A black scientist writes about James Watson, and it’s insightful. C. Brandon Ogbunu is a computational biologist, so he understands both DNA and statistics, and is in a good position to recognize abuses of both.
Black exceptionalism is a popular and complicated idea. It asserts that a monolithic “average” black identity exists, and that by transcending this average, one is exceptional. While the idea isn’t welded to black achievement, it is related. Successful members of the black community who somehow avoided the regression to the (black) mean are presented as paragons, exceptional ones of their kind. There are backhanded compliments, and then there is black exceptionalism—a racist idea lightly dressed in a pat-on-the-back.
Some of us, in a naïve or perfunctory manner, wear black exceptionalism as a badge of honor, even under the guise of progress: “I will show them what we are capable of.” Good intentions be damned, because to adopt this stance is to walk directly into a pernicious trap. The most effective racist ideas rarely deny the existence of exceptional members of the out-group to which undesirable features are attributed.
On the contrary, the most destructive ideas embrace high-performing members for statistical cover. In order to argue that the mean performance of an out-group is lower for a desirable trait, there should be some high performers. High-performing black people are essential for racism like James Watson’s, and even he might predict a statistical and genetic exceptional negro, because they can’t all be incompetent.
The problem with this argument isn’t only that it avoids critical discussions about the possible sources of group differences, but also that it uses the notion of the exceptional individual to justify racist ideas towards others in the out-group. In general, armchair appeals to statistics often conceal negative feelings that people already have, attitudes forged in the fires of fear and bias, not science.
I’ve seen that routine so often. “I know a Negro with a Ph.D. — in science — therefore I’m not racist.” “I admit that Jews are often academically gifted, therefore I don’t have a bias against them, I just know they’re evil.” “If my statistics don’t convince you that black people are less intelligent, how come they also show that Asians are better at math than white people?” It’s the contrast that is supposed to convince us that they are objectively evaluating real data.
“Intelligence” is an undefinable and complex parameter that changes depending on how you measure it. The only reasonable response to claims that one has characterized the “intelligence” of a large group of people and has some sweeping interpretations is to realize that they are simply expressing their unfounded biases in a pseudoscientific tone, and dismiss them.