WASHINGTON, May 14, 2013 ― In Quentin Tarantino’s movie Django, Leonardo DiCaprio, playing a slave owner, sets a human skull on to the dinner table. He saws off the back of the skull, holds it up to his dinner guests and points to three dimples.
“If I was holdin’ the skull of an Issac Newton or a Gallileo,” he begins, “these three dimples would be found in the area of the skull most associated with creativity. But this is the skull of [a slave] Ben…[so] these three dimples exist in the area of the skull most associated with servility.”
The Heritage Foundation is an honorable institution of conservative thought. But when Jason Richwine ― the recently-fired author of their immigration “study” ― wrote in his 2009 Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard, “The average IQ of immigrants … is substantially lower than that of the white native population,” he was channeling DiCaprio’s character.
Richwine was also channeling the antebellum phrenologist Samuel Morton, who famously poured mustard seed and lead shot into human skulls to prove that white people had bigger brains than people of color.
And Richwine was channeling the French anatomist Etienne Serres who argued in the 1800s that the distance between penis and navel was a sign of white superiority.
Science as the handmaiden of white supremacy has a storied pedigree. It culminated with the eugenics movement ― from the Greek “eu” (good) and “genus” (genes) ― and it was one of its disciples, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood who argued that “colored people,” the “feeble-minded” and “undesirables” should be sterilized. As a result, between 1907 and 1956, over 60,000 Americas were sterilized so that “society,” in Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s words, could “prevent the manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”
Dressed up and made palatable to 21st century ears, Richwine argued for the same prejudice. “I believe there is a strong case for IQ selection” in immigration, he wrote.
Since Lewis Terman invented the IQ test in 1916, we’ve thought about intelligence in exactly two ways that modern psychology tells us are wrong. First, we think there’s only one kind of intelligence and IQ is its measure; second, we think that intelligence is a genetic allotment we’re born with and have for the rest of our lives.
Yet a raft of psychological evidence makes clear people aren’t simply “intelligent” or “unintelligent,” but proficient in some intelligences (note the plural) and less proficient in others. The kind of intelligence it takes to run a business is different from the kind that it takes to do theoretical physics, but it is no less a form of intelligence.
“Cultures,” explains the conservative Thomas Sowell, “are not ‘superior’ or ‘inferior. They are for better or worse adapted to a particular set of circumstances.”
One example is what the psychologist J. Robert Baum calls “Practical Intel.” Explains former president of the American Psychological Association Robert Stenberg, there’s intelligence that’s “about how to do something rather than knowledge about something,”
When psychologists Barbara Jean Bird, Sheetah Singh, and Baum administered a test to 283 entrepreneurs on real-life business scenarios developed from interviews with 22 CEOs, they found entrepreneurs’ performance on these scenarios was a much better predictor than IQ of whose company was more profitable.
Another former president of the American Psychological Association, Albert Bandura, as well as psychologist Carol Dweck and Joshua Aronson have all shown that intelligence isn’t a finite endowment we get at birth. Rather, it grows over our lifetimes as the brain makes new neural connections. Studies have shown when you emphasize this expandability of intelligence to students, their test scores improve. And when you emphasize it to girls, their scores in math, in particular, improve.
Yet this doesn’t happen on Richwine’s view of immigrants, as Republican economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin notes: “There is no American dream. They start in poverty. They end in poverty. Their kids are in poverty.”
So when Richwine argues, “the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against,” his argument is not only wrong and grotesquely abhorrent. It’s not even conservative.
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