Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Race and Intelligence, Part II

August 7th, 2008 by Ajuan Mance

In my last post I wrote about blogger James Collier (Acting White) and his call for greater Black engagement with the issue of race and intelligence. While I agreed with the need for African Americans and other people of African descent to pay closer attention to issue of race and intelligence/aptitude, I had a problem with Collier’s emphasis on “the gap in intelligence between blacks and non-blacks (emphasis mine).

In using this language, Collier seems to be stating quite plainly that Black people in America are, on average, not as smart as non-Black people. Fortunately, he clarifies his position in a subsequent post:

I do not believe that race or genetics drives the disparity in intelligence between blacks and non-blacks. However, the disparity is real, by modeling and empirical observation, and most visible by race. This visibility, through the convenient lens of race, leads us to focus on superficial physiology differences as evidence of the drivers of difference, even though they drive nothing.

While the lens of race distorts our understanding of intelligence, it (measured intelligence) nonetheless accurately captures outcomes of performance for groups relative to each other, and for this reason should not be dismissed. However, inherited intelligence is only one factor influencing the level to which a person can be educated and contribute to themselves and society. Once we are past the distortion of race views, perhaps we can better go about the effort of supporting development of all people, and away from the notion that one size of education fits all. (Acting White, 7/31/08)

This last bit, which comes at the very end of Collier’s post, is part of the essential message that Black people are uniquely equipped to insert into the public discussion of race and “ intelligence.” The emphasis on the correlations between race and lower performance on intelligence tests obscures the larger issue – that certain young people spend their formative years in surroundings that do not stimulate them sufficiently to develop many of the intellectual skills (abstract thinking, etc.) that are essential for success in 21st-century America.

In his December 2007 New Yorker piece, Malcolm Gladwell summarizes social scientist James Flynn’s pivotal work on the relationship between IQ and environment/surroundings:

One Saturday in November of 1984, James Flynn, a social scientist at the University of Otago, in New Zealand, received a large package in the mail. It was from a colleague in Utrecht, and it contained the results of I.Q. tests given to two generations of Dutch eighteen-year-olds. When Flynn looked through the data, he found something puzzling. The Dutch eighteen-year-olds from the nineteen-eighties scored better than those who took the same tests in the nineteen-fifties—and not just slightly better, much better.

Curious, Flynn sent out some letters. He collected intelligence-test results from Europe, from North America, from Asia, and from the developing world, until he had data for almost thirty countries. In every case, the story was pretty much the same. I.Q.s around the world appeared to be rising by 0.3 points per year, or three points per decade, for as far back as the tests had been administered. For some reason, human beings seemed to be getting smarter.

Flynn has been writing about the implications of his findings—now known as the Flynn effect—for almost twenty-five years.

The best way to understand why I.Q.s rise, Flynn argues, is to look at one of the most widely used I.Q. tests, the so-called WISC (for Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children). The WISC is composed of ten subtests, each of which measures a different aspect of I.Q. Flynn points out that scores in some of the categories—those measuring general knowledge, say, or vocabulary or the ability to do basic arithmetic—have risen only modestly over time. The big gains on the WISC are largely in the category known as “similarities,” where you get questions such as “In what way are ‘dogs’ and ‘rabbits’ alike?” Today, we tend to give what, for the purposes of I.Q. tests, is the right answer: dogs and rabbits are both mammals. A nineteenth-century American would have said that “you use dogs to hunt rabbits.”

“If the everyday world is your cognitive home, it is not natural to detach abstractions and logic and the hypothetical from their concrete referents,” Flynn writes. Our great-grandparents may have been perfectly intelligent. But they would have done poorly on I.Q. tests because they did not participate in the twentieth century’s great cognitive revolution, in which we learned to sort experience according to a new set of abstract categories. In Flynn’s phrase, we have now had to put on “scientific spectacles,” which enable us to make sense of the WISC questions about similarities. To say that Dutch I.Q. scores rose substantially between 1952 and 1982 was another way of saying that the Netherlands in 1982 was, in at least certain respects, much more cognitively demanding than the Netherlands in 1952. An I.Q., in other words, measures not so much how smart we are as how modern we are.

This is a critical distinction. When the children of Southern Italian immigrants were given I.Q. tests in the early part of the past century, for example, they recorded median scores in the high seventies and low eighties, a full standard deviation below their American and Western European counterparts. Southern Italians did as poorly on I.Q. tests as Hispanics and blacks did. As you can imagine, there was much concerned talk at the time about the genetic inferiority of Italian stock, of the inadvisability of letting so many second-class immigrants into the United States, and of the squalor that seemed endemic to Italian urban neighborhoods. Sound familiar? These days, when talk turns to the supposed genetic differences in the intelligence of certain races, Southern Italians have disappeared from the discussion. “Did their genes begin to mutate somewhere in the 1930s?” the psychologists Seymour Sarason and John Doris ask, in their account of the Italian experience. “Or is it possible that somewhere in the 1920s, if not earlier, the sociocultural history of Italo-Americans took a turn from the blacks and the Spanish Americans which permitted their assimilation into the general undifferentiated mass of Americans?”

The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement—that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way. But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits. And if I.Q. varies with habits of mind, which can be adopted or discarded in a generation, what, exactly, is all the fuss about?

Having de-coupled IQ from genetics, Flynn offers us an opportunity and a challenge. How, as a nation, can we insure that every child is raised in an environment that is rich in cognitive stimulation?

Posted by Ajuan Mance


Posted in African Americans, Current Events, IQ, James Flynn, Malcolm Gladwell, race, Race and Intelligence, Race and IQ, Uncategorized

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