The racial history of IQ testing.

IQ testing racial bias
Photo by Amanda Dalbjörn on Unsplash


The NFL just stopped requiring Black football players to exhibit worse cognitive function than white players to receive compensation for brain injuries – under the assumption that Black players had lower cognitive function to begin with.

Last month, the ARD explained how “racial correction factors” in the diagnosis of kidney and respiratory diseases lead to Black patients missing life-saving treatments. The NFL used race-norming when measuring intelligence, as well. “That’s literally the definition of systemic racism,” said Najeh Davenport, a former Packers running back suing the league (Yahoo News).

The NFL using race-norming to limit payouts to the 70% of its players who are Black (Yahoo) follows a long American tradition of using ”intelligence” to justify structural racism.

The 19th-century pseudoscience of phrenology used skull measurements to “prove” that Indigenous people were less capable of developing knowledge, justifying a genocidal westward expansion. The phrenologists “proved” African people were more suited to being enslaved, thereby making chattel slavery seem a natural outcome of innate biological differences in mental capacity (Vassar).

After phrenology fell out of favor, the science of eugenics arrived, which sought to improve populations by ensuring individuals with desirable qualities reproduced and those with undesirable characteristics did not. Though today associated with Nazi mass sterilization and extermination campaigns against Jewish, Roma, and disabled people, eugenics was wildly popular in the United States in its day, with President Theodore Roosevelt among its enthusiastic supporters. Nazi eugenics policies were in fact based on mass sterilization campaigns in California state hospitals. The idea of ensuring racial hygiene by killing undesirables in gas chambers was proposed by a U.S. Army disease specialist in 1918 (SF Gate).

One Stanford University psychologist wrote, “High-grade or border-line deficiency … is very, very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among Negroes. Their dullness seems to be racial. They cannot master abstractions but they can often be made into efficient workers. From a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.” This man, Dr. Lewis Terman, popularized a test he believed would make these racial differences clear: the IQ test (Business InsiderStanford Daily).

In 1994, The Bell Curve argued that aggregate IQ differences between Black and white people were due in part to genetic causes. If we follow this reasoning, the fact that Black people die sooner (US News), have higher unemployment, work worse jobs, and have an order of magnitude less wealth than white people (Brookings) might not be due to structural racism. America could be entirely fair meritocratic and produce these exact outcomes if it’s true that Black people, as the NFL believed, have “lower cognitive functions” than whites. IQ is here being used for its original purpose: to justify racial oppression.

The “model minority myth” holds that some combination of Asian genetics and culture explain why Asian Americans have higher IQs and annual income than white people, “proving” that other minority groups have only themselves or their genes to blame. This myth was popularized explicitly to attack Black people. It ignores the pervasiveness of anti-Black racism (NPR) and labor market pressures that encourage East and South Asian immigrants with higher educational attainment (PewPew). There is more economic inequality among Asian people than any other racial group in America (NBC). Laotian and Bhutanese Americans are only half as likely to get a bachelor’s degree as the average American, while the poverty rate for Mongolian and Burmese Americans is double that of the national average (Pew). Asian students from these nationalities also suffer from race-norming when held to unreasonable academic standards because “all Asians are smart.”

IQ and standardized tests depend on the idea that intelligence is a single, objective numerical variable. IQ tests weren’t developed because intelligence was discovered one day but because eugenicists wanted to justify ethnic cleansing. And thinking of intelligence based on classroom performance demands we believe educators are objective when dealing with students of different races. We have hard evidence that this is not the case (Forbes).

What IQ tests actually measure, rather than innate intelligence, seems to be largely how motivated students are when taking the test (Science). Though there is no measurable correlation between intelligence and future wealth (Scientific American), people thinking about financial stress perform significantly worse on intelligence tests (PBS).

In the aggregate, IQ tests largely measure not intelligence but oppression. The results are then turned around to justify poverty, injustice, and even reduced compensation for athletes suffering from brain trauma. There’s a long history of pseudoscientific racism lurking behind the purported objectivity of numerical scores.

Key Takeaways

  • The NFL held that Black athletes started with lower cognitive abilities than white athletes to avoid compensating players for brain injuries.

  • IQ tests were popularized by advocates of eugenics, whose wide popularity in the U.S. served as a model for Nazi Germany.

  • Though it’s unclear what IQ tests actually measure, student motivation and poverty have significant effects on scores.

  • The model minority myth was developed to combat the Black freedom movement and ignores wide disparities among Asian communities.


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