Critiques of Richwine: Not Attacks on Academic Freedom


Jason Richwine’s dissertation
has provoked a firestorm in the media. Many people find it shocking that Harvard professors would approve a dissertation that argues that Hispanics have lower innate intelligence than native-born whites.

More than 1200 Harvard students demanded an investigation into the “racist claims” made in Richwine’s dissertation and have called for a public response from Harvard’s Kennedy School. Additionally, over 1200 scholars have signed a statement in opposition to scientific racism – the use of science to argue that a racialized group is inferior.

Richwine denies the charges of racism and claims he never argued that any group is inferior to another. In his dissertation, Richwine contended that Hispanics have lower innate IQs than native-born whites, and that this disparity is likely to persist across generations. This claim fits a widely-accepted definition of racism – understood as an ideology that certain racialized groups are inherently inferior to others, and that they will pass down these traits to their children.

The question for academics, however, is whether or not the public outcry with regard to the Richwine dissertation is an assault on academic freedom, as Jeff Jacoby claimed at the Boston Globe on Wednesday. I believe the critiques of Richwine do not constitute an attack on academic freedom and I will explain why I think that Harvard professors should not have guided and approved Richwine’s dissertation.

Before I begin, I will clarify that it is within my right to critique a dissertation and to critique my colleagues at Harvard. How could it not be? I critique and evaluate scholarship every day as part of my job as an academic. Now, let’s look at the dissertation.

Richwine provides data that shows that Hispanic immigrants have lower IQ scores than native-born whites. This data is fairly uncontroversial and not novel. If a student came to me and asked me to work with them on a dissertation that examines why Hispanic immigrants have lower IQ scores than native-born whites, I would likely agree to work with them. The question of why Hispanics’ IQ scores are lower than white Americans is a valid academic question and worthy of academic debate.

There are many reasons for these disparities, and there are many statistical manipulations you could do to figure out why Hispanic immigrants have low IQ scores. Richwine, however, was not interested in why they have low IQs. This is a central problem with his work – he does not conduct empirical analyses on why the disparities exist. IQ scores are designed to have an average score of 100. By definition, some people have to do better than others. The finding that some people do better than others is not at all interesting in an academic debate. What is interesting is why people or certain groups of people do better or worse. The reasons for the disparities are extremely varied and have to do with how the tests are designed, what the tests measure, and a host of environmental and educational factors.

Instead of looking into why some people do better than others on IQ tests, Richwine uses other studies to argue that there is most likely a genetic component to their low IQ scores. Richwine reviews some of the literature surrounding intelligence testing, and concludes that substantial indirect evidence exists that IQ differentials are genetic. Thus, although his argument does not hinge on IQ differences being genetic, it does hinge on the disparities being persistent. Attributing these differences to genetics helps his arguments.

In his dissertation, Richwine also fails to contend to any extent with what it means to be Hispanic. He simply takes it at face value that Hispanics are those people who claim to be Hispanic. This way of defining Hispanic would be acceptable. However, when you make the claim that the IQ disparities between whites and Hispanics are due to genetics, then, you have to define what Hispanic means. Otherwise, you leave wide open the question of how one could make the claim that Hispanics have anything in common genetically with one another. For me, this continues to be an enormous unanswered question. How could anyone possibly think that Hispanics share a genetic makeup?

Richwine then provides data that shows that Latin American countries are “low IQ countries” – so it is not the case that only low IQ people emigrate, but that Latin America is filled with low IQ people (68). Richwine claims that it may be the case that Latin Americans have low IQ scores because of material deprivation, but that could not be the only answer, as their IQ scores do not improve once they come to the United States, which is a richer country. This section is problematic because the relative material deprivation of Hispanics compared to non-Hispanic whites is not something we can ignore. To cite one piece of evidence for this, 35% of Hispanic children live in poverty, as compared to 12% of white children. There is no doubt that these disparities contribute to IQ score differentials.

Richwine provides data that shows that European immigrants’ scores have improved over time, but that those of Hispanic immigrants have not. Because Hispanics’ IQs have not improved over time in the past, he contends they will not improve in the future. Of course, if the material environment does not improve for Hispanics (which, by many measures, it has not), we would not expect for IQ scores to improve.

He concludes by arguing that IQ scores should be a factor in immigration policy. He makes this argument without recognizing the racialized history of both US immigration policy and intelligence testing. US immigration policy has a long history of being overtly racist – one of the first immigration laws ever passed was the Chinese Exclusion Act. The 1924 Immigration Act was designed specifically to reduce immigration from Eastern Europe and to all but eliminate immigration from Africa and Asia. Ignoring this history in a policy dissertation is problematic. The suggestion that we incorporate IQ scores into immigration policy is not innocuous because it reeks of eugenics – of the United States attempting to build a county with the most intellectually fit people from around the world.

When Richwine first approached professors at Harvard about his topic, he would have had to discuss what he was measuring, what literature he planned to use, and how he would formulate his policy-based arguments. I continue to find it hard to believe that his dissertation chair would have approved a study that simply shows IQ disparities without doing any data analysis into why those disparities exist. I also believe that his chair should have told him that he needed to contend with the racist history of US immigration policy. Finally, his advisors should have told him a dissertation could not rely on discredited publications by Charles Murray and J. Philippe Rushton – both of whom have spent much of their careers trying to prove the intellectual inferiority of blacks and Latinos.

In sum, I continue to find it appalling that three Harvard professors guided and approved a dissertation that attributed IQ to genetic differences without seriously engaging the accompanying issues and that made policy recommendations that sound similar to eugenics policies without any acknowledgement of the similarities. Pointing this out is not an attack on academic freedom. It is an exercise of academic freedom.

Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this post. You expose the fundamental issues and reveal that a racist project is the only explanation for why an otherwise intelligent set of social scientists would produce (and approve) Richwine’s text.

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