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Pet Sins January 2002

I'm not saying this because I am racist. It is scientific fact!

P, a firm believer in the findings of the "Bell Curve", believes that opponents of said book are all politically motivated, disingenuous left-wingers. She somehow chose not to question the political motivations of right wingers supporting and funding the book.1 She claims Asians are 'naturally' smarter than blacks by citing unnamed research:

"There are studies that Asian kids adopted by white parents academically outperform Black kids adopted by white parents. This shows that books like the Bell Curve are right. Even when given the same environment and resources, black kids are still underperforming. We have to accept that genes matter, and blacks just don't have the same intellectual capacity as whites and Asians."

Although subsequent research came up to refute many of the Bell Curve's claims2, there are of course people like P who say that those researchers who find evidence against Bell Curve findings are unscientific in their approach and ideologically motivated. Readers can decide for themselves whether that is the case. For now, let us assume that the unnamed research study that P mentions is unbiased and accurate, that indeed American adoptees of Asian descent and African descent, even when raised in culturally-similar and economically equal circumstances, with access to the same schools still show a difference in academic performance along ethnic lines. But even so, the playing field is NOT as level as P implies, precisely because there are too many people who talk and think like P in the USA.

Black children in America still have to grow up in a society shaped by the expectations of people who hold P's opinions about blacks' allegedly inferior intelligence. Some, if not many of their teachers, and perhaps even some parents, have had their expectations conditioned by the idea that blacks are naturally deficient in intellect and therefore not academically inclined. There are many studies that show that parents' and teachers' expectations impact children's performance even in situations where race is not an issue. In Robert Rosenthal's well-known 'Oak School' experiment, students were given an IQ test at the beginning of the year, and then divided into two groups. For one of the groups, the teachers were told that the students had great potential and on the verge of intellectual growth spurt. In reality, the students were randomly selected. After a year, the students' IQs were retested. The group for which the teachers were given higher expectations showed significantly greater improvement in IQ gains than did those in the control group, whose teachers were not primed with higher expectations.3 This study, and many other studies in which race is not a factor, show the key role that external expectations plays in driving performance; the expecations of others become self-fulfilling prophecies, not just for schoolchildren, but also for workers, college students and lab rats.4

In the case of black Americans, even if their parents and teachers are supportive and enlightened, they have to deal with an entire society of people like P whispering into the ears of their friends, colleagues, potential employers, potential partners etc. One has to be incredibly naive to assume that this has no effect on shaping an individual's self-image, confidence and attitude. About those who could not stand up to the incessant drip-drip-drip of negative messages from society, P says, "They only have themselves to blame. They made the choice to give in to negative external influences." Well, who is part of that external negative influence? P herself. She puts unnecessary psychological burdens on others and then blames them for falling under the weight of her words.

Of course there are those who argue that underperformance of black Americans is not in any way the fault of people like P. We can agree that individual responsibility is very important. The support of parents and community is also critical. To blame only racism while not taking individual responsibility for one's situation is not an effective response. But to consider the prejudices and brainwashing of larger society as irrelevant, as P does, is just as misguided. Genes, individual work ethic, family support, the culture of the community, the conditioning of larger society - these are all factors in individual achievement.

To argue in favor on the effects of racial prejudice being a negligible factor in IQ tests, P claims that blacks still demonstrate lower IQs in countries where they are the majority and presumably not subject to hostile insinuations from outsiders of other races (that too, is debatable). She says global IQ test figures still put black Africans at the bottom and yellow East Asians in top. Genes still matter more than anything else, she claims.

Few would claim that genes don't matter in intelligence. The disagreement is over how much they matter. Various studies set the inheritability of IQ at around 0.4 to 0.8.5 There is doubt as to whether the genes for 'intelligence' are indeed linked to genes that define 'race'. For instance, South Chinese are genetically much closer to Southeast Asians than they are to North Chinese and other East Asians. East Asians generally outperform Europeans on intelligence tests, while Southeast Asians such as Filipinos don't do as well as Europeans. But the South Chinese, despite having little genetic difference from Filipinos and other Southeast Asians, and therefore racially Southeast Asian rather than East Asian, performed just as well as the racially distinct East Asians (North Chinese, Japanese, Koreans).6

So there are obvious exceptions to the theory of a direct correlation between 'race' and intelligence tests. Back to the issue of IQ inheritability, if we go with the figure of 0.6 inheritability, as quoted in the Bell Curve.7, this still leaves us with a significant proportion of IQ, 0.4, that is influenced by environment, including factors such as:

  • Nutrition - IQ is affected by childhood malnutrition8, and unsurprisingly, the areas of the world with lower IQ scores correspond to the areas with the highest rates of malnutrition.9 (This is, assuming international IQ testing is unbiased)
  • Experience - culture and education also play a role, which is illustrated in studies that show IQ gaps in populations with different cultural/educational experiences increasing with age.10

Until we can completely level the global playing field, i.e. eliminate environmental factors, there will be doubts as to precisely how much of the IQ test differences between different regions of the world are due to genes. But the laypersons like P who love harping on the scientific basis of other people's alleged inferiority don't seem to be interested in leveling the playing field so that researchers can do more accurate studies on how much genes contribute to IQ. She spends more of her leisure time vigorously arguing with acquaintances about the genetic inferiority of blacks than actually doing anything constructive to level the playing field.

She tells friends that they are not spending their money well by donating to local organizations that provide after-school interventions in at-risk (non-black) communities because "there is greater need elsewhere in the world." To those of her friends donating to international charities that do crisis intervention during famine or natural disasters, which we assume is what P means by 'greater need', she says that they are supporting irresponsible NGOs that 'artificially' prolong the life of 'people who should have died off by natural selection', thereby increasing the' over-reproducing' global population of 'uneducated' people from 'Africa and India' who 'do not use birth control'. When asked if she was proposing that international organizations withhold food aid and let people die, she says, "No, of course not. That would not be humane. But food aid alone is irresponsible. Population problems cannot be solved without women's education." Fair enough. But to those who support non-profits, local or international, that work on improving access to education in developing countries and call upon her to do the same, she says, "Those efforts are just a drop in an ocean of problems. Positive efforts have such a miniscule effect on the global scale of the problems, they don't matter anyway."

In short, she always has an excuse why she should do nothing to change the 'reality' she is complaining about, while pointing fingers at how entire populations of people are not doing enough to measure up to her standards. Ironically, she is always claiming that black Americans spend too much time talking and complaining about problems rather than take concrete steps to solve those problems. But she is doing exactly the same thing that she accuses others of doing - complaining without action - and she feels perfectly entitled to do it.

P is not a policy maker or a researcher, not a judicial officer or a teacher. She is a 'hobbyist' who not only ardently preaches the role of genes as the only factor worth considering in someone's intellectual destiny, but also cannot 'agree to disagree' with those who think otherwise. She feels she must win each argument and gain every convert possible to her belief system, to what end and for what pleasure, we do not know. "It is not a matter of racism," she says. "It is what the research shows!" But if she really has good intentions towards less privileged communities, she could have spent all the time and energy devoted to converting others to her belief in the genetic inferiority of blacks on actually doing something to support black academic achievement. By her own admission, she has never done a lick of volunteer work in any community, not even her own.

To be fair, P does not agree 100% with the Bell Curve authors when they go beyond simply "objectively" stating "scientific figures" to claim that affirmative action programs and early education interventions should not continue, even if they DO reduce the achievement gap, because inequality is 'natural' and spending public money trying to reduce racial disparities is a waste.11 P claims that the supposedly genetic causes of underachievement can and should be mitigated; but parents and communities should be the ones responsible for putting in the 'extra effort' for their children, instead of relying solely on government policies. But in the same breath, she would say, "There are genetic limitations in individuals. Saying that environment alone accounts for achievement gaps is like saying everyone has the ability to become President. Not everyone can be President, no matter how hard we try to 'intervene'."

Yes, not every individual can be a president, or want to be, but that does not mean that any one 'racial' group does not have the potential to produce an individual that could become President. Most of us individual humans live our entire lives without reaching our full potential. For one individual who has the potential to be a national leader or Nobel Prize winner, the environment can make all the difference as to whether he underperforms his potential and never develops a sense of ambition, or use his talents more fully and develops the ambition for great things. In fact, everyone, regardless of genetic potential, deserves a positive environment in which s/he can learn to push herself/himself as far as s/he can and learn the discipline and skills needed to live a productive, happy life. P wants to send her child to private school, precisely because she believes at the private school environment would be better for her child's intellectual development than a public school environment. Consciously or not she believes that genes alone do not determine future success, otherwise she should have no qualms sending her offspring to public school like the rest of us, and letting nature take its course with her child's grades and work ethic. She wants to give her child the extra leg up. There's not necessarily anything wrong with that. But she has never attributed the idea that her child needs to be given 'extra advantages' to her child's genetically inferior intellect. In fact, she had on occasion passed comments that indicated her belief that she and her offspring are genetically superior in intellect to her friends and their offspring.

So why is it that when people, be it parents, communities, or governments, go the extra mile to cultivate black or Latino children, there are always those who say, "Those students need extra help to make up for inferior genes" and those who go further to say "they don't deserve the extra help" but when people go the extra mile to cultivate white or Asian kids, no one says, "Oh, those kids get extra help because they are naturally inferior" or "they don't deserve the resources given to them"?

The debates about whether affirmative action creates an unfair advantage for some minorities are out there on the internet. Interested readers can look for them on other sites. What matters is the dramatic gains that have been made when people take steps equalize the playing field for young children entering the school system. For example, New Jersey increased its black male student graduation rate from 48% to 75% in just a few years by equalizing per-pupil funding across all schools and using the funds effectively to help students achieve state standards.12

And when children are educated by adults who believe in their potential and hold them to high standards, the racial achievement gap can close:

  • Harlem Children's Zone's Promise Academy students raised their test scores between the 6th grade and the 8th grade to the point that they had "reversed the black-white achievement gap in mathematics." 13 Math test scores of the typical sixth-grader entering the school increased 35 percentage points over a few years.14
  • Chicago's Urban Prep Academy managed to graduate a cohort of 100% college-bound seniors from a class of which only 4% was reading at grade level when they first entered the academy four years earlier.15

The following quote from Stalking the Wolf Taboo: Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns (Report of a Task Force established by the Board of Scientific Affairs of the American Psychological Association) shows that similar achievement gaps are reproduced in other nations and with different (non-black) races when certain social conditions exist:

Most discussions of this issue treat Black/ White differences as aspects of a uniquely "American Dilemma" (Myriad, 1944). The fact is, however, that comparably disadvantaged groups exist in many countries: the Maori in New Zealand, scheduled castes ("untouchables") in India, non-European Jews in Israel, the Burakumin in Japan. All these are "caste-like" (Ogbu, 1978) or "involuntary" (Ogbu, 1994) minorities... to be born into a caste-like minority is to grow up firmly convinced that one's life will eventually be restricted to a small and poorly-rewarded set of social roles.

Distinctions of caste are not always linked to perceptions of race. In some countries lower and upper caste groups differ by appearance and are assumed to be racially distinct; in others they are not. The social and educational consequences are the same in both cases. All over the world, the children of castelike minorities do less well in school than upper-caste children and drop out sooner. Where there are data, they have usually been found to have lower test scores as well.

Psychologist Robert Brooks described how a teacher's negative expectations can shape student response in You get what you expect. This can generate a vicious cycle in which a negative expectation generates a negative response which reinforces the negative expectations:

Even seemingly hidden assumptions have a way of being expressed to others. Not surprisingly, people begin to behave in accord with the expectations we have of them and when they do, we are apt to interpret this as a sign that our expectations are accurate. What we fail to appreciate is the extent to which our expectations subtly or not-so-subtly shape the behavior of others.

Conversely, positive teacher expectations can elicit positive responses, as demonstrated in a 1999 study mentioned in the ACEI article The impact of teachers' expectations on diverse learners' academic outcomes The study found that the mere fact that Asian children are perceived to have the capacity to attain higher learning outcomes impacted their performance in the classroom and on standardized tests In addition, the Asian children's self-image was in turn positively affected by teachers' high standards and expectations for them. In c another study mentioned in the same article, teachers were asked to make academic predictions about students based on pictures of the students showed that race was a factor in teacher expectations: teachers made less favorable academic predictions about a high IQ Latino child than they did for a white child, regardless of the Latino child's perceived economic class.

There was Jane Elliot's famous "blue-eyed/brown-eyed" experiment, which showed how (white) schoolchildren can be quickly conditioned to improve their academic and social performance when told that their eye color was a sign of intellectual superiority. In contrast, the academic performance and confidence of their (white) peers, who were told that their eye color was linked to intellectual inferiority, deteriorated.

Notes:
  1. The Bell Curve - Roadmap to the "Ideal" Society (on mediatransparency.org)
  2. The Bell Curve Flattened (slate.com)
  3. Rosenthal's work on expectancy effects
  4. Pygmalion In The Classroom
  5. IQ on wikipedia
  6. Tracing the Genetic History of Modern Man
  7. I.Q. - Genetics or Environment
  8. Malnutrition at 3 years and lower cognitive ability at 11 years
  9. IQ and Global Inequality on Wikipedia
    Hunger by numbers: How we are losing the battle against worldwide malnutrition
  10. Asian kids' IQ lift: reading system may boost Chinese scores
    Spanking Linked to Lower IQ Scores. Music lessons may boost IQ and grades (APA)
  11. The Bell Curve review by Brian Beatty
  12. Black male grad rates (NPR)
    Abbott v. Burke: Education Justice For All
  13. ARE HIGH QUALITY SCHOOLS ENOUGH TO CLOSE THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP? EVIDENCE FROM A SOCIAL EXPERIMENT IN HARLEM
  14. Harlem Program Singled Out as Model
  15. Entire Graduating Class of Urban Prep Charter Academy Accepted to College