Yes, we should talk about race differences.
Race differences, like reality, will not disappear if we blink.
Written by Bo Winegard.
Scholars and public intellectuals who write about race differences in intelligence and other socially valued traits are often asked, in tones less plaintive than accusatory, “Why would you openly discuss such an explosive topic.” Even many people who recognize the reality of race differences, who know of the large gaps between blacks and whites in IQ and other traits, contend that candor about race differences is too abrasive, too alienating to be of much use. In fact, honesty about race, they argue, might repel people who would otherwise be sympathetic to conservative positions, shrinking the coalition of anti-woke voters and enfeebling the effort to defeat progressivism.
Although I understand and respect this concern, I think it is misguided. The problem with attacking progressivism without promoting race realism is straightforward. Because race is a conspicuous social fact and because races have different traits and tendencies, race disparities will remain stubborn and salient. Those who notice and discuss disparate racial outcomes are not just mischievous anons, professional racists, or progressive activists. They are normal humans with normal brains, for it takes no special training to notice patterns of variation in racial performance. In fact, it takes special training not to notice. (One might notice that honesty about noticing is heretical these days.)
Thus conservatives will be confronted with a problem: If races are the same, then why do they have such unequal outcomes? Why do blacks obtain lower grades, score lower on tests, commit more crimes (per capita), commit more homicides (per capita) than whites? Why are blacks much more likely to be poor, divorced, or incarcerated than whites? Without an explanation for these disparities, the progressive narrative that white supremacy is to blame will continue to prosper like a bad pizza chain without competitors, for bad pizza might be bad, but no pizza is worse. Thus, if the conservative cannot offer a plausible alternative, many people will lazily accept the white supremacy claim because it is better than nothing. In fact, many people find it coherent and persuasive precisely because elites have forbidden other explanations.
One might counter that there is, in fact, another option, the cultural explanation. That is, conservatives can contend that blacks score lower on IQ tests, commit more crimes, et cetera because they create and promote a degenerate “hip-hop” culture that encourages unruly behavior while discouraging learning, prudence, providence, and other bourgeois virtues.
Two problems. One, this putative explanation has become divisive and is virtually as taboo as race realism. Therefore, it is no longer a palatable option for those suburban moms who find race realism appalling but have not fully embraced myths of pervasive white supremacy either.
And two, it merely pushes the question of causality back and therefore is like trying to quell a froward child’s curiosity by saying that the universe exists because it exists. For if the culture is so obviously baleful, if it so obviously leads to deleterious outcomes, why would blacks create and promote it? Why would they not embrace the much more successful culture that surrounds them in the United States? Needless to say, progressives are more than happy to fill this explanatory abyss with the assertion that the supposedly “degenerate” culture is a pernicious legacy of slavery and Jim Crow; therefore, the culture is the result of—you guessed it—white supremacy. (Many progressives will even argue that the culture is not degenerate, just different, and that it is “whiteness” that is the problem.)
Thus, we must be honest about race. And that means we begin by noting that in the United States (and elsewhere in the world), different races have different average levels of intelligence as measured by IQ tests (and other measures of cognitive ability). Although this might shock somebody who is unfamiliar with the literature and whose only exposure to discussion about this topic is in the pages of mainstream outlets full of obstinate denials and fiery denunciations, the data are overwhelming; and in the scientific literature, there is no debate about the existence of group variation in IQ.
Among relevant experts the only serious dispute is the cause of race differences, with some contending that genes play a moderate to significant role and some averring that genes play almost no role. Below are some quotes from mainstream articles and textbooks:
The facts concerning racial and ethnic differences in IQ and similar test scores are clear. The causes and implications of these facts are not at all clear. (Hunt, p. 407)
It should be acknowledged, then, without further ado that there is a difference in average IQ between blacks and whites in the USA and Britain. (Mackintosh, p. 334).
The bell curve for whites is centered roughly around IQ 100; the bell curve for American blacks roughly around 85; and those for different subgroups of Hispanics roughly midway between those for whites and blacks. The evidence is less definitive for exactly where above IQ 100 the bell curves for Jews and Asians are centered. (Mainstream Science on Intelligence, p. 14)
When first encountering evidence of gaps in cognitive ability, many people point to socioeconomic disparities among groups as an obvious cause. Although this is not unreasonable, researchers know that socioeconomic disparities cannot explain all of the group variation in average IQ scores. Other obvious explanations such as systematic racism, which are prima facie implausible and often vacuous in practice, cannot explain disparities either. There is evidence that Ashkenazi Jewish people, for example, scored high on intelligence tests and thrived in many intellectually demanding domains at times and in countries that were rife with anti-Semitism.
Despite assiduous efforts to defend an almost exclusively environmental hypothesis of group variation — a hypothesis that suggests that genes play so small a role in such differences that researchers can safely ignore them, the environment-only research program has largely been a failure. Therefore, many experts believe that the most productive research program is one that posits that both genes and the environment play a causal role in group differences. The question of interest is not so much “is it genes or environment?” But rather “what combination of genes and environment?”
Thus, for those who value truth for its own sake, who believe that that only defense the truth needs is that it is indeed true, the question “Why write about race differences in intelligence and other traits?” has a simple and peremptory answer: “Because it is true.” But for most people, the fact that something is true is not necessarily reason to promulgate it to the wider public. Plenty of things, after all, are true that prudent people may find too offensive or too trivial to write about. Restraint is a necessary virtue for civilization, and refined, well-mannered people often refrain from uttering unpleasant truths in polite company.
However, even a pragmatist will admit that honesty is generally a virtue. And if the alternative is not silence, but mendaciousness, the case for restraint breaks down.
Therefore, the case for discussing race differences is obvious and unassailable. But this is still unpersuasive to many centrists and conservatives. Even a lie, they might argue, is better than candor about a topic so ruinous to social harmony. (And many conservatives, it seems, would be delighted if the problem just disappeared.) But:
People Will Continue to Discuss the Topic
In the United States, governments cannot compel people to remain silent about certain topics; therefore, people are at least legally free to discuss openly and loudly whatever they desire. And since race is conspicuous and fascinating, people will notice and discuss race differences. This is not a symptom of malice or invidious interests; it is a symptom of having a functional brain. A public taboo may of course drive conversation underground, but it will not end it. And unlike many other taboo topics of discussion (e.g., certain features of human digestion), explanations of race differences are socially consequential.
It is Useful to Know Causes
How do different environments affect intelligence? Scientists cannot know the extent of an environment’s impact until they control for genes. So if scientists did stop researching this topic altogether and if intellectuals never discussed it publicly, it would severely injure their capacity to understand the causes of social and educational disparities and foreclose any ability to formulate effective interventions. It’s difficult to gauge the costs and benefits of research, but knowledge is cumulative; knowledge that researchers forswear today, like money that a person refuses to save, can lose huge potential gains in the future. And, because knowledge allows better control of the world, researchers should err on the side of pursuing it and only refrain if there are overwhelmingly persuasive arguments to the contrary.
Silence or Dishonesty Endorses an Environmental-Causes-Only (ECO) Research Program
Intelligence tests of one variety or another are ubiquitous in modern society; therefore, it is impossible to escape evidence that points to disparities between demographic groups. In practice, a moratorium on investigating the causes of disparities is unlikely to hold across the board. Too many researchers — in the quest to find solutions to important social problems — would promulgate environmental-only hypotheses to explain disparities. This may not benefit environmentalists as much as they may think, since every time an environmental hypothesis is refuted, it lends implicit weight to an untested and undiscussed genetic alternative. It seems scientifically dubious, to say the least, to approach a problem with one’s hands tied. It is almost certain that in practice this self-imposed moratorium would simply be an endorsement for a self-restricted research program, one that dismisses genetic hypotheses for reasons extraneous to the evidence. And this, in the long run, is a pathway to misunderstanding, bias, and ignorance.
It Risks Increasing Group Tensions
Races do not have equal outcomes in the United States or in any other country. Some perform exceptionally well; and some perform worse than other groups. These unequal outcomes understandably lead to feverish causal speculation which can be divisive. For example, outstanding Jewish success has led to extravagant conspiracy theories about Jewish global nepotism and innate avarice. And the relatively lower success of some groups has led to accusations of ubiquitous racism and systematic oppression.
Of course, if bigotry is a chief cause of social disparities, then politicians and all decent citizens should battle it indefatigably. But if it is not, then the narrative is not only erroneous but also racially and politically polarizing, predominantly blaming those in power for social ills and inequalities by asserting that a fundamental unfairness afflicts all modern societies. This divisiveness is potentially consequential and costly and is, of course, unjust to the wrongly accused. The best way to discuss and deal with race disparities is to attempt to understand the actual causes of them and then to deal with or accept them as the natural outgrowth of freedom. These political decisions, of course, should be a matter of informed debate, but such debate cannot occur in the absence of an honest assessments.
A chasm of understanding presently separates the mainstream media’s portrayal of the issue of race differences in intelligence from mainstream scholarship. Among relevant experts, there is little dispute that races have different levels of average cognitive ability. The only dispute is about the causes of such differences, and the majority of surveyed experts favor some combination of genes and environment.
Conservative outlets very rarely write or talk honestly about incontrovertible race differences because they are terrified of provoking accusations of racism and of alienating potential viewers and voters. This of course is perfectly understandable. But it is also hypocritical and undignified since many of these same outlets applaud their own steadfast commitment to the truth and to free speech while upbraiding liberals for endorsing fantasies and stifling speech. Furthermore, race differences will not disappear in the silence. One can shut one’s eyes to the world, of course, but when one opens them, the world will appear again. Reality is ineluctable.
Some worry that widespread acceptance of race differences will lead to a recrudescence of racism. This depends upon one’s definition of racism. If one defines racism as the belief that races are different from each other, some with higher average scores on a variety socially desirable traits than others, then it will tautologically lead to more racism since, by this definition, accepting reality is racist. If, however, one defines racism as an irrational animus against individuals simply because they belong to a particular race, then I am skeptical of this worry. We accept many differences without promoting hateful prejudices against people. For example, we recognize that men are more violent than women, that teenagers are more reckless than adults, that elderly people are worse drivers than others, et cetera. We can accept and openly discuss the fact that blacks have lower cognitive ability (on average) and commit more crimes (per capita) than whites without advocating for hate or pervasive irrational prejudices. In fact, we can do so while advocating for tolerance and for color-blind public policies.
So long as racial disparities exist, people will be curious about their causes. Progressives have an answer: White supremacy. This answer is as pernicious as it is implausible, but it is currently endorsed and promulgated by many elites. Ordinary people may not embrace it with the ardor of these elites, but many of them accept it because at least it is an explanation. What else could account for the massive discrepancies in outcomes between blacks and whites? If conservatives continue to refrain from discussing race differences, if they continue to act like children who plug their ears to avoid hearing bad news, they will allow the progressive white supremacy narrative to thrive. Meanwhile, reality, undisturbed by our moral sentiments and social taboos, will implacably march on. Disparities will remain. And social policies premised on egalitarian fantasies will continue to fail.
I am a cautious person. I generally endorse moderation. But the abject failure of conservative denialism about race has become obvious. We need to accept reality. And that requires revolution.
Parts of this essay were taken from one previously published on Aporia.
Bo Winegard is the Executive Editor of Aporia.