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Racism and Preferred Definitions

By Taylor Marvin

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has an excellent piece critiquing the definitional basis of studies that attempt to find a link between race and IQ, an obsession thrust into the news by former Heritage Foundation staffer Jason Richwine’s recently-unearthed Harvard dissertation. Critics are right to doubt the correlation between IQ and what we commonly think of as “intelligence”, Coates writes, but these studies’ real deficiency isn’t that we have a poor idea of what intelligence actually signifies, or how it can be measured. Instead, it’s the malleable definition of race that means only what society wants it to:

“I am not being flip or coy. If you tell me that you plan to study ‘race and intelligence’ then it is only fair that I ask you, ‘What do you mean by race?’ It’s true I don’t always do math so well, but I understand the need to define the terms of your study. If you’re a math guy, perhaps your instinct is to point out the problems in the interpretation of the data. My instinct is to point out that your entire experiment proceeds from a basic flaw — no coherent, fixed definition of race actually exists.”

Research into race and IQ’s defenders often suggest that their critics are motivated only by a politically-correct desire to prohibit research whose conclusions they may not find palatable. While I find this objection largely irrelevant — given human history I find it perfectly reasonable to stigmatize even rigorous research into race and intelligence — I believe Coates’ piece gets at the heart of the matter: “race” is such a flexible term that it’s impossible to disentangle from its social context. That’s what makes race and IQ research so suspect.

The desire to impose racial hierarchy is inseparable from racism. As Coates notes, what constitutes a “race”  is determined by the society that assignes racial distinctions — the definition of race is much more a social tool of inclusion and exclusion than any description of the external world. Today white Americans typically identify East Asians as a single race, while the average Chinese person would likely dispute a racial category that lumped them together with residents of Japan or Korea. Conversely, the standardized tests I grew up with were specific when it came to identifying East Asian ethnic origins while lumping people of European, North African, and Middle Eastern descent into the broad “white” category. As Coates writes, “when the liberal says ‘race is a social construct,’ he is not being a soft-headed dolt; he is speaking an historical truth.”

Just as racial classifications have varied by time and place, so have the racial hierarchies racists have sought to impose. Most famously, in the 20th century the American definition of privileged whiteness grew to encompass the previously-excluded Americans of Irish and Eastern and Southern European descent.  Jason Richwine’s dissertation argues that the highest IQ among modern American racial groups is found in American Jewish and East Asian populations, followed by whites. Given the preferred racial hierarchy of Richwine’s own society — modern America — this conclusion is too perfect.

Today’s American racism seeks to entrench the privilege of white Americans and further disenfranchise Black and Latinos, so it’s no surprise that these groups would be “found” to be less intelligent than whites. But Jewish and Asian-Americans are both often perceived by racists as “model minority” groups allied with white Americans, and anyway, both groups are too small to present a real obstacle to furthering white privilege. In short, finding that American Jews and East Asians are more intelligent on average than white Americans is exactly the research findings you’d want as a superficial cover against allegations of racism, while not changing the social implications of your research.

The point is that racists’ preferred racial hierarchies are transient, and a produce of the time and place in which they’re devised. Contemporary American society extends privilege to non-Muslim “whites” and seeks to especially exclude those of African and American descent, but this definition of privilege isn’t universal. Isn’t it suspicious that the purportedly-global genetic link between race and intelligence argued by researchers like Richwine exactly matchs the transient biases of their own society? Isn’t this powerful evidence that their findings aren’t trustworthy, and certainly shouldn’t inform public policy?

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. MattC #

    I think what makes this scientifically indefensible is the list of categories:

    “in America you have Jews with the highest average IQ, usually followed by East Asians, and then you have non-Jewish whites, Hispanics, and then blacks. These are real differences. They’re not going to go away tomorrow”

    Jews, East Asians, Hispanics, whites, blacks. These are not the same kind of population – they are just not biologically equivalent categories.

    It’d be like someone comparing bacteria, cats, chihuahuas and the family of pigeons in that tree over there.

    May 17, 2013
  2. I largely agree with this analysis, though I feel that second-to-last paragraph is the weakest as it makes several broad swipes at observed statistical phenomena without providing any evidence to back them up (Asian students DO perform better on standardized tests on average, but that was ignored, etc.).

    However, I would like to point out that this piece by the Economist does a good job of skewering Mr. Richwine from a different angle, and one I found on the whole more convincing. I encourage you to check it out and let me know what you think:

    May 17, 2013
  3. I liked Wilkinson’s Economist piece, and generally agree with it. Even if research into race and IQ is reputable, I’m open about my politically correct belief that it’s best to let even rigorous research lie — if rigorous study ever demonstrates a real link between “race” and intelligence, I’m convinced that that’s information humans would be best not knowing.

    But the real problem with research like Richwine’s is that it adopts a veneer of econometric output without putting any reliably defined variables in. In his dissertation Richwine admits that Hispanics as a group share little genetic similarities, but argues that the category has meaning because Hispanics “chose to identify themselves as such.” But this is a non sequitur; if an intelligence gap is artificial, then self-assigned ethnic solidarity is meaningless.

    As always, thanks for the comments.

    May 17, 2013

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