Authors: Ibram X. Kendi
But, of course, while that may have felt true in a larger social sense, individual Black parents responded as individuals. My own parents privately etched out probationary middle grounds for their own children. I did not make Ma and Dad proud. But they didn’t treat me as a thug and lock me away—they kept trying. When I was in eleventh grade at Stonewall Jackson, my parents nudged me into International Baccalaureate (IB) classes, and even though I didn’t have particularly high expectations for myself, I went along with it. I entered the sanctimonious world of IB, surrounded by a sea of White and Asian students. This environment only made my hatred of school more intense, if now for a different reason. I felt stranded, save for an occasional class with my friend Maya, a Black teen preparing for Spelman College. None of my White and Asian classmates came to save me. Rarely opening my lips or raising my hand, I shaped myself according to what I thought they believed about me. I felt like a person in a leaky boat as they sailed by me every day on their way to standardized-test prep sessions, Ivy League dreams, and competitions for teachers’ praises. I saw myself through their eyes: an impostor, deserving of invisibility. My drowning in the supposed sea of advanced intelligence was imminent.
I internalized my academic struggles as indicative of something wrong not just with my behavior but with Black behavior as a whole, since I represented the race, both in their eyes—or what I thought I saw in their eyes—and in my own.
The so-called Nation’s Report Card told Americans the same story. It first reported the math scores of eighth- and fourth-graders in 1990, the year I entered third grade. Asian fourth-graders scored thirty-seven points, Whites thirty-two points, and Latinx twenty-one points higher than Black fourth-graders on the standardized math test. By 2017, the scoring gaps in fourth-grade mathematics had slightly narrowed. The racial “achievement gap” in reading between White and Black fourth-graders also narrowed between 1990 and 2017 but widened between White and Black twelfth-graders. In 2015, Blacks had
the lowest mean SAT scores of any racial group.
As a high school student, I believed standardized tests effectively measured smarts and therefore my White and Asian classmates were smarter than me. I thought I was a fool. Clearly, I needed another shaming lesson about how King died for me.
OT UNTIL MY
senior year in college did I realize I was a fool for thinking I was a fool. I was preparing for my last major standardized test, the Graduate Record Exam, or GRE. I had already forked over $1,000 for a preparatory course, feeding
the U.S. test-prep and private tutoring industry that would grow to $12 billion in 2014 and is projected to reach $17.5 billion in 2020. The courses and private tutors are concentrated in Asian and White communities, who, not surprisingly, score the highest on standardized tests. My GRE prep course, for instance, was not taught on my historically Black campus. I had to trek over to the campus of a historically White college in Tallahassee.
I sat surrounded by White students before a White teacher at Florida State University, a flashback to my lonely boat at Stonewall Jackson. I wondered why I was the only Black student in the room and about my own economic privilege and the presumed economic privilege of my fellow students. I wondered about another stratum of students, who weren’t even in the room, the ones who could pay for private tutoring with this teacher.
The teacher boasted the course would boost our GRE scores by two hundred points, which I didn’t pay much attention to at first—it seemed an unlikely advertising pitch. But with each class, the technique behind the teacher’s confidence became clearer. She wasn’t making us smarter so we’d ace the test—she was teaching us
to take the test.
On the way home from the class, I typically stopped by the gym to lift weights. When I first started weight lifting, I naturally assumed the people lifting the heaviest weights were the strongest people. I assumed wrong. To lift the most required a combination of strength and the best form; one was based on ability, the other on access to the best information and training. Well-trained lifters with exquisite form lifted heavier weights than similarly or even better-endowed lifters with poorer form.
This regular commute from the GRE prep course to the weight room eventually jarred me into clarity: The teacher was not making us stronger. She was giving us form and technique so we’d know precisely how to carry the weight of the test.
It revealed the bait and switch at the heart of standardized tests—the exact thing that made them unfair: She was teaching test-taking form for standardized exams that purportedly measured intellectual strength. My classmates and I would get higher scores—two hundred points, as promised—than poorer students, who might be equivalent in intellectual strength but did not have the resources or, in some cases, even the awareness to acquire better form through high-priced prep courses. Because of the way the human mind works—
the so-called “attribution effect,” which drives us to take personal credit for any success—those of us who prepped for the test would score higher and then walk into better opportunities thinking it was all about us: that we were better and smarter than the rest and we even had inarguable, quantifiable proof. Look at our scores! Admissions counselors and professors would assume we were better qualified and admit us to their graduate schools (while also boosting their institutional rankings). And because we’re talking about featureless, objective numbers, no one would ever think that racism could have played a role.
The use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade Black minds and legally exclude Black bodies. We degrade Black minds every time we speak of an “academic-achievement gap” based on these numbers. The acceptance of an academic-achievement gap is just the latest method of reinforcing the oldest racist idea: Black intellectual inferiority. The idea of an achievement gap means there is a disparity in academic performance between groups of students; implicit in this idea is that academic achievement as measured by statistical instruments like test scores and dropout rates is the only form of academic “achievement.” There is an even more sinister implication in achievement-gap talk—that disparities in academic achievement accurately reflect disparities in intelligence among racial groups. Intellect is the linchpin of behavior, and the racist idea of the achievement gap is the linchpin of behavioral racism.
Remember, to believe in a racial hierarchy is to believe in a racist idea. The idea of an achievement gap between the races—with Whites and Asians at the top and Blacks and Latinx at the bottom—creates a racial hierarchy, with its implication that the racial gap in test scores means something is wrong with the Black and Latinx test takers and not the tests. From the beginning, the tests, not the people, have always been the racial problem. I know this is a hard idea to accept—so many well-meaning people have tried to “solve” this problem of the racial achievement gap—but once we understand the history and policies behind it, it becomes clear.
The history of race and standardized testing begins in 1869, when English statistician Francis Galton—a half cousin of Charles Darwin—hypothesized in
that the “
average intellectual standard of the negro race is some two grades below our own.” Galton pioneered eugenics decades later but failed to develop a testing mechanism that verified his racist hypothesis. Where Galton failed,
France’s Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon succeeded, when they developed an IQ test in 1905 that Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman revised and delivered to Americans in 1916. These “experimental” tests would show “
enormously significant racial differences in general intelligence, differences which cannot be wiped out by any scheme of mental culture,” the eugenicist said in his 1916 book,
The Measurement of Intelligence.
Terman’s IQ test was first administered on a major scale to 1.7 million U.S. soldiers during World War I. Princeton psychologist Carl C.
Brigham presented the soldiers’ racial scoring gap as evidence of genetic racial hierarchy in
A Study of American Intelligence,
published three years before he created the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, in 1926. Aptitude means natural ability. Brigham, like other eugenicists, believed the SAT would reveal the natural intellectual ability of White people.
Physicist William Shockley and psychologist Arthur Jensen carried these eugenic ideas into the 1960s. By then,
genetic explanations—if not the tests and the achievement gap itself—had largely been discredited. Segregationists pointing to inferior genes had been overwhelmed in the racist debate over the cause of the achievement gap by assimilationists pointing to inferior environments.
Liberal assimilationists shifted the discourse to “closing the achievement gap,” powering the testing movement into the nineties, when
The Bell Curve
controversy erupted in 1994 over whether the gap could be closed. “It seems highly likely to us that
both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences” in test scores, wrote Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray in
The Bell Curve
. The racist idea of an achievement gap lived on into the new millennium through George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and Obama’s Race to the Top and Common Core—initiatives that further enlarged the role of standardized testing in determining the success and failure of students and the schools they attended. Through these initiatives and many, many others, education reformers banged the drum of the “achievement gap” to get attention and funding for their equalizing efforts.
But what if, all along, these well-meaning efforts at closing the achievement gap have been opening the door to racist ideas? What if different environments lead to different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement? What if the intellect of a low-testing Black child in a poor Black school is different from—and not inferior to—the intellect of a high-testing White child in a rich White school? What if we measured intelligence by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environments? What if we measured intellect by an individual’s desire to know? What if we realized the best way to ensure an effective educational system is not by standardizing our curricula and tests but by standardizing the opportunities available to all students?
In Pennsylvania, a recent statewide study found that at any given poverty level,
districts with a higher proportion of White students receive significantly more funding than districts with more students of color.
The chronic underfunding of Black schools in Mississippi is a gruesome sight to behold. Schools lack basic supplies, basic textbooks, healthy food and water. The lack of resources leads directly to diminished opportunities for learning. In other words, the racial problem is the opportunity gap, as antiracist reformers call it, not the achievement gap.
ACK IN HIGH
school, those final days in 1999 were taking forever. I sat bored during free time in my government class. As my mind wandered, my eyes wandered and latched on to Angela, sitting behind me. Brown-skinned with high cheekbones and a sweet disposition, Angela appeared to be writing intently.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m writing my speech,” she said with her usual smile, not looking up from her writing.
“Speech for what?”
“For the MLK contest. You haven’t heard?”
I shook my head, and so she told me all about the Prince William County Martin Luther King Jr. oratorical contest. Stonewall Jackson participants would give their speeches in two days. Stonewall’s winner would go on to the county competition. The top three finalists would speak at the Hylton Chapel on MLK Day in 2000.
She urged me to participate. At first, I declined. But by the time she finished with me, I was in. The prompt for the contest was “What would be Dr. King’s message for the millennium?” and what came to my pen were all the racist ideas about Black youth behavior circulating in the 1990s that, without realizing, I had deeply internalized. I started writing an anti-Black message that would have filled King with indignity—less like King himself and more like the shaming speeches about King that I heard so often from adults of my parents’ generation. If only I’d spent more time listening to King instead of all the adults who claimed to speak for him. “
We must no longer be ashamed of being Black,” King would have told me, as he told a gathering of Black people in 1967. “As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free.”
As long as the mind thinks there is something behaviorally wrong with a racial group, the mind can never be antiracist. As long as the mind oppresses the oppressed by thinking their oppressive environment has retarded their behavior, the mind can never be antiracist. As long as the mind is racist, the mind can never be free.
To be antiracist is to think nothing is behaviorally wrong or right—inferior or superior—with any of the racial groups. Whenever the antiracist sees individuals behaving positively or negatively, the antiracist sees exactly that: individuals behaving positively or negatively, not representatives of whole races. To be antiracist is to deracialize behavior, to remove the tattooed stereotype from every racialized body. Behavior is something humans do, not races do.
draft of the speech that night. “Let me hear it!” Angela excitedly asked the next day, before our government class.
“Hear what?” I said shyly, turning around, knowing exactly what.
“Your speech!” She beamed. “I know you got it there. Let me hear it!”
Feeling obligated, I slowly recited my speech. The more I read, the more confidence I felt. The racist ideas sounded so good, so right, as racist ideas normally do. When I finished, Angela was ecstatic.
“You’re going to win! You’re going to win!” she chanted softly as class started. I kept turning around and telling her to stop. Angela saw my smiles and did not.