Richwine and the Inherent Goodness of Intelligence

[Content note: racism]

In news that should surprise absolutely no one, conservatives have once again embarrassed themselves by attempting to “prove” with “science” that people of color are stupider than white people. Yup, again.

You’ve probably read this story elsewhere so I’ll make my recap brief: It has come to light that Jason Richwine (I’m not making this name up, folks), the lead author of a study on immigration from the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote his 2009 PhD dissertation on…why Hispanics are genetically stupider than whites and will therefore continue to have children who are stupider than whites:

Richwine’s dissertation asserts that there are deep-set differentials in intelligence between races. While it’s clear he thinks it is partly due to genetics — ‘the totality of the evidence suggests a genetic component to group differences in IQ’ — he argues the most important thing is that the differences in group IQs are persistent, for whatever reason. He writes, ‘No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.

In case you’re wondering at which podunk school Richwine wrote such a dissertation, well, it was Harvard.

(Awkwardly, the very next day after WaPo broke this story, a Pew Research Center report was released that showed that Hispanic students’ rate of college enrollment is now greater than whites’. LOLZ. [However, note that Hispanic =/= Latino.])

Why are conservatives so goddamn obsessed with trying to “prove” that people of color are stupid? Zack Beauchamp at ThinkProgress has a great analysis:

These spats don’t generally endear conservatism to the general public, so it’s not like this is a political move. So why is it that the right-of-center intelligentsia keeps coming back to this topic? I’d suggest two reasons: first, a link between race and IQ moots the moral imperative for public policy aimed at addressing systemic poverty; second, it allows conservatives to take up the mantle of disinterested, dispassionate intellectual they so love.

One mistake that all of these people make–aside from the glaring one of being racist, that is–is that they treat the distinction between “IQ” and “intelligence” as completely irrelevant. Scrupulous research psychologists are quick to acknowledge that the measures they use are imperfect and can only provide an approximation of the actual abstractions they are trying to assess. So if you score higher on a scale of depression, we don’t say you are “more depressed”; we say that you “scored higher on the Such-and-Such Depression Scale.” If you score higher on a scale of extroversion, we don’t say that you are “more extroverted”; we say that you “scored higher on the Blah-Blah-Blah Extroversion-Introversion Scale.” At least, that’s what careful, conscientious psychologists do.

Many believe that intelligence is a much more concrete (and therefore measurable) quality than extroversion or how depressed you are. They may be right; I’m not a cognitive psychologist so this is not my specialty. However, serious criticism of IQ as a measure of intelligence has been made–and by “Real Scientists,” too, not just by Bleeding-Heart-Tree-Hugging-I’m-Mixing-Metaphors Liberals. And in terms of race, some researchers have suggested that IQ tests are biased against Mexican Americans because the tests contain “cultural influences” that reduce the validity of the test when assessing these students’ cognitive ability.

Back to Beauchamp’s analysis of conservatives and why they’re so obsessed with race and IQ:

This vein of argument was pioneered by Richwine’s mentor, Bell Curve author Charles Murray. Murray’s research focused more on the purported unintelligence of African-Americans, but his conclusions about its role in sustaining poverty were similar. Murray has taken this conclusion and used it to argue against everything from affirmative action to essentially all policy interventions aimed at reducing economic inequality. It’s easy to see how this argument works — if some people are less intelligent than others, as a consequence of either genetics or “underclass culture,” then government programs aren’t likely to help equalize society — creating an economically more level playing field will only cause the most talented to rise to the top again. Inequality is thus natural and ineradicable; poverty might be helped at the margins, but helping the unintelligent will be fraught with unintended consequences.

Moreover, this framing allows conservatives to explain the obviously racial character of American poverty without having to concede the continued relevance of racism to American public life. If it’s really the case that people with certain backgrounds simply aren’t as smart as others, then it makes sense that they’d be less successful as a group. What strikes progressives as offensively racial inequality thus becomes naturalized for conservatives in the same way that inequality and poverty writ large do.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? People of color are disproportionately likely to be poor compared to white people. People of color are stupider than white people. Ergo, there’s no need to try to alleviate poverty and economic inequality because it’s natural.

Hopefully you noticed the big honkin’ naturalistic fallacy in that argument. Even if it’s natural for people of color to be poor (because they’re stupid and therefore can’t get off the couch and get a job), that doesn’t mean that this is a good way for society to be. It does not follow that we should just allow things to continue this way.

The other big flaw is that these conservatives are also succumbing–as, to be fair, most people do–to the notion that people with higher IQs/more intelligence are inherently better than people with lower IQs/less intelligence. It is okay that people with little intelligence should struggle just to get by, should be unable to give their children a better life (whether those children have low IQs or not), should be unable to afford basic healthcare, should have to eat cheap, unhealthy food, should have to choose between dangerous, dehumanizing, low-pay work (or none at all) and breaking the law to make money, should have to live as second-class citizens. All because they are “less intelligent,” which is supposedly mostly genetic and therefore not something they chose.

I wish liberals talked about this more. I wish that when conservatives started trotting out these reprehensible arguments, that liberals would, rather than simply emphasizing that there is no proof that people of color are “naturally” dumber than white people and that this is a racist argument, also ask why it is that intelligence should determine whether or not you have access to food, shelter, and healthcare.

There are, of course, many other important things to discuss here. We could talk about how there are so many different types of intelligence and IQ tests only measure a certain type. We could talk about how growing up in poverty drastically reduces one’s opportunities for intellectual enrichment and growth. We could talk about how you don’t necessarily need to be “smart” to contribute to society; we do need service-sector workers and types of unskilled laborers and they should be able to live on what they make, too.

But I think we need to talk about this idea that having a lot of “intelligence” (whatever that even means) makes you better than those who do not have a lot of it. So much better, in fact, those without sufficient “intelligence” do not deserve to live above the poverty line.

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Edit: Not quite related to the main point of this article, but the conservative response to this controversy and Richwine’s subsequent firing/resignation from the Heritage Foundation is veeery interesting. I won’t link to any because you can Google it yourself, but it’s all about Richwine’s “crucifixion” and how liberals are trying to “destroy” him and so on.

Conservatives have this interesting theory in which, when someone does something wrong, it is the fault of the person who calls attention to it that the wrong-doer experiences negative consequences. It’s not that Richwine did something wrong, it’s that the meanie liberals are trying to destroy him. Similarly, when someone accuses someone–say, up-and-coming football players–of sexual assault, many conservatives accuse the victims of “ruining” their rapists’ lives by bringing what they did to light.

The fact that people’s reputation suffers when they do something terrifically stupid or harmful is not a bad thing. That is, indeed, society working as it should. It is a feature, not a bug.

How To Not Be An Asshole To Immigrants

Growing up as a first-generation immigrant in the suburban Midwest is weird. I was often the only person my classmates knew who had been born in another country, who didn’t have American citizenship, who spoke a language other than English or Spanish fluently, who wasn’t a Christian. I think people often unintentionally treated me as the Official Ambassador of Israel/Russia/Communism/Judaism to the City of Beavercreek, Ohio.

I was lucky in that I was very rarely bullied or harassed outright (and when I was, it usually wasn’t directed at my various ethnic/religious/national statuses, so I couldn’t really tell if that was motivating the extra attention or not).

However, my status as an immigrant played a huge role in my childhood and adolescence–probably bigger than any other part of my identity. It was what people noticed the most and latched onto, and also what people conveniently ignored when they wanted to hold me accountable for failing to follow their norms.

Because of that, how we treat immigrants has been something I’ve thought about literally since I was old enough to think about things like that, which is why I wanted to write about how we can be better at it.

Note: As immigrants go I am extremely privileged. I’m white/European, able-bodied, and middle-class, and my parents are both highly educated (which played a huge part in the fact that we were able to immigrate in the first place). I also immigrated at a pretty young age–old enough to understand what was happening and miss my home country like hell, but young enough to adjust sort of well and learn the language quickly. I am also an immigrant to the United States.

This means that my experience as an immigrant is very different from many other people’s experiences as immigrants, and the content of this post reflects that. I’m not going to try and write about immigrant experiences that are not my own, but you should definitely share yours in the comments if they address issues that I’m unable to speak about (well, and even if they don’t).

Second note: Yeah, this is mostly a post of “don’ts” and not of “do’s.” There are two possible reasons for this that you can pick from: 1) I’m a nasty and negative person, or 2) including lots of “do’s” on this list is kind of silly, because the “do’s” of how to treat someone who’s an immigrant are basically the same as the do’s of how to treat anyone else: be kind and honest, assume good intentions, respect boundaries.

So here we go.

1. Don’t make fun of their pronunciation or be an asshole about how you correct it.

For most of my childhood, I heard the following sort of thing on a regular basis: “HAHA did you just say SAL-mon? Don’t you know it’s pronounced SAAAAAAAA-mon? DUH.”

There are basically three appropriate responses when someone mispronounces something. One is to politely say something like, “Hey, just so you know, that’s pronounced SAH-mon.” Another is to say nothing but use the word yourself and pronounce it correctly. The third is to realize that you do, in fact, have the option of just letting it slide and not playing English Police. They’ll learn eventually; you don’t need to be their personal savior.

This sort of thing got much better once I was no longer a child (suggestion: talk about this with your kids!) but you’d be surprised how many adults likewise don’t understand that this sort of thing is extremely rude.

2. Don’t make fun of them for not getting your cultural references.

There’s an xkcd that makes this point really well:
Saying 'what kind of an idiot doesn't know about the Yellowstone supervolcano' is so much more boring than telling someone about the Yellowstone supervolcano for the first time.

I love this because it shows how silly and small-minded it is to make fun of someone for not knowing something you think they should know. It’s especially true with pop culture stuff.

Even if someone immigrates to the U.S. as a child, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be very aware of (or necessarily interested in) American pop culture. I wasn’t until late adolescence, partially because I always sort of did my own thing and partially because my parents didn’t expose me to it at home. They showed me the Russian cartoons they loved as children and played the Russian music they’d listened to their whole lives. The food we ate was mostly Russian and Israeli; the movies we watched were older foreign films of all sorts.

So when I express ignorance about some piece of American culture and my friends are all like “AHAHAHAHAHA you don’t know who KURT COBAIN IS/what the PRINCESS DIARIES ARE were you born under a rock or what?!”, that is unhelpful. No, I wasn’t born under a rock. Just in another country.

This, unlike the pronunciation thing, hasn’t really gotten much better as I’ve gotten older. Maybe people assume that because I did spend most of my childhood here, I somehow developed a taste for this stuff, I don’t know. Or they assume that I’m somehow “required” to learn about famous American TV shows/movies/musicians by virtue of living here. But I haven’t and I’m not.

3. Don’t act all amazed at how good their English is.

Yeah, yeah, I know, sometimes this is totally fine and sometimes people won’t be offended. If you know someone pretty well and have actually witnessed their English improving, go ahead and compliment them on it. But otherwise, acting like it’s so amazing that the person has indeed managed to learn English is kind of condescending, especially since they might’ve been in the country for quite some time.

4. Don’t assume they’re here by choice or that they want to Become A Real American Now or that they need to assimilate.

Although Americans tend to act like their country is The Best In The World and that everyone else agrees, this isn’t necessarily the case. My family, for instance, came here mostly out of economic necessity–the Israeli economy was basically in the toilet in the mid-90s–and also because, well, Israel is a little bit dangerous. But we miss it all the time, and for me, it will always be home in some sense.

New immigrants are often encouraged to assimilate rapidly to American culture and shrug off their ethnic identity. Historically this was often done to them against their will–for instance, Ellis Island officials would change foreign-sounding names to more American-sounding ones without permission. However, this is still going on to a distressing degree, such as the continuing battles over whether or not Latino/Latina children should be allowed to learn about their own culture and history in schools.

There is absolutely no reason to assume that American culture > other cultures. There is no reason to expect or pressure immigrants to Become Americans. Sometimes you move to a new place and that place becomes home for you. But sometimes, it doesn’t.

5. This is probably obvious, but bears repeating: don’t literally ask them if they fit the stereotypes you have assigned to their country/culture of origin.

If I got a dime every time someone said “Oh you’re Russian? You must be an alcoholic then ahahaha hahaha vodka babushka nuclear weapons Putin Stalin.” That’s all. (Here are some things Russians are tired of you saying to them.)

6. Don’t ask questions like you already know the answer.

This relates closely to the previous point, but it doesn’t necessarily involve stereotypes. People’s questions often contain a latent assumption that they already know the answer (i.e. “So your mom must make borsht all the time, right?”), which forces me to contradict them (i.e. “Well, actually, we eat a mix of Russian, Israeli, and Jewish foods so borsht is really only a small part…”)

Or they’ll be like “Oh so your parents must give you vodka all the time, right?” and I have to be like, “Well, actually, in Russian culture vodka is sort of considered a drink for men, and when my family has dinner parties the vodka is typically only poured for men unless a woman specifically asks for it.” (Fun fact: I have never actually drank vodka with my parents even though it flows freely at all of our social events.)

Questions phrased like you already know the answer makes it seem like you’re just awkwardly trying to show off your supposed knowledge of other cultures. Which just makes me feel awkward because I feel somehow expected to validate you and express surprise and gratitude that you know so much about my culture. (Which you don’t, necessarily.)

If people asked things like “What kind of food do you eat at home?”, that would be much better. That gives me space to actually answer the question and give them the information they’re curious about without feeling like I’m being asked to make someone feel good for knowing what borsht is.

And for goodness’ sake, quit asking about the damn vodka already.

Preliminary comment moderation note: Posts like these tend to bring out the Freeze Peach Patrol en masse. Unfortunately for the Freeze Peach Patrol, however, I have no interest in entertaining their flimsy arguments for the hundredth time. So, if you want to participate in the discussion, please contribute something more substantial than “YEAH WELL THE FIRST AMENDMENT SAYS YOU CAN BE AN ASSHOLE TO IMMIGRANTS.” Yes, you have the constitutional right to ignore all of my advice and be a huge asshole. We’ve established that now. Okay? Okay.

American on the Outside

[TMI Warning]

Lately I’ve noticed that when I talk to people about my national identity, they tend to assume that I consider myself American. For instance, I’ll say that I’m Russian and Israeli, and they’ll add “and American” without any prompting from me. I keep wondering why this is, and it brings up some interesting issues about immigration and that whole thing.

I suppose the “ideal” of immigration is that you come to a new country, become a citizen, and renounce your prior ethnic identity. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, many European immigrants who came to the United States did just that. For this reason, most people in the United States today call themselves “Americans,” despite the fact that, except for Native Americans, there really isn’t such a thing as an “American.”

However, I have to admit that I don’t fall into this pattern. My heart just isn’t here. It’s back home in Israel. And although I may “look” like a normal American–I dress, eat, speak, and entertain myself like one–my worldview and way of interacting with people certainly aren’t. For instance, like most Russians, I tend to show off my knowledge and intelligence rather than hiding it, and like most Israelis, I tend to be blunt and open about my beliefs and opinions rather than toning them down a notch like Americans do. For this reason, Americans tend to see me as conceited and overly opinionated, whereas Russians and Israelis never do. After all, the cultural norms are just different. Russians don’t show off their intelligence because they think they’re better than others; rather, they simply don’t have a culture that shames and belittles smart people. In the United States, the assumption tends to be that if you’re acting smart and using lots of big words, you’re probably full of yourself, because if you weren’t, you’d keep that side of yourself hidden like everyone else does.

Similarly with the whole opinion thing. In Israel, if you’re not sharing your opinions, you’re weird. In the US, you’re polite. I always found it funny how things like religion and politics are almost considered “taboo” topics in the US. After all, they’re so interesting and generate so many great discussions, so why wouldn’t people want to talk about them? Americans, unlike Israelis, shy away from any sort of conflict and confrontation. I’ve met plenty of people here who disagree with me, but very few who will actually admit it.

Those are just two examples. Obviously, I could go on and on. I’m reminded of my status as a foreigner every time friends reminisce about American kids’ shows that I never saw or a popular band from the 70s that their parents made them listen to, but mine didn’t. I’m reminded of it every time I find that I can’t stomach a particular American food (hamburger and hot dog buns, the combination of sweet and salty, pork ribs), and every time I look at the culture around me and find it, quite frankly, appalling (the media’s influence on eating disorders, the virgin/whore dichotomy for women, and so on). Although I’ve learned to “act American” for the most part, there are many aspects of my personality that I refuse to let go of, and they mark me as an outlier in this particular culture.

In short, I don’t think that the fact that I’ve ended up living in the United States due to circumstances beyond my control automatically makes me an American. I’m not even a citizen, for starters, and the only reason I’m going to stay here after I graduate is because I’ve learned how to survive here and don’t want to learn it all over again in Israel. I am a Russian Israeli living in America. Not an American.