Discussing racial differences in the field of psychology is problematic. The term "race" can be defined as a distinct biological group of people who share inherited physical and cultural traits that are different from the shared traits in other races. By definition, therefore, race implies racial differences. No scientific basis exists for notions of racial differences as biological, genetically inherited differences. Race is a social construction. Race and racial differences do not really exist. Rather, they have a social reality—they exist within the context of culture and the environment. Ideas of race and meanings of racial differences are determined by people in their interactions and through the negotiation of the meaning of race in everyday situations, circumstances, and contexts.
The problem with the study of racial differences is that the ambiguity surrounding definitions and meanings of race and racial differences precludes us from understanding variability in behavior and/or processes of development. When race was used as a study variable in most behavioral research of the past, it was assumed to be the explanation for any differences found in behavior or the construct being studied. Therefore, researchers misled readers to assume that the differences were due to genetic differences. In reality, instead of helping clarify human variability, race merely identifies another aspect of that variability.
Historical View of Race
Historically, scientists defined race as being a biological entity. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, scientists' claims of hierarchies among the races were used to justify slavery and segregation in addition to social, political, and economic dominance over and oppression of blacks by whites. Race was defined by skin color, hair texture, and other physical features. Moreover, researchers believed that a person's race was related to intellectual, spiritual, and moral qualities that they inherited and that the races were unequal in this regard. While scientists were not able to, and still have not been able to, scientifically validate this idea of race, this notion has continued to be perpetuated over time.
In the early 1900s, social scientists—specifically psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists— began to realize that differences in behavior, morality, religiosity and spirituality, culture, and intelligence were the result of environmental factors, including history and education, not genetic inheritance. As a result, the concept of race in psychology generally has come to mean inheritable, physical characteristics. If race refers to inherited physical characteristics, then one would expect that there would be genetic markers for racial characteristics that scientists can identify, just as there are genes for eye color or biological sex, for example. In other words, if being black, white, or Asian causes a person to have the bone structure, facial features, hair texture, or skin complexion that they do, there ought to be some gene or chromosomal marker that scientists can identify that is responsible for race. No such markers exist for all members of any one race. No genes or hereditary factors are shared by every Asian, or every black, or every white person. Moreover, specific traits such as the ones listed previously vary more within each racial group than they do between racial groups.
America has always been multiethnic and multi-racial. As more immigrants settle in the United States, and people marry interethnically and interracially, ethnic and racial heterogeneity continues to increase. Racial and ethnic minority children and adolescents are the largest growing segment of the U.S. population. Changes in the "face" of America demand that individuals try to understand developmental processes operating in children from varying racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as other factors that influence the differences in children's development. Looking at similarities and differences in development helps researchers identify universal principles and processes that occur across all cultures, races, and ethnicities.
Standardized Tests and Race
A variety of race comparative studies have been conducted in the field of psychology and, more specifically, in child development. Race comparative studies on self-esteem, identity formation, out-of-school activity participation, risk taking, parenting style, and parental monitoring number in the thousands. Perhaps the most controversial area of study of racial and ethnic differences has been in intellectual performance. Many African-American and Native-American children score, on average, twelve to fifteen points lower than their European-American peers on standardized IQ tests. Hispanic-American children's scores fall between African-American and European-American children's, whereas Asian-American children's scores tend to be at the same level as scores of European-American children. It is important to note that neither IQ, future academic performance, nor life success can be predicted from an individual's race or ethnicity.
Researchers have suggested several possible explanations to account for racial and ethnic differences in intellectual performance. The first explanation is that standardized IQ tests and testing procedures are culturally biased toward European-American middle class knowledge and experiences. According to Janet E. Helms, IQ tests are designed to measure cognitive skills and information that middle class European-American children are more likely to have acquired. Researchers have attempted to make IQ tests more culturally fair, so members of minority groups and lower socioeconomic status are not placed at an instant disadvantage when taking them. A completely culture-free test, however, is good in theory, but not so feasible yet in practice.
Another explanation that has been suggested for racial and ethnic differences in intellectual performance is that minority children are not motivated to do their best on standardized tests. John U. Ogbu suggested that negative stereotypes about minority children's abilities may influence their ideas about their future educational success and career prospects. Children may feel that because of societal prejudice and discrimination they may not be able to get ahead in life, so the effort that they make and how well they score on a test is irrelevant. Furthermore, Ogbu suggested that African-American children may associate academic achievement and doing well on tests with "acting white" rather than with the values of their own group. Thus, they may avoid doing well because of the fear of being rejected by their own racial or ethnic group for behaving in ways valued by or associated with the majority culture. Claude M. Steele suggested that minority children and adolescents may experience stereotype threat—the fear that they will be judged to have traits associated with negative appraisals and/or stereotypes of their race or ethnic group (e.g., African Americans are not smart in reading; Hispanics just cannot do math; African Americans are simply intellectually inferior)—which produces test anxiety and keeps them from doing as well as they could on tests. According to Steele, minority test takers experience anxiety, believing that if they do poorly on their test they will confirm the stereotypes about inferior intellectual performance of their minority group. As a result, a self-fulfilling prophecy begins, and the child performs at a level beneath his or her inherent abilities.
In 1994, in their book The Bell Curve, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray suggested that differences in IQ are the result of genetic differences between the races and cannot be explained simply on the basis of test bias or socioeconomic status differences. They also suggested that these IQ differences were responsible for higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and welfare dependence in minority groups as compared to majority groups. Arthur R. Jensen agreed with the genetic hypothesis and proposed that humans inherit two types of intellectual abilities: Level I abilities, related to memorization and short-term memory, and Level II abilities, which deal with problem solving and abstract reasoning. Jensen believed that all children perform Level I tasks equally well, but that European-American children perform Level II tasks better than children from other racial groups. Herrnstein and Murray were met with extreme protest from many researchers who felt their claims were exaggerated, if not completely false. Critics suggested that Herrnstein and Murray's research was not scientifically rigorous. All findings relied upon a single data set, ignoring a century of research in the social sciences; the standardized tests used in their research measured academic instruction rather than inherent ability; the comparison groups were poorly designed; and they repeatedly overinterpreted weak relationships in the data. Moreover, The Bell Curve failed to explain within-racial-group differences in IQ. Similarly, neither the genetic hypothesis nor Herrnstein and Murray's theory of intellectual performance could account for multiracial children's IQ scores or the scores of adopted children.
The last and most compelling proposed explanation for racial differences in intellectual performance is that differences are the result of environmental circumstances. The subject of racial differences cannot easily be separated from the subject of socioeconomic class. Racial and ethnic group membership, in fact, is highly related to socioeconomic stratification. There is a direct correlation between parental income and education with standardized test scores. The scores of minority test takers tend to be lower, because minority children and adolescents on average come from families with lower incomes than do European-American children and adolescents. Furthermore, poor children and children from minority groups, who are more likely to be of lower socioeconomic status, are more likely to grow up in circumstances that do not favor intellectual development. Lack of access to resources and economic hardship can affect intellectual growth. Poor nutrition, poor health care, and living in chronic poverty or violent neighborhoods are just some of the factors that can combine to produce less than optimal learning environments.
Cultural Differences vs. Racial Differences
The direction of research on racial differences is beginning to move away from the race-comparative framework, which has cultivated the deficit perspective—the idea that minority children are inherently deficient or pathologic in some way—toward adopting race-homogenous frameworks, looking at within-ethnic-group variability, and the particular influence of the cultural context. A focus on intragroup and cultural differences rather than racial differences has more potential explanatory power for behavior and developmental processes. This movement has the potential to decrease the perpetuation of traditional notions of racial categories and subsequent stereotyping and racism, might legitimize race as a scientifically valid variable in behavioral research, and may lead to a meaningful recognition of social, economic, and cultural factors that contribute to differences in children's behavior and development.
Fraser, Steven, ed. The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America. New York: Basic, 1995.
Helms, Janet E. "Why Is There No Study of Cultural Equivalence in Standardized Cognitive Ability Testing?" American Psychologist 47 (1992):1083-1101.
Herrnstein, Richard J., and Charles Murray. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press, 1994.
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Ogbu, John U. "Black Education: A Cultural-Ecological Perspective." In Harriette Pipes McAdoo ed., Black Families. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1988.
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