On being called a racist

At the time of writing, there’s a group of people on Twitter calling me a racist for writing this blog post. This feels pretty awful. The violence of such a term is hard to quantify, but it’s left me feeling shaky and anxious. Some of the comments are so hateful that reading them feels a bit like being beaten up in my own home.

Trying to prove a negative is difficult and simply saying, “I’m not a racist,” hasn’t had much traction. So, for clarity, what follows is an attempt to set the record straight.

Here are three things I believe to be true:

  1. There are differences in the IQ scores of people who identify as belonging to different racial/ethnic groups. This is not an opinion, it’s a matter of public record.*
  2. The difference in the IQ scores of different racial/ethnic groups is not genetic in origin
  3. At the same time, differences between the IQ of individuals is highly genetic in origin.

I am aware that most scientists do not accept that ‘race’ is a valid biological concept – this is something I’m happy to accept. Why then have I used the term “racial ethnic groups”? Just as on job applications, IQ tests routinely ask test takers to provide various biographical information such as sex and racial/ethnic group. Researchers can them compare the IQ scores of a population  to see whether there’s any variance between the scores of men and women and between those who identify as belonging to a different racial/ethnic groups. The finding for men and women is that the average IQ is pretty much the same for both sexes. The finding for those who identify as belonging to different racial/ethnic groups is not.

This is unpalatable and inconvenient. Only racists want it to be true in their efforts to argue that certain races are superior to others. This is something I find abhorrent and I categorically and unhesitatingly condemn anyone who holds such a view. So, should those us who condemn racists suppress this information, or should we try to find out why these differences occur to see what, if anything, we can do about it?

Naively, I thought that sharing these facts was better than not sharing them. Whilst the defamatory responses I’ve received have made me bitterly regret that decision, I still think it was the right thing to do. Here’s why: most researchers agree that the causes for these differences in IQ scores is environmental; that due to asymmetrical access to education and lack of opportunity, some groups are massively marginalised in society. This is, I hope, something everyone can agree is wrong. Instead of being outraged that this information exists, we should be outraged that it is true!

That the causes of the IQ gap are probably environmental is good news; it means there’s a chance we can do something about it. Just in case anyone is confused, this is the polar opposite of eugenics. Eugenics is about selective breeding to try to get rid of ‘inferior’ genes – what I propose is that we have the highest expectations of all children and teach them a knowledge rich curriculum in an effort to overcome some of the disadvantages that some children experience.

So, to conclude: I do not believe genetics should be applied to the classroom or that children should be tested for IQ. While the huge data set of IQ scores that exists can provide useful information, there is no absolutely no need to go trying to find out the IQ of the children we teach. If you want to find out how good a child is at maths, much better to give them a maths test so that we can find out what they actually know and can do.

I get that all this is very sensitive and that people’s feelings run understandably high. All I would ask is that you seek to understand a little more and hurl a little less abuse. I’m a human being and this stuff hurts.

* Some people have raised concerns about the funding for some of the research that supports this finding. This was not something of which I was aware and something I want to investigate further before commenting on. In the meantime, if you want to follow or contact academics who have drawn broadly similar conclusions to those I have set out above, then these people make a good starting point:

Freddie deBoer: Blog: the ANOVA – Twitter: @freddiedeboer

Steve Hsu: Blog: Information Processing – Twitter: @hsu_steve 

Paige Harden: Blog: Developmental Behavior Genetics Lab – Twitter: @kph3k 

Eric Turkheimer: Blog: Genetics & Human Agency – Twitter: @ent3c 

41 Responses to On being called a racist

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    The hate being directed at you is the product of diseased minds–little Calibans who only have to look in the mirror to fly into a rage.

  2. Rosemary says:

    Hmmm not always sure about people who claim vast personal pain at being called a racist. I think it is unpleasant and hurtful but not as unpleasant or as hurtful as being on the receiving end of regular racist abuse as many POC are every day. Or worse the fear that your children will be treated unfairly or denied life chances by people who see them as less than themselves. I don’t think you are racist and I have always loved your writing but I am concerned that genuine racists will be able to simplify or twist some of what you say to justify attitudes and actions that hurt children.

  3. Abena says:

    I’m glad you decided to elaborate and clarify. As Rosemary says, your comments could easily be used as in a ‘well-researched and highly-regarded blogger even says that…’ Maybe just be a bit more careful about how your word such highly controversial statements in future and make clear your stance as in 1-3 above before the s**t hits the fan?

    • Michael Pye says:

      They would have likely not misunderstood if they had been read carefully in the first place. You are assuming that the response was based on how David said it ,rather then what he said. I don’t think this is a valid assumption, for a topic that people are likely to experience a strong backfire affect on.

      He shouldn’t have had to make point two above. We would need to do extra research to support or refute it. It may even become a new post.

      Having to modify our arguments by adding in caveats that make us more acceptable to the audience but potentially weaken the underlying logic is a pretty big trade-off. Many people like to digest their own thoughts and prefer information to be kept factual even if uncomfortable.

    • David Didau says:

      You’re right: it was naive to assume maturity in my readers :/

  4. Barbara says:

    This is a useful clarification of your views. There’s no excuse for abuse but undoubtedly you have opened a difficult debate. Hopefully your writing won’t be hijacked and oversimplified to support racist views.

  5. There was nothing wrong with his original comments and everything wrong with those who criticised them.

    The OP was carefully worded and what evidence do you have that they were ‘highly controversial’ given that he refuted a genetic basis to differences in IQ in the ~OP

  6. For what its worth I dont think you are a racist David, and I don’t think labelling you as one helps productive debate. I suppose my issue would be the presentation of the supporting studies as value free and as undisputable fact. Having worked with IQ tests for 12 years they are deeply flawed culturally biased tools with limited validity, although their reliability is difficult to question.

    My job as a psychologist I think is to question everything, to not blindly subscribe to any standpoint without considering the fact that other viewpoints may be valid. Maybe the issue is the way the studies were presented as ‘fact’ with limited discussion of their limitations?

    I think what we can certainly agree on is that Twitter Hysteria (Twysteria?) is an ugly, unpleasant lynch mob reaction that never leaves anyone better off. From point of view I like it when you post stuff…even when I deeply disagree. Its always good to have an argument!

    • TheSecretDoS says:

      David
      Looking over your original post, I tried to objectively pull out your main points. These are what I saw them as saying:

      1. Obviously we are all different.
      2. Most people would accept that our physical differences are inherited.
      3. A lot of people recoil at the thought that our cognitive differences might be inherited.
      4. It’s naive to think that our cognitive differences have nothing to do with our genetic inheritance.
      5. There are racial differences in IQ. At least to some extent, this is because of genetic heredity.
      6. It’s not nice to have to acknowledge this, but the science has shown it to be true.
      7. I don’t know what to make of this, but I do know that people who know a lot about genetics have accepted it as true.
      8. Just because we wish something wasn’t true, it doesn’t mean that it’s not.
      9. It is true that blacks score lower in IQ tests.
      10. As educators, we have to cater for all of our students which means that we have to take into account the fact that some races perform worse in IQ tests at least in part because of their genetic inheritance.

      As a member of an ethnic group that has long been derided as thick, I have an interest in this sort of thing and have to say that I felt uncomfortable reading your article.

      The first thing I noticed about the research that you seem to be basing your article on was that it was published over 20 years ago. The second thing that occurred to me was to see if there was any more recent research. Inevitably, Wikipedia appeared in the Google results (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_and_intelligence). The wikipedia precis of this contentious area appears to be saying that there is no conclusive evidence that would allow any right-thinking person to conclude that there is a link between intelligence and genetic heredity.

      This might beg the question of why you choose to write an article which blends intelligence, race, and genetics at this particular point in time, referencing a paper written in 1994 and which was far from controversy itself (which neutralises point 7 above). Your timing also seems a little circumspect. The leader of the free world seems to be throwing his weight behind neo-Nazis and race seems to be a particularly touchy subject right now. To publish anything that suggests that there may be a racial and genetic element to how smart a person is (which -in some people’s eyes- carries some sort of inference about how [i]human[/i] a person is) may not have been the wisest move and does come across -to me, at least- as being deliberately provocative (not always a bad thing).

      For what it’s worth, my view is that racism is a sliding scale and that we are all somewhere on it, no matter how distasteful that is to accept. I have no doubt that you are not at the far right of that scale (!), but can also see how people might have been upset by your article and misinterpreted your position. As far as I can see, your more clearly stated position now seems to be:

      1. Some researchers make the point that people who self-identify as coming from what white people regard as ethnic minorities often underperform in intelligence tests.
      2. This underperformance is probably environmental which means it is probably something we can rectify.
      3. We can rectify it by having high expectations of all of our pupils.

      There’s nothing particularly controversial here (although the “probably” made me shudder a little). While “some” researchers choose to make a big thing about this, many others don’t. The idea that intellectual potential is measured with any accuracy by IQ tests is also up for debate.

      It seems to be a universally human trait to label and categorise people. It seems to me that as educators, we have taken on a responsibility to try to think beyond categories and labels and to encourage others, including our students, to do the same. This can be done -as you say- by refusing to believe that the categories and labels we apply to other people limit their potential to live truly meaningful and happy lives that enrich the lives of others.

      • David Didau says:

        Thanks for this attempt to re-express my ideas as clearly as possible. Its appreciated. However, I think you miss some important subtleties. As this is the case, allow me to rewrite some of your numbered point. 1 to 4 are spot on as are 9-9, but 5 and 10 are wrong. This is what I meant to convey:

        5. There are differences in the average IQ scores of different individuals. This is partly due to genetic heredity. There are also difference in those identifying as belong to different racial groups – this is probably environmental.

        10. As educators, we have to cater for all of our students which means that we have to take into account the fact that some races perform worse in IQ tests mainly by unfair environmental differences.

        I absolutely agree that “as educators, we have taken on a responsibility to try to think beyond categories and labels and to encourage others, including our students, to do the same” but, if there’s empirical data that some groups are disadvantaged by unfair environmental factors, we MUST attempt to removes these barriers.

        I hope that clears up the problem.

    • Ximena says:

      “IQ tests … are deeply flawed culturally biased tools with limited validity,” Thank you. They are a tool used to marginalise and were created with a very specific purpose in mind. As educators we need to see them for what they are and stop using them to justify any kind of debate or policy in education. Period.

      • David Didau says:

        To quote Freddie deBoer, “Liberals have flattered themselves, since the election, as the party of facts, truth tellers who are laboring against those who have rejected reason itself. And, on certain issues, I suspect they are right. But let’s be clear: the denial of the impact of genetics on human academic outcomes is fake news. It’s alternative facts. It’s not the sort of thing the reality-based community should be trafficking in.” More here: https://fredrikdeboer.com/2017/04/10/disentangling-race-from-intelligence-and-genetics/

        This is clear, straightforward read on precisely why your opinion is wrong: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2014/04/what_do_sat_and_iq_tests_measure_general_intelligence_predicts_school_and.html
        Denying this is no different from denying the science of climate change

        • J Russell says:

          But isn’t the inference that the issue lies with genetic heritage, not the system of academia or indeed the test construct itself? And isn’t that divisive and oppressive territory to occupy, especially for an educator?

          I can see that you state that care is taken to ensure that the test is not culturally biased, but you also note that certain sections do have a cultural component. If there must be a test surely better to design in cross cultural validity at inception, rather than design out flaws?

          • David Didau says:

            I’m not at all sure why you would infer that the gap between racial/ethnic groups would be due to heritability when I have explicitly stated that it is not. That would indeed be divisive and oppressive territory, so why are you making that inference?

            The advantage of the IQ test as it stands is that it can measure both fluid and crystallised intelligence – removing the vocab & general knowledge sub tests would weaken the predictive power of the tests. Also, all the sub tests correlate, so a person performing well at, say, Raven’s Matrices would also tend to perform well on a vocab test.This is the finding that intelligence is general.

    • David Didau says:

      I profoundly disagree that IQ tests are culturally biased. Great care is taken to prevent them from being so. There is a function for people to raise concerns about any question in the tests they think has and has cultural bias in it. The mechanism used to identify and prevent cultural bias is Differential Item Functioning. It controls for parent education and looks how different groups score on then they can then see if it’s biased against minority groups (similar white kids doing better) findings generally show that white/Asians do better on questions considered easy, Black kids do better on questions considered ‘harder’ but questions have small differences. Here’s a link to explain Different Item Functioning: link to DIF: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Differential_item_functioning

      That IQ tests have a cultural component is not in question – the vocab and general knowledge sub tests are an obvious case in point – but great care is taken to ensure that these questins are not biased in favour of particular groups.

      • Ok thanks for your response David. I dont think we are talking on the same page here. Its very hard to have a dialogue around this when your frame of reference seems to be purely positivistic with little reference or regard to other branches of psychology. Personally I find your uncritical faith in the science of psychometrics quite baffling. I dont doubt the maths or the methodology to ensure reliability. But that they are value free…I could never accept that.

        • David Didau says:

          Value free? Of course not. The tests ‘value’ what is tested on each of the subtests. Why you would think my ‘faith’ is ‘uncritical is baffling to me. It’s not. There are all sorts of problems with psychometrics but IQ is one of the most useful tools we have for measuring individual differences. I confess to being equally baffled by someone who is happy to criticise some else else as being ‘positivist’. Whilst I certainly believe that “information derived from sensory experience, interpreted through reason and logic” is vital in understanding natural phenomena, certainly do not believe that it “forms the exclusive source of all certain knowledge”. I am an empiricist (with a dash of idealism) and believe that how the mind works has its basis in evolutionary biology. Is that something you want to dispute?

          • Nope, don’t want to dispute that. I fully subscribe to the idea of genetic influence and predisposition, particularly around physical differences. I am a sceptical questioning social scientist with an awareness that although the scientific method is the best thing we have, it exists in a cultural, societal and political context so should never be accepted at face value with critical examination. Is that something you want to dispute?

            I believe it’s quite possible, however, to hold an eclectic standpoint placing value in objective and subjective views around individual differences and their origins. Look At John Hattie’s effect sizes and how many of them are related not to individuals but to interactions or perceptions of teacher or learner.

            I wasn’t criticising you for being positivistic, it just seems that this is the only perspective you present. It has value but so other approaches and perspectives.

            In my work as a psychologist I use IQ tests as one of the tools for working and finding out what might be going on for a student with challenges. I also use Personal construct psychology to investigate student and teacher perception of the situation. I collect background information to inform me of potential social learning that might be affecting behaviour. I then use techniques from positive psychology and solution focused brief therapy to help get buy in from all parties in working together to find ways forward.

            I’m involved because there is individual difference, but my use of different perspectives and techniques give me multiple ways of deriving useful hypotheses and interventions. Although the IQ test has some use the co-created understanding you get from working with a student with a blank piece of paper, a pencil and a detailed knowledge of psychological perspectives and techniques is far more sophisticated.

            Loads more I could say, not trying to be hostile, just enjoying the discussion!

    • J Russell says:

      This is arguably a more constructive discussion to have: the cross cultural validity of IQ tests and the value placed on the results when aggregated across groups, as if they were somehow homogenous.

      • David Didau says:

        That is a useful discussion. My view is that while IQ is far from perfect, it’s a more reliable and valid mechanism for estimating differences than any other tool we have.

  7. Dylan Wiliam (@dylanwiliam) says:

    The term “racist” is one that most people would instinctively want to reject if were applied to them. For many years, I believed that I was not racist because I did not want to be. But then, I read Robin Richardson’s “Memorandum to oppressors,” which changed the way I thought about the issue, although this was probably the most difficult learning process in my life. In particular, it pointed out to me that, as a white, heterosexual, middle-class, male I had, in all probability, been successful in a way that someone not sharing those attributes might not have been. We all want to think that our successes are the results of our talents and our efforts, but there are many who are as talented and work as hard, but are less successful because of their race, their nationality, their social class, their gender, their physical appearance, and so on.

    I haven’t been able to find the text of “Memorandum to oppressors” online, but, because I think that this message is so important, I reproduce the text below, and if I have breached anyone’s copyright, I would be happy to remove this post. It changed my thinking about these issues, and I urge everyone interesting in social justice to read it.

    Memorandum to oppressors

    Notes on terminology

    A relationship, interaction or social system is oppressive if it involves gains, benefits and advantages for some, at the cost of losses, frustrations and harm for others. Oppressors are individuals, groups or classes who have more than their fair share of gains. The oppressed are those who have more than their fair share of losses. The archetypal oppressor lives in the northern hemisphere; is middle-class; is white; is male; has a senior position in a hierarchical institution.

    Whether you are an oppressor or not depends on your location in an oppressive structure, not on your intention or wish. The question is what are you doing to transform the structure, not whether you wish to be an oppressor.

    1 Seek confrontation and opposition

    Over and over you get things wrong. You are deformed and blinkered by your location and experience. You cannot trust yourself, not your eyesight, not your judgement. Seek out people who have very different location and experience—that is, the oppressed—and heed their critiques, criticism and challenges.

    2 Flattery and chance

    Day in and day out, people flatter you. For you control goods and goodies which they desire. The consequence of this flattery is that you suppose with pride that you are in your present position through your own merit and achievement. But no, you are where you are through chance, not choice. You live in a society in which people with certain attributes (gender, race, class, nation) get rewarded and flattered.

    3 Don’t divide and rule

    There is a diversity of interests, concerns and priorities amongst the oppressed, and many are prevented—for example by the mass media and by the educational system—from knowing the dimension and contours of their oppression. You must not take, let alone seek, advantage from this diversity and lack of awareness.

    4 Selfishness and self-interest

    All human beings defend their self-interest, yes of course, and all in this do things which are morally wrong. But only oppressors have the power to define which wrong actions are crimes. Also oppressors have the power to define the signs, symbols and conventions of courtesy and considerateness. In consequence of this dual power, oppressors typically think they are morally superior to the oppressed. They are not. Never forget this.

    5 Positive action

    Regardless of any formal equal opportunities policies which may be around, you should be engaging continually in positive discrimination. Do everything you can to distribute power, influence, resources and goods to or towards the oppressed. You will often have to do this covertly rather than openly: so be it.

    6 Acknowledgements

    Everyone peppers their discourse and conversation with bibliographical footnotes—references to people from they have learnt, and/or people who are big names. Make sure that you yourself, in your footnotes and references, give credit only to the oppressed. This means—amongst other things—that you should indeed reckon to have your mind nurtured only or mainly by the oppressed.

    7 The climate of oppressor opinion

    Transformation of the system will come, if it comes at all, from the oppressed. You yourself have only a small part to play. But one thing you can do, and should do, is criticise, cajole, badger, pester, speak out, in the forums, informal as well as formal, of the oppressor. But watch out: don’t let them dress you in the cap and bells of a court jester, or the stiff righteous collar of a prig.

    8 Double-agents

    As long as you stay where you are it is possible that you will work, whether you wish to or intend to or not, against the interests of the oppressed. For example, and in particular, you are part of the velvet glove round the oppressor’s iron fist; you may be containing resistance, buying time for the oppressor, that’s all. One consequence of this is that you have no right or reason to expect gratitude, sympathy or trust from the oppressed.

    9 Lifestyle

    Look at your possessions, your personal time, your personal space and mobility: you are very comfortable, and very corrupt. You cannot completely change your lifestyle as long as you stay in your location. But you can keep it modest and frugal; you can share it; you can treat it lightly; and you can—and you must—risk it.

    10 Words and platforms

    The essential educational task is to equip the oppressed with words—the ABC, the first two Rs, Shakespeare and all that. Part of the essential political task is to provide them with platforms—a hearing in the places and spaces where a rule is to listen (words + platforms = communicative competence). Often you yourself should be silent, or at least your memoranda should be unmemorable. But sometimes you may speak, you may use both words and platforms. Choose them, choose them with care.

    London, St James, 20 June 1984

    • C J says:

      Love this. Unpalatable for many; which will mean many will balk at it. Thank you for sharing it @DylanWiliam

      • monkrob says:

        Wow. That rocks your world a little. Thanks for sharing Dylan. It is rare that you read something and do the “edit copy” “edit paste” “I must save this somewhere and come back to it”. Too much to digest in just one sitting. I fear cognitive indigestion will result anyway.

    • I’m familiar with this paradigm. But I’m not sure how it applies when somebody is being accused of supporting eugenics, believing in scientific racism or of quoting neo-nazis. These things are not matters of bias or being unaware of other’s experiences; they are serious allegations over matters of fact that will be true or false regardless of how willing somebody is to believe they are a beneficiary of privilege.

    • bocks1 says:

      Also worth reading Professor Derek Bell response to The Bell Curve and Civil Liberties in 1995.

    • Michael Pye says:

      Dylan you are talking about privilege not racism. Like many concepts there is overlap but mudding them up won’t help. Wealth, family connections and parental influences are also obvious privileges that cross racial boundaries although they are likely strongly correlated.
      Negative circumstances or under privilege also plays a part in identify politics though that to is really a different idea that we should try not to stray into here. Let’s keep these ideas separate or for a more suitable forum. As a result your post was off point with no real relevance to this issue even though it may have profoundly changed your world-view.If you are trying to say we are all in some ways racist then that is pretty obviously true. We are all in fact discriminatory as a natural consequence of trying to understand the world while lacking all seeing knowledge. However the common use of the term racist means that someone believes you have displayed insulting and derogatory behavior that was both unnecessary and beyond misunderstanding, usually hinting at willful cruelty. I believe this was what was being aimed at David.

    • David Didau says:

      Thanks Dylan – I appreciate the sentiment but have to say there’s an important difference between the idea of ‘privilege’ and accusations of racism. Equating the two merely undermines clear communication. This is an eloquent, impassioned and important response: http://eoinlenihan.weebly.com/blog/why-i-wont-check-my-privilege-a-defence-of-individuality

  8. Tempe says:

    Absolutely don’t think you’re racist and I think you clarified your points very well. It’s a pity that we often can’t have discussions around issues such as these because too many people are so sensitised and easily take offense.

    Today I was called a Nazi because I don’t support removing historic Confederate statues because I believe that have historic merit. I don’t like Trump & and don’t like white supremacists but I also don’t like white-washing history.

  9. larrylemonmaths says:

    Just a reminder that once an expert steps out of their field of expertise they have no special insights to share. Dylan Wiliam is an expert in Education not Race Theory. I’m trying to think of the politest possible way to say, what a load of old nonsense.

    • @MissToppin says:

      No one here is an expert in race theory so none of you can accurately claim than what David is putting forward is not in fact racist. Oh and I think I am mature enough reader to understand what your have written.

      • David Didau says:

        Your determination to misinterpret in the most uncharitable sense what I’ve written comes across as wilful. We all gain by understanding a little more and condemning a little less. Let’s let love win. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt if you’re able to return the favour.

      • Michael pye says:

        You are asking everyone to prove a negative. That is unreasonable and lopsided as a response to an accusation.

  10. goddinho says:

    “Oppressors are individuals, groups or classes who have more than their fair share of gains. The oppressed are those who have more than their fair share of losses.”
    Who determines what an individuals ‘fair share’ of either gains or losses amounts to? And ok, I was by chance born a white male into a ‘white collar family’, though both sets of grand parents were factory workers, but I chose not to muck about at school, and later on I chose to be a teacher. By doing so I obviously ‘abused my privilege’, and the life I lead and possessions I own are ill gotten. I am corrupt, and un-wittingly I am teaching my students to be so by aspiring to attain the level of education that confirms my corruption.
    Larrylemonmaths is correct.

  11. Goddinho says:

    Went to read Eion Lenihan’s post and the link doesn’t work- neither is it reachable from his Twitter account. Maybe he’s withdrawn it?
    Found this instead:
    https://www.spectator.co.uk/2013/06/check-my-privilege-i-have-thanks-youre-still-wrong/

  12. Hi David, I’m more than happy to call you my friend (and won’t forget how you rescued me last fall 🙂 ). I’m sure you and I have points of disagreement … but I certainly agree with your decision to stand by saying what you know to be true. This was a vile attack and you’re right to not let the bullies cow you into silence.

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