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Saletan Responds: Ok, Let's Try This

William Saletan has responded to my comment on his discomfort with No Child Left Behind data being tabulated by race.

I get where he's coming from. He makes many valid points. One of them is that while I argued that cultural differences determine why black people often don't do as well as white ones on tests, poor whites do significantly better than poor black ones, despite that we can assume that many of their cultural variables, such as a language culture focused on the oral rather than the printed page and direct-question exchanges like "What is the capital of South Dakota?", are similar to blacks'.

That question is not to be swatted away.

And to show that I mean it when I say that Saletan makes valid points, I am going to put my money where my mouth is.

Namely: I agree with Saletan that if it turns out that there are no genetic differences at all in intelligence between the races, it will be the unexpected case. At the very least, it is utterly plausible, given indisputable differences between races of other kinds, that intelligence may prove to be one of them. If intelligence is, even if only partly, traceable to configurations of neurons in the brain, then there is no a priori reason to suppose that those configurations are statistically identical between races while other physical configurations -- i.e. hair, color, etc. -- are not.

Yes, racial differences are a matter of probability--members will exhibit traits to varying degrees, a white individual may well be more X or Y than a black individual. Anyone reading this understands that. However, when issues such as this are brought up, this issue of statistics and probabilities is often brought to bear as if it somehow contradicted what I wrote in the previous paragraph. It does not.

The same goes for other facts such as that race is a squishy concept, that individuals within races differ genetically more than individuals of different races, and so on.

The fact remains that I have a certain complex of genetic factors that expresses itself as a degree of melanin, a kinkiness of hair, a nose shape, and so on, whose clustering typifies what we process as the black race, one which emerged in Africa.

Back to the point: sure, it may turn out that whites and/or Asians have higher intelligence than black people. It's not news I would love hearing, for all the same reasons few of us would. But it could happen.

However, to me, the evidence suggests that the difference in question, if it exists, would be quite small. Other factors are just as plausibly responsible for most or even all of the gap between poor white and poor black kids on tests like the NAEP.

Namely, education-wise, all evidence is that to be a poor white kid is different from being a poor black kid, and not just in the texture of your hair. Just for starters, most of us will spontaneously notice that the worst schools in the nation - the violent, understaffed, ramshackle inner-city disasters where little learning happens--don't have many white kids in them.

Yes, we must do better than that kind of impressionism, however, upon which: Poor black kids are routinely subject to less qualified teachers, who stick around for less time, than poor white kids. A classic study on the question by John Kain and Kraig Singleton addressed the situation in Texas.

Or, the typical poor white child is surrounded by fewer poor people than the typical poor black child, and only about 1 in 20 poor white kids go to schools where almost all students are also poor (useful facts on this here).

Notice that I am not claiming (despite sources such as the one I linked because of its handy presentation of other data) that the problem is "segregation"--i.e. that poor black kids are done in by going to school with people the same color as them, a tragic distortion of the meaning and significance of the word segregation in our times which I deplore. "Segregated" KIPP academies are teaching poor black and brown kids brilliantly all over the country (which, itself, is further evidence that the problem is how such kids are taught more than how their brains are configured).

The issue is poverty rather than race, and the cultural baggage it often means kids are bringing to school--which the schools poor black kids attend are less adept at compensating for than those attended by the poor white kids. Plus, poor white kids are more likely to have more fortunate students around them to imitate and learn from.

We haven't seen yet whether addressing these things will close the gaps in question--or maybe narrow them to such an extent that whatever gap was left would be too small to interest anyone but obsessives of sinister motive.

Now, I take it Saletan is still worried that just such people, such as Steve Sailer, are still a force to be feared. Respectfully, however, I am still not sure why.

Think about it: our public discourse is at a point where when Saletan even entertains the data that makes us so uncomfortable he is excoriated endlessly. Where is the space in this discourse for people like Sailer to acquire any kind of meaningful influence?

Really: we have to think about what we're proposing as a danger worthy of engagement. What legislation would have Steve Sailer's imprint? What steps can we imagine - and societal evolution happens generally in steps--via which we would get to a point where black people were routinely herded apart as mental deficients? Or whatever dystopian horror we are supposed to be worried about.

And if you have more imagination than I do, then specify: how would the steps to the scenario you envision initiate from the back-of-the-class mutterings of people like Steve Sailer, given the now deeply-rooted cultural revulsion towards open bigotry in our society?

Yes, it's still "out there"--but not to an extent that can keep a black man out of the White House, despite what I was repeatedly told all last year all the way up to the second Obama won the election. The issue is not "whether," but "how much" it's out there.

I'd much rather see how far we can get with addressing what kind of schools poor kids go to. My money is on poor black kids looking better decade by decade if we do the right things--but that will mean assessing how the kids are doing by race, and publishing the data for all to see including Big Bad Steve.

As for the moral copout Sailer-types wait for, where we eliminate all efforts to help black people out of a conclusion that they are beyond assistance because of genetic inferiority, again, we'd have to spell out what kind of actual, plausible sociohistorical process we can imagine leading to it.

And when we've done that, then we have to specify something else: why that rather studied possibility is more urgent for us to devote our mental energy to than, well, quite a few other more pressing matters in this world as we know it.