Racism and Research: Using Psychology to Justify Policy


The landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Professor Michael Staub (Baruch College) found that the case triggered an unending racist backlash that included the use (and misuse) of psychological studies to question federal funding for education. Staub chronicles the history of research on race and intelligence in his book, The Mismeasure of Minds: Debating Race and Intelligence between Brown and The Bell Curve.

Staub bookends his survey with The Bell Curve, an influential book that popularized what he calls “fake science” purporting to show genetic differences in intelligence between whites and blacks. The book was published 40 years after Brown v. the Board of Ed, but Staub says its analysis has “refused to die.”

Other theories claiming to explain differences in achievement have also held sway over the decades, including emotional intelligence, learned helplessness, and impulse control. Staub points out that research emphasizing inborn traits can do as much harm as linking intelligence to race: If your IQ, personality, or behavior determines your success, rather than factors like poverty and opportunity, then why should the government fund early childhood education programs like Head Start?

Meanwhile, Staub notes, when white kids have trouble learning or doing well on tests, psychologists come up with explanations and solutions — like hyperactivity, Ritalin, and extra time on standardized tests.

Despite efforts to undermine equalizing educational resources, Staub cites some “genuine progress” over the decades, including a dramatic narrowing in “the gap in test scores between white and African-American students in both reading and math.” There’s also increased acceptance of the notion that “growing minds are plastic and capable of change.” That theory of “neuroplasticity” has led some states to increase funding for early education.

But Staub notes that “the real science of early childhood development” has yet to answer fundamental questions: “If poverty does harm kids’ neurocognitive abilities, and it is almost common sense to assume that it does, is it possible always to reverse the damages done or — conversely — to establish at what stage in child development it becomes too late to make a meaningful difference?”