Human Nature

Personal Best

The case for colorblindness in the age of genetics.

John McWhorter has attacked me.

Well, not really. He has actually written a very polite spanking of me in his blog at the New Republic. But I like to think of it as an attack, because coming from McWhorter, there’s no higher compliment. I remember watching him give a talk on C-SPAN years ago. The subject was black underachievement and its politically correct apologists. It was like one of those action-movie scenes where the hero takes on 50 guys in hand-to-hand combat. He was fearless and funny and brutally incisive.

McWhorter believes in holding people to high standards. He despises excuse-making and wallowing in victimhood. I’m a huge fan of his argument and his attitude. As a prescription for underachievers, I think it’s both the best medicine and the highest form of respect.

McWhorter thinks I’ve undermined this no-excuses policy. The subject of his critique, he explains, is last week’s New York Times report “that No Child Left Behind is not closing the black-white student performance gap” and my reaction to the report, which, as he puts it, was to ask “why we need to even tabulate the results by race anyway.” Here’s his rebuttal:

Why would a nationally prominent journalist pretend not to understand why National Assessment of Educational Progress data is broken down by race, as if he lives in a different country—or century—than his own? Because what he learned from his drubbing in 2007 is that any findings that shed less than positive light on black people are, quite simply, inappropriate for public viewing.People of Saletan’s new leaning have things like the New Haven shell game as a model, where when black applicants don’t hit the highest note on a promotion test, the PC solution is to craftily tar the test as “racist” and discount its results. … [W]e will not pretend that it’s okay that black students don’t read and do math as well as white kids in order to provide a way for people like William Saletan to demonstrate that they aren’t racists.

That last bit is an ungentlemanly lapse, but I’d better answer it, because it obscures the larger problem and why I keep coming back to it. Incredible as it may seem, not every white person who argues against racial scorekeeping is trying to earn a merit badge, just as not every white person who argues for it is a Klansman. For the record, here are my views as of today—and yes, I reserve the right to change them as evidence and arguments warrant.

1. I detest the New Haven shell game (in which a promotion test was thrown out because black firefighters failed to score high enough on it). McWhorter’s critique of it is dead-on.

2. I don’t have to accept racial classification just because it influenced NAEP and No Child Left Behind. Education is for everybody. There’s nothing inherently racial about helping kids who lag. And guess what? We are living in a different century.

3. Broadly speaking, I don’t agree that “any findings that shed less than positive light on black people are, quite simply, inappropriate for public viewing.” If your kid gets a D, you have a problem. If a city full of kids gets D’s (or A’s when they deserve D’s), the city has a problem, and that’s certainly appropriate for public viewing. But why does it matter what color these kids are? And why aggregate the scores of kids of some other race to concoct a standard of achievement? Are the white kids getting C’s? Screw that. Aim for an A.

4. My daughter came home from kindergarten this year with a school form instructing us to check a box designating her race. I resent this. She’s not playing for the white team. She’s a little girl. She’s there to learn. Teach her.

But let’s get back to McWhorter’s point. He’s for airing “findings that shed less than positive light on black people.” Not bad parents. Not people with low-performing kids. Black people.

Yesterday, I said truth alone wasn’t sufficient grounds for framing test scores this way. I said we should do it only if classifying and comparing by race, rather than using some other classification system or judging each person as an individual, does more good than harm. So far, I’ve argued only the first half of the equation: that racializing the problem is unnecessary and unhelpful. But what about the second half? What’s the harm?

There is none, says McWhorter. Commenting on the New Haven case, he writes,

Of course, the question we are not supposed to ask is whether the failure rate suggests that black people are less intelligent. However, there is no need to fear here. The reason black people of unaffluent origin tend not to do well on standardized tests is a matter of language and how it’s used—and the issue is less about color than class, and in the global sense, about what it is to be human.

Less about color than class? That pretty much concedes the point we’re debating here. But let’s set that aside and go straight to the ugly part. McWhorter casually dismisses the less-intelligence theory and its blogger-advocate Steve Sailer, with whom I tangled yesterday. Why? Because McWhorter is confident that his alternative theory, based on language, can explain racial gaps in test scores. In his commentary on the New Haven case, McWhorter lays out the theory: Working-class blacks and whites communicate orally rather than in writing, and they’re unfamiliar with the art of answering direct questions. I’m sure there’s truth in this theory. But McWhorter offers no quantitative evidence for it. Nor does it address some of the most difficult evidence presented by proponents of the genetic theory: whites outscoring blacks even when the class factor skews the other way. In his rebuttal to my original article on the NAEP data, for instance, Sailer notes:

Here’s the 2007 8th grade Reading scores broken down by race and income. White kids whose parents are so poor that they are eligible for the National School Lunch Program outscore affluent black kids by four points and affluent Hispanic kids by one point. The gap between poor whites and poor blacks is 19 points, and the gap among not poor whites and not poor blacks is 21 points. That’s what you normally get—sizable racial gaps anyway you slice it.

Is Sailer a nice guy? No. Does he display an unhealthy interest in categorizing people by race or ethnicity? Yes. But the problem here isn’t Sailer, James Watson, Charles Murray, or anybody else you feel like dismissing as a racist. The problem is the evidence these people quote. Condemnation won’t make it go away.

Don’t get me wrong. Genetic and environmental explanations aren’t mutually exclusive. In the case of IQ, everybody accepts environmental factors, and there’s plenty of evidence  and argument against the hereditarian view. But that’s just one battle in a larger war. Beyond the march of test scores, there’s the onslaught of genetic research. We’ve already identified genes  that correlate with traits and vary in prevalence  between ethnic groups. Are you confident that intelligence will turn out to be exempt from this list? Confident enough to leave no backup plan, no understanding of equality that can withstand a partial role for heredity? Confident enough to keep tallying and reporting test scores by race? And if intelligence turns out not to vary genetically between groups, do you imagine that we’ll get just as lucky with every other significant mental trait?

If you want to know why I keep writing about this subject, Mr. McWhorter, there’s your answer. No, I don’t care about the merit badge. I’m staring over your shoulder at an oncoming train. It starts with genomic differentiation of populations  around the world, and that’s just the locomotive. If you turn around and look, you’ll see that the first few cars are already in view: genes that affect mental traits, genes that affect abilities, and variations between populations  in the prevalence of these genes. No genetically distinguishable population will be spared. We’re sitting in the path of this train, tied to the tracks by a literalist conception of equality that can’t accept hereditary differences between group averages. I suggest we free ourselves.

Under these circumstances, do I think gaps between average white and black test scores should “shed less than positive light on black people”? No, I don’t. Each of us should be judged by his own performance, not by a stereotype. Genetic variation between averages doesn’t alter that moral truth. Nor does it give anyone an excuse.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1. Surrogate mothers and Big Brother. 2. The mainstreaming of marijuana. 3) Emergency contraception and personal responsibility.)