed out of schools, and ignored. Are any of these factors taken into consideration when the "overwhelming " evidence to support genetics over environment is being espoused and the effect of social oppression is evaluated?

It should be borne in mind that the form and content of most textbooks reflect the values of the dominant culture. African American parents and organizations must continue to demand that the school systems educate and re-educate administrators and teachers in African American history, culture, values, standards, and family life. School districts must plan curricula, make teacher assignments, and choose texts and testing materials jointly with parent councils. According to Owens (1995) "poststructuralism was fueled by growing awareness that there is often an obvious dysfunction between publicly espoused values and what we do in schools." The assumption is that we believe in equality and equity. But the reality is that many women, people of color and poor people find themselves the victims of inequity and inequality, the very values we espouse so proudly in our educational systems.

Hale (1982) tells us: "when African American children exhibit poor reading achievement, psychologists often say it is because the children have inferior or cognitive incapacities. When middle-class white children have poor reading achievement, it is seldom suggested that they are unable to learn or that any deficit lies within the child. Psychologists generally say that the problem is the method of instruction or inappropriate matches between curriculum content and the child's level of development."

The African American community of educational and psychological scholars must consider seriously the need to articulate a new conceptualization of the development and behavioral styles of African American children. They need to offer their own definitions of aptitude, intelligence, and achievement within the context of African American culture. This will prevent the majority of African American children from continuing to struggle through social classes, mentally retarded labels, SAT and GRE testing to make it in this society. African American children grow up in a distinct culture. They therefore need an educational system that recognizes their strengths, their abilities and their culture, and that incorporates these into the learning process. As suggested by Hale: "one reason for the high failure rate of some cultural minorities is the mismatch between the school culture and the social, cultural, and experiential background of minority children. The school curriculum and environment need to be changed to reflect more closely the learning styles and cultural background of the students. Only then will there be an improvement in the school and test performance of African American and other culturally different children in the public schools."


Comer, J. P. & Poussaint, A. F. (1992) Raising African American Children. New York: Penguin Books.

Gall, M.D., Borg, W. R., & Gall, J. P. (1996). Educational Research. New York: Longman Publishers USA.

Hale, J. E. (1982). African American Children: Their roots, culture and learning styles. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press.

Herrnstein, R. J. (1971). I.Q. in the Meritocracy. Boston: Little Brown and Company.

Herrnstein, R. J. & Murray, C. (1994). The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: The Free Press.

Jensen, A. R. (1980). Bias in Mental Testing. New York: The Free Press.

McGoldrick, M., Pearce, J. K., & Giordano, J. (1982). l Ethnicity and Family Therapy. New York: Guilford Press.

Miller E. M. (1995, Spring). Race, Socioeconomic Variables, andIntelligence: A Review and Extension of the Bell Curve. Mankind Quarterly, XXXV (3), 267-291

Owens, R. G. (1995). Organizational Behavior in Education. (5th ed.) Needham, Heights, Ma: Allyn and Bacon.

Popham, W. J. (1993). Educational Evaluation. Needham Heights, Ma: Allyn and Bacon

DMU Timestamp: September 22, 2014 20:44

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