The Lesson of Race Denial

The Lesson of Race Denial

By Ian Jobling • 1/30/07

John Ogbu
John Ogbu.

Our last feature laid out the reasons for believing that differences between whites and blacks in IQ and other personality attributes are rooted in genes. We saw the variety and strength of the lines of evidence that support the innatist, or race realist, view of racial differences.

It is, however, worth examining the alternative, environmentalist account of the origin of race differences. Every argument has two sides, of course, and both ought to be heard. Furthermore, the environmentalist perspective is currently the dominant one in the West; consequently, it tells us a great deal about the way our culture views race.

John Ogbu, who died in 2003, was a Berkeley anthropology professor who argued for an environmentalist view of black-white differences in IQ and school performance throughout his long career. He was also among the most famous and respected educational theorists of his time. As one of his colleagues said, “In every article on the subject of minority education, inevitably there are references to John’s work.” Since Ogbu’s work is so respected and influential, it is a good index of what most environmentalists think and ought to represent the strongest arguments for his side.

The year before his death, Ogbu summed up his ideas on race and IQ in a long article called “Cultural Amplifiers of Intelligence: IQ and Minority Status in Cross-Cultural Perspective,” which appears in the edited volume Race and Intelligence: Separating Science from Myth. The “myth” in the title refers to the innatist view of race; Ogbu and his colleagues are supposedly doing science.

Ogbu believes racial IQ differences are entirely cultural in origin. What IQ tests measure, he says, are just the skills valued by the white middle class in America.

IQ tests measure intellectual skills adaptive for and valued by White middle-class Americans. Psychologists brought up in the White middle-class ecocultural niche acquire these skills, valued in that niche. When they make up IQ tests they include verbal or nonverbal intellectual problems from the White middle-class ecocultural niche that require White middle-class knowledge to solve… . [A]ll normal individuals in any human population can acquire the intellectual skills that are measured in IQ tests because they have the panhuman genotype1.

For Ogbu, racial discrimination, both past and present, has denied blacks the opportunity and motivation to achieve intellectual equality with whites2. For generations after slavery, he says, blacks were confined to substandard schooling and menial jobs. Furthermore, whites’ belief that blacks were inferior held them back3. Although discrimination against blacks has decreased since the days of slavery and Jim Crow, it still persists today. Because America still does not give blacks equal access to high-quality education or high-status, intellectually demanding jobs, they are excluded from institutions that instill intelligence. Also, because blacks associate IQ tests with a white power structure that they know is designed to discriminate against them, they do not feel any incentive to do well on them.4.

As Ogbu says:

Prior to being forced into minority status, Blacks did not expect to become successful in life by getting White education or high IQ test scores… . They see little or no connection between doing well on IQ tests and job opportunities and other social benefits. This situation has existed for so long that they have come to perceive the barriers as more or less institutionalized and permanent5.

Ogbu recognizes that some minorities in America perform very well on IQ tests, even above the majority population. For example, Northeast Asians in America have a mean IQ score substantially above that of whites. Why do these minorities escape the effects of discrimination that are so debilitating to others? Ogbu argues that there is a fundamental difference in the attitude of what he calls “voluntary minorities,” such as Asians, who came as willing immigrants to America, and involuntary minorities, such as blacks and American Indians, who were incorporated into America through conquest or enslavement. Involuntary minorities resent America for the suffering the racial majority has inflicted on them. Voluntary minorities feel no such resentment. Indeed, they are grateful to their new country for giving them a chance to live the American dream6.

Ogbu’s theory is obviously wrong. First, he does not deal with the wide body of empirical evidence that proves IQ differences are overwhelmingly due to genes. We saw in “The Reality of Racial Differences” that twin studies have demonstrated that about 80 percent of the variability in IQ scores is due to genes, and almost none to differences in shared environment. If the racial discrimination of which Ogbu writes exists, it would make up part of blacks’ shared environment, as all blacks would be subject to it. And this counter-argument applies to all theories that attribute black-white IQ differences to differences in socio-economic status and culture. Blacks’ poverty relative to whites, their greater rate of unemployment, their tendency to watch more TV—none of these factors is sufficient to explain the IQ gap. Indeed, it is much more likely that these behaviors are effects, rather than causes, of blacks’ lower intelligence.

Furthermore, Ogbu’s evidence that that involuntary minority status causes some groups to do poorly on IQ tests is weak. Trying to show that his theory has cross-cultural validity, Ogbu cites the examples of the Burakumin and Koreans in Japan, both of whom are involuntary minorities and have been subject to racial discrimination. In Japan, these groups do not have the same levels of educational attainment as native Japanese, and the Burakumin score lower on IQ tests. However, in the US, where Burakumin, Koreans, and Japanese are voluntary minorities, all score equally well on IQ tests7. There is little actual data supporting Ogbu’s argument. Little information about the IQ scores of these groups is available8. Indeed, there is no information at all on the IQ scores of the Korean minority in Japan.

Ogbu also does not put his theory to any empirical test. There is no attempt to systematically measure the strength of the effect of being a member of an involuntary minority on IQ scores and compare this effect to that of genes. Ogbu simply gives the examples of blacks and the Japanese minorities and acts as though his point has been proven. The lack of empirical testing means Ogbu’s theory can be disproven by citing the large body of evidence that contradicts it. Blacks are voluntary minorities in Europe, for example, but the difference between their mean IQ score and that of whites is the same in Europe as it is in the US. Mexicans are voluntary minorities in the US, but they score worse on IQ tests than whites9.

Finally, Ogbu’s evidence for white discrimination against blacks is plainly obsolete. For example, he attempts to substantiate his claim that whites use IQ tests to discriminate against non-whites by citing research he did on non-whites’ view of a civil service exam administered in Stockton, California in 1969. The interviewees alleged the tests were graded and evaluated in a discriminatory manner10. The allegations of misconduct that Ogbu cites were never proven. However, even if they were true, it is difficult to see how this example would prove anything about 21st century America. Since it has been illegal for employers to administer IQ tests to job applicants since the 1970s, Ogbu’s example fails to prove why blacks would still believe these tests were used to discriminate against them in hiring. Furthermore, he fails to even mention the great, even absurd, lengths to which Americans have subsequently gone to end discrimination against blacks. Indeed, so extensive have the efforts at remediation been that we now openly discriminate in favor of blacks and against whites in university admissions and employment!

There is so little evidence of racial discrimination against blacks in the present that Ogbu changed his tack in the book Black Students in an Affluent Suburb, which he published the year after this article. The book details Ogbu’s investigation of the causes of low black educational achievement at Shaker Heights High School, located in a Cleveland suburb. In this book, Ogbu is honest enough to admit that racial discrimination and poverty were not the causes of black students’ poor performance, as there was no sign of serious racial discrimination against black students at the high school and the students mostly came from affluent or middle-class families. Ogbu nevertheless managed to retain the bulk of his theory intact: he said past discrimination against blacks had created an “oppositional” identity that caused both students and parents to mistrust the educational system11. The obvious objections to this theory remain unaddressed in this book.

As we saw in “The Reality of Racial Differences,” the innatist theory of black-white differences is supported by rigorous empirical tests. These include not only the twin studies mentioned above, but also trans-racial adoption studies and the results of culturally-neutral IQ tests across the globe that consistently show that blacks have lower intelligence than whites no matter what the social context. On the other hand, environmentalists support their case through ad hoc examples and anecdotes that crumble on the slightest examination.

Yet it is environmentalists like Ogbu who are rewarded in our culture, while innatists are scorned for their conscientious pursuit of the truth. This distorted judgment shows how deeply engrained what I have called the “whites as cancer myth” is in our culture. We have been so thoroughly conditioned to blame whites for all of the failings of non-whites that we accept white racism as the explanation for low black IQ on the flimsiest of evidence.

There is a better name for environmentalism: race denial. The culture of the West is in denial about racial differences. Just as the madman twists the evidence of his senses into rationales for his delusion, and lashes out at anyone who contradicts him, so we crown anyone who denies the reality of race a sage and hurl abuse at those who insist on the plain truth.

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Notes and References
  1. John U. Ogbu, “Cultural Amplifiers of Intelligence: IQ and Minority Status in Cross-Cultural Perspective,” in Race and Intelligence: Separating Science from Myth [book on-line] (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002, accessed 29 January 2007), 248-49; available from Questia,; Internet. 
  2. Ibid., 249. 
  3. Ibid., 253. 
  4. Ibid., 252-54. 
  5. Ibid., 255. 
  6. Ibid., 250-52. 
  7. Ibid., 270-73. 
  8. Arthur R. Jensen, The G Factor: The Science of Mental Ability [book on-line] (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998, accessed 28 January 2007), 511-12; available from Questia,; Internet. 
  9. Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen. IQ and the Wealth of Nations (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002), 213-14. 
  10. “Cultural Amplifiers,” 256-59. 
  11. John U. Ogbu, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement [book on-line] (Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 2003, accessed 28 January 2007), 50-55; available from Questia,; Internet. 

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