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Andrew Sullivan and the Bell Curve Follies: "The Mental Age of the Negro Soldier is 10 Years Old.."

Internet celebrities and the pundit classes are tussling with one another about the apparent rediscovery of the (rightfully) much maligned book the Bell Curve, and its broader claims about the relationship between race and I.Q. The story so far: Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast offered some comments on a piece featured on Alternetregarding the need for pure research, and how one should not avoid uncomfortable scientific findings for reasons of political correctness. Ta-Nehisi Coates chimed in, there he offered a series of great posts on how for some folks these matters are indeed personal, and exist outside of some faux commitment to methodological and scientific positivism. All parties involved have been kind to WARN. Consequently, I decided to do like George Clinton with Parliament, and to just sit back, nod my head, and vibe with the exchange. A few folks emailed me regarding my opinion on the race-science-I.Q. fracas. I always try to respond when readers have a query--it makes me feel important; and what is blogging if not an exercise in gross narcissism? To point, my thoughts on this matter are as follows...


As a member of the hip hop generation who came of age in the 1990s, I thought these matters of race and I.Q. were settled. In the year 2011, I remain surprised that anyone would take such quackery with any measure of seriousness. Let's take a trip down memory lane for a moment. We should not forget that the Bell Curve was a shocking book at the time of its release, as this explains much of the current upset over Andrew Sullivan's observations about race and I.Q. testing. In the United States, the period of the early to mid 1990s was highly charged political. Black nationalism was being rediscovered through hip hop, Farrakhan and others were frequently featured on the evening news and the Donahue Show, New York and Los Angeles were sweltering with inter-racial tensions, Buchanan and Duke were flying their racist bonafides as mainstream figures in the Republican Party, and Angry White Men like Rush Limbaugh were blowing up the public discourse. The Bell Curve hit hard because it was "scientific" (i.e. it had numbers and figures). Moreover, the "finding" that African Americans were biologically defective, supported claims by the Conservatives and New Democrats about social disorganization, the ghetto underclass, black "pathologies," and the undeserving poor. On a macro-level, the Bell Curve was a "scientific" complement to the onward march of neoliberalism, the continuance of the Reagan regime's assault on the State, and Bill Clinton's promise to end welfare as "we know it." The Bell Curve, was also a proverbial slap to the face of the black professional classes--as well as politically active and engaged college students--who saw themselves at the vanguard of a new black politics, had helped to bring down Apartheid, and were now rediscovering Brother Malcolm and his claims on racial justice and black respectability. Ultimately, the race science hustle of the Bell Curve flamed out. The book's methods and data were eviscerated, and its authors shamed by most mainstream social scientists and other researchers. However, the pain caused by that book still remains, as it is part of a long history of pseudoscience which has advanced white supremacy both in the United States and abroad. As this often comes up in my classes, I shake my head at any claims about the relationship between I.Q. and race. The variables, and measures, used in support of those types of arguments, are specious and poorly constructed. Race itself is a social category with no fixed attributes. Intelligence is contextual. The history of I.Q. tests are so burdened by a foundation of eugenics and phrenology (which included such absurd practices as the weighing of human brains), that the legacy and context of "intelligence testing" should raise an immediate, Mr. Spock-like eyebrow, for all critical thinkers. There is a slippery slope here. If we are going to entertain some link between I.Q. and race, we might as well keep searching for the Jewish gene for intelligence, or taking posture photos of the entering freshman class at universities such as Yale and Harvard. As my colleagues who study educational testing and psychology tell me, while extreme outliers on I.Q. tests do in fact "tell us something," the gross aggregate of I.Q. data is a function of education, wealth, access to resources, and cultural/social capital. I.Q. tests measure these variables; they do not capture some universal type of absolute intelligence. In all, these debates about I.Q. and race are fascinating, in so far as they reveal how so many folks still believe that science is "neutral." To borrow from Foucault, science is part of a regime of truth and knowledge; it serves certain interests, goals, social arrangements, and power. Science as a field, practice, and pursuit, legitimates certain relationships between categories of people, and types of personhood. Science has not been, and likely never will be, a process that is not value-laden. Or as the legendary W.E.B. DuBois put so well, why should there be any surprise that white scientists would come up with a test that repeated and inevitably showed black people to be intellectually deficient? I call such work "piss poor." DuBois was more kind. He labeled it "utter rot." As always, history is the greatest teacher on these matters. And these Internets are indeed a treasure trove of information: 1. The U.S. military was deeply involved in I.Q. testing during World War One. Their result was a predictable one: black Americans were ill-suited for combat, cowardly, and not fit to be officers. According to these tests, while white enlistees had an average mental age of 13, blacks were only 10 years old. Reality causes upset here: World War One, the exploits of such units as the Harlem Hellfighters, and non-white colonials in the service of France, muddied up the race-science-I.Q. triad. So how did the white, race science hustlers, get around these findings... 2. Working through the logic of the I.Q. race game is great sport. When black northerners outscored white southerners on these test, the outcome is either conveniently ignored, or an explanation is offered that the I.Q. test is still valid, but the sample is skewed because all of the smart negroes went North while the mass of the negro population is still sub-standard intellectually. In these moments, the white supremacist agenda of the I.Q. race practitioners is made naked and clear: they reasoned backwards from their findings to justify their own in-group superiority. Funny, if the consequences were not so sad. 3. The actual tests from the early to mid 20th century are rich textual examples of how intelligence is local, socially constructed, and a function of other variables--as opposed to something inherent, innate, and fixed. Here is an example of one of the intelligence tests used by the U.S. Army that justified a Jim Crow military (as well as restrictive immigration policies against those Southern and Eastern Europeans judged to be of "undesirable" stock):
Imagine you are in a large examination room. An examiner and demonstrator stand at the front of the room, and orderlies around the room in various places to check that nobody is cheating. Here are the instructions, following which the printed test page is presented to the men being examined.‘This is test 6 here. Look. A Lot of Pictures … Now watch.’ Examiner points to hand [picture with one finger missing] and says to demonstrator, ‘Fix it’. Demonstrator then draws a finger. Demonstrator does nothing, but looks puzzled. Examiner points to the picture of the hand, and then the place where the finger is missing and says to the demonstrator, ‘Fix it; fix it’. Demonstrator then draws in a figure. Examiner says, ‘That’s right’ … During the course of this test the orderlies walk around the room and locate individuals who are doing nothing, point to their pages and say, ‘Fix them, fix them’, trying to set everyone working. At the end of 3 minutes, the examiner says, ‘Stop! But don’t turn over the page.’ Stephen Jay Gould sums up the results of the test, administered to over one million people: [T]hree ‘facts’ rose to the top and continued to influence social policy in America long after their source in the tests had been forgotten. 1. The average mental age of white American adults stood just above the edge of moronity at a shocking and meager thirteen … The … figure became a rallying point for eugenicists who predicted doom and lamented our declining intelligence, caused by the unconstrained breeding of the poor and feeble-minded, the spread of Negro blood through miscegenation, and the swamping of an intelligent native stock by the immigrating dregs of southern and eastern Europe. 2. European immigrants can be graded by their country of origin. The average man of many nations is a moron. The darker peoples of southern Europe and the Slavs of eastern Europe are less intelligent than the fair peoples of western and northern Europe. Nordic supremacy is not a jingoistic prejudice. The average Russian has a mental age of 11.34; the Italian, 11.01; the Pole, 10.74 … 3. The Negro lies at the bottom of the scale with an average mental age 10.41. Some camps tried to carry the analysis a bit further, and in obvious racist directions. At Camp Lee, blacks were divided into three groups based upon intensity of color; the lighter groups scored higher …
4. Pushing back is fun. In the 1970s, Professor Robert Williams, a magisterial and accomplished man, turned the tables on the academics and scientists who advocated for the use of I.Q. tests to rank and place children in schools. Featured in a great episode of the sitcom Good Times, the BITCH test (or Black Intelligence Test for Cultural Homogeneity) made clear how these questions of innate ability and smarts are anything but. Take the BITCH test and see how well you do. Are you a high achiever? Or are you on the lower end of the BITCH distribution?