Elementary, My Dear Watson
In the days since I first became aware of Nobel laureate Dr. James C. Watson’s troubling conclusions regarding race and intelligence, I have wondered how I, as an African American professor, could even begin to respond to such reactionary ideas? How does a Black academic respond to comments that proclaim the fundamental incapacity of Black people to succeed academically?
For those who haven’t been following this story, on October 14, The Sunday Times of London published an interview with Waston that included this controversial passage:
He says that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”, and I know that this “hot potato” is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”. He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level”. He writes that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so”.
I am not particularly interesting in addressing Watson’s specific comments about race and intelligence. His racism is disappointing, but not surprising; and those who choose to expend their intellectual energy (and I use that term loosely) on arguing the genetic inferiority of Black folks will not not be convinced of the equality of Afro-diasporic peoples by even the most persuasive arguments and examples. The belief in Black inferiority is less about the science of intelligence (which itself raises more questions about the nature and measurement of intellectual aptitude than it ever has answered), than it is about the politics of culture, difference, and fear.
Professor Biodun Jeyifo, an African and African American studies professor at Harvard says just as much in a brief interview printed in yesterday’s issue of the Crimson:
[A]lthough [Jefiyo] was vehemently against Watson’s comments, he was not surprised by them.
“It’s not new,” Jeyifo said in an interview. “It’s a very small group of scientists who use their eminence to advance the most regressive views on race and intelligence.”
“He is using his scientific eminence to advance his own political and social views as a citizen,” he added.
Like Jefiyo, the most that I wish to express in addressing the specific content of Watson’s comments is to name them as what they are, a self-serving attempt to promote his own racist views by cloaking them in the language of pseudoscience.
Far more interesting and relevant to me are the larger questions raised by Watson’s most recent gaffe. As Jefiyo reminds us, Watson is not alone in his racism, but is instead part of a small but persistent group of scholars who advocate racist and eugenicist beliefs from within the academy. Their presence, while distasteful to many, is tolerated; and although few non-Black professors would care to acknowledge it, their belief — that Black people are intellectually inferior to whites — underlies much of the harassment and discrimination that Black faculty and students experience on today’s college campuses.
The extreme nature of Watson’s expressions of this belief should call our attention to it’s less overt forms, manifested in all of those little obstacles that suggest both subtly and not so subtly that the college or university campus is not a space for Black people. From harassment by campus police (who often mistake Black college students for criminals and interlopers), to the relegation of fields like Black studies to the realm of program (rather than department), to the slyly articulated suggestions made to Black students and faculty alike that were it not for affirmative action they would not even be on campus, people of African descent enter the campus community keenly aware of the prevailing assumptions about Black intelligence and achievement.
Would a zero-tolerance policy toward research on the links between race, intelligence, and achievement serve in some way to decrease the prevalence of anti-Black racism on majority white campuses? How is such research treated as anything but hate speech? How can Black scholars ever enter the ream of academe as true equals when the academy tolerates (even as a small and marginalized sub-specialty within the life sciences and social sciences) research that seeks to link brain capacity and ethnic identity.
One other question that Watson’s assertions raise for me is based on my consideration of the bases for his research. Anyone who has attended U.S. primary and secondary schools is familiar with the widespread phenomenon of intelligence and “aptitude” testing. I am not speaking of standardized, subject-specific achievement tests like the SAT II, the New York State Regents testing program, or the AP exams. I am speaking of IQ testing, PSATs, and SATs. For reasons that are not completely clear to me, these exams also note the race of each examinee.
I have always enjoyed taking intelligence and aptitude exams, in the same way that I enjoy sudoku, crossword puzzles, Jeopardy, and similar challenges; but, looking back on my academic career, I cannot easily identify any benefits that I gained from taking these exams, even as a so-called “good tester.” As a high school senior, for example, my SAT scores, indicated nothing to college admission officers that SAT II and AP exam scores, course grades, and teacher recommendations could not have conveyed.
Also, as a former undergraduate admission officer, I can say that the correlation between high SAT scores (and IQ scores) and high academic achievement has many exceptions. The skills and thought-processes involved in doing well on aptitude and intelligence differ substantially from the skills required to manage a challenging academic courseload and to do well in college courses; I can still recall many applications that reinforced to me that high SAT scores did not necessarily translate into high grades in honors and AP courses.
Of course, not all testing is undertaken to demonstrate a student’s readiness for college work. Keeping that in mind, I can certainly concede the need for reliable tools for diagnosing learning disabilities, especially in order to address the needs of and to make accommodations for students with different learning styles. Even so, IQ is not a necessary tool for performing such diagnoses, as more directed forms of testing that identify particular perception-, comprehension-, processing-, and computation-based challenges would go much farther toward addressing the specific obstacles that inhibit a young (or not-so-young) person’s ability to have success in the classroom and in the workplace.
The point of all this self-examination and reminiscing is to ask the larger question of why intelligence testing is even necessary. I could advocate for the elimination of the racial classification of test-takers, but such a minimal step would fail to challenge and disrupt the intelligence and aptitude testing establishment sufficiently to bring and end to this practice. Neither high nor low scorers on IQ and aptitude exams benefit significantly from research and testing in this area, nor are the interests of a democratic, multi-ethnic society served by intelligence researchers’ obsession with race as a causal factor.
While I am in no way surprised by James Watson’s beliefs, his comments reinforce for me the need for a fundamental shift in how we in the west engage issues of difference. Let the 21st century be the century in which research on the links between race and intelligence in particular and IQ and aptitude tests in general join the ranks of the iron maiden, the hangman’s noose, phrenology, and alchemy as practices and disciplines that we have deemed markers of the barbarism and ignorance of previous generations. Let’s these forms of testing and research come to and end, and let us move on into a more progressive and more pluralistic future.
Posted by Ajuan Mance