The Lingering, and Powerful, Legacy of “Scientific Racism” in America

Writing about the class of 2017’s performance on the newly redesigned SAT, Catherine Gewertz notes, “The number of students taking the SAT has hit an all-time high,” and adds cautiously:

What appear to be big scoring increases should be understood not as sudden jumps in achievement, but as reflections of the differences in the test and the score scale, psychometricians said.

More test takers and higher scores, albeit misleading ones, are the opening discussion about one of the most enduring fixtures of U.S. education—standardized testing as gatekeeping for college entrance, scholarships, and scholastic eligibility.

However, buried about in the middle of Gewertz’s article, we discover another enduring reality:

The 2017 SAT scores show inequities similar to those of earlier years. Asian (1181), white (1118), and multiracial (1103) students score far above the average composite score of 1060, while Hispanic (990) and African-American (941) students score significantly below it.

Throughout its long history, the SAT, like all standardized testing, has reflected tremendous gaps along race, social class, and gender lines; notable, for example, is the powerful correlation between SAT scores and takers’ parental income and level of education as well as the fact that males have had higher average scores than females for the math and verbal sections every year of SAT testing (the only glitch in that being the years the SAT included a writing section).

The SAT is but one example of the lingering and powerful legacy of “scientific racism” in the U.S. Tom Buchanan, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, punctuates his racist outbursts with “‘It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.'”

Buchanan represents the ugly and rarely confronted relationship between “scientific” and “objective” with race, social class, and gender bigotry. In short, science has often been and continues to be tainted by bias that serves the dominant white and wealthy patriarchy.

Experimental and quasi-experimental research along with so-called standardized testing tends to avoid being implicated in not only identifying racism, classism, and sexism, but also perpetuating social inequity.

As I noted recently, since Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth have produced mainstream scientific studies and published in reputable peer-reviewed journals, their inherently biased work has been nearly universally embraced—among the exact elites who tend to ignore or outright reject the realities of inequity and injustice.

As just one example, Duckworth grounded her work in and continues to cite a Eugenicist, Francis Galton, with little or no consequences.

Racism, classism, and sexism are themselves built on identifying deficits within identifiable populations. Science allows these corrupt ideologies to appear factual, instead of simple bigotry.

“Scientific” and “objective” are convenient Teflon for bias and bigotry; they provide cover for elites who want evidence they have earned their success, despite incredible evidence that success and failure are more strongly correlated with the coincidences of birth—race, social class, gender.

It takes little effort to imagine a contemporary Tom pointing to the 2017 SAT data and arguing, “‘It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.'”

Such ham-fisted scientism, however, mutes the deeper message that SAT data is a marker for all sorts of inequity in the U.S. And then when that data have the power to determine college entrance and scholarships, the SAT also perpetuates the exact inequities it measures.

The SAT sits in a long tradition including IQ testing that speaks to a jumbled faith in the U.S. for certain kinds of numbers and so-called science; when the data and the science reinforce our basest beliefs, we embrace, but when data and science go against out sacred gods, we refute (think climate change and evolution).

Science that is skeptical and critical, questioning and interrogating, has much to offer humanity. But science continues to be plagued by human frailties such as bias.

Science, like history, is too often written by the winners, the oppressors. As a result, Foucault details, “[I]t is the individual as he[/she] may be described, judged, measured, compared with others, in his[/her] very individuality; and it is also the individual who has to be trained or corrected, classified, normalized, excluded, etc.” [1]

“Scientific racism,” as a subset of science that normalizes bigotry, allows the accusatory white gaze to remain on groups that are proclaimed inherently flawed, deficient, in need of correction. “Scientific racism” distracts us from realizing that the tests and science themselves are the problem.

And thus, we must abandon seeking ever-new tests, such as revising the SAT, and begin the hard work of addressing why the gaps reflected in the tests exist—a “why” that is not nested in any group but our society and its powerful elite.


[1] Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader. Ed. P. Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, p. 203.

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