Scholars against Scientific Racism

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Open letter from scholars opposed to scientific racism

We are a group of 1200 scholars (and counting) opposed to scientific racism - the use of science or social science to argue that a racialized group is inferior. Jason Richwine’s dissertation is an example of scientific racism and this work has no place in twenty-first century academia.

In 2009, Jason Richwine successfully defended a dissertation at Harvard University where he wrote that Hispanic immigrants have a substantially lower I.Q. than the white native-born population and that, because of the hereditary nature of I.Q., this fact should be taken into consideration when designing immigration policy. In May 2013, Richwine’s views came under public scrutiny after he co-authored an immigration policy report for the Heritage Foundation.

Richwine’s dissertation is problematic for three reasons: 1) it is part of a tradition of scientific racism; 2) it is based on discredited ideas of intelligence testing; and 3) it relies on an unscientific relationship between racialized categories and genetic makeup. Ideas of racial inferiority have been used justify slavery, forced sterilizations, the Holocaust, and all forms of contemporary racism and sexism. These ideas have no place in 21st century social science because of their historical use to justify genocide and mass sterilization and their lack of scientific rigor.

Richwine makes a connection between the genetic makeup of Hispanics and their I.Q. However, there is no genetic basis for racialized differences. And, Hispanic is an ethnic category made up of people of every racialized category. A Hispanic is a person with roots in Latin America who lives in the United States. Their ancestry could include people from any continent. The claim that Hispanics share a genetic makeup that could differentiate them from white Americans is not debatable; it is untenable.

Intelligence testing is also deeply flawed. Stephen Jay Gould points out that the primary error in intelligence testing is that of reification – making intelligence into something by measuring it. Intelligence tests attempt to measure a wide range of abilities. The score on these tests is named an “intelligence quotient” or I.Q. Gould contends that these tests are flawed and do not meet their stated goal of measuring innate intellectual ability.

To the extent that it is true that Hispanic immigrants score lower on these tests than white Americans, this is a result of unequal formal educational and other learning opportunities, not genetics. Diego von Vacano, a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School, points out that

“the rudimentary statistical analysis of the kind that Richwine carried out ignores the important interface between social realities and genetics. … [I.Q. scores] reflect the intertwining of some aspects of mental capacity with education, life experiences, socioeconomic status, and other contingent contexts.”

Despite the fact that this perspective is widely accepted among scholars, Richwine chose to rely on the scientific racism tradition of his discredited predecessors, such as Charles Murray and J. Philippe Rushton, and attributed the differences to genetics. His argument that I.Q. scores should inform immigration policy hearkens back to the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century – during which time about 60,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the United States, on the basis of their purported intellectual unfitness.

As academics, we find it appalling that, in 2009, three professors at Harvard University were willing to guide and approve a dissertation in this academic tradition. There are three central problems with Richwine’s work that should not pass muster in any dissertation committee: 1) the argument that I.Q. scores are an indication of innate intelligence; and 2) the assertion that I.Q. is a genetic trait; and 3) the presumption that Hispanics, as a group, share a genetic makeup. All these ideas have been discredited and all are linked to an unfortunate history of scientific racism.

The idea that I.Q. scores could be a reflection of a heritable trait is one of the pernicious ideas that led to the Holocaust as well as eugenics programs and restrictive immigration policies in the United States and elsewhere. Apart from its ugly history, scientists do not have a clear understanding of the extent to which intelligence may be a heritable trait. Even if some aspects of intelligence are based on heritable traits, there is no doubt that environmental factors shape one’s ability to score highly on an intelligence test. Nevertheless, in his dissertation, Richwine eschews this evidence and argues that “the low average IQ of Hispanics is effectively permanent.”

It is clear that Richwine’s dissertation is thin – with weak statistical analyses and a literature review that relies too heavily on racist and substandard publications by Charles Murray, Richard Herrnstein, and Philippe Rushton. But, this dissertation should never have been written in the first place. Before Jason Richwine began the work that was to be his dissertation, he would have had to consult with scholars in his department to ask them if they would be on his doctoral committee. At that point, they should have explained to him that this work carries on the tradition of scientific racism, and has no place in twenty-first century scholarship. Instead, three scholars - George Borjas, Richard Zeckhauser, and Christopher Jencks - agreed to supervise this scientifically racist dissertation and approved granting him a PhD degree from Harvard University.

Dean Ellwood at Harvard Kennedy School takes the position that this dissertation is part of an academic debate. We are not against academic freedom. However, there is no academic debate on whether or not Hispanics as a group are less intelligent than native-born whites. There are debates on whether or not Hispanic is a pan-ethnic, ethnic, or racialized category. There are debates on how and whether or why we should measure intelligence. There are debates on the extent to which intelligence is a heritable trait. But, there are no debates on whether or not Latino immigrants have the intellectual caliber to be part of the United States. Those kinds of debates happen in nativist and white supremacist circles, which have no place in academia, which prizes arguments and debates based on valid constructs and scientific evidence.

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