Asking The Wrong Question

by Guest Contributor Nancy Leong

Question marks

Earlier this week, a media firestorm erupted over a lengthy email written by Harvard Law School third-year student Stephanie Grace in which she stated that she “absolutely do[es] not rule out the possibility that African-Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.”

The controversy over Grace’s email is the latest in a series of periodic flare-ups over the question of whether a particular race or gender is intrinsically “more intelligent” than another. In such situations, debate inevitably ensues. Insults are leveled. Offense is taken. Carefully-worded apologies is issued.

Although in my view Grace is just plain wrong on the facts, my purpose here is not to spend time engaging her claim on the merits. Certainly we can argue over whether there’s a difference in “intelligence” between the races. But those debates eat time, drain resources, exacerbate racial tensions, and, ultimately, get us nowhere useful. So the problem isn’t only that some people answer the question “are blacks less intelligent?” in the affirmative. It’s that they care about the answer to the question in the first place. In my view, it’s a useless question, one not worth asking and not worth trying to answer.

Why? Well, first, “intelligence” itself is a notoriously slippery concept. Intelligence at what? At trigonometry? At sentence diagramming? At computer programming? At analogies? What kind of intelligence matters, and how can we measure that – and nothing more or less – on a test?

The reason we care about so-called intelligence in the first place is that we see it as an indicator of potential for success in the traditional sense – good grades in school, a respectable job, a steady ascent up the ladder of one’s chosen career. True success, of course, is another notoriously slippery concept. But any definition of success is tied to far more than intelligence. Intelligence tests don’t measure qualities like charisma, judgment, creativity, work ethic, collegiality, foresight, and drive – qualities that have far more to do with success in most fields than the skills measured on a typical so-called intelligence test.

Still, suppose – just for the sake of argument – that we could agree on a socially useful definition of intelligence, and further suppose that we could verify empirically that members of one race are “more intelligent,” in the aggregate, than members of another race. (It’s worth bearing in mind that is an impossible project. Even the most rigorous study could never correct for the myriad influences affecting each one of us from the second we’re conceived.) But even if we could verify intelligence in such a matter, doing so would give us no useful information because it would tell us nothing about the ability of any individual member of any particular race.

Put another way, society consigns us to racial groups, but we interact with one another as individuals. Even if we knew, for example, that white people on average are less intelligent than members of any other race, that would have no bearing how we treat any individual white person. Generalizations about the intelligence of white students don’t help one kindergarten teacher trying to help one five-year-old learn to read. And generalizations about the intelligence of white job applicants don’t help one employer trying to choose one person to hire.

All of which brings us to the real problem with the discourse surrounding the racial intelligence question. We shouldn’t waste time arguing over whether one race is, or might be, more intelligent than another. Instead, we should be asking why anyone thinks this question is worth answering.

In my view, it’s not. Assessing “intelligence” is an arbitrary task, and impossible from a practical standpoint. Even if – counterfactually – it could be done, it yields no information that would cause us to treat even one individual differently. So given these fundamental flaws in the project, who would want to establish a race-intelligence connection? Probably someone who wants to “demonstrate” racial superiority and then dress up her discovery in the clothes of objective scientific truth. When we strip away the academic veneer, the desire for an answer to the racial intelligence question is fundamentally a racist desire.

Some may find this view cynical or paranoid. But the focus on the link between race and intelligence is highly telling. Most people aren’t particularly interested the link between intelligence and genetically-linked traits such as brown eyes or red hair. Why, then, do people care about the connection between race – a social construct only loosely defined around a collection of physical markers – and intelligence? The answer is that race is intrinsically tied to status in our society, and so people care about the race-intelligence question because they care whether one race is superior and another inferior.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that the purely academic debate over the racial intelligence question draws attention away from all-too-real issues of racial justice that affect millions of people every single day. The problem with Stephanie Grace’s email, then, isn’t the debate it caused. It’s the debates that it didn’t.

Nancy Leong is an Assistant Professor at the William and Mary School of Law.

Thea’s Note: This post was updated at 12:00pm EST to fix a draft mixup.