Politics & Policy

Stop Obsessing Over Race and IQ

John McWhorter speaks at a TED Talks event in 2013. (Photo: James Duncan Davidson/TED/Flickr)
It serves no purpose.

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in the July 10, 2017 issue of National Review.

Suppose it’s true.

Suppose that, at the end of the day, people of African descent have lower IQs on average than do other groups of humans, and that this gap is caused, at least in part, by genetic differences.

Of late, since Charles Murray was all but physically assaulted when he tried to speak at Middlebury, the issue as to whether his claim (with Richard J. Herrnstein) in The Bell Curve that blacks on average have lower IQs, and that it’s “highly likely” that genes play a role, has entered the public discourse once again, in part through a podcast interview Murray did with Sam Harris. Meanwhile, there has long been discussion of the issue in forums that are rarely sampled by the mainstream media and feature frequent complaints that “enlightened” people refuse to talk about race and IQ.

There is, however, a question that those claiming black people are genetically predisposed to have lower IQs than others fail to answer: What, precisely, would we gain from discussing this particular issue?

I have often written and spoken over the past few years about the threat to free speech on college campuses and throughout our society that the newly prominent social-justice-warrior philosophy poses. This outlook, most recently wreaking its havoc in the shutdown of Evergreen State College after a white professor refused to comply with a call for all whites to leave the campus for a day to create a fully “safe” space for other students, dictates that views unsavory to the Left are not alternative perspectives but confirmedly contemptible atavism along the lines of a defense of slavery or genocide.

Indeed, there are views, including such a defense of slavery or genocide, that we can reasonably exempt from “discussion” at this point — human morality may progress slowly, but it does progress. But to treat issues such as affirmative action, cultural appropriation, and the like in the same way is blinkered and facile.

Is the issue of whether IQ differs innately between races as unequivocally settled as that of whether genocide is okay? If not, does it fit into the class of things that ought to be up for discussion? In fact, I suggest that race and IQ is an exceptional topic, in the literal sense. The data are not all in, yet I see no value in including this topic in our liberal-arts discussions. Certainly scientists will research the topic and will share their findings, which will always be available online for those interested. However, those aggrieved that this particular issue is not aired more widely in general discussion need to make their premises clearer — upon which, I suggest, those premises will seem less convincing than they are aware.

Many would suppose that we do discuss race and IQ. But the typical discussion consists largely of a culturally entrenched web of observations, some of them erroneous, that qualify less as engagements than as evasions. I must address these before proceeding.

For one, I will proceed on the assumption that there is indeed a general factor of intelligence — what researchers usually refer to as g — that varies among individuals. Experts of all stripes largely concur on this particular fact.

I will also proceed on the assumption that race is a biologically valid concept. Certainly the lines between races, given the complexity of the human genome and of human interactions, are hazy. However, fuzzy boundaries do not preclude identifiable clusterings; to insist otherwise is anti-empirical and unscientific. Geneticists agree that humanity is divisible into certain broad categories on the basis of the genetic and migrational history of our species.

More to the point, we must beware the popular objection that even if race is real, there is more genetic variation “within” racial groups than “between” them. This idea is based on a misreading of the data, overgeneralizing from intra-racial variation on particular traits. To give an analogy, the variety among bats’ faces is almost confounding, and yet this hardly invalidates the fact that there is a cluster of more general traits that distinguish the category of “bat” from that of “cat.” (I suggest “On the Reality of Race and the Abhorrence of Racism,” by Bo Winegard, Ben Winegard, and Brian Boutwell, for a lucid explanation, or “Human Biological and Psychological Diversity,” by the same authors, for a more technical treatment.)

There are two other ideas on race and IQ that distract from the issue rather than address it. One is that if racial differences in IQ are real, then they are a matter of tendencies, not absolutes. This is plain — but evasive. The question still remains: Are black people on the average inherently lower in IQ than whites? Similarly, no one believes IQ is determined solely by genetics; environments matter too. Again, however, the question remains: Does the heritable portion result in lower average IQs for black people than for other races?

Clearly, even uncontroversial experts on intelligence have not converged on the smackdown kind of consensus on race and IQ that experts on, say, climate change largely have.

This brings us to the heart of the issue. We are often taught, as the enlightened and even scientific verdict, that blacks and whites occupy radically different environments today, and that these differences can explain the entire black–white IQ gap. Under this analysis, there may be a heritable part of IQ that differs between the races, but, first, it is small, and second and more important, environmental factors override its effects. This is the main takeaway from a recent article in Vox by the IQ researchers Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, and Richard Nisbett. Specifically, they point to evidence that environmental changes, such as a child’s adoption into a better-off family, can produce IQ gains as big as the average difference between blacks and whites. Poor schooling, plus the general stresses occasioned by a hardscrabble existence, depresses IQ in ways we all intuitively understand. According to this analysis, Murray and his confreres can qualify as charlatans at best, racists at worst, and likely something in between.

The Vox article will stand as our moment’s gold-standard reference on the issue, but its calm conclusion that the black–white IQ gap is wholly environmental in origin is by no means as self-evident as the authors imply. James Lee’s trenchantly critical review of Nisbett’s signature book on the issue is nobody’s idea of a partisan or racist screed — Lee is a psychologist at Harvard. A handier rundown of the case is “The Cherry-Picked Science in Vox’s Charles Murray Article,” from a Medium user who goes by “Elan.” Also useful is an article by Murray himself, “The Magnitude and Components of Change in the Black–White IQ Difference from 1920 to 1991.” None of these sources can be rejected as the mere “junk science” that many try to dismiss them as: All three reference a great many respected scholars of established credentials and engage in the kind of close argumentation associated with serious scientific inquiry.

There have been rejoinders aplenty, of course: Harden’s “The Science and Ethics of Group Differences in Intelligence” is especially cogent and useful. But no unbiased observer could read the vigorous exchange on this topic of late and come away thinking that the objectors are mere cranks. Clearly, even uncontroversial experts on intelligence have not converged on the smackdown kind of consensus on race and IQ that experts on, say, climate change largely have.

My purpose here, however, is not to throw my hat in with those who argue that there is a genetic racial gap in IQ. I have always hoped the black–white IQ gap was due to environmental causes. My intuition — whatever it is worth given that I am not an expert on the subject — is that the lag in performance of African-descended persons on IQ tests is the result of culture. As I have argued for 20 years now, a people are determined not only by external conditions but by the norms passed on in their culture. Many, including most academics, insist that culture is itself determined by external conditions, but this is an oversimplification. Norms and culture, once settled as habit, can persist long after the external causes that originally created them.

Black American culture, for example, grew from implacably oppressive slavery followed by a Jim Crow hegemony that recapitulated slavery in essence. These were people living in what my linguist’s training reveals as a life bound in orality rather than literacy. To live restricted to casual speech rather than the artifice of writing creates a psychology ill equipped to score highly on the distinctly modern stunt known as the IQ test. Speech emphasizes immediate experience over the athletically hypothetical. In speech, one focuses on a sequence of events — one damned thing after another — rather than on layered particularities along the lines of “If it had . . . , then it would . . . ” The latter sort of mental work, which is what a psychometric test requires one to perform, can seem irrelevant to an oral culture unless it is absolutely necessary — which it rarely is, given the broad generalities that suffice for basic human thriving.

I do question why those calling attention to possible evidence for such a gap feel that it is such an important topic to discuss.

This characteristic of an oral culture is by no means exclusive to African-descended people. Anthropologists discovered similar concretely bound reasoning among Uzbek peasants way back in the 1930s; legions of whites in America have grown up in similar environments (as J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy eloquently testifies). The fact nonetheless remains that as a hopelessly nerdy kid, I was told warmly but firmly by older southern black relatives that I needed to stop thinking life was in “them books” — i.e., sources teaching me to look beyond my immediate experiences and ready intuitions. Given that these adults had grown up in an America that largely denied them quality schooling and restricted them to menial labor, it was hardly surprising that my geekiness did not strike them as useful or even congenial.

Make no mistake: My relatives were hardly calling for me or anyone else to drop out of school or get bad grades. These same people swelled with pride to see their children, including me, graduate from high school and even college. However, I find it hard to imagine that performance on an IQ test is not affected — even in small children — by overtones of a day-to-day stance of alienation from, rather than orientation toward, what Jewish people might refer to as “the Book,” and the associated ways of thinking. And culture does not march in lockstep with income, or at least not right away: This subtle orientation can persist even among middle-class descendants of the working-class ancestors who instilled it.

So that’s how I hope the issue of race and IQ works. But I cannot allow myself to fall into the sadly common pattern in which people’s insistence that something is true is founded as much on their wanting it to be true as on actual evidence. My hunches and predilections do not qualify as conduits to truth. I can responsibly claim neither on my gut sense nor on what I have seen of the research that it has been proven that there is no genetically based racial gap in IQ.

But I do question why those calling attention to possible evidence for such a gap feel that it is such an important topic to discuss. That is, let’s suppose that black people actually are, on the average, lower in g than others. Why, exactly, is it so urgent that this be openly “acknowledged”?

I can see exactly three rationales as to why we must be “honest” about the IQ gap, if it exists. None offers anything we could call progressive or constructive.

The first is that the IQ gap delegitimizes policy devoted to redressing the injustices that black people have suffered. That is, one might argue that because black people are on the average less intelligent than other people, our efforts to give a hand to black children in education and point poor black people to employment opportunities are misguided. Rather, society should accept that a disproportionate number of black people will labor at the bottom of the occupational scale and that in general black people will be underrepresented in the higher echelons of society.

If this is what those calling for us to be “honest” about the data they draw attention to mean, then I suggest they be more overt in their prescription. But the prescription would fare poorly. The chances that there will ever be a brutally open, race-based meritocratic consensus of this kind among America’s ruling and chattering classes are roughly nil. Those who are revolted by the very idea of such a conclusion — including me — can rest assured that the moral development of the West, halting and imperfect though it has been, has produced a bulwark against complacently accepting racial stratification. As I have written often, educated Americans in particular now harbor nothing less than an anti-racist religion that will never accept such a mode of thinking as anything but antiquated and morally repulsive.

A second purpose of being “honest” about a racial IQ gap would be the opposite of the first: We might take the gap as a reason for giving not less but more attention to redressing race-based inequities. That is, could we imagine an America in which it was accepted that black people labored — on average, of course — under an intellectual handicap, and an enlightened, compassionate society responded with a Great Society–style commitment to the uplift of the people thus burdened?

Much of the reason we step around the issue of race and IQ is that intelligence, shimmering in all of its viscerally resonant glory, is something whose value we do not really question.

I am unaware of any scholar or thinker who has made this argument, perhaps because it, too, is an obvious fantasy. Officially designating black people as a “special needs” race perpetually requiring compensatory assistance on the basis of their intellectual inferiority would run up against the same implacable resistance as condemning them to menial roles for the same reason. The impulse that rejects the very notion of IQ differences between races will thrive despite any beneficent intentions founded on belief in such differences.

Finally, some advocates of “honesty” about race and IQ have argued that we must acknowledge that black people have lower IQs but must also “progress” toward an ability to celebrate individuals for a range of talents beyond intelligence. I consider those making this argument sincere — and quixotic.

“Smarts,” as they drive civilization forward, will always occupy a privileged place in our evaluation of human beings. The Duke Ellingtons and the Michael Jordans will be our kings, but the Albert Einsteins and the Stephen Hawkings will be our gods. As a linguist, I am aware of no human language in which the word for “smart” does not refer to, well, smarts. No society in the world applies that word as well to those who are good at spearing fish, playing the flute, or making themselves well liked. Much of the reason we step around the issue of race and IQ is that intelligence, shimmering in all of its viscerally resonant glory, is something whose value we do not really question.

The popularity of Howard Gardner’s schema of “multiple intelligences,” including the musical, social, and kinesthetic, only illuminates our genuine sentiments toward IQ. This extension of the concept of what it is to be intelligent handily distracts us from a guilty but primal elevation of the particular kind of intelligence Gardner classifies as “logical-mathematical” — i.e., what all of us deep down think of as “real” intelligence. In real life we will continue to casually designate some people as smart, with the implication that this is an unquestionably superlative attribute, on the basis of math, science, and scholastic performance rather than that of shooting hoops, playing the saxophone, or being popular.

This will not change. Given a choice between history’s having produced Beethoven — or Ray Charles, or Hamilton — and its having produced penicillin, all would choose the latter. That is, neither black Americans nor educated America will ever accept the idea that black people must cherish themselves as something other than smart. The exploratory mind may imagine or wish that black people would — and it will do so without influence.

In sum, various thinkers insist, some more publicly than others, that we are at fault in not openly “facing” that there is a genetic IQ gap between black people and others. Yet there would seem to be no constructive benefit in “facing” this gap if it exists.

One thing that may undergird these thinkers’ sense that this issue must be “aired” is a general resentment of the Left’s censorious policing of race issues in general. As someone who has taken issue with such policing at length, I share these thinkers’ grievance that on so many topics — such as the value of standardized testing, the wisdom of open-ended racial preferences, the definition of cultural appropriation, whether black-on-black crime or the police present the direst threat to poor black communities, and others — views other than the Left’s are blithely dismissed as morally repugnant. A more open and honest discussion of such matters has direct implications for the well-being of the black community. But the IQ issue is different. To discuss it would shed not more heat than light, but all heat and no light.

Our valuation of intelligence, combined with black people’s grievous history in America, suggests an eccentric yet logical approach to the issue of race and IQ: As a topic whose discussion will yield injury, fury, and doubletalk with no countervailing benefits in terms of prescriptions for how society ought to operate, it ought be exempted from open discussion.

That is: Intelligence researchers, writing in dense, obscure academic journals, will continue to quietly present data that show that race influences the heritability of IQ to certain degrees; others will present data in disagreement. I hope they ultimately settle on a verdict that environment really does entirely trump the heritable portion of the IQ difference; possibly they will not. However, in the wider world, I see no reason that this research should be “faced” and subject to ongoing “debate.” For example, undergraduates should not feel comfortable bringing up these data in class discussions unrelated to genetic research; society would gain nothing from their doing so. Our mainstream media organs, while remiss in their current tendency to insist the issue is settled, will not be remiss in declining to program articles and symposia exploring it out of some kind of “curiosity.”

Those who continue to follow this research and decry in the blogosphere that America refuses to “face” its implications need to consider what they are actually calling for. None of the three hypothetical scenarios I have considered would serve any purpose in the real-world America we live in. What, then, would be the purpose of dwelling on the race-and-IQ issue at all? If these objectors did somehow make America openly and ongoingly designate black people as, on the average, less intelligent than others, upon what constructive grounds could they congratulate themselves for having succeeded?

Back to hunches and predilections. I surmise that in a future America, if ever fewer black people are poor — and when, as part of its eternal transformation, black culture moves ever farther from its roots in the oral mindset forged in a rural, preliterate context — inequities between black people and others will decrease to the point that if it turns out that there really is an inherited IQ deficit, it will qualify as a peculiar fact ultimately of little interest, seeming unconnected to anything about black people in the moment. The IQ difference will be about as interesting as African-descended people’s genetic predisposition to lactose intolerance or lesser amounts of bodily hair.

That’s hypothetical, of course — but what isn’t hypothetical is that, in our times, there is no apparent benefit to dwelling on the IQ gap. The burden is on those who claim otherwise to make their case.

– John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University. His latest books are Words on the Move and Talking Back, Talking Black.


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