An outrageous, racist and outdated belief in the innate intellectual inferiority of black people periodically re-enters public debate, usually masquerading as a bold initiative at the forefront of science; challenging convention and thinking the unthinkable.
A 27-year-old called Andrew Sabisky provides the latest example. In a matter of days, this Downing Street aide joined, then quit, the UK government’s policy machine after a series of controversial past comments came to light. It is easy to misunderstand the significance of this. Sabisky’s view that black people are genetically pre-determined to be less intelligent than whites was widely attacked in the media and politics. Yet the evidence suggests that his thinking about the nature of intelligence may not be entirely out of step with those in power in the UK.
Like Sabisky, they may claim that a focus on past statements and actions is unfair: tweeting about his departure Sabisky blamed “selective quoting” and “media hysteria about my old stuff online”. But the record is all we have on these matters.
At a press briefing shortly before Sabisky’s departure, the prime minister’s deputy spokesman refused more than 30 times to state Boris Johnson’s views on eugenics and the supposed intellectual inferiority of black people. The press secretary repeatedly stated that “the PM’s views are well publicised and well documented”.
I have been researching racism in education for more than 30 years and, at regular intervals, this means revisiting the question of supposed racial differences in intelligence – a topic that refuses to die despite the wealth of evidence against it. Viewed from this perspective, there are some key takeaways from the Sabisky affair.
Much of the press coverage presented him as a maverick outsider; someone fitting Dominic Cummings’ search for “misfits and weirdos” to advance government thinking. But Sabisky’s appointment highlights a view that is in line with earlier statements on intelligence by the prime minister and his chief advisor.
Letting the cat out of the bag?
What sets Sabisky apart from some people in government is not his belief in intelligence as a fixed and measurable trait, but the way he expressed it. In 2013, for example, Boris Johnson sang the praises of the free market economy and the competition that it fosters when he said:
That violent economic centrifuge is operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth. Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16% of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2% have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.
There is, of course, no mention of supposed race differences in intelligence here; but there is a clear belief in IQ tests as a useful measure of innate ability. What the prime minster failed to mention (or understand?) is that IQ tests are periodically re-calibrated so that 100 always falls at the overall average, despite the fact that average performance has risen over time. There will always be a percentage “of our species” below 85 because that is the way the test is designed and maintained. The significance of any IQ score is always open to debate.
A few years ago I wrote a paper challenging many of the myths that surround IQ. I included analysis of Dominic Cummings’ 237-page essay, Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities. At the time, Cummings was special advisor to the then education secretary, Michael Gove.
His essay attacks policymakers’ failure to embrace what he calls the “relevant science” concerning “evolutionary influences” on intelligence. Those familiar with the debates will know that evolution is frequently invoked as a causal explanation for current race inequalities, for example, in the work of J Philippe Rushton, whose “evolutionary theory” of race and intelligence places “Negroids” at the lesser end of the spectrum.
I think most would read Cummings essay as inferring that evolution and genes shape IQ – but he never offers an explicit position on the controversial issue of race and intelligence. A section entitled “Genes, class and social mobility…” ends with a lengthy quotation from an MIT professor who speculates that, in the future, people might “discover alleles [types of genes] for certain aspects of cognitive function” and those alleles might vary between different ethnic groups:
Then for the first time there could be a racism which is based not on some kind of virulent ideology, not based on some kind of kooky versions of genetics.
Unfortunately, Cummings offers no commentary whatsoever on the ideas contained in this quoted text.
I have called this strategy “racial inexplicitness” – a careful avoidance of clarity about race and education amid a long and winding discussion that prompts the reader to join the dots without ever stating clearly where he thinks the dots lead us.
IQ, genetics and education
Reviewing Cummings’ sources and influences is instructive. One of his heroes is the American psychologist Professor Robert Plomin. Plomin has made headlines in recent years for his increasingly exaggerated claims about the genetics of intelligence, including most recently, that DNA is a “fortune teller … giving us the power to predict our psychological strengths and weaknesses from birth”. Cummings invited Plomin to visit the education department “to explain the science of IQ and genetics to officials and ministers”.
Plomin, like Cummings, is currently vague about his views on race and intelligence. But in the 1990s he supported the claims made famous in the book The Bell Curve, which stated that class and race inequities in society mostly reflect genetics. He was one of 52 people who signed a 1994 Wall Street Journal article that claimed “mainstream science” shows that “intelligence tests are not culturally biased against American blacks or other native-born, English-speaking peoples”. The article also stated that:
The bell curve for whites is centred roughly around IQ 100; the bell curve for American blacks roughly around 85; and those for different subgroups of hispanics roughly midway between those for whites and blacks.
These statements blithely ignore years of critique that has documented the misunderstandings and racist misuses of IQ tests. They are also remarkably similar to the racist blog post that came back to haunt Andrew Sabisky.
Asked, in 2015, whether he now regretted signing the Wall Street Journal statement, Professor Plomin replied, “Well I regret it to the extent it’s a distraction to my research. But I think the basic facts are there … erm, about heritability of intelligence”.
Watch this space
It would be nice to think that Cummings and Plomin now reject such spurious views, but they have not explicitly stated their current position. If these documented views do reflect their current thinking then it would be the case that deeply racist and regressive beliefs about the nature of intelligence and education lie at the heart of the British government.
These views are bad news for many groups in society, especially those deemed less “gifted”. And it’s not so unlikely that we could see them entering policy. Despite the negative press coverage generated by Sabisky’s beliefs, such dogma could conceivably be translated into a superficially acceptable policy brief. One way would be for education reforms to claim to apply “scientific” methods to identify the “brightest and best” and single them out for special attention. This would be presented as a meritocratic exercise, intended to fast-track clever children regardless of their social background.
The methods would include “cognitive assessments” (often a code for IQ tests) and the talk would be of “social mobility” and “colour-blindness”, whereby the approach treats everyone “as an individual”. No one in authority would worry about the fact that such assessments seem to always place a disproportionate number of black kids in the less-able bracket. That’s how institutional racism works.