The Thernstroms’ racial obscurantism

With the opinion columnists of the mainstream conservative movement serving as their amen choir, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom continue their trek into obscurantism and irrelevance on the fateful issue of racial differences in intelligence. At the beginning of their new book, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, they declare that the huge racial gap in academic abilities, which they later go on to document in detail, has nothing to do with IQ, but rather with learned cultural behaviors such as a lazy approach to schoolwork and too much television watching. They therefore conclude (and this is the “no excuses” of their title) that a return to traditional curricula and hard work can completely equalize racial performance. Yet, as Steve Sailer points out, on p. 130-32 the Thernstroms write:

The racial gap in academic achievement appears very early in life—a fact that we have not touched upon in earlier chapters… But clear racial differences in intellectual development are evident by the time children first set foot in school… For example, black five- and six-year olds in the Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth … scored a full standard deviation below their white peers on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, a standard gauge of intellectual development for children before the age at which they can read… [O]nly one-sixth of African Americans performed as well as or better than the average white child.

In other words, the exact same IQ deficit relative to whites that is found among black adults and older children, exists among black pre-schoolers as well. So how are the Thernstroms going to go on insisting that the academic gap is due solely to cultural factors? Simple. By ignoring the evidence which they themselves have adduced. Thus the mainstream-conservative opinion industry goes on celebrating the Thernstroms for their prodigious intellectual “courage” and “honesty,” even as the Thernstroms—and their mainstream conservatives fans—go on resolutely closing their eyes to the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Some courage. Some honesty.

Perhaps it will seem I’m being too hard on the Thernstroms. After all, according to accounts, the book does a good job of dispensing with the false liberal explanations of inequality, such as racial discrimination. The problem, however, is that the Thernstroms despite their disagreements with liberals remain loyal exponents of the liberal creed, the sacred quest for racial equality of outcomes, around which the entire society must be forever mobilized and re-mobilized. As long as that sacred demand for equality remains in place, society remains guilty for not achieving something that cannot be achieved. I frankly don’t care that discussing IQ could get the Thernstroms in trouble with the PC police. At this late stage, there is no excuse for writing an entire book on racial differences in intellectual achievement that ignores IQ. Sailer says it all in the title of his article: “No Excuses for No Excuses.”

By the way, Sailer also points out that the Hispanic IQ deficit is almost as great as the black IQ deficit. I had mistakenly thought that the white-Hispanic gap was about one-half the size of the white-black gap, but it turns out to be a troubling 70–75 percent instead.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at October 27, 2003 09:34 AM | Send


Let us assume for the sake of discussion that various cultural improvements will never close the IQ and academic achievement gaps. What should be the general public policy position of traditionalist conservatives, other than proclaiming that the IQ differences are real and immutable?

I believe I asked this in a previous thread, and got about 5 replies that talked only about courageously speaking the truth, etc., and never really went beyond that.

Posted by: Clark Coleman on October 27, 2003 9:51 AM

In answer to Mr. Coleman, I would say that the response must be a renewal of respect for those people who wish to live in non-racially diverse communities and send their children to non-racially diverse schools. To state it flat out, blacks and others moving into a city really can bring crime and other social problems with them. It is a serious problem for a lot of people.

On the other hand, social problems must be tackled in a more subjective way – not using other races as a measuring stick of success. Black communities can do much better than they are doing now, and have done much better in the past. Black educational achievement – along with white educational achievement – can be much better. That blacks will never do as well as the white community is secondary to the very real improvements that can be made. And whites must stop feeling complacent about their own success just because of how they are doing in relation to blacks.

Posted by: Thrasymachus on October 27, 2003 10:42 AM

The Black-White IQ gap seems indisputable but to ignore the role cultural factors play in exacerbating the problem is a mistake. It is true, is it not, that black rates of illegitimacy and even more so rates of violent crime, increased dramatically in the wake of the “new morality” of the sixities?
I continue to believe that education and training can compensate to some degree for low IQ. It can’t close the gap but it can provide a framework for a decent and productive life.
So I agree with Thrasymachus but the question remains what can be done given that the state education system is opposed to any real change?
Public schools that don’t work - and we can debate whether that’s 100% or 50%- must be abandoned and new initiatives, preferably private, must take the place of the failed pedagogical approaches.
Public education distorts the market for education services (increasing costs but lowering acceptable prices) and effectively slows or suppresses new developments.
The Public schools’ near monopoly must be broken.

Posted by: John Purdy on October 27, 2003 11:19 AM

Traditionalists have been correct all along (of course!) in rejecting “progressive” elementary education which focused on learning strategies and critical thinking. Almost everyone can learn to read, write, and do simple mathematics, and can be presented the basics of American history and the history of western civilization. Beyond the elementary level of education we should encourage vocational training and internships and a huge range of possible experiences which could be called educational.

The Thernstroms are part of the problem, not the solution. When their remedies are tried, as they were in the past, they will lead to racial and other inequalities in outcomes which is what led to the dumbing down of education in the first place. Such obvious inequalities are not politically acceptable and are unlikely to be any time soon; thus I encourage the creation of as many different education alternatives as possible which keeps the differences from appearing so stark and helps to keep demagogic political coalitions from forming. I believe that Charles Murray was getting at something like this in the Bell Curve, although not so starkly. Similarly national school testing is certain only to reveal unpleasant information which can be abused by politicians and their clients.

Posted by: Agricola on October 27, 2003 11:22 AM

I am in substantial agreement with people like John Taylor Gatto who say that modern state schooling is a profoundly evil system:

Children have far better educational opportunities when parents feel themselves to be primarily responsible for their children’s education, not the state. Home schooling should be the first option, not the last.

Even at higher levels, where outside resources are necessary, the emphasis needs to be on giving students the aid they need to learn on their own. Any school system that does not separate evaluation from teaching is corrupt. At the university level, for example, testing a student for knowledge of a subject should be entirely separate from the classroom learning on that subject. A student could spend a month preparing for the exam from a textbook, six months sitting in class, or two years learning if necessary. The current process is a parody of grade school for men and women whose capabilities of individual action have atrophied through years of state schooling.

Posted by: T on October 27, 2003 11:44 AM

First of all, I would say to Mr. Coleman that speaking the truth _is_ a policy, which by itself would solve many apparently unsolvable problems that we face. The number one racial problem in America is the paralyzing racial guilt which afflicts whites, and which leads them into destructive and delusory actions on many fronts (and which also can be seen in the Thernstroms’ avoidance of racial truth). Considering the harm being done by the false belief in racial group equality, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that speaking the truth about racial differences could literally save our country.

On the particular question of what society should do about the black academic deficit:

First, reject relativism and return to the understanding that truth exists and can be known.

Second, accept the fact that groups do not have the same abilities, and stop demanding group equalities of outcomes. In the legal, public sphere, return to the idea of America as a society based on individual rights, not group rights.

Third, throw out all the current progressive education and return to legitimate forms of education, raising intellectual and moral standards for everyone. The raising of standards is conditioned on steps one and two. First, you can’t have high intellectual standards if you don’t believe in the objectivity of truth. Second, you can’t have high intellectual standards if you believe that everyone must have the same level of intellectual achievement, since the demand for equality of outcomes inevitably lowers standards.

That last point shows us the ultimate weakness of the mainstream conservatives’ position. They want to raise standards for blacks, but by insisting that this raising of standards WILL and MUST lead to COMPLETE RACIAL EQUALITY OF RESULTS, they create an irresistible pressure for the LOWERING of standards so as to get the required equality. Look at President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” law. It’s based on the idea that moving children from bad schools into schools with higher standards will make all children equal. But the impossibility of actually getting the required equality pushes the schools to keep fuzzing test results and lowering standards.

As long as society believes in a false idea and continues to organize itself around that idea, we must have such absurdities and disasters. That is why the Thernstroms, who themselves help promote that false idea, deserve to be so strongly criticized.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on October 27, 2003 11:48 AM

That’s me above, accidently posting as T. :)

Posted by: Thrasymachus on October 27, 2003 11:48 AM

Whatever happened to America and the Constitution? Everyone blithely assumes the superiority of modern collectivism in their answers, simpy wishing to impose a different regime from on high than the one currenly in place. How about letting the people in their states organize themselves as they wish? If they want to be together, let them be together. If they want to be apart. Let them be apart. In other words, THERE SHOULD BE NO PUBLIC POLICY at the federal level.

Posted by: Bubba on October 27, 2003 12:40 PM

In reply to Bubba, the subject of this discussion is education policy as it relates to racial gaps in academic ability. Saying that the issue should be handled by the states (and by private schools) instead of the federal government is fine, and I fully agree with that argument, but it doesn’t tell us what the states’ education policy should actually _be_. It is, in fact, an evasion of the topic at hand, the sort of procedural argument that states’ righters always offer as a substitute for a substantive argument, often to their own detriment, as for example in their woefully ineffective opposition to the Civil Rights movement. Instead of arguing that there might be some rational grounds for segregation, a custom which the rest of the country condemned on substantive moral grounds, they just kept repeating the procedural mantra of states’ rights. And so they lost the debate, totally, and as a result it thereafter became impossible for America to discuss whether racial differences might exist and whether society ought to take such differences into account.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on October 27, 2003 1:04 PM

I don’t disagree with anything that Mr. Purdy has said, except for his implication that I am ignoring cultural factors. Every time I discuss this issue I’ve pointed out that cultural factors play a role, and ought to be addressed.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on October 27, 2003 1:27 PM

I wasn’t implying that you personally were denying it. I meant it as a general principle.

Posted by: John Purdy on October 27, 2003 2:10 PM

Such misunderstandings seem to occur with regular frequency in Internet discussions, and in public debate generally. They could be lessened if speakers made more clear at what or at whom their criticisms were directed.

In fact, now that I think about it (and I’m no longer speaking in reference to Mr. Purdy but addressing a larger issue), unspecified criticisms are a common method of political manipulation. People will say, for example, “There’s a lot of racism in America,” or, “Republicans have been fanning the nativist flames” (Linda Chavez in the mid ’90s), or “If you think the Republican party is some place for you to come if you’re narrow minded or bigoted or don’t like certain people in America, the exits are clearly marked … ” (Bob Dole, 1996). But WHAT racism, specifically? WHAT nativist flames? Don’t like WHICH people in America, and for WHAT reasons? And what form does this dislike take? In the absence of any attempt to address those questions, the statements have no concrete meaning. Their intention is to validate the speaker as a good person and to exclude some bad people, without actually saying anything about those bad people (or even saying who those bad people are) that can be determined to be true or untrue.

Here’s another example of this method. I was on a panel on immigration that also included Glenn Spencer and John Fund and a couple of other speakers. When it was Fund’s turn to speak, he said “We shouldn’t show hostility to immigrants.” A little later he repeated the phrase, until others finally challenged him and asked, what did he mean. He said, “I wasn’t talking about anyone here.” Then why did he say it? It was obviously intended to make the audience feel that immigration restriction involves hostility to immigrants and so is a bad thing, and so they should stay away from it. But he pulled this off without having to specify any actual “hostile” statement by any actual immigration critic on the panel or elsewhere, and so he didn’t have to defend the charge.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on October 27, 2003 2:40 PM

I would like to thank Mr. Auster for that last perceptive comment, which neatly summed up one of the many methods used by liberals, the left, and others to create a climate of opinion, or create a distorted image of such a climate. I have never seen this particular trick described. My own impression is that it dates back to the 1950s, and was used then — is still used — to create a phony impression that civil liberties, in that period, were in danger.

Posted by: Alan Levine on October 28, 2003 5:13 PM

Yes to Mr. Levine. One of the keynotes of modern conservatives is their intellectual passivity in the face of an all-encompassing liberal rhetorical environment which, like the sea, is not seen by the creatures that inhabit it. The conservatives who effectually resist that climate, or rather ocean, of opinion can be counted on one hand. Alan Keyes in the 2000 campaign did this admirably. Every time a reporter asked him a question, Keyes would say, “I don’t accept the premises of your question,” and then he would restate the question as he saw fit. The overwhelming majority of conservatives, even supposedly intellectual conservatives, lack this active element. They are mere fish swimming in the liberal ocean, taking on their coloration and even their body temperature from the surrounding watery environment.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on October 28, 2003 5:26 PM

Let me add some structure to my original question and summarize a few of the remarks. Public advocacy can be divided into two categories: Public speech that seeks to educate, inform, and persuade others of the truth in some regard; and public speech that advocates specific political, legal, and social policies.

In the second category, there does not seem to be much disagreement among any of us. We should advocate change in political, legal, and social policies that are destructive to blacks (and often destructive to others, as well). Examples include dismantling the welfare state, privatizing schools (or other means of breaking the stranglehold of teachers’ unions and government schools), discouraging illegitimacy and other practices that lead to children being raised with little stimulation and generally inferior parenting, exposing low academic standards within black culture and publicly challenging them to do better, etc. Along the way will be a certain amount of public speech of the first type, which seeks to inform others of the truth (about the effects of the welfare state, illegitimacy, low standards, etc.)

Purely in the realm of the first category is the proposal that we convince the public of a couple of truths not generally accepted (or at least not widely discussed): that blacks have innately lower IQs than whites, that they will probably never be economically equal to whites as a result, and that a free society does not demand the impossibility of equal outcomes for all groups, just as it cannot demand equal outcomes for all individuals.

This last item seems essential to me. I think it would be useful to gather data about the changing fortunes of Irish, Italians, Poles, etc., over the generations in America, to show how silly it is to demand equal outcomes at any one moment in time. As a corollary, we should publicly argue that there are reasons for unequal outcomes other than racial discrimination, which is an important point to be made. Choices about marriage age, divorce, illegitimacy, family size, relative priority of career versus other aspects of life, consumption versus savings, etc., all have an impact on one’s income and wealth.

What remains to be demonstrated to me is that (1) Some important public policy change will depend on convincing the majority of the American public that there are innate racial differences in IQ, and (2) there will be a net benefit to convincing Americans of this idea, given its costs.

I am not sure that anyone is considering that the response of many Americans, even if convinced of racial IQ gaps, will not necessarily be the same response exhibited by traditionalist conservatives. For example, some “liberals” and “moderates” might simply argue that we need income redistribution measures to show our compassion for those who have been dealt a tough hand in life, that we are otherwise “exploiting” them by “using” them to pick up our trash and perform other essential but low-paying jobs. (Are we sure that the majority of Americans have a conservative view of economic issues?) Or, they might argue that, given IQ differences, black communities will never have an adequate supply of doctors, lawyers, etc., unless we rig grad school admissions to ensure that we produce a certain number of them. Do we know what effect there will be on racial tensions in the country as we advocate this idea, and can we foresee all the effects on various public policies?

And, as I posted in an earlier thread, will we take some of the steam out of the efforts to correct black cultural problems by insisting that these efforts will only make partial progress towards the economic goals that blacks desire? Do you think there will be any sense of discouragement in the black community if they see that the majority of Americans are convinced that they are intellectually inferior?

My view is that, if we actually accomplish the common ground of eliminating the welfare state, attacking black cultural problems, etc., the quality of life of the average black person will be so much better than it is today that most blacks will be satisfied with their lives. With a good absolute quality, agitators who point out that they still only earn, say, 80% of the average white salary will be met with the response, “So what?” I don’t think that racial IQ gap studies will have to be pulled out at that point to explain anything, because I think that the current success in agitating over RELATIVE incomes and wealth is based more on the ABSOLUTE quality of life of many black people than on the comparison with whites.

It is hard to agitate a contented public.

Posted by: Clark Coleman on October 28, 2003 6:49 PM

Mr. Coleman makes an important point when he states that the response of the public to the truth about racial inequality may not be that desired by traditionalists. Centralized and bureaucratized state education not only destroys local communities but also creates new though more artificial factions along the lines of “blacks” and “Hispanics” and probably “left-handed lesbian Eskimos” by allowing for standardized comparisons and by demanding a standardized yardstick on which everyone competes. We need to favor policies which lessen the ability and desire of people to identify with national and international ethnic groups, since the resulting inequalities provide demagogues with an easy route to power.

Posted by: Agricola on October 28, 2003 7:45 PM

Mr. Coleman has offered a thoughtful critique of the position that I and some others have expounded, that discussing race differences in intelligence is necessary, because it is the only way to resist the egalitarian fiction that is the driving engine of liberalism. I can’t respond to his comment right now, but perhaps someone else might.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on October 28, 2003 7:52 PM

The issue of relative group intelligence is best not avoided because avoiding the truth often leads to bigger problems, which we cannot predict when we start avoiding an issue. Although we do not need to convince people that there ARE group differences, it would be helpful if we convinced people there MIGHT BE group differences.

If we give up on the issue, many people will be guided down the wrong path, as I was before coming to this site. We will be unable to defend ourselves when money is demanded from us. I am uncertain what the truth is because the debate is highly technical and there seems no consensus; but now I am better informed, and I can make an intelligent decision to avoid insisting on equal outcomes because insisting MIGHT BE a huge waste of time. If Mr. Auster and Mr. Kalb had avoided repeatedly bringing this issue up, I would still be ignorant.

At a minimum, we need to be able to intelligently rebut an argument that there is no difference in intelligence. That is, at a minimum we must be able to get avoiders to say, “well whatever….” To enable us to do that, we need to learn, which is done through open discussion. The other side will try to use the discussion against us whether we avoid it or not.

So I agree with Mr. Coleman’s that there is merit to the idea of limiting the degree of energy we might put into debating the issue. Substantial energy would be helpful though.

Posted by: P Murgos on October 28, 2003 9:23 PM

I’ve replied to Mr. Coleman in a new blog entry:

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on October 29, 2003 3:07 AM

Regarding my reply to Bubba at October 27, 2003 01:04 PM, I didn’t mean to leave the impression that the federalism argument shouldn’t be pursued. Clearly, if the national government’s involvement in education were eliminated or drastically scaled back, the egalitarian agenda would have far less power behind it. But still, even if control of education were returned to the states where it belongs, the problem of racial differences and the demand for equality of results would still have to be dealt with on that level. The same thing applies to the private sphere; even apart from state policies, lots of private corporations have their own, voluntary affirmative action programs. Thus, whether we’re dealing with the national government, the state governments, or the private sphere, there is no escape from the substantive debate on racial equality.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on October 29, 2003 12:37 PM

LA wrote: “Thus, whether we’re dealing with the national government, the state governments, or the private sphere, there is no escape from the substantive debate on racial equality.”

Agreed. Nothing I write should be interpreted as denying that, at some level, we’re going to have government. I’m not a libertarian, or at least not one to the degree that many big-L Libertarians are. I simply agree with the Founders’ opinion, that republican government is best suited to small, relatively tight-knit communities, for the very reason that geographically dispersed people tend to be culturally diverse as well, making them ungovernable under a single, common law. I don’t disagree at all that the debate about racial inequality must be dealt with; I just think it’s a matter for each separate state (or, if I had my way, county) to take up, rather than the national government.

Posted by: Bubba on October 29, 2003 1:10 PM
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