Stop Obsessing over Race and IQ

John McWhorter, National Review, July 5, 2017

Suppose it’s true.

Suppose that, at the end of the day, people of African descent have lower IQs on average than do other groups of humans, and that this gap is caused, at least in part, by genetic differences.

Of late, since Charles Murray was all but physically assaulted when he tried to speak at Middlebury, the issue as to whether his claim (with Richard J. Herrnstein) in The Bell Curve that blacks on average have lower IQs, and that it’s “highly likely” that genes play a role, has entered the public discourse once again, in part through a podcast interview Murray did with Sam Harris. Meanwhile, there has long been discussion of the issue in forums that are rarely sampled by the mainstream media and feature frequent complaints that “enlightened” people refuse to talk about race and IQ.

There is, however, a question that those claiming black people are genetically predisposed to have lower IQs than others fail to answer: What, precisely, would we gain from discussing this particular issue?


Is the issue of whether IQ differs innately between races as unequivocally settled as that of whether genocide is okay? If not, does it fit into the class of things that ought to be up for discussion? In fact, I suggest that race and IQ is an exceptional topic, in the literal sense. The data are not all in, yet I see no value in including this topic in our liberal-arts discussions. Certainly scientists will research the topic and will share their findings, which will always be available online for those interested. However, those aggrieved that this particular issue is not aired more widely in general discussion need to make their premises clearer — upon which, I suggest, those premises will seem less convincing than they are aware.


My purpose here, however, is not to throw my hat in with those who argue that there is a genetic racial gap in IQ. I have always hoped the black–white IQ gap was due to environmental causes. My intuition — whatever it is worth given that I am not an expert on the subject — is that the lag in performance of African-descended persons on IQ tests is the result of culture. As I have argued for 20 years now, a people are determined not only by external conditions but by the norms passed on in their culture. Many, including most academics, insist that culture is itself determined by external conditions, but this is an oversimplification. Norms and culture, once settled as habit, can persist long after the external causes that originally created them.


So that’s how I hope the issue of race and IQ works. But I cannot allow myself to fall into the sadly common pattern in which people’s insistence that something is true is founded as much on their wanting it to be true as on actual evidence. My hunches and predilections do not qualify as conduits to truth. I can responsibly claim neither on my gut sense nor on what I have seen of the research that it has been proven that there is no genetically based racial gap in IQ.

But I do question why those calling attention to possible evidence for such a gap feel that it is such an important topic to discuss. That is, let’s suppose that black people actually are, on the average, lower in g than others. Why, exactly, is it so urgent that this be openly “acknowledged”?

I can see exactly three rationales as to why we must be “honest” about the IQ gap, if it exists. None offers anything we could call progressive or constructive.

The first is that the IQ gap delegitimizes policy devoted to redressing the injustices that black people have suffered. That is, one might argue that because black people are on the average less intelligent than other people, our efforts to give a hand to black children in education and point poor black people to employment opportunities are misguided. Rather, society should accept that a disproportionate number of black people will labor at the bottom of the occupational scale and that in general black people will be underrepresented in the higher echelons of society.

If this is what those calling for us to be “honest” about the data they draw attention to mean, then I suggest they be more overt in their prescription. But the prescription would fare poorly. The chances that there will ever be a brutally open, race-based meritocratic consensus of this kind among America’s ruling and chattering classes are roughly nil. Those who are revolted by the very idea of such a conclusion — including me — can rest assured that the moral development of the West, halting and imperfect though it has been, has produced a bulwark against complacently accepting racial stratification. As I have written often, educated Americans in particular now harbor nothing less than an anti-racist religion that will never accept such a mode of thinking as anything but antiquated and morally repulsive.

A second purpose of being “honest” about a racial IQ gap would be the opposite of the first: We might take the gap as a reason for giving not less but more attention to redressing race-based inequities. That is, could we imagine an America in which it was accepted that black people labored — on average, of course — under an intellectual handicap, and an enlightened, compassionate society responded with a Great Society–style commitment to the uplift of the people thus burdened?

I am unaware of any scholar or thinker who has made this argument, perhaps because it, too, is an obvious fantasy. {snip}

Finally, some advocates of “honesty” about race and IQ have argued that we must acknowledge that black people have lower IQs but must also “progress” toward an ability to celebrate individuals for a range of talents beyond intelligence. I consider those making this argument sincere — and quixotic.

“Smarts,” as they drive civilization forward, will always occupy a privileged place in our evaluation of human beings. The Duke Ellingtons and the Michael Jordans will be our kings, but the Albert Einsteins and the Stephen Hawkings will be our gods. As a linguist, I am aware of no human language in which the word for “smart” does not refer to, well, smarts. No society in the world applies that word as well to those who are good at spearing fish, playing the flute, or making themselves well liked. Much of the reason we step around the issue of race and IQ is that intelligence, shimmering in all of its viscerally resonant glory, is something whose value we do not really question.


In sum, various thinkers insist, some more publicly than others, that we are at fault in not openly “facing” that there is a genetic IQ gap between black people and others. Yet there would seem to be no constructive benefit in “facing” this gap if it exists.

One thing that may undergird these thinkers’ sense that this issue must be “aired” is a general resentment of the Left’s censorious policing of race issues in general. As someone who has taken issue with such policing at length, I share these thinkers’ grievance that on so many topics — such as the value of standardized testing, the wisdom of open-ended racial preferences, the definition of cultural appropriation, whether black-on-black crime or the police present the direst threat to poor black communities, and others — views other than the Left’s are blithely dismissed as morally repugnant. A more open and honest discussion of such matters has direct implications for the well-being of the black community. But the IQ issue is different. To discuss it would shed not more heat than light, but all heat and no light.

Our valuation of intelligence, combined with black people’s grievous history in America, suggests an eccentric yet logical approach to the issue of race and IQ: As a topic whose discussion will yield injury, fury, and doubletalk with no countervailing benefits in terms of prescriptions for how society ought to operate, it ought be exempted from open discussion.

That is: Intelligence researchers, writing in dense, obscure academic journals, will continue to quietly present data that show that race influences the heritability of IQ to certain degrees; others will present data in disagreement. I hope they ultimately settle on a verdict that environment really does entirely trump the heritable portion of the IQ difference; possibly they will not. However, in the wider world, I see no reason that this research should be “faced” and subject to ongoing “debate.” For example, undergraduates should not feel comfortable bringing up these data in class discussions unrelated to genetic research; society would gain nothing from their doing so. Our mainstream media organs, while remiss in their current tendency to insist the issue is settled, will not be remiss in declining to program articles and symposia exploring it out of some kind of “curiosity.”


That’s hypothetical, of course — but what isn’t hypothetical is that, in our times, there is no apparent benefit to dwelling on the IQ gap. The burden is on those who claim otherwise to make their case.

[Editor’s Note: Robert VerBruggen has published a thoughtful reply to this article at National Review. For our part, we’ve republished Jared Taylor’s 2008 article which explores these arguments.]

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