Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Race and Intelligence, Part I

August 7th, 2008 by Ajuan Mance

The Acting White blogger James Collier has called for an end to what he calls the “taboo” within the Black community on discussing race and intelligence:

Well first off, any solution has to recognize and offset the gap in intelligence between blacks and non-blacks. This subject must be un-tabooed. The universal one standard deviation difference in intelligence makes blacks non-competitive with their socio-economic counterparts of other races, and all that follows this disparity. (Acting White, 7/24/08 )

While I agree with this blogger’s call for African American engagement with this subject, I disagree with his assertion that this subject is “taboo” among Black folks in America. A closer evaluation of most Black people’s general refusal to engage with this subject would quickly reveal not a wider social prohibition or taboo, but rather a tendency among Black people to dismiss and ignore any debates that seem steeped in the American predilection for racializing everything (from intelligence to desire to alcoholic beverages to eyeglass frames and more). For U.S. Black people, this tendency to dismiss transparently racialized associations between unrelated issues coexists with the belief that the relationship between race and intelligence is just one more topic obsessed over by people (mostly white) who have a personal investment in supporting white supremacy.

That said, I do agree with the substance of what Collier has to say. Indeed, there is a gap between the average performance of Black people on certain intelligence tests and the average performance of white and Asian people on those same tests. I would shrink away from using the word “intelligence” to describe this difference, however, and I am troubled by Collier’s use of the word in describing what he calls, “the gap in intelligence between blacks and non-blacks (emphasis mine).

What Collier calls a “gap in intelligence” is actually a gap in acquired skills. This is a fact that many on the conservative end of the race and intelligence debate do not wish to acknowledge. IQ and other intelligence and aptitude tests do not, in fact, test intelligence or aptitude, but rather those skills that in the U.S. have become conflated with intelligence, particularly skills like abstract thinking. Malcolm Gladwell (and many others, I’m sure) refer to such hardcore genetic-basis-for-intelligence advocates as “IQ fundamentalists,” and he describes their beliefs as follows:

To the I.Q. fundamentalist, two things are beyond dispute: first, that I.Q. tests measure some hard and identifiable trait that predicts the quality of our thinking; and, second, that this trait is stable—that is, it is determined by our genes and largely impervious to environmental influences. (“None of the Above: What I.Q. Doesn’t Tell You About Race,” New York Magazine, December 17, 2007)

When IQ is understood for its true function, as a measure of one’s mastery of certain forms of problem-solving, at particular moment in the subject’s academic life, it is a harmless and even helpful tool for diagnosing educational deficits. Unfortunately, IQ is more often read as an indicator of one’s intellectual destiny, with those scoring in the “dull-normal” range (80 – 90) relegated to a sort of academic no-man’s land (special education or similar tracks), in which expectations and opportunities range from low to non-existent.

The understanding of IQ as an indicator of one’s lifelong potential (as opposed to one’s current skill level) is based on the IQ fundamentalists’ rejection of the very strong evidence that IQ is not fixed, but instead can change dramatically, depending on shifts in the environment of the test taker. Many IQ fundamentalists are either unaware of this perspective or they resist it, even though it is strongly supported by both research and anecdotal evidence.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in African Americans, Current Events, IQ, race, Race and Intelligence, Race and IQ

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