IQ and the Nativist Movement: Richwine’s Report

The academic and policy worlds have been roiled by last week’s announcement that a Heritage Foundation study on the cost of immigration reform was co-authored by Jason Richwine, who wrote a dissertation on the purported low IQ of immigrants. It beyond belief that, in the year 2013, there are still some that want to posit that there is a genetic basis for race. Even more surprisingly, these arguments come endorsed with a seal of approval by some of the nation’s top universities, like Harvard in this case. As an alumnus of the Kennedy School and a scholar of race and Hispanic identity, I feel obliged to provide a response.

Having spent last week with some of the world’s premier scholars of race at a workshop on “Reconsidering Race” at Texas A&M University, in which we examined the interface of social science and genetics/genomics and health, I am stunned by the lack of rigor and intellectual depth evinced by Richwine’s dissertation. The work makes extremely simplistic assumptions about “race,” immigration, and the link between IQ and genetics. Even a neophyte in matters of genetics/genomics can see the gaping holes in Richwine’s logic. One would have expected his advisors, Professors George Borjas, Richard Zeckhauser, and Christopher Jencks to have been more cognizant of the complex nature of terms such as “race”, “Hispanic,” and “white,” as well as their tenuous links to genetics (assuming they actually read the dissertation). Richwine claimed in his Harvard dissertation that “the material environment and genes probably make the greatest contributions to IQ differences” (p. 4) and that “today’s immigrants are not as intelligent on average as white natives” (p. 134).

There are three basic points that have to be made to remind these scholars that such shoddy work should not easily pass at the doctoral level– or any level for that matter. One is the basic idea that “Hispanics” can be of any race (a concept that Richwine references in passing in his dissertation), so that it is not possible to simply oppose “Hispanic” and “white” as if they were mutually exclusive categories (a dichotomy that is crucial to his argument). In fact, Pope Francis is Hispanic; so is Rigoberta Menchu. The term is a politically- and socially-constructed category that has been shaped through historical ties between the US, Latin America, and the Iberian peninsula. There is nothing inherent, natural, or ‘genetic’ in the category of “Hispanic.” There are many people of European ancestry in Latin America, but there are also many of Amerindian origins, African descent, and a vast majority whose origins are a mix of ethnicities, including East Asian, Jewish, Arab, and practically every other group in the world (I myself, for example, am of Aymara, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese origin).

The primitive binary taxonomy of “black vs. white” (emanating from the US one-drop rule) that has somehow become transformed into a spurious “white vs. non-white” Manichean logic is untenable. Not only has racial admixture always been the case (since, as work by Nell Irvin Painter reminds us, there were many ‘white races’ — not just one– at previous historical times), but ‘racial’ mixing has become even more prevalent even in the US in the last five decades as a result of the rapid rise of non-European migration. Even for those who consider “Hispanic” a race, the understanding of this term is cultural and historical, not genetic (for example, in the ideas of the eminent Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelos). Race is not a dichotomous variable. The Latin American experience shows us this, and the US would do well to heed that lesson to break down its dualistic racial paradigm.

The second point to be made is that the genetics and genomics revolution of the last two decades or so does have implications for what we understand as ‘race,’ but not in the way that people like Richwine want to argue. Our workshop examined the idea of ‘race’ in light of recent genetics and genomic research in order to see whether it has consequences for our conceptualization of ‘racial’ identities and categories, and also for policies related to health disparities. These are complex and as of yet unresolved questions, but they certainly do not buttress the idea that there are such things as natural entities called ‘’races’’ and that they are rooted in genetic grounds. Recent research shows that humans share about 97% of the same genetic material with orangutans (an animal beloved by visitors to this blog). It also tells us that orangutans are more genetically diverse among themselves than are humans. In other words, people are more alike, across regional populations, than we are different.

And even within the small areas of difference, no evidence exists that such differences make for strictly separate human categories that are essentially discrete. It may be true that some populations share some genetic markers among themselves more than with others, but these differences are minimal. As epidemiologist Jay Kaufman of McGill has argued, the more we learn about the human genome, the closer we are to individuated genetic understanding, not to the construction of broad, essentially-unchangeable human groups. Richwine’s error is to think that IQ is a stable phenotype that reflects universal intelligence. Yes, we should take the genomics revolution as a challenge to simple social-constructivist views of race, but we cannot make the error of thinking that it validates a reification of the complex sociopolitical categories that we call ‘races.’

The last point is that the rudimentary statistical analysis of the kind that Richwine carried out ignores the important interface between social realities and genetics. Besides the problems noted above, we can underscore that even IQ test results are culturally-shaped, and not some measure of a primordial, biological mental ability. Rather, they reflect the intertwining of some aspects of mental capacity with education, life experiences, socioeconomic status, and other contingent contexts. They are not measures of pure intelligence (a dubious concept as well). What we ought to be advocating is not some sort of eugenics-based retrograde Nativist policy that reminds us of the 19th century, but improved educational access for all, and a fair, uniform immigration policy that minimizes discrimination, not enhances it.

It is both morally and intellectually disingenuous to propose what Borjas et al. have been advocating for years now. To claim to favor more immigration of those with “higher IQ’s” or more human capital flies in the face of the fact that low-human capital immigrants contribute profoundly to US economic growth due to their low wages in key industries such as construction, agriculture, and also the service sector. In manufacturing, Hispanics are underpaid relative to their economic value, as sociologist Arthur Sakamoto has shown. Ethically, it is unacceptable for a modern liberal-democratic state to promote high-IQ selectivity in immigration, for this policy advocates unequal treatment rather than uniform standards for all (in this light, Canadian immigration policy, which makes distinctions based on human capital, may be suspect as well, owing to the brain drain that it induces in poorer nations).

As educators, we have a special responsibility to provide non-superficial answers to complex questions. The idea of race is a fraught one. As the Kennedy School is my alma mater, I must say that it is time that policy questions not be treated as merely quantitative or mechanical issues. Public policy schools must also provide coursework that deepens analyses, no thins them down. “Race” is a concept that involves normative, political, historical, cultural, economic, and social forces in a complex interplay. It cannot be bandied about willy-nilly with no sensitivity to them. This idea applies to all racial categories, but it is perhaps most salient for the term “Hispanic,” owing to the rich diversity of ethnic origins that have gone into its making over a long historical period. It is befuddling that no one on Richwine’s committee seems to have been aware of this (in particular Jencks, who has written on these issues in the past).

It is time for antediluvian academics to step aside and give more space to the new generations of scholars that are able to engage in a critique of the all-too-dominant idea that race is merely a social construct but without falling into an antiquated racial essentialism. It is time for a real national dialogue on race that will start new conversations. Our classrooms are a good place to begin these discussions.

Diego A. von Vacano is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University and author of The Color of Citizenship: Race, Modernity and Hispanic/Latin American Political Thought (Oxford UP) and is writing a new book on immigrant identities.

Research Sources on Latinos/Hispanics: The Julian Samora Institute

The Sotomayor nomination and confirmation process has raised much discussion about Latino issues, so we do need to consider what some good sources of information and research on Latinos are. For teachers, students, researchers, and especially media analysts (e.g., Lou Dobbs) who seem often to be quite ignorant on these issues. Let me mention one here briefly.

Immigrant Rights March
Creative Commons License photo credit: Kevin Coles

The Julian Samora Institute website is an excellent source for information on Latino/Hispanic issues, including research publications and recent events like the tasering of a grandfather by Virginia police recently at a party. Their website statement says this about the Institute:

The JULIAN SAMORA RESEARCH INSTITUTE is committed to the generation, transmission, and application of knowledge to serve the needs of Latino communities in the Midwest. To this end, it has organized a number of publication initiatives to facilitate the timely dissemination of current research and information relevant to Latinos.

Here is their research url, with research publications like this one on health “The Impact of Race/Ethnicity, Household Structure, and Socioeconomic Status on Health Status in the Midwest, 2006-2008.”

They also offer this really useful set of links to both research data sites and news information sites.

Debate on US Foundations: Supporting Racism Studies?

The Chronicle of Philanthropy has an interesting debate on studies of systemic (structural) racism funded by a few foundations. In a May 15, 2008 article, “Philanthropy’s Jeremiah Wright Problem,” William A. Schambra argues sensationally thus:

“Many Americans were startled to learn that the Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, whose campaign is built on an uplifting message of national unity and racial reconciliation, belongs to a church in Chicago where a very different view of America is preached by its longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Then he adds melodramatically:

Americans might be further surprised to learn that grants from the nation’s largest foundations sustain a similarly harsh view of a nation riven by an unrelenting and deeply oppressive racial divide. America, in this view, is steeped in “structural racism.” This “refers to a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial-group inequity,” according to “Structural Racism and Community Building,” a 2004 report from the Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Community Change (supported by the Annie E. Casey, Charles Stewart Mott, W.K. Kellogg, Rockefeller, and Ford foundations, among others).

He is critical of this foundational support for research and perspectives on structural racism, which concept and historical reality he seems to know nothing about. (He could look here and here, for a little education, perhaps.) He concludes his reactionary piece, thus:

Senator Obama ultimately decided that Mr. Wright’s “incendiary language” — language so similar to that thrown about freely by structural-racism theorists — reflected “views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation.” Could the same be said about some grants made by our largest foundations?

Then there is the supportive view of what a few foundations are doing on systemic racism issues, and a critique of Schambra’s white-oriented thinking playing down systemic racism, by Aaron Dorman & Niki Jagpal, “Foundations and ‘Structural Racism’: Take Another Look,” a reply to the reactionary article on May 28, 2008:

But a clearer, more accurate picture of structural racism begs for a comprehensive definition that takes into account the milieu of the analysis. Moreover, Mr. Schambra uses the most seemingly provocative statements from the many reports he cites, but when read in context, the quotes are far less “startling” than Schambra would have readers believe. Andrew Grant-Thomas and John A. Powell offer a simple framework that describes structural racism as emphasizing “the powerful impact of interinstitutional dynamics, institutional resource inequities, and historical legacies on racial inequalities today.”

Then they point out that foundations are not doing all that much in support of critical systemic racism analysis:

Readers are left with the impression that our large national foundations are aggressively funding some radical leftist agenda that the American public is utterly unfamiliar with and, if enlightened, would be unsupportive of. Unfortunately, he fails to take into account key giving trends, resulting in an inaccurate, if not misleading, picture of the current state of philanthropy in the United States. Let’s look at the numbers. In a 2005 report, Independent Sector and the Foundation Center found that social-justice grant making in 1998 and 2002 comprised a meager 11 percent of overall foundation giving, and only a fraction of that was grants for issues identified by the structural-racism framework as barriers to equality. . . . . Is it true that our large foundations are so acutely aware of race and oppression in their grant making that they prioritize racially specific grants? Again, the data suggest otherwise. The 2008 edition of the Foundation Center’s annual Foundation Giving Trends: Update on Funding Priorities notes that in 2006, funding for racial or ethnic minorities increased by only 5.5 percent, while overall grant making rose by 16.4 percent.

Then they add this:

The structural-racism framework posits that analyses of racial inequality that ignore the historical decisions that led to institutional barriers to equality of achievement are insufficient in understanding race in the United States. To that end, explicitly identifying deliberate policy decisions that persist as barriers to equality is an integral component of any work that truly seeks to affect change in American racial attitudes.

Then take Schambra to task too for misrepresentations of philanthropic foundations:

In fact, a decade of research by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy shows how conservative foundations have been strategically advancing their agenda by providing sympathetic think tanks and advocacy organizations with flexible and multiyear grants, and supporting programs that specifically target public policy and promote conservative ideas.

And conclude with a pregnant question indeed:

In response, we ask: Why are the small percentage of structural-racism grants a cause for concern among Mr. Schambra and leaders of conservative foundations who have been so successful themselves at actually influencing government and policy decisions? Why should progressive foundations apologize for seeking to effectively address the needs of marginalized communities by funding organizations that seek to transform the institutions that perpetuate social inequities?

Why indeed?

Think Tanks: Incubators of Scientific Racism

Following on the heels of the Watson debacle last week, British geneticist Prof. Steve Jones writes in the Telegraph that


“science has nothing to say about race and intelligence.”


Would that this were true. Unfortunately, science is far too often implicated in the creation, perpetuation and justification of racism, as Dennis Rutledge explains in this peer-reviewed article from 1995. Tracing the philosophical underpinnings of scientific racism from the early work of Darwin, Spencer, and Sumner, to the intelligence testing movement led by Galton and Binet, and lastly to the contemporary race and IQ studies of Jensen, Herrnstein, and Murray, Rutledge demonstrates the ways that science is often used as a justification to propose, project, and enact racist social policies.

In the contemporary U.S., scientific racism is often incubated in ostensibly “objective” think tanks, such as the Manhattan Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Pioneer Fund. William Tucker, in his book The Funding of Scientific Racism: Wickliffe Draper and the Pioneer Fund, (University of Illinois Press, 2002), explores the insidious way the Pioneer Fund has promulgated scientific racism. For example, Tucker links the Pioneer Fund’s Draper to a Klansman’s crusade to repatriate blacks in the 1930s; and, he connects later directors of the fund to campaigns organized in the 1960s to reverse the Brown decision, prevent passage of the Civil Rights Act, and implement a system of racially segregated private schools. More recently, the Pioneer Fund helped promote the scientific racism of Hernstein and Murrary’s The Bell Curve, which argues that Blacks are less intelligent than whites, and has been discredited by a number of scholarly publications, including Joe Kincheloe and colleagues’ book, Measured Lies.

Also in the line up of think tanks promoting scientific racism is the Manhattan Institute, which was created by British billionaire Avery Fisher, along with former CIA-chief William Casey. Originally the International Center for Economic Policy Studies (ICEPS), the goal of the Manhattan Institute was, according to Loic Wacquant, “to apply the principles of the market economy to social problems.” In terms of race, this meant dismantling the advances of the civil rights movement, and relocating African-Americans and poor people out of the big cities. Many of the racist policies of the Rudy Guiliani mayoral administration in New York City followed closely on the heels of Manhattan Institute reports.

It’s hard to compete with the Pioneer Fund when it comes to egregious scientific racism among think tanks, but the American Enterprise Institute certainly comes close. Lewis Brown founded AEI in 1943 to counter New Deal philosophy, and since 1986 it has been headed by Christopher DeMuth, and under his leadership AEI has taken a dramatic rightward turn. Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado in their book, No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America’s Social Agenda, report that in 1991 Bork received $150,880 from such sources; D’Souza got $98,400 plus an additional $20,000 to promote his controversial book, Illiberal Education. Deborah Toler writes about the right-wing think tank production of scientific racism for FAIR, and she pulls no punches in setting out the clear connection between AEI and overt racists:

“Still, even for the initiated, the ferocity of AEI’s work on race is quite breathtaking. Although the mainstream media are now deploring the overt racism of hate groups such as the Council of Conservative Citizens…, the fact is that there is an overlap between the analyses of “respectable” conservatives, like those at AEI, and the overt racial hatred of white supremacist organizations like CCC.”

So, while some may dismiss Watson’s remarks last week as the ravings of an elderly man with dementia, this is too easy. What’s needed is a more critical view of the way science, or perhaps more accurately, scientific propaganda is implicated in the promotion of racism.