What race will look like in the US in 2042 if we are successful…

Visions 2042 — By Guest Author on May 25, 2010 at 06:57

By Tiffany Manuel, Frameworks Institute

In 1994, Harvard psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein and American Enterprise Institute political scientist Charles Murray published the best-selling and now infamous book, The Bell Curve.  Among other things, the book sought to establish the notion that America’s intelligentsia (what they termed the “cognitive elite”) was becoming more segregated and separated from their less intelligent and less cognitively apt (and therefore, less fortunate) brethren in society.  Related to this assertion, they argued that societal incentives (government programs like AFDC) encouraged the “wrong” women to produce children and that public policies ought to reverse this mistake in ways that would instead encourage fertility among more intelligent women.

From a social perspective, the book was denounced by many for being “out-of-step” with the social mores of the day, but it was also the subject of much academic writing from a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives as well.  The harshest criticism of the book had to do with the book’s assertion that race and ethnicity are strong determinants of cognitive ability.  That is, race and ethnicity are understood as inextricably tied to, and are major determinants of, intelligence.  The book’s policy prescriptions (around fertility and other institutional reforms) then, are said to emerge powerfully from the basic notion that intelligence (measured primarily by IQ tests) is a better predictor than socioeconomic status, parent’s level of education and a host of other demographic variables on a whole range of social goods like wages, educational achievement, family income, and the like.

I was reminded of this book recently because of a New York Times Op-Ed by Charles Murray that sought to bolster the flailing spirits of conservative advocates of school choice and voucher programs following the “disheartening” results of the most comprehensive and rigorous evaluation of charter schools.  The evaluation findings are in and they are exceedingly clear – compared to their public school counterparts, students in charter schools showed no discernible academic improvements in test scores.  To this, Charles Murray, a man who sparked one of most hateful and contentious debates in recent history around the relationship between race and intelligence based on test scores, implored conservatives to:

“not try to explain them away.  Why not instead finally acknowledge that standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another?…. Cognitive ability, personality and motivation come mostly from home. What happens in the classroom can have some effect, but smart and motivated children will tend to learn to read and do math even with poor instruction, while not-so-smart or unmotivated children will often have trouble with those subjects despite excellent instruction.”

While there is much to be said about the broader non sequitur in Murray’s statement here, and the unfortunate implications for urban education if he is to be taken seriously, I am immediately drawn back to 1994.   When the Herrnstein and Murray book was published, it ignited a national firestorm and even today, stands as a lightning rod for those of us who survived the experience.  While the cultural narrative about the inferiority of people of color has always been a major thread running through America’s social fabric, the Herrnstein and Murray book made it acceptable to voice these narratives again not just in the academic spaces where they would be subject to scientific scrutiny but in the public square.

As a student in graduate school, I remember the almost instantaneous change in the climate on campus and the impact was devastating.  Every person of color…on every school campus in the nation… had to defend their station.  Every time you opened your mouth to debate a book or to voice an opinion about some canonical author, you were acutely aware (more than ever before) that your intellect was on display for people making conscious (and sometime unconscious) decisions about your worthiness in that station.  Perhaps more unfortunate, some people began to dismiss the ideas expressed by people of color simply because they assumed that their arguments lacked intellectual acumen and merit.

Recall as well, that this was all taking place at the height of social criticism on college campuses around affirmative action and the debate over the meaning of test scores in judging intellectual promise.  So, in the context of a broader debate which often withered down to whether colleges and universities should accept “unqualified” black and Latino students over their more qualified (read: more intelligent) counterparts, the impact of this book was especially damaging.  That is to say, this conversation about race and intelligence happened at that precise moment when the public debate and discourse was at a crescendo and the book elevated an already deafening sound to those of us struggling to do our best in our academic endeavors.

Don’t get me wrong, I clearly understand that making people of color defend their intelligence and their ability to do their jobs (or a job) is nothing new.  But, what was (and is) hard to swallow are the now clear implications of just how damaging these irresponsible assertions were.  The academic and deeply psychological price paid by students of color as these assertions became even more firmly and deeply embedded in the discourse at academic institutions, was really unconscionable.  And, the fact that Murray is now singing quite a different tune – test scores are now a “terrible way” to understand the value of educational outcomes – is no salve.

Racial and ethnic minorities are almost universally the targets of negative stereotyping about their academic abilities and as targets of those stereotypes they often underperform – a phenomenon that social scientists call the Stereotype Threat. Studies by Birenbaum, Kraemer, Lovaglia, and many others over the last two decades have offered up a myriad of evidence to show that when students are expected to thrive and then given a cognitive task, their performance is almost always significantly better than when those in authority express doubts about their abilities prior to the task.  Social scientists now have strong evidence to suggest that the mere presence of stereotypes, especially when they are expressed or reified by those in authority (professors, for example, like Herrnstein and Murray) can have debilitating effects on minorities’ academic performance.

It is from this vantage point that I remember The Bell Curve – not merely as an academic exercise that put old wine in new bottles – making only slight revisions to an otherwise tired and worn cultural narrative.  Rather, I remember the book because it forced many people of color in this country (and likely those in other counties as well) to defend and re-defended their intelligence every time they spoke in professional or academic settings.  And I continue to hear the need for this defensive posture every time someone, even those who are well meaning, say how “articulate” or well-spoken Barack Obama is, or some other black public figure.  That is, I remember the book because it gave conservatives the political opportunity to wield hurtful and racist speech at people of color and I directly felt the impact.

That there will always be people like Murray, who use new arguments to defend old discrimination and dress up hatefulness as some sort of science is a given that no amount of refutation is likely to dampen.  But I am really hoping for something much better from America by 2042!  I have two sons – both toddlers – and what I wish for them in particular is that by 2042 they would have gone successfully through the education system and onto professional careers without having their essential abilities to think and learn questioned.

Rather, I hope that they have experienced educators and other adults around them who assume that they have all the requisite abilities necessary to bring the best of who they are to the jobs, families, and communities that they inhabit.  I never want my children or any other children of color to have to deploy their creative and intellectual energies to develop “coping” strategies to deal with the onslaught of negative stereotypes manufactured and reproduced by people they’ve never even met.

Instead, my hope for 2042 is that we would finally be able to put to bed the terribly crippling idea that there is some hierarchy of intelligence related to race and that those on the bottom of that hierarchy should be actively discouraged from procreating because they might contaminate America’s talent pool.  We might start down this path by finally acknowledging that race is only a social construct that has no biological foundation.

Data from the Genome Project now offers scientific evidence to show there is more genetic variation within racial groups than across racial groups.  We might also take up an even larger proposition using recent advancements in the cognitive and neurosciences to reject assertions that human cognitive ability is inherited, that it can be captured in a single number, and that is immutable.  Strong scientific data now make the latter propositions untenable and hopefully, open the door to a very different kind of public discourse.

Artist: Stushie


is the Research Director of the Institute. Prior to joining Frameworks, Manuel served as a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services where she was responsible for conducting and directing public policy research. She has served as a senior researcher at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and has served as an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She has worked as an economic development consultant in the areas of program evaluation, comparative regional economic analysis, cost-benefit analysis, and social welfare and labor policy analysis. Manuel holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Chicago, a master’s degree in Political Science from Purdue University, and doctorate and master’s degrees in Public Policy from the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Tags: , , , ,
Line Break

Author: Guest Author (94 Articles)

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.


Leave a Trackback