Popular commentators Sam Harris and Ezra Klein have once again gotten into a kerfuffle over the role of genetics in the relationship between race and IQ. In one of his podcast episodes last year, Harris interviewed Charles Murray, a conservative scholar known for positing perceived correlations between intelligence and race based on genetics in his book, The Bell Curve. A Vox article dismissing Murray’s argument as pseudoscience started a back-and-forth between Harris and Klein (who was then Vox’s editor-in-chief). After a recent op-ed in The New York Times observed that there may be genetic differences among races, Harris picked up his feud with Klein on Twitter.
As Klein rightly points out, the idea that Black people are less intelligent than white people is not a novel argument — it is an ancient prejudice echoed by many before Murray, including Thomas Jefferson. The argument that many of its proponents make is not only wrong, it is also disingenuous. Those who peddle this pseudoscience-based argument attribute IQ differences, at least in part, to alleged genetic differences between races, while largely ignoring environmental factors that may affect measured IQ.
If we truly want to discuss this subject, it’s imperative that we talk about the social construction of race — not peddle pseudoscience on genetics. And we must do so without negating the harm caused by race or hastening to dismiss intersectionality as maligned “political correctness.”
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A hundred years ago, W.E.B. DuBois theorized that race was being misrepresented by the white population as biological differences between people. In 2003, the Human Genome Project, which aimed to map and understand all 6 billion letters in a complete set of human DNA, concluded after 13 years of study that all humans share the same genes. Not even a single allele — an alternative form of a gene — is unique to a particular race. It is a widely accepted fact in the scientific community that race is a social construct with no true or absolute biological basis.
Years of social conditioning have turned a constructed concept into a powerful distinguishing factor between people with different physical traits. Today, race is one of the largest factors influencing what schools we attend, where we work and how the police treat us, mainly because of stereotypes and perceptions based on race. By categorizing people loosely based on how they look, we have set up historical institutions like slavery as well as modern-day ones like federal housing policies that have resulted in whites being treated more favorably than people of color. During the 17th and 18th centuries, white “masters” owned African slaves and their descendants and exploited them for cheap and plentiful labor. Even after the abolition of slavery, racism and segregation were legalized and institutionalized by government policies like the federal housing policies that denied mortgages based on race and ethnicity.
It is, of course, impossible to draw a line on a continuum like skin color, which is why racial categories and their respective social statuses often differ between countries and regions. During South Africa’s apartheid (which lasted from 1948 until 1991), people were classified as white, Black, Indians and colored, categories determined by census quizzes and unofficial tests based on appearance and public perception. One of the most infamous measures was the “pencil test” — if a pencil placed in a person’s hair fell out, she’d be considered white; if the pencil staysed put, she’d be considered colored or Black. A biracial kid with one Black and one white parent in apartheid South Africa would be considered colored — a status in between whites and Blacks — and consequently receive better treatment than if he were Black. Oddly enough, the same person would be considered Black in the US. A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center shows that in the United States, white-Black biracial adults and Black adults experience similar levels of racism.
Despite the flaws in the conception of race, we still use it as a lens to view the world through because generalizations are simple and convenient. However, simplicity and convenience do not always — or even usually — render equality, prosperity and progress. It did not for most Black people in the US. A mere label tars their ability to exercise economic and civil liberties, and instead of recognizing this, we argue how much of it may have to do with their genetic makeup.
It is time to educate ourselves and our kids on the fabrication of race and why it is dangerous to wrongly attribute the results of prejudice and discrimination to science. Be “woke” — be aware of how race may affect one’s experiences. Also know that observing how environmental factors could affect measured IQ in different groups without resorting to junk science is not “political correctness.”
Falsehoods like the idea that lower intelligence is intrinsic to Black people is counterproductive to this debate. The way forward is to acknowledge that race is a social construct and that it has negatively affected a large proportion of our society. Diversity of thought is rooted in diversity of experiences. To educate ourselves on why experiences may differ between races, let’s look to history and educate ourselves on all that Black Americans and people of other races have endured — physically, emotionally and systemically. This all started with the social construction of race that established “the other” and sanctioned the prejudice that Black people are subhuman to whites. And that myth still pervades our debates on race today.