Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


James Flynn in the New Scientist

James R. Flynn

In The New Scientist Perspectives Section this month, James Flynn argues for a confrontation of issues surrounding race and IQ. His research into changing IQ scores over the past few decades (the Flynn Effect) demonstrates that environmental, not genetic factors underlie the lower IQ scores of African Americans.

This leads him to ask some uncomfortable questions.

A tough call

IN 2008, African Americans face a mainstream white culture which tells them they have “worse” genes for IQ than white Americans – and that “irresponsible” sexual behaviour dooms well over half of their children to live in single-parent homes and poverty. In other words, black Americans hear that their current position is their own fault.

This is obviously shocking. But arguably it is worse not to face up to any substance there may be behind the stereotypes, and not talk about it and the implications for the black community. For the past 30 years or so, intelligence tests such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children have shown an average gap of 15 IQ points between black and white Americans. And according to government censuses, some 63 per cent of black American children will grow up in a family with just one parent, normally a black woman.

Searching for environmental rather than genetic explanations to account for the IQ gap or for the prevalence of single-parent familieshas long been out of favour, which tends to leave liberal biologists and geneticists in a quandary. As a political scientist and statistician (not to mention long-term liberal), I understand the dilemma. But I also believe that the only way to defend black Americans is to discuss things that are non-discussable.

To give an environmental explanation of the 15 IQ points that separate black and white, I believe we must show that the environments in which black children are raised are on average less cognitively demanding than those of most other ethnic groups. This seems to imply unwelcome things about black parenting and youth culture.

And to explain the stereotype of “irresponsible” procreation among black people, we must analyse the black marriage market. Look closely and a bleak picture of black American men emerges. You also notice something significant: white men are reluctant to marry black women. In this context Barack Obama may well tell black men that “any fool can have a child. It’s the courage to raise one that makes you a father”, but this is blind to the social reality.

Government statistics show that at birth there are 104 black boys for every 100 girls. Between ages 25 and 45, six more men than women are dead, leaving 98 men for every 100 women. Of these 98 men, nine are in jail, eight are missing and 21 are employed less than half-time. That leaves 60 “promising” black men – men who are alive, employed and not convicted felons. Also consider that promising black men living with a non-black partner outnumber white men with a black partner by three. That leaves only 57 black men for every 100 women in a position to be a permanent partner.

Out of 100 black women, 43 face the choice of either having a child by a black man who is unlikely to settle down with them or going childless. There was great sympathy for Russian women after the second world war, when only 70 men survived for every 100 women. The state recognised that many women would become single parents and provided generous aid. Where is the sympathy for black American women? In 1900, faced with a dearth of Irish American men who were sober, non-violent and employed, half of all Irish women simply married out of their community. Black women, however, are effectively trapped because so few white men marry them and stay with them: only 2 per cent of black women are raising a child with a white man today.

The fact that many promising black men marry white women only worsens their plight. And remember, what Russian women faced for a single generation, black women face decade after decade. But still this does not fully explain their situation. By the age of 19, 26 per cent of black women are single mothers compared with only 11 per cent of white women. What is going on? Try this much overlooked fact: 34 per cent of Hispanic American women give birth by the age of 19 and yet far fewer Hispanic women then black women are raising a child without a permanent partner. Why? Are Hispanic men simply more willing to marry their partners? In fact, Hispanic women enjoy a far more favourable marriage market, thanks to a huge illegal immigration of highly motivated males. For every 100 Hispanic women, there are 96 Hispanic males who are promising spouses, higher even than the 86 for whites.

The crucial thing is whether men operate in a seller’s or a buyer’s market. As usual, market analysis oversimplifies, but it isolates an important “exchange”: women provide sex and men “pay”, ideally by helping to supportchildren. When viable men are scarce, they can get sex without paying a high price. On the other hand, women who want children must provide sex and hope for a husband, rather than being able to expect one. A Hispanic woman is in an entirely different position. Promising Hispanic men who want children could not all have them if they refuse to marry the one-third of Hispanic women who at 18 already have a child.

The attitudes of men and women of various racial groups towards marriage do differ, but they are a function less of social values than of the state of the marriage market. The Hispanic market is the best for women and the worst for men, and they are the only group in which more men than women have a positive attitude towards marriage – 93 per cent of men compared with 85 per cent of women. The black marriage market is the worst for women and the best for men, so the reverse is true: 82 per cent of women feel positive toward marriage compared with 79 per cent of men. Figures for the white marriage market fall in between, with the sexes near-identical at 88 per cent of men feeling positive toward marriage and 89 per cent of women.

Most women from whatever background want children within a stable relationship. Compared with white women, an extra 7 per cent of black women have given up hope of one. Tragic, but is it not more tragic that so many other black women are unrealistically optimistic about marriage? After all, there are 86 promising white men waiting for the 89 white women, but only 57 promising black men for the 82 black women. Some of those black men do not want marriage. Your chances may be better than 50:50, but not much.

We can see what black women face, but what of black men? No one believes those who are dead, missing or in jail are in a position to support a family, but why is it such a large number? At the age of 45, only 11 per cent of white men are no longer “functional” – that is, dead, in prison or missing. An extra 9 per cent of black men are dead, an extra 8 per cent are missing, and an extra 4 per cent are in prison, a total of 32 per cent. The extra death rate among black American men is greater than the US infantry in the second world war, while the missing are so alienated that they only show up on death certificates. Brevity entails leaving the reader to assess whether black men are entirely responsible through the wicked exercise of free will or whether there are immensely complex social, economic and political forces at work.

Now to that vexed IQ question. Over the past 30 years, black Americans have gained 5 IQ points on whites, evidence that scores in such tests are not set in genetic stone. It has also emerged that they steadily lose ground on white people with age. At just 10 months old, the average score is only one point behind; by the age of 4, it is 4.6 points behind, and by the age of 24, the gap is 16.6 points. This could be due to genes, but the steady rate after the age of 4 (about 0.6 IQ points lost every year) suggests otherwise, since genetically driven differences such as height differences between males and females tend to kick in at a certain age.

There is a strong case that black Americans suffer from a series of disadvantageous environments. Studies show time and again that before they go to school, black children are on average exposed to a smaller vocabulary than white children, in part due to socioeconomic factors. While children from professional households typically hear a total of 2150 different words, children from working class households hear 1250, and children from households on welfare just 620. Black children are obviously not to blame for their poor socio-economic status, but something beyond economic status is at work in black homes. Child psychologists posit, for example, that many black people have not signed up for the “great mission” of the white middle class – the constant quest to stimulate intellectual growth and get their child into Harvard or Oxbridge. Rather than a “hothouse” approach, they favour a “natural growth” view: give a child food and love, and all will be well.

Elsie Moore of Arizona State University, Phoenix, studied black children adopted by either black or white parents, all of whom were middle-class professionals. By the age of 7.5 years, those in black homes were 13 IQ points behind those being raised in the white homes. Eventually, children exchange parents for peers as their dominant cognitive environment. Orlando Patterson, John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, argues that while many black males know education is valuable, they cannot resist the lure of black teenage subculture. Dressing sharply, sexual conquests, hanging out, drugs, hip-hop and atypical speech all crowd out more cognitively demanding pursuits. After 18 there is no problem finding signs of a disadvantageous environment. More black men go to jail than to university, while black women are three times as likely to become single mothers, often cognitively isolated in the sense that there is no constant interaction with another adult.

Let’s consider just one other bit of evidence. The environment for black people in the US may look bleak but there is one group of black Americans whose children were raised elsewhere. After the second world war, white and black soldiers of the American occupation force in Germany fathered children. By the ages of between 6 and 13, tests showed that the children’s IQs were broadly similar, though this does not settle the debate: the numbers are too small, and there was a mental test to qualify for the army so the soldiers were not a random sample.

However, one thing that did not exist in Germany was a black subculture – and the effect of this seems to be highly significant. One of the strongest arguments against intellectual parity across races is that the IQ deficit of black people rises as the cognitive complexity of a task increases. Yet in Germany, that pattern simply disappeared. In America, despite recent IQ gains on white people, the pattern is still robust, and black people remain much worse at solving complex problems.

I believe that America, however, has been reluctant to really examine the cause of the racial IQ gap or the factors that create the black marriage market, let alone come up with credible plan to deal with it. Perhaps those who strongly object to my views will show how American society can be affecting black IQ without doing something extremely tough and unpleasant to the immediate environment black children experience.

Shouts about class will not do, nor will claims of test bias or stereotyping. America will have to address all the aspects of black experience that are disadvantageous, beginning with the regeneration of inner city neighbourhoods and their schools. A resident police office and teacher in every apartment block would be a good start. Only heresy can give an environmental explanation of the black IQ deficit. To run away from debate is like unilateral disarmament: it leaves the enemy in possession of the field.

About The Author

James R. Flynn

James R. Flynn is the author of Does Your Family Make You Smarter? He is professor emeritus at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and a recipient of the University's Gold Medal ...

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