My knowledge of genetic science is limited, but for the sake of conversation, I’d like to point to a series of Slate columns by William Saletan that buy into the theory that black people, on the whole, are less intelligent than whites, who are in turn less intelligent than Asians. Saletan says he’s been mostly convinced by race-matters IQ studies, no matter their small correlation values. He points to the smaller brain size of sub-Saharan Africans, and to studies showing that African children develop earlier and grow into more dexterous adults, while whites and Asians are late bloomers with bigger brains.
But after laying out an argument that confirms centuries of racist ideology, Saletan reassures his readers that yes, he’s still an egalitarian! After all, many individuals within each race buck the IQ trends. Hey, there are lots of stupid white people! And there’s always Barack Obama! (Saletan’s example, not mine.) So, despite everything Saletan has just written, he chides readers who might assume it’s now okay to judge people based on the color of their skin.
The argument is schizophrenic, not least because while IQ may be a good predictor of an individual’s academic and career success, Saletan doesn’t grapple fully with the fact that while we know both genetics and environment affect a person’s IQ, there’s little evidence that genetics are the more important factor. Indeed, as Saletan points out himself in an aside:
Hereditarians admit that by their own reading of the data, non-genetic factors account for 20 to 50 percent of IQ variation. They think malnutrition, disease, and educational deprivation account for a big portion of the 30-point IQ gap between whites and black Africans. They think alleviation of these factors in the U.S. has helped us halve the deficit. Trans-racial adoption studies validate this. Korean adoption studies suggest a malnutrition effect of perhaps 10 IQ points. And everyone agrees that the black-white IQ gap closed significantly during the 20th century, which can’t have been due to genes.
Does discussion about possible links between race and intelligence belong in our public discourse? Only if we exercise great caution. Deciding to believe that historically discriminated against Americans are dumber than whites, and then patting yourself on the back for remaining a political "egalitarian?" That doesn’t cut it. We should never talk about how American children of different races perform on IQ tests without noting the vast inequalities in access to health care, nutrition, early childhood education, safe schools, and good teachers that still exist — not in some theoretical society, but right here in the United States. Black children are much more likely to have been born preterm, to be uninsured, and to live in extreme poverty. About two-thirds of black kids attend racially and economically isolated schools, and those who don’t are much more likely to be as proficient in math and reading as their white peers, even when they come from poor families.
How can we possibly draw conclusions about race, genetics, and intelligence in America until we significantly close these environmental disparities? Until then, any claim that black Americans are genetically inferior to white Americans is counterintuitive guesswork at best, and nefarious at worst.
cross-posted at TAPPED