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Dumbbells and bell curves

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I KNOW THAT I am dumb. I admit it. Barely graduating from City College high school in Baltimore, unable to follow my distinguished father to Harvard University and living in the shadow of two brilliant sisters -- one a judge and the other a noted child psychologist -- I have long known what it means to be the dumb one.

I also know what it means to be dumber than most of the other young blacks who attended Charles Hamilton Houston Junior High School. The raw talent and sheer mental ability of many of my African American classmates were rarely surpassed in the journey that led me to graduate work at MIT and senior faculty positions at the University of Maryland and the University of Minnesota.

Yes, little black me. I know I am dumb. But those other, exceptional blacks were not.

That's why I take exception to the latest conclusions of the darlings of the conservative right that blacks are dumber than whites.

Those who have known less-than-brilliant white people consider Richard Herrnstein's and Charles Murray's "The Bell Curve" disingenuous at best. Relatively few people have bought the book and even fewer have read it, even though the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time and Newsweek all have given credibility to this otherwise forgettable exercise in social-science mumbo-jumbo.

Still, across the country newspapers have reproduced the book's two central conclusions: that blacks are inherently dumber than whites and that America is largely divided between an intelligent elite and a growing pool of superfluous ignoramuses.

The first is something increasing numbers of Americans already believe. After all the publicity dies down, what most Americans are going to remember is simply that blacks are dumber than whites.

Yet there is an important insight in this book that is worth examining. And it is related to the second main point of the book.

Messrs. Herrnstein and Murray got it right about the division of society between the smart and the dumb. The only problem with their argument is that they fail to see that this division is not the result of some policy-neutral process. And it certainly is not the consequence of biological selection or genetic determinism.

Rather, it is a direct result of invidious past decisions that have far-reaching implications for the persistence of racial and economic inequality in American society.

Is it any surprise some of the most brilliant of my classmates at PS 181 ended up as drug addicts, prison inmates or homicide statistics? Is it any surprise that many of those living in the nearby housing projects have developed cancer and other illnesses associated with high levels of lead and other toxins at an early age?

Is it any surprise that concentrations of asbestos, sulphur dioxide and other carcinogens are higher in inner-city communities and that these poisons have the potential for lowering IQ scores even among lively and alert youngsters?

Most important, is it any surprise that the fate of many of my classmates has been one of rejection of the talents and abilities they have in abundance because of the obsessive focus on what they lack?

Few social policy analysts are taking seriously the unanswered question of "The Bell Curve": If it is true that blacks are dumber than whites, why is that?

Liberal commentators are so concerned with responding to the unexceptional conclusion that blacks score on average 15 points lower than whites on IQ tests that they have missed the opportunity to explore the policy-induced aspects of the gap.

In my recent book "The Black Underclass," with William Darity, Emmett Carson and William Sabol, we argue that the growth of the underclass is not a result of behavioral deficiencies or personal pathologies of blacks and minorities. Nor is it caused by low IQ.

Rather, the growth of the underclass is a result of their redundancy in the new post-industrial era in which their talents and skills are unneeded and undervalued.

The growth of the underclass is also rooted in institutional racism perpetuated and condoned by the intellectual elites who now manage social policy.

For example, present social policy condones locating housing projects near toxic waste dumps. It winks at urban highway construction that exposes inner-city youth to concentrated levels of toxic auto emissions. It tolerates high levels of lead in inner-city housing, high levels of toxins in fish consumed by Native Americans and high levels of toxic substances in Chicano barrios.

The low IQs of the most marginal members of society are, in short, caused by a social policy of neglect.

Messrs. Murray and Herrnstein in effect got the right answer to the wrong question.

There is an inevitable correlation between who is at the bottom and measures like "intelligence," which are valued by those on top.

The denial of opportunities for children of color to grow up in pollution-free, lead-free, toxin-free environments or to thrive in a culture that values their art, music, language and ways of thinking as sures that these children will "inherit" less than their fair share of tomorrow's dreams.

The lesson we learn from the lower scores of blacks on standardized tests is that these tests are measuring a narrow but nevertheless important range of problem-solving skills and abilities that are of substantial economic value in the white world. The people at the top are not smarter in some sort of deterministic sense. They score higher simply because what they value -- knowledge and information -- they also control.

For the poorest members of society, "intelligence" is very much determined by how we choose to invest in their schools, how clean an environment we preserve for them, how nurturing are the health care systems we provide for their families and how compassionate and dedicated we are in valuing them as people.

The solution is not to abandon inner-city residents to the inevitability of inferiority. The solution is to invest more wisely and more often in improving the capacities of people to reason, to learn to analyze and to think critically -- even if that means that we must rethink what these indicators of intelligence really add up to.

The "intelligence" gap ought to be a call for doing more to assure that the legacy of racial inequality ends before still another generation pays the price of our indifference.

Samuel L. Myers Jr. is Roy Wilkins Professor of Human Relations and Social Justice at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.

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