“Just Because You’re Black, You Can Be Smart”

I just returned from #AERA2018 after a travel nightmare both there and back. However, I’m so glad I was able to present some of my quantitative findings alongside some impressive scholars who took time afterwards to give me advice on “what comes next.”

I want to start with a story. This really moved me in the research phase of my work. As part of my data collection I worked at two schools in the Chicago metropolitan area. The first was a private gifted education only school in a suburb outside the city. The second was a “inner-city” charter school that was over 90% African American and over 90% low-income. To thank the teachers who participated in my research, I volunteered my time helping out in their classrooms. One day at the charter school I worked with a fifth-grade girl who I’ll call Brianna for the sake of this. That day in social studies class we’d done a short reading on Katherine Johnson, the African American woman who calculated the shuttle trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American to go into space. Just a week before, the fifth and sixth-grade classes had gone on a field trip to watch the movie. Each of the students was asked to create a diagram sharing the key messages they had taken from the reading we’d just done together as a group.

One of the messages that Brianna had taken away from the stood out to me in particular: “just because you are black you’re can be smart.” “Just because you’re Black, you can be smart.” ‘Just because.’ It’s a turn of phrase, but it identifies a language of race and deficit. In its expression it points to an injustice that I think Brianna understands.

Reading over her diagram, I felt Brianna was saying that Katherine Johnson defied the perception that Whiteness equates to intelligence. The conflation of Whiteness with cognitive exceptionalism is historically entrenched; it is a history that informs and shapes the charged and fraught terrain of the field of behavior genetics, which we’re here to talk about today.

Ugly History

Let’s briefly cover this ugly history. The literal and indiscriminate acceptance of genetic ideologies has led American society down racist and classist roads–this is a fact. The United States has a long history of linking race and class with intellectual ability and social delinquency (Brigham, 1922; Reilly, 1987; Rushton & Jensen, 2006; William Shockley, 1971; Tredgold, 1909).

Biological characterizations of intelligence provided fodder for the American Eugenics Movement, and shaped responses to immigration, the Civil Rights Movement, and public education. Genetic arguments linking intelligence, race, and class became xenophobic and discriminatory tools for addressing the threats of immigration and desegregation. These discourses worked their way into public education, spurring education reform movements that affected teacher training, curriculum development, and school organization (Au, 2009). They resulted in the legal involuntary sterilization of the ‘feeble-minded’ who were identified from their low-IQ levels, overactive sex-drives, and moral degeneracy (Buck v. Bell, 1927) and who were most often poor Whites or people of color.

Through biosocial arguments, racial and class hierarchies were assigned further normalcy, they were used exclude the poor, to exclude people of color, to prevent marginalized communities from achieving social and economic mobility.

Genetic ideologies used IQ tests to demonstrate there were race and class-based differences in intelligence and that these differences were innate. Lewis Terman, a founder of ‘gifted education’ in his 1916 book “The Measurement of Intelligence” discussed racial differences in IQ, pointing specifically to the “extraordinary frequency” or mental dullness in “Indians, Mexicans, and Negroes” which he thought to be both inherent and racial in nature. He was part of a movement to that got schools to use IQ tests to categorize, track, and stream children (Boake, 2002). I should add IQ tests are still used today in many school districts to identify children for gifted and talented programming.

When it came to education, the argument presented by eugenicists, and researchers in education, genetics, and psychology was that universal public education failed to recognize that some students have “weaker genetic aptitudes,” rendering the idea of ‘equal educational opportunity’ meaningless and impossible (Arthur R. Jensen, 1978). The argument was that African Americans suffered from the “Negro IQ Deficit” (Dreger & Miller, 1960; A. R. Jensen, 1968; William Shockley, 1971; Shuey, 1958), making them inherently less able than Whites and therefore best placed in separate classrooms and schools. The argument, time and time again was that differences between people of color and Whites when it came to intelligence were genetic. Manipulating the objectivity associated with Scientific language, racially-defined minorities or poor Whites were presented as genetic threats to the morality, purity, and preservation of American society as the quote from Shockley shows.

In short, intelligence is highly socially valued and genetic ideologies have been used in a powerful way to exclude immigrant, low-income, and racially-defined minority groups.

The Postgenomic Era

Today, in the 21st century, we are in what is called the post-genomic era, the period following the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. During this time, the cost of DNA sequencing has rapidly decreased (National Human Genome Research Institute, 2016) increasing the amount of genetic data that can be produced and analyzed. With this, scientific researchers have advanced their ability to relate genes to social and behavioral outcomes (Rietveld et al., 2014).

Decreasing costs have also opened the doors of genetic information to everyday Americans, creating a market for consumer genetics. Getting genotyped has quickly become a popular way for individuals to learn more about themselves. So although the notion that schools and a student’s genetics can intersect is not new, the onslaught of genetic data being made readily available to both researchers and the public and how it’s conversing with education is.

But, before I go on, I want to acknowledge something. There is a difference between the “genetic research” conducted in the 20th century and what is happening today. Fields like epigenetics and sociogenomics, have transformed the ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate into a matter of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture.’ Many in the social sciences believe a field like epigenetics might show how biological differences are produced by social inequality, the physiological effects of living in poverty or of experiencing racism; this could be incredibly powerful in trying to convince policy makers of the very real and detrimental PHYSIOLOGICAL effects things like eviction or implicit bias might have on any body, but poor, black, and brown bodies in particular. Fields like epigenetics represent new biosocial paradigms that create a more ‘plastic’ or flexible understanding of human behavior and the relationship between the environment and biology, (Martschenko, Trejo, & Domingue, 2018; Meloni, 2017; Meloni, Williams, & Martin, 2016).

So to argue that infusing any kind of biosocial research into education would repeat a nefarious history, fails to recognize the modern moment and the novel ways current scientific research is looking at human behavior. As Gulson and Baker wrote in a 2018 paper titled “New biological rationalities in education”: the “amalgamation or ‘assemblage’ of biology and education…is redefining education and not only in one direction, and not only cynically” (Gulson & Baker, 2018).

Behavior Genetics

That said, behavior genetics, which is my focus, stands on the fringes of the biosocial sciences. Behavior genetics continues to argue the genetic nature of intelligence, an incredibly socially valued concept. Behavior genetics is also beginning to suggest that apparently social factors like Social Deprivation and Household Income are genetically influenced. The genome, not the environment or the epigenome, is the focus.

Behavior genetics is an interdisciplinary field combining molecular genetics and psychology. Researchers in it have moved beyond trying to identify how heritable or genetically influenced a trait like intelligence or educational attainment is to trying to find the specific genetic markers that predict these behaviors. They use a research method called Genome Wide Association Studies, which compares DNA markers across the entire genome. While on the eve of the Human Genome Project the belief in the power and possibility of behavior genetic led to almost idealistic claims about what can be done in the field within a relatively short period of time, thus far key studies have only been able to identify genetic markers that account for up approximately 9% of differences between individuals in educational attainment (Selzam et al., 2016) and up to 20% of the 50% heritability of intelligence (Plomin & Stumm, 2018).

How does this connect with the US education system?

Teacher perceptions of a student MATTER. They have been shown to impact a child’s academic achievement and the likelihood of being referred for gifted education or, alternatively, special education (Blanchett, 2006; Elhoweris, Mutua, Alsheikh, & Holloway, 2005; Hinnant, O’Brien, & Ghazarian, 2009; McKown & Weinstein, 2008; Sebastian Cherng, 2017). Research also suggests that teachers “treat students differently depending on students’ race (Warikoo, Sinclair, Fei, & Jacoby-Senghor, 2016). Teachers are less likely to refer African-American and Latino students for gifted education programing, spaces that are defined by academic exceptionalism, created for children who are labeled “intelligent” “talented”… “gifted.” Instead, we know that many teachers are more likely to discipline students of color, more likely to refer them for special education (Tenenbaum & Ruck, 2007).

In the past five years we’ve seen increased calls for incorporating behavior genetics research findings into education policy and curriculum. This creates both generative and problematic contexts for assessing links between race, class, and equitable access, and could encourage policy that re-inscribe biodeterminism into education

Today, some behavior genetics researchers argue that “integration of educational, genetic, and neuroscientific investigations can lead to faster progress in optimizing education” (Kovas et al., 2016). Findings in the field suggest that differences in academic performance between children are influenced by differences in their genetic makeup, most notably in reading, mathematics, science, and general intelligence (Asbury & Plomin, 2013). Therefore, the argument is made that “if genes are part of the problem for some pupils, then it seems likely that studying them could be part of a solution” (Asbury, 2015, p. S39). Those advocating for the incorporation of genetics-infused research into education talk about “increasing personalized learning based on children’s specific cognitive and motivational profiles”, “maximizing outcomes for all” (Asbury, 2015); “and minimizing weaknesses” (Asbury & Plomin, 2013). Researchers say their work could provide earlier and more tailored career advice, help decide on tracking and streaming of children more precisely, and the allow parents to request specific educational focuses based on their child’s genetic data. They talk about how developing an understanding of the role of genetics could “avoid erroneous assumptions” (Kovas et al., 2016). And although it may seem like it’s out of science fiction, they’ve introduced the idea of specialized DNA chips for educationally relevant traits, like a dyslexia chip or an ADHD chip or a cognitive chip. These ‘chips’ would be like memory cards containing the genetic markers associated with something like ADHD or dyslexia. Researchers say we could easy screen children against these chips and “quickly and inexpensively identify learning disabilities and diagnose them early.”

In 2013 Kathryn Asbury and Robert Plomin, both based out of the UK, although Plomin is an American who was born and raised in Chicago, published the book “G is for Genes, the Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement.” In the book, Asbury and Plomin argue that genetic influence does not signify genetic determinism but can shape the nature of educational policy. They write that “the fact that individual differences are influenced by genes makes a lie of the blank slate philosophy”(Asbury & Plomin, 2013, p. 6). Using the idea of “precision medicine” which is seen as a beneficial outcome of genomic research in biomedicine, “G is for Genes” creates a vision for a system of “precision education” in which pedagogical practice is informed by genetics research, able to predict which kinds of educational interventions a child is most receptive to (Asbury & Plomin, 2013). They list 11 policy proposals for creating what they call “genetically-sensitive schooling.” And, they conclude their book with “it’s time to use the lessons of behavioral genetics to crease a school system that celebrates and encourages this wonderful diversity” (Asbury & Plomin, 2013, p. 187).

The symbolic weightiness of genetic discourses has real implications for systems of education and the educators and children situated within it. For instance, after  “G is for Genes” came out, Plomin was asked to give five lectures at the British Department of Education, to brief civil servants on his research findings. In the United States, elite gifted-education programs like Duke University’s Talent Identification Program and the John’s Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY) have been approached by behavior genetics researchers hoping to genotype “gifted” children and identify specific genes associated with high cognitive ability (Hansen, Gluck, & Shelton, 2015).


It is SO important we think about the EFFECTS of research on the lives of those who are most marginalized, who have been used and abused in research before, who have been used and abused as a result of (mis)interpretation of research. Brianna’s story and what she sees is the story of many children across the United States. Let’s think about what the impact of our work is. Doctors take an oath of “do no harm.” What about the other “doctors,” that is those with PhDs or those who (hopefully!) will one day have one?

Published by historicallyburdenedconcepts

Bi-racial butterfly interested in bioethics, sociogenomics, impacts on understandings of inequities

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