Race, Racism, and Psychology: Towards a Reflexive History

By Graham Richards | Go to book overview
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Chapter 9

Race and IQ 1969-96: An undead controversy


It is, I confess, with great weariness that I turn to this topic. Perhaps we may begin on a slightly distanced note. Historians of science have recently been much concerned with the 'closure' of scientific controversies. Bruno Latour's picture is particularly relevant to the present topic. 1 Controversies, he argues, close when one party has marshalled so many 'allies' of various kinds-including already closed controversies-that the cost (both economic and intellectual) of keeping the topic open becomes simply too high for dissenters to meet. An additional, very pertinent, feature of his account is the apparent futility of trying to draw any clear line between an internal purely 'scientific' realm and an external 'social' one. The network of allies extends in intricate fashion beyond the laboratory to sources of funding, political interests, industry and the media. Scientific activity is, in today's world, locked into vast inter-penetrating 'associations' of interests. Let us bear this in mind in what follows.

In Chapter 4, modern Psychology's concern with race differences was traced, if not exclusively, to the early 20th century preoccupation with 'Negro education' in the US. The key question it asked was: Are 'Negroes' inferior to whites in intelligence? Much depended, so it seemed, on the answer. If they were, then their segregated education, concentrating on 'industrial' training, could be justified 'scientifically'. The allies of this first generation of race psychologists were the 'establishment' educational policy makers of the day, especially in the Deep South, and the then powerful eugenics lobby, who extended the topic to their own immigration concerns. During the inter-war period this network of 'external' allies weakened, as did the 'internal' scientific support for Scientific Racism and eugenics doctrines, which had hitherto verged on becoming 'closed', 'Black Boxes' as Latour calls them-that is, findings and theories no longer being contested. The angle of interest in African American education shifted to identifying rectifiable (in principle) environmental factors determining black academic underperformance. By 1940 it looked very much as if the question of race differences in intelligence was settled-there were none, or such as existed were too minimal to worry about and not necessarily permanent. The liberal Rooseveltian 'New Deal' climate, the growing emancipationist movement and events in Germany, 'internal' theoretical challenges to the concept of 'race' and acknowledgement of


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