A Talk for the H. L. Mencken Club, November 7, 2015
Let me begin by saying that social science theories, whether they are right or wrong, are more influential than is commonly acknowledged. I’d like to illustrate this point by discussing three theories of race relations.
W. E. B. Du Bois invented "white guilt", and he did so by emphasizing white responsibility for black failure.
Before Du Bois, most of the scholarship on American racial problems had regarded human nature as the source of black deficiency. Du Bois challenged the conventional wisdom of his era when he blamed whites for the problems of blacks.
Du Bois conceded that blacks, although only four percent of the population in Philadelphia, committed 22 percent of the serious crimes. Du Bois also recognized that, as he put it, “sexual looseness” brought “adultery and prostitution in its train.” And Du Bois did not ignore the importance of self-help. In 1896, he told one group of blacks that “the first and greatest step [toward progress] is the correction of the immorality, crime and laziness among Negroes themselves.”
But even more, Du Bois praised the achievements and culture of African Americans, and he attributed the poverty and problems of his race to white discrimination, especially to racial barriers to good jobs. Du Bois emphasized white culpability.
Gunnar Myrdal initially achieved fame as an economist who focused on business cycles and monetary policy. Eventually, Myrdal won a Nobel Prize for his work in these fields. But Myrdal was best known in the United States for his two-volume 1944 study of race relations, An American Dilemma.
In it, Myrdal departed from Du Bois’s balanced assessment. Du Bois celebrated the achievements of the African American community that he loved, but also acknowledged that aspects of black life were problematic. For Myrdal, however, there was nothing good about black life and culture. He thought black “culture” was a tangle of pathology, but (like Du Bois) Myrdal absolved blacks and blamed whites.
According to Myrdal, white discrimination and especially racial segregation—the lack of black contact with white civilization—had damaged blacks and their culture. Whites were responsible for what Myrdal called “the instability of the Negro family . . . the emotionalism of the Negro church . . . provincialism . . . high Negro crime rate . . . and other characteristic traits.”
To overcome the warping effects of discrimination and segregation, Myrdal called for both desegregation and integration. “We assume,” Myrdal wrote, “that it is to the advantage of American Negroes as individuals and as a group to become assimilated into American culture, to acquire the traits held in esteem by the dominant white Americans.” In time, Myrdal’s views became something of a liberal orthodoxy.
In developing their theories, Du Bois and Myrdal departed from views that previously had been in vogue. Like most of the influential founders of modern social science, Du Bois and Myrdal maintained that there were no important, hereditary behavioral differences among peoples of different continental ancestries. They emphasized the influence of history and geography, culture and climate. They thought human evolution stopped when our species emerged from Africa to populate the rest of the world. They said that, with the right social reforms, ethnic and racial achievement gaps could be abolished.
When I was a student at Stanford and Berkeley, from 1956 to 1965, I was taught the sociology of Du Bois and Myrdal. I was taught that race was not responsible for racial differences in patterns of behavior.
One of my favorite professors, Kenneth M. Stampp, summed up the prevailing wisdom in memorable language, “Negroes are, after all, only white men with black skins, nothing more, nothing less” [Preface to The Peculiar Institution, 1957]. I was told that only bigots thought that biological inheritance was at all responsible for group differences in behavior and achievement. I was told that race was “only skin deep.” I was told that well-educated people never attributed group differences to evolution or biology. My professors subscribed to the doctrine of zero group differences, the Blank Slate idea that all races of humanity were born with the same distribution of aptitudes and talent.
Without exception, my professors supported school desegregation and the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (1954).
But at that time, from 1954 to 1968, the federal courts required only that students not be excluded from schools solely on the grounds of race. The courts held that the proper remedy for compulsory separation was to end such separation. But prior to 1968, the Supreme Court did not demand that enrollments at individual schools should be balanced to promote-racial mixing. Nor did the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which defined desegregation both positively and negatively: “’Desegregation’ means the assignment of students to public schools . . . without regard to their race . . . . , but ‘desegregation’ shall not mean the assignment of students . . . to overcome racial imbalance.”
Thus mere desegregation did not lead to much inter-racial contact. By the late 1960s, public school students were being assigned on a racially non-discriminatory basis. They were either assigned to schools close to their homes or they were allowed to attend whatever school they chose. Yet neither policy achieved the sort of mixing that Gunnar Myrdal considered indispensable for uplifting blacks.
Enrollments in neighborhood schools turned out to be either mostly white or mostly black, because most whites and blacks lived in neighborhoods that were inhabited predominantly by people of their own race. Enrollments in choice schools were also skewed, because most students did not wish to attend a school in which their race would be a minority.
Thus desegregation did not produce the sort of inter-racial contact that Gunnar Myrdal had considered crucial. And in the 1960s and 1970s, against the background of a growing Civil Rights movement, many more scholars followed Myrdal’s lead with research that supposedly showed that black students benefited from attending majority-white schools, while whites did not suffer.
In one Supreme Court case, 553 social scientists (and 60 historians and 19 former chancellors of the University of California) told the Court that the educational disadvantages of attending racially imbalanced schools were well documented; that research has shown that students benefited from attending schools with racially balanced enrollments.
Since this was said to be the case, some academics concluded that it was a moral imperative to go beyond mere desegregation and to achieve racially balanced integration. Thus Jennifer Hochschild, a professor at Princeton, called for “democracy” to give way to “liberalism.” Since most parents would not voluntarily send their children to racially balanced schools, she urged courts to insist that they do so. Quoting John Dewey, Professor Hochschild [Email her]maintained, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must the community want for all its children” [The New American Dilemma: Liberal Democracy and School Desegregation, 1984]. If most Americans would not choose to have racially balanced schools, “they must permit elites to make that choice for them.”
James Liebman, a professor at Columbia, explained that one goal of integration was to withdraw control from parents and to give children “a wider range of choices about the persons with whom they might associate and the values they might adopt as they approach adulthood.” Professor Liebman [Email him] urged the government to protect what he called the “autonomy” of children from the “tyranny” of parents. He said the government should make sure that children were exposed to “a broader range of value options than their parents could hope to provide.”
In 1968, the Supreme Court changed colors. In Green v. New Kent County (1968), the Court held that Brown, when illuminated by findings in psychology and sociology, required school districts to achieve balanced racial enrollments. The Court rejected the idea that racially neutral methods of assigning pupils constituted full compliance with Brown.
After Green, for about 25 years, our Federal Courts held that desegregation no longer meant assigning children to schools without regard to race. It meant assignment according to race to produce as much racial mixing as possible. Disregarding the concept of community and the parents’ rights to direct the education of children under their control, the courts changed the constitutional mandate from prohibiting racial assignments to separate the races to requiring racial assignments to mix them.
At the same time, academics were given to understand that penalties were in store for scholars who criticized busing for racial balance. The experience of James S. Coleman was a case in point.
In the 1960s, Coleman was one of the scholars who reported that the academic performance of black students improved if they attended predominantly white schools. Journalists and scholars praised Coleman’s report of 1966, Equality of Educational Opportunity, as “firm evidence” for a new policy, busing for racial balance. Coleman was widely celebrated “as a giant in his field, a social scientist with a progressive agenda.” The National Observer identified Coleman as “The Scholar who Inspired Busing” and, when Coleman died in 1995, the obituary in the New York Times appeared under the headline, “Work Helped to Foster Busing.” [Dr. James Coleman, 68, Dies; Work Helped to Foster Busing, by Robert McFadden, New York Times, March 28, 1995]
But Coleman was an honest scholar, and in 1975 he belatedly questioned the value of the policy he had once championed.
He noted that when he had initially collected data in 1965, nearly all the black children attending integrated schools in the South had been volunteers who had enrolled under freedom-of-choice plans, while almost all integration in the North and West had occurred in neighborhood schools where blacks and whites lived in the same vicinity. The desegregated black students of 1965 were not representative of blacks as a group. They were unusual, in that they had either volunteered to attend mostly white schools or had lived in mostly white neighborhoods. In 1978, Coleman admitted that it had been “wishful thinking” (his words) to believe that other black students would make similar scores if they were integrated under mandatory court orders.
In the 1970s, Coleman also recognized the significance of a demographic trend. After analyzing data from 20 large school districts, Coleman concluded that court-ordered busing fostered “resegregation” by increasing the incidence of “White flight.” Specifically, Coleman reported that after a tipping point had been reached, an increase of five percent in the average white child’s black classmates would cause an additional 10 percent of white families to leave.
The problem, Coleman said, was “the degree of disorder and the degree to which schools . . . have failed to control lower-class black children.” It was “quite understandable,” Coleman said, for middle-class families “not to want to send their children to schools where 90 percent of the time is spent not on instruction but on discipline” [Learning from James Coleman, by Richard D. Kahlenberg, National Affairs, Summer 2001]
These comments riled integrationists. “In 1966, we cited you as proof that [integration] worked,” NAACP attorney Charles Morgan told Coleman. “We don’t cite you as proof any more.” The NAACP’s chief executive, Roy Wilkins, denounced Coleman’s traitorous “defection,” and the Civil Rights establishment went to work on the media. The major publications had lauded Coleman in the 1960s, but in the 1970s they became hostile, questioned Coleman’s findings, and frequently quoted critics. [Why School Reform Failed, by Raymond Wolters, National Policy Institute, August 26, 2015].
One of the critics was Alfred McClung Lee, the president of the American Sociological Association. Lee used his position to denounce Coleman at a press conference and then asked the Ethics Committee of the association to censure Coleman. Still later, Lee asked the general membership of the organization to condemn Coleman.
Coleman eventually confronted his critics at a plenary session of the Association, at which the walls were plastered with posters bearing his name, Nazi swastikas, and various epithets. For some time thereafter, Coleman suffered through what he called “a tortured period of intellectual isolation.” “We should not forget,” Coleman later wrote, “how strong the consensus was at that time among social scientists that bussing was an unalloyed benefit, and a policy not to be questioned.”
Thanks to DNA studies and to better methods for dating ancient remains, an increasing number of scholars believe that mankind separated into two parts more than fifty thousand years ago. One part remained in Africa, the ancestral homeland, and the other crossed into Southwest Asia. The second group separated again and again until there were human populations living in reproductive isolation from one another in almost all parts of the world.
This continued for hundreds of generations and, over time, there were numerous adaptations to differing climates and conditions. Opinions differ as to the full extent of these adaptations, but they went beyond changes in skin color. They included differences in musculature and brain size and different sequences in genes that influence behavior, intelligence, and personality.
As our knowledge of DNA increases, what might be called “Biologism” is likely to become increasingly popular. We now know that members of different races differ in their response to medications; that blacks mature earlier than whites or Asians; that blacks develop teeth, strength, and dexterity earlier; that blacks reach sexual maturity at a younger age. How this happened is not clear. But it is likely that genes that favor faster maturation, greater speed, and better vision became so important in some places that nature favored them over genes for abstract thought and for planning ahead.
“Nature isn’t stupid,” the liberal journalist William Saletan wrote in 2007. “If Africans, Asians, and Europeans evolved different genes, the reason is that their respective genes were suited to their respective environments.” CITE
Groups whose ancestors evolved in frigid climates or high altitudes can be expected to differ from groups who trace their ancestry to the tropics or to sea level. Groups that descend from a long line of farmers or merchants can be expected to differ from groups that descend from a long line of hunters and gatherers.
In 2009, Marshall Poe, a history professor at the University of Iowa, noted that evolutionists and genomic researchers, were no longer “talking about skin, eye, or hair color.” They were “talking about intelligence, temperament, and a host of other traits.” They were saying, “The races . . . are differently abled in ways that really matter.”
In 2014 , Greg Cochran, an anthropologist at the University of Utah, wrote that a person was an “idiot” (his word) if the person thought “the optimum mental phenotype . . . [is] the same in the tropical hunter-gatherers, arctic hunter-gatherers, Neolithic peasants, and medieval moneylenders.”
DNA studies are undermining assumptions that have prevailed among the social sciences for about 75 years. DNA research is showing that people of different continental ancestries differ statistically in the distribution of some important aptitudes.
The major media continue to give their readers, viewers, and listeners to understand that all groups have an equal distribution of potential talent. The doctrine of zero group differences prevails in the mainstream. But a growing number of scientists and scholars now acknowledge that different environments select for different traits.
Summarizing a view that is gaining popularity, science writer Nicholas Wade reported that racial differences arose “because after the ancestral population in Africa spread throughout the world . . . geographical barriers prevented interbreeding.” Consequently, “under the influence of natural selection . . . people . . . diverged away from the ancestral population, creating new races.” In his 2o14 book, A Troublesome Inheritance, Wade discussed a large body of research that indicated that “evolution in different environments has led to different distributions of genes that influence not just skin color but also behavior, intelligence, and personality.”
Allow me, please, to mention a personal note that came to my mind when I was reading one of John Derbyshire’s columns.
My father fought in the First World War, and my paternal grandfather farmed virgin land in Kansas. They were not disciples of Charles Darwin, but they believed that racial differences were obvious and important. They disapproved of bigots and told me to treat everyone with respect. But they also knew there was a difference between equality of opportunity for individuals and equality of results for groups. They recognized something that, until recent decades, seemed obvious to most people: that the different races of mankind inherently differ statistically in the distribution of certain traits.
My own generation was taught the opposite; that any statistical differences were the result of privilege, discrimination, or lack of opportunity. But what about my grandchildren and their progeny? What will they think?
It’s hard to know. I hope they will become acquainted with modern research in the social and genetic sciences. If they do, they will understand that social reforms will fail if they are at odds with human nature. They will understand why one reform after another has failed to close the racial and ethnic gaps in academic achievement. And if they understand that, the opinions of my grandchildren and their children will resemble those of my father and grandfather more closely than the opinions that currently prevail among the American elite.
Finally, I would like to close with a touch of balance and a word of caution.
First, the touch of balance: We should be realists about race, but we should also be realists about racism.
And finally, a word of caution: If history has taught us anything, it has taught us to be skeptical of racial theories.
Thanks for listening.