Thinking about race and IQ

Charles Murray is once again throwing kerosene on the tinderbox of American race relations.

Reviving the explosive argument he made in his 1994 book, “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” the noted scholar is once again highlighting data showing that African Americans score lower on IQ tests than other groups in the United States.

Given the current climate, it is not surprising that his new book, “Facing Reality,” has been largely ignored by almost every major newspaper and magazine. But this dismissal is, ironically, a validation of his premise.

If his numbers were easily debunked, legions of journalists and social commentators would be lining up to do so. If the problem he identifies were easy to fix, they would be telling us how.  Their unwillingness to engage Murray (pictured) is tantamount to an acceptance of racial determinism.

Make no mistake, “Facing Reality” – which also addresses connections between crime and race – is inflammatory. Murray not only reports that test scores suggest that African Americans, as a group, do have lower cognitive abilities than whites, Asians and Latinos but he concludes that the problem is “intractable.”

I read his book with more anger than resignation – and more hope than Murray and his silent critics possess that the grim gaps he details might be closed. Murray reports that intelligence tests administered since the 1960s have, by and large, found the same cognitive pecking order as he did when crunching data from the 2000s. Asians had a mean IQ of 108, whites 103, Latinos 94, blacks 91. These are, of course, just group averages. Obviously, many individual blacks score higher than Asians, whites and Latinos.

Nevertheless, these group averages are significant. While IQ tests do not measure a vast range of vital human qualities – such as integrity, compassion, a sense of humor – “measures of cognitive ability and job performance,” Murray writes, “are always positively correlated. The size of the correlation goes up,” he continues, “as the job becomes more cognitively complex. Even for low-skill occupations, job experience does not lead to convergence in performance among persons with different cognitive ability.”

The gaps widen in the upper reaches of the bell curve. While Asians and whites comprise about 68% of the population, they represent 85% of all Americans with IQs of 115; 90 percent of those with IQs of 125; and 96 percent of those with IQs of 140.

Standardized test scores tell a similar story. In 2020, he reports, 900 African Americans and 3,300 Latinos had a combined math and verbal score of at least 1500 on the SAT. That same year, 27,500 whites and 20,000 Asians achieved those lofty scores. Similar disparities mark results for exams to gain entrance to law school (LSAT), medical school (MCAT) and graduate school (GRE).

These high-end numbers are especially meaningful now that we live in an information society where income and wealth are increasingly directed toward those with exceptional cognitive ability. Simply put, a high IQ helps one to rise through the ranks of companies such as Google and Apple.  The pool of such people, however, is rather small and correlated with race. For example, in 2019 there were 23.2 million Americans aged 25-29. Of that group, just 228,000 could be expected to have an IQ of 135 or greater. “Employers seeking these exceptionally intelligent young adults were choosing from a pool that contained about 2,800 Africans and 9,500 Latins compared to 50,700 Asians and 160,100 [whites],” Murray writes. “The inevitable result was that a large majority of U.S. employers that seek out new hires with 135+ IQs had no entry-level Africans or Latins among those hires — zero, no matter how eagerly the employers solicited minority candidates. There weren’t enough to meet the demand.”

Murray does not address the broader point, that earned income and opportunities for wealth will flow to a small number of Americans of any race. The racial gaps are especially disturbing given Murray’s pessimism that anything can be done about them. He notes that when he addressed the issue in his 1984 book, “Losing Ground,” he was confident that better policies, especially school vouchers, could ignite a “substantial convergence of black and white test scores in a single generation.”

Decades of research and tests results have convinced him that this was wishful thinking. “The short story is that ordinary exposure to education does indeed have an effect on cognitive ability for all children, but that no one has yet found a way to increase cognitive ability permanently over and above the effects of routine education,” he writes. “The success stories consist of modest effects on exit tests that fade out. Most experimental programs don’t achieve even that much. We know how to improve education for children at every cognitive level, but we don’t know how to change their cognitive levels.”

Given all that, how can I have any hope? One reason comes from Murray’s own data, which shows that following the dismantling of Jim Crow laws during the 1960s, race differences between blacks and whites “narrowed significantly during the 1970s and 1980s” but that “the narrowing stopped three decades ago.”

Murray suggests that the civil rights movements removed the obstacles that lowered black performance and allowed them to achieve their full potential. But the larger point is that IQ scores are not set in stone – indeed, the “Flynn effect” describes the fact that scores have been rising around the world for decades. Our current scientific understanding is that genes are highly responsive to our environment – that nature and nurture are not separate spheres but a feedback loop.

This does not mean that anyone can be Einstein. Some people are born with extraordinary cognitive ability; far more are not. The self-described “progressive” researcher Kathryn Paige Harden makes this point in her new book from Princeton University Press, “The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality.”

Discussing Harden’s book, Robert VerBruggen of the conservative Manhattan Institute writes that “[h]eritability estimates for educational attainment, for instance, range from roughly 20 to 40 percent, depending on which research technique one applies.” That means that 60% to 80% of educational attainment is determined by factors other than genes.

Frankly, “Facing Reality” can be read as a book of despair about stubborn test results. The racial gaps Murray describes might be “intractable,” as he writes. Or perhaps not. There is plenty of reason to hope that the problem he documents is a result of our failure to find ways to diminish the racial gaps. As noted above, Murray doubts we will ever be able to develop effective strategies to achieve that. He has the social scientists’ faith that the best and the brightest have tried and failed.

Sadly, many on the left seem to agree with him, as they embrace efforts to eliminate measures of achievement, including tests for entrance to elite high schools and SAT scores for college admissions. That is a form of surrender. Instead of raising up black children, they are trying to mask their deficiencies. This does nothing to help them thrive in a competitive society.

I can’t pretend to know how to make things right. Though it seems logical to conclude that if our efforts to change what kids are taught in school have come up short, we should focus on their lives outside of the classroom, examining the influence of their families and broader culture.

When Murray and his co-author, Richard Herrnstein, despaired of ever closing the racial IQ gap in “The Bell Curve” back in 1994, I was among those who thought they are probably right but why bring it up since it can’t be fixed , and it is poison for social cohesion. Today, I reject my former stance as a form of racism. We must believe in the potential of our children and find new ways to help them realize it.

J. Peder Zane is an editor for RealClearInvestigations and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.

I am a web developer, web designer, software engineer with a fascination of technology and the rapid changes in technology and how our lives are changing and being changed by technology. I look for opportunities to utilize technology to improve lives and make a difference in the world whenever I can.

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