The Conversation on Inferiority

In May 1904, Francis Galton presented a public lecture to the British Sociological Society at the London School of Economics. His presentation was on eugenics, a term he’d coined only a couple decades earlier in 1883. Galton claimed that eugenics ought to be “introduced into the national consciousness, like a new religion” (Mukherjee, 2016, p. 73). Accelerated selection of the ‘well-fitted’ over the ‘ill-fitted’ could best be achieved through ‘positive eugenics,’ or promoting and restricting marriages and reproduction to the ‘well-fitted,’ identified by their high intellectual capabilities. To ensure effective growth of the ‘well-fitted’, ‘negative eugenics’ would be employed to prohibit the ‘ill-fit’ from procreating. Galton argued that intellectually precocious individuals were predominantly confined to White higher social circles; he was alarmed that this group was outnumbered by lower socioeconomic spheres teeming with immigrants and racial minorities (Galton, 1869). The imbalance between the ‘well-fitted’ and ‘ill-fitted’ posed a grave risk to society. Dysgenics, or “retrogressive evolution through disproportionate reproduction of the genetically disadvantaged” (Shockley, 1971, p. 245) threatened to dilute Europe’s genius. Galton advocated for establishing a constructive system of eugenics, maintaining that to do so was a moral imperative: “an enthusiasm to improve the race…so noble in its aim…it might well give rise to the sense of a religious obligation” (Galton & Schuster, 1906).

I’ve looked a lot at Galton as I’ve undertaken my dissertation. He is a man of many trades, but most notably for me, he was the founder of both behavior genetics and eugenics. This history cannot and should not be ignored because it tells us that in the creation of behavior genetics was also the creation of scientific racism–the former being used to justify/legitimize the latter. Where there is a conversation on intelligence there is also one on race, whether explicitly or tacitly.

Race is an organizing construct that lives in multiple domains of social life. Historically, race and racism have been bolstered by the ‘molecularization’ of intelligence (i.e. seeing intelligence in terms of biological processes, hereditary, genetisc). The molecularization of both race and intelligence has contributed to segregationist policies that shape issues of representation and underrepresentation in various facets of the United States education system, including gifted education. For example, gifted children in the US are identified as those whose “ability is significantly above the norm for their age” (National Association for Gifted Children, 2017). The value placed on intelligence has resulted in the creation of educational policy that on the surface segregates children on the basis of “ability,” but which upon closer examination also separates along race and class lines (two blog posts ago I talked about gifted education).

Today, the belief in biological differences between races is held by scientific researchers who are well-intentioned and who do not engage with intelligence research. Take, for instance, David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, who wrote a New York Times article about his latest book “Who We Are and How We Got Here.” Reich acknowledges that racist views oftentimes exist alongside genetics research; he spoke about the need to combat movements like White supremacy in the United States which have used and continues to use genetic arguments to justify inequality and racism. However, he also wrote: “I have deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism. But as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races’”(Reich, 2018).  Reich’s post received backlash from a number of researchers. Part of what is so dangerous about pieces like Reich is that they come from a highly respected and well-intentioned (I believe) genetics researcher in a high-profile position within the field. If people in positions of power can say “it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races'” what are the unintended consequences? What do statements like that mean for the maintenance of White supremacy? For the alt-Right movement? For kids of color sitting in classrooms with teachers who already believe they are less capable and are more likely to give them lower grades?

What does it tell me about myself? What does all the discussion on the lower attainment of Blacks and the tangential discourse on the inherent inferiority about Blacks tell me? Am I less than? At my core, am I less than? Of course not. But, I am in a position of privilege in which I can see that and how continued arguments about racial differences in intelligence feed into White supremacist ideology. For the Black child in the run-down “inner-city” classroom the bigger picture is not so clear.

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