By Easterbrook, Gregg
The Washington Monthly , Vol. 26, No. 12
Common sense and sound science show that the IQ debate is far from black and white
Years ago, hoping to persuade this publication to hire me, I quit a decent job in Chicago and moved to Washington. Unemployed and low on money, I lived in a seedy neighborhood behind the Navy Yard in Southeast D.C. Because the editor of this magazine unaccountably took his time in acknowledging my merit as an applicant, to blow off steam I played basketball on the local court several hours each day. I was the only white player in the game, accepted at first as a charity case. After a few weeks on the blacktop, however, I was startled to discover other players wanting me on their team. After two months of daily basketball, I found myself able to hold my own in one-on-one matches against the hot players from nearby Eastern High School. I was squaring my shoulders for accurate jump shots, ducking under other players for layups--the sorts of coordinated, classy-looking moves I had never been able to do before and have not been able to do since.
It would hardly be a wild guess that practice had improved my game, and that lack of practice has since eroded it. Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein would say, however, I had suddenly acquired basketball genes. Then just as suddenly, I lost them!
Page after page of obstruent data and marching columns of Pearson correlations in the new book The Bell Curve by Murray and Herrnstein, which holds that success in life is mainly determined by inherited IQ and that statistically significant differences in inherited intellect exist among the races, imply that the issues at play in the IQ dispute are so sophisticated only readers of high intelligence can grasp them. This isn't so. Most common-sense aspects of the IQ debate are more significant than the statistical motes and jots--and being much better understood, are a sounder basis for social policy. The complex statistical claims of The Bell Curve have received extensive notice in initial reactions to the work. In the end the book's common-sense faults are more telling. Blacktop basketball offers an entry point for understanding why.
The reverse of the notion that blacks are born with less intelligence than whites is that blacks are born with more athletic potential. Well-meaning people who believe that whites are smarter than blacks often quickly add, "But look at how gifted blacks are physically," citing the undeniable black dominance of basketball. Yet if blacks have superior innate athletic ability, why are hockey, tennis, and many other lucrative sports largely dominated by whites? As the writer Farai Chideya will show in a forthcoming book, of the approximately 71,000 Americans who earn livings from sports (broadly defined to include golfers, skaters, and so on), only 10 percent are black.
A likely explanation for black success in basketball is not some mystically powerful jumping gene--natural selection may have favored strength and size in people, but what are the odds it ever favored jumping?--but that many blacks practice the sport intensely. For good or ill, thousands of black kids spend several hours per day through their youth playing basketball. By the time age 18 is reached, it shows: In general, blacks are really good at basketball. Meanwhile, hockey and tennis are usually practiced in youth by whites, who in turn dominate these sports.
In all the complex arguments about inheritability and environment in IQ, the mundane, common-sense question of practice time is often overlooked. Other things being equal, what you practice is what you're good at. As Charles Darwin once wrote to his cousin Francis Galton, founder of the eugenics movement: "I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men [do] not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work."
As a longtime basketball-league participant and a mediocre small-college football player, I have spent a notable portion of my life being knocked down, run past, and otherwise outperformed by black athletes. …