Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Intelligence Is Racialized

In my last post, I started talking about Anna Stubblefield's talk at last September's Cognitive Disability: A Challenge to Moral Philosophy conference about the entanglement of race and intellect. Today, I'd like to post a few more excepts from that talk, which I thought were hugely eye-opening about the "double dose of oppression" disabled Americans of color receive.
[B]lack students are both more likely than white students to be labeled as special-needs students and more likely, once labeled, to be relegated to special-education ghettos rather than receiving the least restrictive, inclusive education mandated by federal law. Black adults with Down syndrome and with severe mental retardation are less likely to get the healthcare and support they need to live the longest and most independent lives possible. This is the unsurprising outcome of a social system that embraces a concept of measurable intellect that was originally designed specifically to justify the segregation and exclusion of nonwhite people, along with white people who, through poverty, ethnicity or perceived defect, were deemed undesirable.
Stubblefield argues that this kind of stratification follows perfectly from the Western way of thinking about cognitive disability:
The attribution of cognitive disability through intelligence testing is not, and has never been, a means of providing people who struggle to learn and to engage in life activities with the assistance they require. ... We can assess what people need by observing what they learn easily, and in which areas they struggle, without slapping a label on them. We can provide people with the help they need without marginalizing them in our society, whether in school or in adult life. As long as we persist with the us-them move of intellect assessment, entangled as it is with the history of oppression against nonwhite people, and as long as services exist in a social context where race and social class are salient, then nonwhite people with developmental challenges are going to receive poorer-quality services than white people with developmental challenges.
Indeed, I have read elsewhere that the original intended use of the IQ test --- as developed by Alfred Binet --- was not to rank individuals or groups, but to alert teachers to particular students who might need help in particular areas. The website I just linked to has this to say about Binet's idea of intelligence, and his intentions relating to intelligence testing:
Binet was upfront about the limitations of his scale [i.e., the concept of "mental age" on which IQ is based]. He stressed the remarkable diversity of intelligence and the subsequent need to study it using qualitative as opposed to quantitative measures. Binet also stressed that intellectual development progressed at variable rates, could be impacted by the environment and was therefore not based solely on genetics, was malleable rather than fixed, and could only be used on children with comparable backgrounds (Siegler, 1992). Given Binet's stance that intelligence testing was subject to variability and was not generalizable, it is important to look at the metamorphosis that mental testing took on as it made its way to the U.S. (emphases mine)
Imagine that, a developmental psychologist acknowledging that people don't all develop at the same rate or in the same way!

Anyway, back to Stubblefield. As she says above, we don't need to categorize people or make sweeping judgments about their overall intelligence, sentience or worth as persons to identify areas in which they may need special help. One function that intelligence testing, and the creation of a seemingly neutral arbiter of value (for, in a highly technological, industrialized culture like ours, literacy, reasoning and mathematical skill are highly valued) that often serves, in many people's minds, to validate certain other hierarchies, like those of race, class or sex.
We are still using intellect assessment as a way to categorize people on the basis of race, class and gender. It seems that we believe that doing so on the basis of a supposedly neutral notion of intelligence is more politically correct than being up-front about how categorizing people along these lines advantages those who already have social power. But even if we were to, or could, separate out this web of constructions so that we were no longer in any way drawing race, class or gender distinctions, the question would remain: “Why is it important to us to classify people on the basis of intellect?” And the answer is that doing so has no justification other than the us-them move.
(The meaning of her phrase "the us-them move" is somewhat obscure to me, though I suspect it means designating a privileged group --- an in-group --- and an out-group. As the groupings get called into question, as by various social-justice movements, the in-group needs to concoct other, fallback rationales for their privileged position. Intelligence serves as a good fallback rationale because it does tend to be found more in the already-privileged classes, so it reinforces existing hierarchies*, and it seems like an unassailable criterion of worth. Philosophers since Plato have been extolling the virtues of rule by the smartest).

Here in the US, the "existing hierarchy" that intelligence testing is supposed to uphold has a lot to do with race. Stubblefield traces the history of intelligence research in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe and America, and finds it can be divided into two stages:
  1. Use whatever means (typically skull volume or morphology) to show that the white race is intellectually superior.
  2. Find the "best" method of testing intelligence, taking it as given that a good measure of intelligence will give you a certain set of results --- i.e., consistently reproducing the already-decided-upon racial hierarchy.
Since, from the beginning, "intelligence" was equated with whiteness, nonwhiteness and intellectual disability were similarly conflated.
Throughout this period of research, white intellectual superiority was taken for granted, while intellectual deficiency was equated with nonwhiteness. In 1844, for example, Robert Chambers proposed a recapitulation theory of human development, arguing, “Our brain goes through the various stages of a fish’s, a reptile’s, and a mammifer’s brain, and finally becomes human. There is more than this, for after completing the animal transformation, it passes through the characters in which it appears in the Negro, Malay, American and Mongolian nations, and finally is Caucasian.” J. Langdon Down, whose name is still invoked in the classification of Down syndrome, based his understanding of intellectual deficiency on theories like Chambers’s. Expounding upon his original 1866 publication, “Ethnic Classification of Idiots,” Down wrote, “I was struck by the remarkable resemblance of feeble-minded children to the various ethnic types of the human family.” He proceeded to discuss white feeble-minded children who, in his words, “from some deteriorating influence” had been, again in his words, “removed into another ethnic type, and therefore resembled so-called Negro, Malay, North American Indian, or Mongolian people”. What is striking here is that the initial identification of white children with Down syndrome, a cause of so-called “real cognitive impairment,” was understood in terms of racial deteriorization. It is worth keeping in mind, when I discuss ways in which black Americans with developmental challenges experience discrimination in provision of support services, that Down syndrome in black children was not of interest to J. Langdon Down. His concern was with white children who had experienced racial deteriorization. Given his definition, it was not possible for a black child to have Down syndrome, since it was not possible for a black child to racially deteriorate; there was no lower rung on the racial ladder.
Robert Chambers's original paper can be read here**.

That historical context goes a long way toward explaining the findings quoted above, of poorer outcomes for black adults with Down syndrome, mostly because they do not have access to the kind of healthcare and supports that white adults with Down syndrome have.

While Down syndrome is now diagnosed via karyotyping, rather than some white doctor's subjective evaluation of how much you resemble other members of your race, even that objective, not inherently racialized diagnostic procedure is probably a lot more routine for white mothers than for black ones. Black women fare much worse than their white counterparts in terms of access to prenatal care in this country. So, even though it is no longer definitionally impossible for a black person to have Down syndrome, there is still a fair amount of diagnostic invisibility going on. And, even when there is parity in diagnosis (as in the people with Down syndrome recruited for the study described above), disparity persists in insurance coverage, ability to pay for medical tests, treatments and nonmedical support services, access to specialty clinics, housing options, and just about every other quality-of-life indicator you care to name.

You can find video of her talk here; it's very interesting, for those whose computers can handle such a big download.

*Not only because it really does occur more in those classes, because, as Binet noted, having a nurturing, stimulating environment in which to grow up improves one's chances to reach one's full intellectual potential, but also because the tests tend to assay skills that children of the privileged classes are more likely to have practiced.
**Funny-sad tidbit, courtesy of Wikipedia: Chambers's theories about human evolution and development, which were published anonymously, were considered so scientifically sloppy that many critics were convinced their author must be a woman!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I can't help but be reminded of some horribly plausible speculations about why Carrie Buck was treated the way she was: