education philosopher

How Much Does Race Matter? (Documenting My Confusion)

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, social theory by KevinCK on March 24, 2010

Generally, I write when I have answers. This time, I am writing because I have questions.

I am a PhD student in education, but also a classical liberal. As an education student, I am often confronted with research on ethnic identity as it relates to pedagogy and scholastic achievement. It is not uncommon to hear folks talk about why teachers should take ‘multiculturalism’ classes to learn how to be responsive to students of different ethnic backgrounds. As a classical liberal, on the other hand, I firmly believe that ethnicity, while existent, is an irrelevant category for deciding how to treat others.

So, I hope by now one can understand my confusion. I have political and social beliefs that prohibit me from seeing ethnicity (and sometimes “culture”) as relevant grounds for differential treatment, but also hear so many colleagues devoting research to showing the large extent that ethnicity does differentiate. I am hesitant to say that my colleagues are wrong in their conclusions, as they are the ones who have studied the matter. But I am also hesitant to let go of a large conviction that I have that all people are people first, individuals second, and ethnicities at a distant third.

There have been, of course, many critics of liberalism (John Gray, for instance) who criticize exactly this trend amongst liberals to “decontextualize” people and ignore things like cultural practices and ethnicity as trivial differences. John Rawls work is a great illustration of this tendency: for him, liberal policies are best arrived at by groups of people who decide behind a “veil of ignorance”  where they are not a member of an ethnicity, culture, religion, social or economic class, etc. This is to ensure that, true to liberal form, people decide on policies without any regard to how they will affect themselves or any other particular people.  If we decide from behind this “veil of ignorance,” we can be neutral in our creation of policies.

Rawls, though, has rightly been critizied for writing as if people actually could decontextualize themselves this much: that we actually could look at things from a, if you will, viewpoint neutral way. As the postmodernists are always fond of saying, everything is done within a context and to attempt neutrality is simply to attempt the kind of decontextualization that is, literally, an impossibility.

But on the other hand, how wrong is it to take someone’s race into account when making decisions about how to treat them? Isn’t this exactly what we’ve worked so hard against? And to complicate matters, those who talk about the importance of ethnicity and culture are generally members of the same academic left that decries studies purporting a link between ethnicity and IQ. So, how does ethnicity matter enough to warrant teachers learning, via multiculturalism classes, how to teach black students as opposed to white students, but become taboo when we bring up ethnicity as a possible correlate of IQ?

So, I am writing out of extreme frustration. On one hand, I am angry about all of those I think are making too much ado about ethnicity. But on the other hand, I cannot simply dismiss the qualitative research done by colleagues that purport to show how big a piece of identity construction ethnicity is and that often advocate differentiated approaches to educating different ethnicities (which the liberal in me twinges at).


9 Responses

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  1. D said, on March 31, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    The literature on race and IQ, and the implications that fall out of that (which are stubbornly borne out be the evidence everywhere you look), was for me about a disturbing but ultimately clarifying intellectual discovery as one can have. It’s right up there with going from theist to atheist and reading “The Selfish Gene” twleve years ago. It’s just impossible to see the world the same again.

    On the positive side, it’s a parsimonious explanation for the world around you when you’re talking about groups (far less or not at all with individuals).

    On the negative side, I noticed that it’s always left out of any public discussion about race. Yet it’s essential to almost any discussion. But since it’s left out, what you get instead is a flourishing of wild, unfalsifiable theories. And they are wrong. And ideas have consequences. False ones being some of the worst. But since you can’t ever bring this stuff up and have an honest two-way discussion, you realize that this situation will never change.

  2. D said, on March 31, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    For example, can you picture this discussion on TV?

    Leftist or black intellectual: ” But clearly, the evidence is that America is still a deeply racist country. For example, look at the average black’s income level compared to the average white’s. It’s a moral tragedy.”

    Evil, truth telling interlocutor: “But what happens when you control for IQ?”

    Leftist or black intellectual: “Hmmm… But there are disproportionately fewer blacks as CEO’s, lawyers, doctors, and other high paying professions. This is because of discrimination.”

    Evil, truth telling interlocutor: “But what happens when you control for IQ?”

    That’s a discussion you will NEVER see. But that’s precisely the question that someone should ask if the goal is to get to the truth. But it’s not. It’s about excuses, blaming, and apologizing. And worst of all, lying. And why lie? Because the reason the truth-telling interlocutor is considered evil is because he had the nerve to ask an uncomfortable but pointed question. He mentioned the unmentionable. And no one wants to be thought of as evil, so that man never shows up at the table for discussion. Instead you get someone willing to nod his head and agree with almost anything thrown at him. And so it goes.

  3. KevinCK said, on March 31, 2010 at 11:35 pm


    I agree with your assessment, though it has yet to be worked out exactly how hereditary IQ is, and how much it is mutable by environment (early and late in development).

    One of my acquaintances here at the U of Delaware is Linda Gottfredson, who has written many articles on IQ and its correlation with many factors – amongst them, race. Needless to say, as a member of an education department, she hasn’t won many friends and has won several enemies. It is certainly hard not to be emotional about an issue that unavoidably says something about human behavior that seems to challenge egalitarian political beliefs.

    When I am asking how much race and ethnic identity matter, I have something a bit different in mind: how important is one’s ethnic origin, or other factors like cultural membership, a factor in constructing individual identity. My own background is as a classical liberal, so I take my stand with Bastiat and wince whenever I hear someone referred to as a “black student” or “Asian student” rather than “a student,” and absolutely despise imputations that students should, say, be categorized by race is controlled experiments. (I see it as a non-variable.) But on the other hand, many colleagues of mine have done much research purporting to demonstrate that things like race and ethnicity ARE critical in constructing identity.

    So, it is hard for me to acknowledge their research without my ‘classical liberal’ self wincing.

  4. D said, on April 3, 2010 at 1:08 am

    “I cannot simply dismiss the qualitative research done by colleagues that purport to show how big a piece of identity construction ethnicity is and that often advocate differentiated approaches to educating different ethnicities …”

    My intuition is that race will be critical in constructing an identity in any context where differences in output track race. And in education, differences in output are pretty much universal.

    Moreover, many academic professionals, who would never consider the work of someone like Gottfredson, have a vested interest in forming theories about different learning styles based on race. This is because you need to explain differences in educational performance by appealing to anything but IQ. But we know that blacks with IQ’s equal to whites actually do slightly better than whites academically. That is, IQ is more predictive for blacks (and therefore the IQ test itself less biased) than it is for whites. This would seem to indicate that learning styles are far less important than sheer cognitive ability. Get a room full of blacks, whites, and Asians in a room all with IQ’s of 130, and all of a sudden “learning style” won’t mean a damn thing. They will all kick butt. Ditto if they all have IQ’s of 80. They will all struggle.

    Then again, I’m not all that familiar with the work of people who talk about ethnic differences, identity construction, and how those relate to how they should be taught in the classroom. But I’d be willing to bet that when you control for IQ, those theories are pretty worthless.

    Do they ever control for IQ to test how valuable these ideas are in an educational context? Maybe I’m way off base here.

  5. KevinCK said, on April 3, 2010 at 3:11 am


    Interesting thoughts, and I can attest that I think your appraisals seem accurate to the way many academics in education think: we need to look at ‘learning styles,’ or anything that does not imply biological difference (which is damned ironic, because most of the studies CONTROL FOR RACE which is about as genetic as you can get!).

    “Get a room full of blacks, whites, and Asians in a room all with IQ’s of 130, and all of a sudden “learning style” won’t mean a damn thing. ”

    Well said. That seems to be what I’ve been suspecting all along: when IQ (or, if we’d like, cognitive ability) is controlled for, many other possible variables seem a whole lot less significant. But the reason folks in the education industry often don’t take folks like Gottfredson seriously, is because she links IQ to variables that educationists like to think are social constructions.

    I will go a bit further about why I suspect (many) education academics tend to downplay IQ, particularly as a genetic factor. By the nature of our business, educators have a vested interest in the idea that cognitive ability can be significantly changed by environment. That is, since we are educators, we prefer to believe that intelligence is mutable by…education and see a threat to our jobs in the idea that intelligence level may be a relatively static thing.

    “Do they ever control for IQ to test how valuable these ideas are in an educational context?”

    Yes, they do. But what they don’t do – what folks like Gottfredson get in trouble for – is correlate IQ with other variables: academic and financial success, life-span, race, etc. And it depends on the academics: psychometricians and those in education psychology are much more ready to talk about IQ as a significant variable than folks, say, in sociology, anthropology and ed theory. (I am an education philosopher so technically, I am a member of the latter group though my sympathies here are with the former group.)

  6. Will said, on February 24, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    I was a minority student who went on to college, so maybe I can shed some light. My family immigrated to the US when I was 7. Initially I knew no English and learned it as my second language. We settled in a very poor, minority-dense side of Dallas TX, where I attended school until 4th grade. As my parents got better work, we moved to better areas of town, basically to the suburbs. My middle schools were of average quality, my high school though was academically excellent. Eventually I went on to study engineering at Duke University. So that’s my story. 🙂

    My childhood schooling was all public schooling. From K-4 I was mostly around minority children; from 5th grade on I was mostly around white children. Personally, I never saw “white” “black” or “brown” as ways to categorize people. To me, these were about equivalent to saying someone was a blond, brunette, or redhead. Sure such descriptions let you know something about people, but nothing beyond their physical appearance. This is how I always viewed race growing up; so to me, it was never really an issue. I was a person, the other person next to me, was a person. Regardless how light or dark their skin was.

    Eventually I discovered though that race is more than physical characteristics, it is also part of some people’s identity. That is to say, it has the same function as being a member of an ethnic group, a member of a particular culture. Now cultural differences is something I always understood, because of course, I was a latino and we spoke spanish and ate foods my friends didn’t. 🙂 My history and origin were different as well. But then, everyone is different. We are all individuals. Some of us like baseball, others like basketball, others like soccer. Even if we all like football, some people like the Eagles and others like the Saints. Culture is really no different from any of these normal individuations, except that with a culture you share interests in common with others. and then can group yourself as an “eagles-fan” or a “saints-fan”. Culture adds value to you as an individual, because it allows you to celebrate your special differentiating attributes and identity with others who can relate. To understand this, we can say “teachers” are a culture, “Sesame Street fans” are a culture, “Americans” of course, “religious people”. Basically anyway people can group themselves and relate with a shared identity.

    Now as fascinating as that all is, how does that relate to teaching? Well, it really doesn’t. Anymore than your culture relates to how you should be treated when you order food at a restaurant, or try to ride the bus. Nobody should treat you any different because of your skin color, creed, gender, hair color. We are -all- human beings, deserving of the same level of respect. So while in school, I never expected my Latin culture to be an issue, anymore than I expected my “Irish” friend’s culture to be an issue, or my “German” friends’ culture to be an issue. Think about it, as a white person would you treat another white person substantially different because you’re of Dutch descent and that person is of Scotts-Irish descent? Sure, every now and then those differences might come up, but otherwise it’s not going to substantially filter your behavior towards one another. This is how all cultural differences should be treated when you are in a supposedly culture-neutral environment, like school, work, etc.

    The problem lies in that not everyone thinks this way. Some people do see their culture as a really, really big deal. Being a Packers fan may not just be part of my identity, but something I AM. I wear green and yellow all the time. I make frequent references to Wisconsin and cheese. I may refer to my hero Brett Favre all the time, and insist on reading his biography and watching his history. (you get the idea 🙂 Now this is not to trivialize cultural differences, because of course, they’re significant and important. For example, I think you belong to a culture of teachers and academics, which most people do not belong. You have your own distinguishable language, experiences, viewpoints, values etc. So then the question is, how do you treat non-teachers and non-acedemics differently, when the subject is not teaching or academics? Because this will guide you how you should treat students. If the subject is algebra or chemical elements, really what difference does it make wether they are green skinned, purple haired, blue nailed, quadrapeds? It really doesn’t, does it. There are times when it’s appropriate to understand cultural differences, such as when you talk about slavery or immigration, and other social topics. Obviously, people will have different viewpoints based on how they were raised and their experiences. And in such instances, it is appropriate to have a multicultural understanding, to be diplomatic and tactful. But for most subjects you treat people the way you would want to be treated, as a human being, and that’s really all there is to it.

  7. Will said, on February 24, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Also on the issue of ethnicity and IQ, let me dispel this myth which has somehow gained some steam again. (ie. that there’s significant racial differences)

    People DO generally perform differently on IQ tests based on race. That’s a fact. The relevant question is not what’s happening though (we know that), the relevant question is WHY? (which we don’t know) Of course, some people assume (incorrectly) that because results are different when seperated according to race, that race must therefore be the cause of that difference. They have no reason to conclude this; they just willingly assume that it’s true because it’s an easily suggestible like.

    Here is the scientific truth however: we know, for a fact, that any two human beings are more alike than any two members of any other species. That means that if you’re a white american, you have more in common with a black man in africa; than two kittens born to the same parents. Basically, these broad differences we see in adult humans are extremely superficial from a biological perspective. This is not the cause of why we demonstrate so much diversity. So if it’s not a biological difference that causes a white student to do well on an IQ test, and a black student to do less well, then what is the only alternative? It must be something in the environment. no? You would expect that if everyone was raised in a similar environment and exposed to similar experiences, they would have similar outcomes if they also made similar choices. (which let’s not underestimate human freewill, right) And indeed, this is often the case. Minority students who grow up in affluent families and go to higher education, who want to be successful, do just as well as their non-minority counterparts.

    Furthermore, this myth about racial capacity is completely shattered by the results from homeschooling. Homeschooled children show no significant academic difference in performance based on race, the way public schooled children do. Why, nobody really knows. My guess is that when you’re in a loving environment, where people are saying you can achieve whatever you want, and are actively engaged in helping you do so, then there are no barriers or limitations. Also, at home you’re not constantly being told by your “peers” what you can and can’t do, and where you should be at and what your expectations should be. (in other words, minority kids never learn they’re “siupposed” to perform worse when they are homeschooled. and so they don’t) But regardless of the reason, the main point is that there is no intrinsic reason why minority and non-minority children should perform differently. Even more evidence for this is the KIPP schools, where they are almost all minority and the vast vast majority of their students go to college.

    So hopefully that fully addresses this issue once and for all. 🙂

  8. D said, on May 30, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    Will, that was A LOT of gibberish.

  9. alliebern said, on August 11, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Haha, that was NOT a lot of gibberish by Will.

    As someone interested in the field of educational psychology, but only academically trained in sociology, my take on it is that race does not affect IQ biologically, it is definitely societal/environmental factors. A better indicator would be socioeconomic status and the communities that kids grow up in. How can anyone expect communities that are dominated by drugs and have few adult role models expect kids to do well in school? Their peers are in gangs and their “role models” are selling drugs and they don’t expect to live past 25. They don’t think about their future because they don’t think they have one. When life looks that way, academic achievements seem trivial, and they have not been exposed to any other culture. Once they are exposed to it, they often feel that they are not welcome or not good enough.

    I’m not sure I quite understand this confusion. Yes, it is irritating that as much as we try to say “everyone is equal” that tests show that some races are superior in certain ways. But I do not understand why people cannot accept that environment plays a HUGE role in this? I don’t see how sociologists don’t want to talk about IQ, we just don’t see these types of tests as indicating anything other than cultural bias.

    And it’s not so much race as cultural capital that determines how teachers should treat students. Of course you can’t know which students have a stable home life and which ones do not from looking at them. At first, everyone is a blank slate. But as time goes on, you notice that some students have a harder time paying attention, or are more disruptive. That is when you dig deeper. Sometimes it is ADHD, but lower income students and minorities are disproportionally diagnosed with ADHD. When some students are exposed to drug abuse, economic woes (as severe as homelessness, eviction, etc.), hunger, while others have supportive families and friends, how can you expect them to function on the same level in the classroom?

    Minority communities have been torn apart by deep seated prejudice and the resulting resentment towards one another if some get farther ahead/”give in” to the mainstream culture, drug abuse and the gangs that go along with them. It is not innately in these “races” genetic makeup to have these behaviors, they are coping skills. When life seems bleak, drugs seem like an escape. Life was clearly bleak for those who faced serious racial and ethnic discrimination, leading to drugs, crime, and violence, and their legacy has been passed down through generations. Many people see that there are no longer directly racist laws, and many laws that protect people from discrimination, but many families and communities have damage that is more deep seated and will take many generations to change.

    It is these behaviors that come out of disadvantaged communities that keep people believing racist stereotypes. The stereotypes are based on fact, but the reason for the behaviors is not anything but societal and familial woes. So, stereotypes continue to ring true, and many still hold some racist beliefs because what they see is the resulting damage to communities that direct racism and exploitation caused. So yes, racism is still alive but many do not see it as racism, and do not see the underlying issues behind their assumptions.

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