On Race and Intelligence

My fifth grade class photo.

My fifth grade class photo.

One of the readers of this blog, who came to it after having read a piece in the online political magazine CounterPunch, suggested that I should post, after a suitable interval, all my articles from CounterPunch to this blog. I published a piece recently in CounterPunch on racism, so I thought perhaps I should post an earlier piece I did on racism here. I think it is a good piece to follow the post “On Teaching” because it relates to that topic as well. This piece originally appeared under the title “Racism and the American Psyche” in the Dec. 7, 2007 issue of CounterPunch.

Race is in the news again. First it was the Jena Six, then Nobel laureate James D. Watson’s assertion, that blacks are less intelligent than whites, and finally, a series of articles two weeks ago in Slate arguing that there was scientific evidence to back Watson’s claim.

The reaction to these recent developments was predictable. There have been a number of heated debates on the internet concerning not only race and intelligence, but also the appropriateness of studying race and intelligence. Two crucial points have yet to be made, however. The first concerns the contentious association of intelligence with  IQ score and the second is the equally contentious assumption that we have anything like a clear scientific conception or race.

Let’s take the first one first. What is intelligence anyway? We have no better grasp of this than we have of the relation of the mind to the brain. Sure, some people can solve certain sorts of puzzles faster than other people, but everyone knows people who are great at Scrabble, or crosswords, or chess, or who can fix almost any mechanical or electrical gadget, but who seem unable to wrap their minds around even the most rudimentary of social or political theories. Then there are the people with great memories who are able to retain all the elements of even the most arcane theories and who can undertake an explanation of them if pressed, but whose inability to express them in novel terms betrays that they have not really grasped them after all. Other people–I’ve known quite a few of this type–have keenly analytical minds. They can break individual claims, or even entire theories, down into their conceptual components, yet they appear to lack any sort of synthetic intelligence in that they are unable to see the myriad implications of these analyses. Still other people are great at grasping the big picture, so to speak, but have difficulty hanging onto the details.

Some people plod slowly and methodically toward whatever insights they achieve and others receive them almost effortlessly, through flashes of inspiration. But the insights of the former group are sometimes more profound than those of the latter group. Then there are people who are mostly mistaken in their beliefs, sometimes quite obviously so, but correct in some one belief the implications of which are so staggering that we tend to forget they are otherwise unreliable.

I’m inclined to put Watson in this last group. Perhaps that’s not fair. After all, I know of only one point on which he is obviously mistaken. That mistake is so glaring, however, that it leads me to think he is probably more like an idiot savant than a genuinely intelligent human being. I.Q. scores represent something. It just isn’t all that clear what. To suggest that they represent intelligence in any significant sense is thus to betray that one has less than the ideally desirable quantity of this quality himself.

Sure the mind, and therefore intelligence, is intimately connected with the brain. Read Oliver Sacks if you want to see just how intimate that connection is. Sacks is one of my favorite authors not simply because the substance of his writings is so fascinating, but also because he is himself so clearly intelligent. Not only does he not go leaping to conclusions on issues that lie outside his area of professional expertise (though I have to say I’d be more interested to hear Sacks’ social and political views than Watson’s), he doesn’t go leaping to conclusions about the implications of what he has observed in his own work in neurology. He’d be one of the first people, I think, to defend the claim that we do not yet have a clear enough idea of what intelligence is to be reliably able to quantify it. We don’t even understand it well enough yet to be able to say confidently that it is quantifiable. At this point, all we can say is that it appears so intimately connected with the brain that it can, in some sense, be associated with, or represented by, we-know-not-yet-what neurological activities or tendencies.

Okay, so far, so little. But what is a black brain and what is a white brain? Most blacks in the U.S., as opposed to blacks in Africa, have a great deal of white blood, or whatever you want to call it. If whites really were more intelligent than blacks, that would mean African-Americans would be that much more intelligent than Africans. (I’m sure my friend, the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, would be interested to hear that one.) There may well be people who believe this. I am not aware of any empirical evidence, however, that supports such a conclusion. My own experience does not support it. I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood and attended predominantly black schools from fourth grade to college. Since that time I have also met more than a few Africans. I couldn’t detect any difference in intelligence. I’m unaware of even anecdotal evidence that would support the conclusion that there was such a difference. Do you see what I’m saying? We’re not looking at a slippery slope here, but at a meteoric descent down into a pile of deep doo-doo.

From what I’ve read, there is no clear scientific definition of race. “Race” is just a name we give to a collection of physical characteristics such as eye and hair color and degree of pigmentation of the skin. There is no race gene. There are just genes that encode for these individual characteristics. So how many, and what sort, of  characteristics does one have to have to be either black or white. It is some kind of ineffable sum isn’t it? Blacks sometimes have very pale skin, some whites actually have darker skin than some blacks. Blacks even occasionally have blue eyes, or straight hair, just as whites often have brown eyes or tightly curled hair.

In the past, we just arbitrarily determined what made a person black, and, by implication, white. Since, presumably, we have gotten beyond the point where we would say that even one drop of black blood makes a person black, the only reasonable definition of race (even given its circularity) would, therefore, appear to be one based on the statistical representation of the various races in one’s family tree. That would mean people with predominantly white, or perhaps I should say “white-ish” ancestry would be considered white. Have you ever seen a photo of Charles Chestnut or Anatole Broyard?  Not only are these guys clearly white, according to this definition, there are a whole lot of other people walking around this country who call themselves “black” because of the social environment into which they were born, but who ought properly to consider themselves white.

Since when have scientific studies been undertaken on ineffable, or arbitrarily determined, classes of thing? It’s like trying to determine whether people with purportedly good taste are more intelligent than people with purportedly bad taste, or whether people who live in Chicago are more intelligent than people who live in L.A. You might undertake such a thing as a sociological study with some arbitrarily agreed upon criteria for what would constitute good and bad taste, or for how far out into the suburbs you want to go before you decide you have left Chicago, as well with some equally arbitrarily agreed upon criteria for what constitutes intelligence.

You cannot undertake such a thing though as a scientific study (no matter how convinced you may be in the genetic superiority of people who live in Chicago), and to think that you could betrays that you have a very weak grasp of what constitutes natural science. Given that race, at least from the standpoint of natural science, is nothing more than a collection of certain physical characteristics, the view that white people are more intelligent than black people is not uncomfortably close to view of the Nazis that blue-eyed blonds were inherently superior to everyone else–it is essentially the same thing.

As I said earlier, I spent a huge portion of my life in the almost exclusive company of black people. I’ve been around black people and I’ve been around white people and I haven’t found any general differences in terms of intelligence. My experience has led me to believe that most of what often passes for intelligence is actually intellectual self confidence, confidence in one’s own reasoning powers, confidence in the value of one’s insights. Teachers, of which I am one, will tell you that you can just see some people’s brains seize up when they are confronted with tasks they fear may be beyond them but which sometimes later prove not to have been beyond them. This fear, however, that certain tasks are beyond one, is a substantial obstacle to completing them. One stumbles again and again, fearing his “guess” is just that, a guess, rather than understanding. One fails to pursue an insight for fear that it is not genuine, or from fear that it is so obvious that others have come to it long ago.

I don’t mean to suggest that there are not innate differences in intelligence among human beings. I’m sure there are, but I agree with what I believe Noam Chomsky said somewhere about how these differences, measured relative to the difference in intelligence between human beings and their closes relatives the apes, are simply vanishingly small.

I construe my job as an educator not to impart knowledge, but to nurture intellectual confidence. (Of course this could be partly a defensive mechanism because I am a philosopher, which means I don’t have any knowledge to impart.) I try to teach critical thinking skills, of course, but even more important to me is somehow to get my students to believe in their own intellectual potential because even these skills, I believe, can, at least to a certain extent, be acquired naturally by people who are confident in their ability to acquire them.

I say, teach people to believe in themselves and then see what they are able to do with that faith. But be very careful when you start judging the results because if anything of value has emerged from the recent debates on race and intelligence, it is that many of us in the U.S. are much closer to the edge of idiocy than we would like to admit. Noted intellectuals have failed to grasp even the most basic facts about what constitutes natural scientific research and failed to understand that to parade this ignorance in the way they have before a public still marked by social and economic inequities that cut along racial lines is offensive in the extreme. The whole thing has been very humbling. It has shown, I believe, that racism is still very firmly entrenched in the American psyche.

(This piece originally appeared under the title “Racism and the American Psyche” in the Dec. 7, 2007 issue of CounterPunch.)

8 responses

  1. I think that the reification of race and intelligence – although both concepts can be relatively easily be shown insubstantial, as you have done – are kept current because of their utility.

    They allow one group of, for instance, smart white people to explain why they have more power, money, and control than another group of people : it’s ‘only natural’. And it’s been like that for a long, long time.

    The racial argument has gotten the wrong odor for some segments of the power-moeny-control crowd so they tend to play the intelligence card more often these days. Afterall, they’re ‘white’ and ‘intelligent’.

    What does Cavalli-Sforza say about biological basis of human race?

    The mismeasure of man

  2. Yes, let’s quantify the “intelligence” of the Caucasian race – acceding to (or cheering) its chosen leaders visiting death and destruction on the world at large, applying primarily racial criteria, or political/religious ones otherwise.

    I appreciated your recent CP article regarding the use of the term “African American”. Shame about this more recent article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/05/30/obamas-personal-responsibility-snake-oil/

    Please keep your articles coming – political/social/philosophical – they prove the interconnectedness of all these facets of our world, and the ability of philosophy to synthasize.

      • The article itself was mostly right on the money, it’s just that the black author is pretty much stuck on the term “African American” or occasionally “Afrikan American”.

  3. Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude! Thank you, However I am encountering difficulties with
    your RSS. I don’t know the reason why I cannot subscribe to it.
    Is there anybody getting the same RSS issues? Anybody who knows the answer will you kindly respond?
    Thanks!!

  4. Pingback: Report on 2016 Eastern APA Meeting | Piety on Kierkegaard

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