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Mike vs. Emory

[1]2,861 words

Editor’s Note:

This essay is from Michael Polignano’s book Taking Our Own Side, available in hardcover, paperback, and PDF download here [2].

The “Year of Reconciliation”

Emory University declared the 2000–2001 school year to be the “Year of Reconciliation” for important issues affecting the University, and I naïvely took this claim at face value. According to the Year of Reconciliation website:

our aim was to celebrate the turn of the millennium through exploring a theme that highlighted the work of our faculty and students, promoted interdisciplinary dialogue about matters of importance to us all, encouraged discussion of the future of our university, and provided opportunities to use our thinking and discussion as first steps to action. We chose a theme that would be broad enough so that each member of the community could interpret it in a way meaningful to herself or himself.

I decided to interpret the Year of Reconciliation in a meaningful way. I raised a controversial, very important issue which I didn’t believe academia (or the general public, for that matter) has fully considered: the possibility that observed differences in both scholastic achievement and in violent crime between whites and blacks result partly from genetic differences between the races. I knew, of course, that the issue has always been a very controversial one. Nonetheless, I thought that at a university, ostensibly the highest citadel of rational thought, during a supposed “Year of Reconciliation,” the arguments for both sides of this unresolved issue could be subjected to critical analysis, leading to more enlightened conclusions on the matter, or so I’d hoped.

I broached the subject in an October 6, 2000 editorial for the school newspaper, the Emory Wheel, in which I discussed UC-Berkeley Professor Emeritus of Psychology Arthur Jensen’s most recent (1998) book on the subject of intelligence, The g Factor. In this book Jensen, among (many) other things, provides empirical evidence suggesting that Blacks and Whites differ in “g” (general intelligence), and he hypothesizes that this difference stems from genetic differences between the races. I soon learned that Arthur Jensen has held this opinion since 1969, that he has published over 400 articles in various peer-reviewed scientific journals, and that he was (and is) well-respected by his colleagues in the field, both as a rigorous scientist and as a man of impeccable personal integrity. This opinion is shared even by those who strongly disagree with his stance on race differences in g, an area that comprises only a small portion of his contributions to the scientific study of intelligence.

I raised the possibility of inherent racial difference with regard to the wisdom of continuing compensatory programs (like Affirmative Action and Head Start) designed to get Blacks on an equal footing with Whites. I reasoned that if Jensen’s hypothesis were correct these programs could never succeed, and could only do harm in the long run by misappropriating resources better spent elsewhere. Thus, a critical examination of Jensen’s most recent work in the area should certainly have been in order during the Year of Reconciliation.

Emory’s Response

In the next issue of the school newspaper, an open letter to me from then University President William Chace appeared. Besides questioning my motivation for writing the editorial (something I had expected), he made the patently false claim that “the jury is not out on Jensen,” meaning that his hypothesis had been discarded as untenable. Prior to writing my editorial, I had made absolutely certain that Jensen’s hypothesis was not only being actively debated, but was also steadily winning the support of experts in his field. I found that earlier that very same year (2000) Jensen was defending his book on the publicly-accessible Psycoloquy, “a refereed international, interdisciplinary electronic journal sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA) and indexed by APA’s PsycINFO and the Institute for Scientific Information.” I smiled, thinking to myself how embarrassed Chace would be when he had to eat his own words, for surely at least one Emory faculty member up to speed on the subject would realize that Jensen’s work was by no means scientifically disproven. Did Chace really think I was stupid enough to defend such a controversial position were it not justifiable by current research in the field?

Chace also decried as “wholly repugnant” my suggestion that compensatory programs should be reconsidered if they could not achieve their stated goals. According to him, Affirmative Action and Head Start are justified because they punish Whites, regardless of whether or not they help Blacks. He concluded his letter by “demanding” that the Emory community respond to me, using “all of the instruments of reason and civil discourse—and no other means.”

My reaction at that point was one of furtive amusement. I was certain that at least one individual in the Emory community would expose Chace’s mistake in dismissing Jensen in such a curt, summary fashion. I wrote Chace an open letter in return, a modified edition of which appeared in the next issue of the school newspaper (apparently the newspaper made an exception for Chace on its policy of not allowing directly addressed open letters: I was told I wasn’t permitted to address Chace directly).

I received countless emails concerning my article from students for about the next month, and found out that my article had been the subject of discussion in several classes. I also was contacted by the president of a student group called RACES (Racial and Cultural Education Source). He told me that his group was going to schedule a forum the coming Wednesday to discuss the issue. I told him that I thought a forum was a great idea, but that Wednesday would be a bad time because I had a biology test to take that evening, and I didn’t like the idea of having to take the test and defend my column in front of a potentially hostile crowd all in the same evening.

His response, as quoted from an email I received that weekend, was:

I do not think that I was clear on the subject matter of the forum on Wednesday. We will not take a large time to discuss your editorial—we are more concerned with the reconciliation of the matter at hand and how we as an Emory community can learn to educate each other about racial differences and learn how to be together here as a community. Your concerns are valid about walking into a potentially hostile environment, but I think that many people will agree with me that you have done that to yourself in your editorial . . . many people have expressed to me that they felt it important you attend. However, if you cannot attend the forum will go on. This issue needs to be addressed and the community needs to voice their opinions and we need to continue forward in a constructive manner toward bringing all cultures together on campus. This matter is much bigger than a single person.

I was astounded that this individual thought that the matter could be adequately resolved if no one were present to defend Jensen’s position. I had two problems with his reasoning. First, I strongly disagreed with his priorities: Bringing people together is great, but not if it comes at the expense of the truth. The latter should always have priority. But questions of truth, apparently, played no role in his thinking. Second, even if “bringing cultures together” were more important than truth, one could never hope to bring people together on anything but the most superficial level if the issues keeping different groups apart are not permitted to be discussed in a forthright manner.

From his email I got the impression that I was going to walk into a kangaroo court, a show trial where I would be presented as the obviously wrong racist, a farce where the verdict had already been decided and nothing I said would make any difference. Why else would only a short time be devoted to my editorial? Why else would the forum be able to continue if I didn’t attend? Only if the judgment were already determined in advance would these things not make a difference.

The forum proved to be the travesty I’d envisioned.As a news article in the Wheel points out, I had to go up against a tag team of six professors, all of whom argued against Jensen. (Interestingly, none of them had expertise in psychology.) Combined, they had 30 minutes to present their case, while I only had five. Needless to say, five minutes were insufficient time to make a case even if I were an excellent public speaker and possessed the knowledge of Jensen himself. I did my best to address each of the points raised by the six professors, but since they gave me only 50 seconds per professor it was an impossible task that I was foolish even to attempt. I also got the impression that nothing I said really mattered: most audience members certainly didn’t come with open minds; they came to pronounce judgment.

It was evident from their remarks that none of the professors had bothered to read what Jensen had to say about race. Nowhere did he argue that races were fixed, discrete categories, as the professors claimed. Rather, Jensen defines them as “breeding populations that, as a result of natural selection, have come to differ statistically in the relative frequencies of many polymorphic genes” (The g Factor, p. 418).

I pointed out that Jensen made use of Stanford geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza’s comprehensive study of population differences in allele frequencies, published in 1994 as The History and Geography of Human Genes. (“Alleles” are alternative forms of a gene.) The main analysis in this book is based on blood and tissue specimens obtained from representative samples of 42 populations, from every continent and the Pacific Islands. All the individuals in these samples were aboriginal or indigenous to the areas in which they were selected; their ancestors have lived in the same geographic area since at least 1492, a familiar date selected to mark the beginning of extensive European explorations and consequent major population movements. Measuring the allele frequencies of 120 alleles for 49 different genes, Cavalli-Sforza and his co-workers then calculated the genetic distance between each group and every other group, and constructed a genetic linkage tree based on this data. The entire tree and a simplified version containing larger groupings appear below.


I explained that whether one uses the term “race” or “population” to describe the groups Cavalli-Sforza researches is merely a matter of sematics. I also noted that the number of human racial groups is arbitrary, varying based on how specific one wants to get on the genetic linkage tree. While racial categorizations such as “White,” “Black,” and “Asian” are social constructs, they correlate to a large extent with the biological groupings as shown on the genetic linkage tree. “Whites,” for instance, all share ancestry in the “Caucasoid” category. “Black” is the social category containing the greatest genetic variance: Although a New Guinean and a Bushman are just as genetically distant from one another as an Englishman and a Bushman, New Guineans and Bushmen both evolved far closer to the equator (hence facing similar selective pressures during the past 100,000 years or so of human evolution) than Englishmen, whose ancestors had to endure the selective pressure of an Ice Age. Hence, for traits under selective pressure like skin color, cranial shape and capacity, and mental ability, New Guineans and Bushmen resemble one another and thus would be socially categorized as “Black.”

However, no one besides myself at the forum was willing to acknowledge any biological influence on socially-identified racial groups. After anthropology professor George Armelagos said that “race is not a useful biological construct,” I asked how it was that forensic anthropologists could reliably and correctly identify the race of a human skull if race had no correlation with biology. I also pointed out that races differ in frequencies of certain diseases, and that mainstream science has found that some of these differences have genetic components. For instance, I pointed out a study showing that some people of European ancestry possess a gene providing resistance to HIV infection, believed to have arisen in the population because it also provides resistance to the bubonic plague which swept through Europe in the Middle Ages. But these rebuttals fell on deaf ears. The prevailing idea put forth at the forum was that racial classification was “bad science,” in addition to being inherently evil and “hateful,” and no one besides myself challenged that idea.

In the weeks following the forum, I met with a number of Emory professors who were willing to admit privately that Jensen’s findings might be correct. But to their shame and my disgust none of the scientists was willing to do so publicly. Out of apathy or fear they were willing to let stand Chace’s false assertion that “the jury is not out on Jensen.” The one professor who was willing to defend me publicly was James Gouinlock, a professor of philosophy who was far better informed about Jensen’s work than the scientists who attacked it. Gouinlock wrote a letter to the editor of the Wheel defending me. But the Wheel refused to print it, or even acknowledge its receipt. I also learned that most White students at Emory were convinced from personal experience that race and IQ are linked. But only two students were willing to defend me publicly, one on scientific grounds, the other on First Amendment grounds. An Emory alumnus, John R. Morgan, M.D., also wrote a letter to the Wheel in my defense.

I created a discussion group on LearnLink, Emory’s internal computer network, to examine the issue further. I was interested in hearing if anybody had any substantive criticism of Jensen’s work, since the professors at the forum entirely misrepresented Jensen’s position on key issues like race. The responses I received were mostly ad hominem attacks with ridiculous or irrelevant disparaging comments, although some productive discussion did take place.

I came to realize that an extremely nasty and highly motivated minority of faculty and students held the campus in the grip of fear. The purpose of my public humiliation was clear: It was a warning. Anyone who publicly acknowledged scientific facts or personal experiences about the reality of race could expect the same treatment.

Arthur Jensen is the Galileo of our times. And to its eternal shame, Emory University refused to look into the telescope.

The Reconciliation Symposium

As could be predicted by Emory’s response to Jensen’s work, the following Spring’s Reconciliation Symposium proved to be a one-sided farce (a left-sided farce) which reconciled absolutely nothing. The symposiasts were a racially and sexually diverse bunch who held blandly homogenous, predictably “progressive” opinions about everything. No reconciliation was needed, because contradictory data and contrary viewpoints were never discussed. A list of some of the headlines from the Wheel’s Reconciliation Symposium coverage speaks volumes:

Fortunately, some students protested. Indeed, three of the six editorials written about the Symposium deal with this topic.

The best of these is the staff editorial, which rightly chided the symposium as “a fantasy reconciliation” and noted “it takes a great stretch of the imagination to consider an academic summit with an almost complete monopoly of opinion in nearly every field to be a productive advancement of debate.”

Another editorial suggests a “mini-symposium” directed at students, with one of the panels entitled “Reconciling the Opposing Sides in the Race and Intelligence Debate.” The author notes, “When controversy flared over this issue in the fall, professors and administrators moved quickly to squelch debate on one side. This gives the impression that only a few students believe that race and intelligence are connected. Casual conversations tell a different story.”

The final column, entitled “Reconciliation Requires Vigorous Debate,” dealt with the panel “Reconciling Race, Ethnicity and Other Lines that Divide Us.” After noting that “there was not any reconciliation going on in this discussion because no one offered a strong dissent to any of the panelists,” he writes, “For all the senseless and malicious dribble Wheel columnist Michael Polignano spewed last fall, he had a point in suggesting that the academy lacks a spectrum of academic thought.”

Over the past few years, I have researched the work of Jensen and others regarding race differences. Contrary to popular belief, I’ve found that the preponderance of scientific evidence supports the view that genetics play just as much (and likely more) of a role than environment as far as racial differences in mental ability are concerned.

An Amusing Postscript

Later on that year, my picture appeared on the cover of Emory’s 2001–2002 course catalog. A black student, trying to shame Emory into catering even more slavishly to ever-disgruntled minorities, complained that the picture was somehow an endorsement of my ideas. But that is preposterous. Emory only wanted me for my body, not for my mind.

October 6, 2003