why “race realists” aren’t having as much fun as the rest of us

The National Review was in the news again this week, struggling to explain its association with people who hold certain theories about race and civilization. So I thought I’d revisit John Derbyshire and make a final point I didn’t make before.

Here’s paragraph 11 of the Derbyshire screed:

The mean intelligence of blacks is much lower than for whites. The least intelligent ten percent of whites have IQs below 81; forty percent of blacks have IQs that low. Only one black in six is more intelligent than the average white; five whites out of six are more intelligent than the average black. These differences show in every test of general cognitive ability that anyone, of any race or nationality, has yet been able to devise. They are reflected in countless everyday situations. “Life is an IQ test.”

I already cited Noah Smith and Noah Millman on the fallacy of organizing your life and personal behavior around these kinds of statistics even if they are correct and significant here. But I want to make a slightly different point, specifically with regard to the science on intelligence, by looking briefly at two phenomena associated with intelligence testing.

First is the Flynn effect — the well-known and well-verified pattern of IQ raw scores to rise over time, so that the tests must constantly be re-calibrated to the “new normal.” What this means is that a black person with an 80 IQ on today’s test (who would still be below average within his contemporary racial category) would have had a 100 IQ on a test in 1932. Which means that the average black person today is, if you believe in IQ testing as a meaningful measure of an actual trait, smarter than the average white person of 80 years ago.

The second interesting phenomenon is called “stereotype threat.” Here’s science writer Jonah Lehrer’s explanation:

Claude Steele, a professor of psychology at Stanford, has pioneered the study of this psychological effect, which is known as stereotype threat…. When Steele gave a large group of Stanford sophomores a set of questions from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), and told the students that it would measure their innate intellectual ability, he found that the white students performed significantly better than their black counterparts. This discrepancy⎯commonly known as the achievement gap⎯conformed to a large body of data showing that minority students tend to score lower on a wide variety of standardized tests, from the SAT to the IQ test.

However, when Steele gave a separate group of students the same test but stressed that it was not a measure of intelligence⎯he told them it was merely a preparatory drill⎯the scores of the white and black students were virtually identical. The achievement gap had largely been closed. According to Steele, the disparity in test scores was caused by an effect that he calls “stereotype threat”. When black students are told that they are taking a test to measure their intelligence, it brings to mind, rather forcefully, the ugly and untrue stereotype that blacks are less intelligent than whites…. The Stanford sophomores were so worried about being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype that they performed far below their abilities.

Of course, one could argue that Stanford sophomores are a pretty elite group to begin with. But the effect has been replicated numerous times, with the effect consistently dragging down the scores of not only African-Americans but women and Latinos and even, shockingly, high-IQ white men:

[Our] experiments tested this notion with participants for whom no stereotype of low ability exists in the domain we tested and who, in fact, were selected for high ability in that domain (math-proficient white males). In Study 1 we induced stereotype threat by invoking a comparison with a minority group stereotyped to excel at math (Asians). As predicted, these stereotype-threatened white males performed worse on a difficult math test than a nonstereotype-threatened control group.


I invoke all this not to say that these two effects explain the testing gap. Maybe they don’t. But the point I want to get at is this: the study of human intellectual achievement and its relationship to our more external traits is more interesting than Derbyshire’s “Unnnh! Black not good at test!” allows for. It’s more exciting and complicated and subtle than that. Trying to pin down the relationship between skin color and intellectual function gets at the very heart of how our minds work — the dynamic relationship between our cognitive capacity, history, and our beliefs about ourselves. Is there anything more amazing that? Is there anything more wonderful?

And people who are obsessed with race as the determining factor — and who, almost certainly, feel compelled to pooh-pooh these kinds of complicating factors in order to preserve their narrative — are missing out. They’re focusing on the wrong thing, and they’re constricting the field of possibilities because of it. They’re robbing their own intellectual inquiries of fertility and, ultimately, joy.


Being obsessed with race as an explanatory category unto itself doesn’t just make you wrong. It makes you dull and incurious. It turns you into someone with an inadequate sense of awe about the workings of their own mind, about the wondrous, layered, recursive machine that creates consciousness and its constantly-shifting operational parameters, some of which are changed by mysterious forces of history and others of which are changed by the operation of consciousness itself. It turns you into a pinched, crabbed, narrow person who’s too easily satisfied with trite and superficial observations.


Exhibit A.

Lesley Arfin may not share John Derbyshire’s views on race and intelligence. But she does share his smallness of vision and his sense that the surface explanation of things is sufficient. Why think about hard questions having to do with your own coding of the upper-middle class as “white,” or the history of racial servitude that makes “nigger” a uniquely powerful verbal weapon, when glib one-liners are readily at hand? Arfin and Derbyshire aren’t just similar because they’re racists in a world that’s too complex for that; they’re similar because they’re dullards who are missing out on everything good in life.

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3 Responses to why “race realists” aren’t having as much fun as the rest of us

  1. Darrell Tangman says:

    “Being obsessed with race as an explanatory category unto itself doesn’t just make you wrong. It makes you dull and incurious.It turns you into …” This may be simply an infelicity of wording, but to me it sounds like you might have cause and effect reversed. At least, most of the people I’ve encountered who have been obsessed with race as a first cause haven’t struck me as particularly bright in any other respect, either.

  2. thehandsomecamel says:

    Ha! That may well be. I guess I remain optimistic that curiosity is like a muscle, in that it can be improved with conscientious exercise….

  3. Nathan says:

    Another question worth asking is whether or not Derbyshire’s list of statistics has any significant basis in reality. I’m certainly not about to just take his word for anything.

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