Historical Development of Racial Context

The notion of inherited differences is an ancient one; however, the concept of racial classifications is more recent. According to psychologist Wade Nobles, the Western idea of race emerged during the sixteenth century as Europeans began to colonize other parts of the world. As they came into contact with people who looked different from them, many Europeans developed the notion that some races were superior to others. This belief often was given as a justification for slavery and other oppressive activities.

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was critical in promoting the belief that human differences were a result of heredity and genetics. His notion of "the survival of the fittest" led psychologists to research racial differences in intelligence in order to understand the successes and failures of different human groups. Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin, was instrumental in furthering the hereditarian perspective in psychology. In his book Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences (1869), he attempted to il lustrate that genius and prominence follow family lines. He also began the eugenics movement, which supported the use of selective mating and forced sterilization to improve racial stock. The Bell Curve is simply a more recent argument along the same lines. Nothing really new is added to the argument. There is a bit more sociobiological jargon and a mass of statistics, but they do not hold up to careful scrutiny.

Following Galton's lead, many psychologists embraced the notions of inherited racial differences in intelligence. The pioneering work of anthropologist Franz Boas, in attacking the popular conception of race, fostered research to attack the myths attached to that concept, including the myth of inherent superiority or inferiority. G. Stanley Hall, the founder of the American Psychological Association, believed that African people were at a lower evolutionary stage than Caucasians. By the beginning of the 1900's, psychological testing was being widely used to support the view that intelligence was hereditary and was little influenced by the environment. More recently, Burt, Herrnstein, and Jensen have argued in favor of an overriding genetic factor in intelligence.

There were also early efforts to challenge the hereditarian perspective in psychology. During the 1920's and 1930's, Herman Canady and Howard Long, two of the first African Americans to receive graduate degrees in psychology, produced evidence showing the importance of environmental influences on IQ test performance. They were concerned about increasingly prevalent "scientific" justifications for the inequality and injustice experienced by African Americans, American Indians, and other groups. Fighting racism was a major reason Leon Kamin became involved in the debate about race and intelligence. He gathered the original information that had been reported by scientists and reexamined it; Kamin was responsible for discovering that Burt had reported false information. He also noted that many hereditarians misused and misinterpreted their statistics.

Hereditarians maintain that racial differences in IQ test scores are primarily caused by genetics and that these scores do reflect differences in intelligence; environmentalists say no. It has not been proved definitively that IQ tests measure intelligence; however, the evidence does suggest that performance on IQ tests is determined by the interaction between genetic and environmental influences. The quality of the environment will determine how well people will reach their potential. In a society where the history of certain groups includes oppression, discrimination, and exclusion from opportunity, it is difficult to explain differences in achievement as being primarily inherited. Instead, it would seem to be a more important goal to eliminate injustices and to change the conditions of life so that all people could do well.

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