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Black Intellectuals, Intelligence Testing in the 1930's and the Sociology of Knowledge

by William B. Thomas - 1984

This article disputes psychological test results from the 1920s that indicated low performance by Blacks. Inaccurate experimental research procedures and conclusions of tests are observed. Cultural determinants, heredity, and influence of test instruments on data are examined. (Source: ERIC)

The period of the 1920s was an era of extensive research on mental differences. Psychologists were developing tests to differentiate individual abilities from those of other individuals belonging to the same milieu. Curiously, scores from these tests revealed a high incidence of low performance by blacks. To a large extent, American psychologists of the 1920s accepted uncritically this phenomenon and attributed its causes to the inherent mental inferiority of blacks.1 A leading exponent of this hereditarian Weltanschauung, Lewis M. Terman wrote about blacks that “their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stock from which they came.“2 Similar conclusions were reached about the low test performance of southern and eastern European immigrants, following a massive testing program for the military in 1917.3 Terman and his fellow hereditarians4 believed that these differences could not be removed by any scheme of mental culture and were independent of the quality of schools, home environment, and the subject’s disposition.5

The uncritical acceptance of this hereditarian perspective by white social scientists from leading universities caused black intellectuals to raise significant questions about conclusions extrapolated from test data. One was whether identifiable mental differences between racial groups were indeed irreversibly fixed and independent of the influences of social and economic inequality. A second concern was the ramifications that answers to this first question had for federal, state, and local policies affecting blacks and others of marginal status in the social order. In a campaign to undercut a rash of racist claims in the social sciences, these black intellectuals launched a polemic against those social scientists who had concluded that blacks were innately inferior.6

Understandably, one major concern they held in their challenges was the apparent inadequacy of their own verbal counteroffensive against experimental researchers of national renown. Historian Horace Mann Bond, therefore, marshaled the talents of every black intellectual to

equip himself as an active agent against the insidious propaganda which, like its prototypes, seeks to demonstrate that the Negro is intellectually and physically incapable of assuming the dignities, rights and duties which devolve upon him as a member of modern society.7

Similarly, Joseph St. Clair Price, who later became dean at Howard University, urged that “if considerable progress is to be made in these investigations, the bulk of the research must be undertaken by Negroes.”8

Despite these calls for blacks to enter the heated nature-nurture controversy raging around psychological testing, empirical studies by blacks on the mental differences of their racial group did not emerge in full force until the 1930s. In fact, when the National Society for the Study of Education called for scientific investigations on the nature-nurture issue for its 1928 edition, the black response to mental testing was conspicuously absent. This may have been due to several variables, which this article addresses briefly.

For now it is important to recognize that a group of social scientists did in fact become deeply involved in the research component of the controversy during the 1930s. The overall purpose of this article, then, is to focus on and examine the experimental research agenda and the conclusions of representative black social scientists studying the effects of environment on mental test scores. By juxtaposing their findings against those of hereditarians of the 1920s I will illustrate a phenomenal paradigm shift between two opposing schools of thought, as described in Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia. On the one hand, blacks as environmentalists attempted to discredit the hereditarian view. They (1) assailed the causal validity of prevailing hereditarian studies; (2) pointed out methodological errors and abuses in the assumptions and administration of mental tests; and (3) developed alternative data bases by administering the tests themselves. Significantly, hereditarian proponents modified some of their earlier inferences about the inherent inferiority of blacks and certain immigrant groups, even to the extent that some recanted and disclaimed their conclusions from the 1920s.

On the other hand, these black researchers instituted in black schools the same tests they had criticized earlier. These tests were used as scientific and objective mechanisms for sorting and selecting black youth for higher and lower prestige positions in the social order. By employing the tool that had been used to build a body of racist data, blacks were coopted into an ironic legitimation of the testing instrument.

To understand the complexities of these paradoxical developments, it will be important first to explore briefly some of the variables leading to such a shift in views.


Until the mid-1930s blacks had remained peripheral to the dominant world of experimental psychological research. This has a number of implications for their relatively low visibility in the growing numbers of academic journals. Moreover, this may account for their polemical analysis of and assault against earlier mental testing data when an experimentally based counteroffensive may have been more appropriate for their purposes. An important consideration was that the few existing black social scientists attempted to contravene a psychological phenomenon of testing data interpretation principally from a nonempirical, sociological perspective. This fact calls attention to five problematic concerns they were facing in their historical mission to undercut racist assertions and conclusions made in the name of scientific empiricism.9

First, for the potential black researcher, there was “no ready and sympathetic outlet for the publications of the results of his investigations.” According to Charles H. Thompson,’ it took a “considerable amount of stimulation to overcome the inertia and discouragement produced by these circumstances.“10 In fact, The Crisis and Opportunity, organs of the NAACP and the Urban League, respectively, were the two principal periodicals accessible to and encouraging of the qualitative research black social scientists offered in their critiques of intelligence testing. Outside of the scholarly Journal of Negro History, founded in 1916, these popular magazines for the black masses and those published by national, state, and local teacher associations were basically all that black scholars had for dissemination of their ideas.

Second, journals of the dominant culture may therefore have tended to overlook potential contributions of blacks because for so long blacks had been relegated to the limited spheres of defense psychology and propaganda for their racial group.11 This possibility was exacerbated by what psychologist Francis C. Sumner charged was “the dominant community’s unwillingness to accept the fact that blacks are capable of scholarly research.“12

Third, black scholars’ qualitative research did not conform to the rigorous norms of quantitative research that psychological journals, in particular, exacted from contributors. In fact, Bond noted that blacks had been an inert part of the intellectual life, and that through ignorance of the facts, had chosen to be silent rather than to expose their naiveté. “That time has passed,” he went on to say. “No longer is there any justification for the silence of the educated Negro. Negroes must act through activity and investigation.“13

A fourth explanation for this dearth of experimental research in testing by blacks was their lack of training as psychologists. Guthrie cited the existence of only two black psychologists with doctorates in the 1920s. They were Francis C. Sumner and Charles H. Thompson.14

A final and compelling factor mitigating the research visibility of blacks was their general isolation from centers of research and scholarship in the segregated South.15 Having to rely on their employing institutions for whatever financial and administrative support they could muster, black social scientists were in some instances subject to administrative caprice. That is to say, teaching responsibilities often took precedence over research. To the extent that this was so, resources for research and an administrative commitment to sabbaticals, for example, were quite limited.16

Torn between conflicting goals of research and teaching, black scholars, according to Ralph Bunche, even more than whites, were

subject to the munificence of the controlling wealthy groups in the population. . . . Whatever reorganization and reorientation of “Negro Education” is to be contemplated must meet the full approval of these controlling interests. . . . Most Negro schools tread very lightly in the purely academic fields of the social sciences. They cannot afford to take the risk of losing their financial support.17

In spite of the artificial social barriers these black scholars encountered, they were nevertheless able to launch a concerted attack against invidious claims by hereditarian social scientists. One avenue by which they overcame these impediments was through their alliances with white social scientists whose research offered these environmentalists a valuable data base supportive of their world view.


White social scientists have been a vital component of black scholars’ efforts to combat scientific racism. On such issues as mental differences between racial groups, liberal white intellectuals, northern and southern, were particularly important to the success of national conferences addressing the problems of black Americans. They brought scholarly credibility to the Annual Conference for Study of Negro Problems, begun in 1895 by W. E. B. DuBois at Atlanta University. The list of scholars presenting their views and research at the twentieth conference in 1915 included cultural anthropologists Alexander F. Chamberlain (Clark University) and Franz Boas18 (Columbia University), as well as anatomists and biologists. All of them spoke against scientific racism, which had even permeated their own universities.19 By the end of the 1920s, this list of scholars had grown to include such notables as Herbert A. Miller (Ohio State University), Melville J. Herskovits (Northwestern), and Frank J. O’Brien (director of Psychological Clinic in Louisville, Ky.).

Still under-represented in the field of differential psychology by the 1930s, blacks continued to employ the indigenous medium of popular and professional journals to disseminate the research of sympathetic white scholars. For example, Thomas R. Garth, an experimental psychologist at the University of Denver, discussed his views in “Eugenics, Euthenics, and Race” in a 1930 issue of Opportunity.20 A second essay on race psychology was published in a 1934 issue of the Journal of Negro Education.21 Similarly, Joseph Peterson of George Peabody College for Teachers challenged the naiveté of groups and individuals conducting mental testing research without adequate training.22 In a similar vein, psychologist and anthropologist Otto Klineberg lent his perspective on environmentalism to the assault against hereditarianism. In his essay “The Question of Negro Intelligence,” he charged that “as far as racial differences are concerned, drawing conclusions about the intelligence of two racial groups from the relative standing in intelligence tests, without taking full account of differences in education and background, is no longer a respectable procedure among psychologists.“23 While not totally eschewing notions that test results were based in part on heredity, he did assert that “any interpretations of these results must wait upon a complete analysis of the way in which culture enters into the determination of test performance.“24

White social scientists also made their contribution to the integration of blacks into the dominant community of scholarship by teaching at black colleges as either guest or emeritus professors from their respective universities. Some examples of this collegial relationship were invitations to Fisk University by Charles S. Johnson to Robert Park (Chicago) and Edward B. Reuter (Iowa). Similarly, Howard W. Odum and Guy B. Johnson broke through the color barrier by inviting James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and John Hope, president of Atlanta University, to the University of North Carolina’s Institute of Human Relations as guest speakers.25

Another way in which whites offered their support to black researchers was the protégé-mentor relationship formed when blacks entered northern and midwestern graduate universities to study the social sciences, and psychology in particular. An illustrative case was the lasting relationship between Martin D. Jenkins and Paul Witty at Northwestern University. Jenkins, who later became president of the then Morgan State College, wrote his dissertation on blacks of superior intelligence. His research spawned a number of jointly published articles in a number of reputable mainstream journals.26 As an editor of Educational Method, Witty devoted a 1939 issue to the nature-nurture controversy, publishing an extensive essay by his former student on the intelligence of black youth.27 As opportunities for graduate study became more prevalent for blacks through the largess of foundations, they were able to develop greater expertise in the social sciences. By the same token, they gained wider exposure to the dominant world of research and scholarship through academic journals. The net result was an apparent higher visibility and respectability, as black and white scholars now interacted on a collegial basis.


Entering a new phase of research, black scholars started with the assumption that factors other than innate mental differences accounted for the relatively lower test scores of blacks. Conducting empirical studies of mental testing, these blacks attempted to establish correlative or causative factors to explain test-score differences.

One aspect of research viewed such determinants as cultural, exemplified by home and school environments, parental educational and occupational levels, and places of birth and length of residence in northern communities. Black researchers reasoned that lower-scoring blacks seemed to be concentrated in the South. There they were subject to conditions of abject social and economic deprivation. There were also those blacks who had been recent migrants to the North. However, they too had not yet attained the benefits of educational and occupational advantages that more-established and higher-achieving northern-born blacks had realized.

A second aspect of research took a long and considered look at heredity. The “mulatto hypothesis” led black researchers to examine test-score differences between lighter- and darker-complexioned blacks. Researchers also compared test-score differences between black males and females.

A third area of investigation was the possible influences of testing instruments on test data. Researchers therefore tested for the effects of establishing rapport with the subjects and of the subjects’ familiarity with testing artifacts.


In 1916, Terman asked, “Is the place of the so-called lower classes in the social and industrial scale the result of their inferior mental endowment, or is their apparent inferiority mainly a result of their home and school training?“28 To address this issue, black researchers, in concert with supportive white psychologists, set out to demonstrate that higher intelligence test and school-achievement scores would result from an acculturation process and improvement of environmental conditions. From this ameliorative perspective, they believed that lower-scoring blacks could indeed perform well on mental tests, which had been largely standardized on a northern, urban, middle-class population.

A representative researcher who investigated the effects of length of residence in northern cities and of socioeconomic status (SES) on test performance was Howard Hale Long. A master’s student of G. Stanley Hall at Clark University (1916), Long wrote his dissertation at Harvard on the test performance of third graders. He correlated their test scores with that of their socioeconomic status.29

Building on the research of McAlpin,30 Long attempted to establish the relation between intelligence scores and residence of pupils born outside of the District of Columbia (in southern states) and those born and reared in the District.31 He administered to 4,684 first, third, and fifth graders the Kuhlmann-Anderson Test, which produced the data shown in Table 1.

These data indicated that first-; third-, and fifth-grade pupils born in the District scored approximately three, six, and four points higher, respectively, than those born outside the District. Long questioned the 3.39 and 3.03 differences between resident first and third graders and third and fifth graders, respectively. For an explanation of the decrease, he cited studies of rural white children by Jones,32 who showed a decrease of approximately ten points from age ten to fourteen, and by Wheeler,33 who showed a twenty-point decline from ages nine to fifteen. Long asserted that the lack of counteracting social-cultural support contributed greatly to the depression of IQ. That is, the decrease was roughly proportionate to the deficiency of environment. He saw this deprivation as progressive, theorizing that

the social milieu necessary to maintain consistency of the IQ differs at different levels, and that the demand is for increasingly complex and rich environment. In very early childhood, the simple, underprivileged environment may be adequate. As the child becomes older, the same environment may cease to suffice, with the consequence that the IQ drops.34


Further examination of third and fifth graders selected and extracted from the total group of 4,684 showed that the average IQ varied only slightly after eight and one-half years of residence in the District; that the influences of the Washington environment on these migrant children was rather marked; and that the average IQ of black elementary school children born in Washington was 95.24, only 4.76 points below the average white elementary school child’s score of 100. Granting the fairly equitable educational opportunity for blacks and whites in Washington, he perceived that discrepancies existed in vocational opportunities, wealth, and control of public affairs as major determinants for the difference.

A sequential analysis of the data in the preceding study focused on the correlation of intelligence and socioeconomic status of the native-born, third-grade black children in Washington.35 In this investigation, Long compared test results from eight different intelligence and achievement tests, administered to the same pupils under controlled conditions. He then compared the results of the two groups from differing socioeconomic backgrounds to discover possible differential behavior with respect to these results. A major assumption underlying his study was that significant differences resulting from several tests administered to the same group of pupils are test differences, but significant differences resulting from the same test given to different groups are group differences.

His methodology consisted of selecting one hundred children for each of the two groups, Group 1 coming from underprivileged circumstances and Group 2 from better home conditions. He then administered the following tests to his third-grade subjects: Stanford-Binet; Pintner-Paterson Short Performance Scale; Dearborn A Intelligence; Kuhlmann-Anderson Intelligence; New Stanford Reading, Paragraph Meaning; New Stanford Reading, Word Meaning; New Stanford Arithmetic, Reasoning; New Stanford Arithmetic, Computation. Long’s choice of the Stanford-Binet Test was based on its having been standardized at the ages corresponding to the third-grade pupils.

Shedding some light on the nature of the socioeconomic levels from which Groups 1 and 2 were drawn, Long presented the percentage distribution of parental occupation for each of these groups (see Table 2).

The tests showed IQ averages of 97 for Group 1 and 112 for Group 2. Long also discovered that the differences in averages between four intelligence tests were not as great as had been supposed. Identifying the presence of thirty-four pupils having IQs of 120 or above, he examined the relationship between their scores and their fathers’ occupations (See Table 3).

A significant phenomenon was that more than half of the gifted children whose parental occupations were known came from semiskilled and unskilled occupations. The average IQ in these occupational classes decreased rapidly from the professional to the skilled group and then very gradually through the other classes, but, as he noted, the differences were so small that they depended on the consistency of the trend rather than on size for significance. These data made Long particularly cautious about making the usual inferences with reference to intelligence within socioeconomic categories, especially about those individuals from economically and culturally deprived circumstances.

Investigations by Long and others36 reflect the vigorous interest black researchers had developed in intelligence testing. This group attempted to validate the correlative or causative effects of socioeconomic status and length of residence in the North and South on the intelligence-test performance of blacks. Often encountering statistical inconsistencies between their hypotheses and their findings about the effects of these variables, they were considerably circumspect in conclusions they drew from their data. Their research, when interpreted from their environmental perspective, suggested strongly that discrepancies in educational and occupational opportunities between northern and southern blacks were significant variables accounting for differences in test performance. Some black children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in the North scored from average to very good on their tests. For these black researchers this was further evidence that when blacks were provided educational and occupational opportunities through an improved environment, they might even raise their scores.




The superior performance by some blacks was an enigma for hereditarians’ categorical assertions that blacks as a racial group were innately and mentally inferior to whites. For an explanation they had turned to the “mulatto hypothesis.” They claimed that “the light negroes were on the average 19.7 percent more intelligent than the dark negroes,” due to their admixture of “white blood.“37 For some psychologists this was prima facie evidence that the closer so-called inferior groups approximated the “superior racial type,” the more intelligent they became. That many black leaders had lighter complexions was further evidence of these claims.38

This concern over the effects of racial admixture had come to the very heart of the political questions of racial amalgamation and the preservation of racial purity. Evidence that lighter-skinned blacks scored higher on mental tests than did racial group members of darker hues was useful to some to validate their assumptions of the racial superiority of whites. Moreover, such claims might illustrate what happens to an “inferior type” when infused with “superior qualities.” By the same measure, one might also have inferred from the data what happens to superior types when amalgamated with so-called inferior stock. Consequently, once established as scientific evidence, these data could be used in the political and social arenas to legitimize existing antimiscegenation legislation on the grounds that racial mixing would lead to the deterioration of the superior qualities of whites.

The mulatto hypothesis bore signficance for black researchers in their vigilant campaign to debunk notions that nature was a greater factor than environment in setting a ceiling on intelligence. Yet another reason for their concern over superior intelligence among blacks was the intellectual’s faith in higher-scoring blacks as the last hope for what Bond39 and Long40 termed “racial betterment.”

Studying thirty exceptional black children in Chicago, selected from varying socioeconomic levels, Bond spearheaded undercutting the mulatto hypothesis.41 Although not a psychologist, he administered the original Binet-Simon Test and correlated his data with those of Terman in his study of one thousand representative exceptional children.42 Among five of his highest-scoring subjects, none of whom exhibited signs of white ancestry, Bond found a girl with an IQ of 142.

The possibility that darker-skinned black youth of superior intelligence existed piqued the interest of such psychologists as Martin D. Jenkins. His research attempted to ferret out such pupils, not only to demonstrate that they existed, but to show that their existence was no freak of nature. He suggested a special need for this area of research, as “no study dealing with the educational achievement of exceptional Negro children has yet been published.“43 With the aid of his adviser Paul Witty at Northwestern, Jenkins explored the mulatto hypothesis.

They assumed, based on extensive research, that there are “differences between the races, and in sub-groups within each race, in test performance. There are no true racial differences in innate or inherited intelligence.“44 Jenkins and Witty, therefore, tested the validity of the theory that blacks who made the very highest scores on mental tests were those having a higher percentage of “white blood.” Having identified from 8,145 children a total of 103 Chicago school children with an IQ of 120 or above, they compared the racial composition of 63 black children of superior intelligence from this group with that of 1,551 cases reported by Herskovits (see Table 4).

Nearly one-half of the group of sixty-three was found in the more-Negro-ancestry-than-white classification and approximately one-fourth was found in the no-white-ancestry classification. In comparing the racial composition of black children of superior intelligence with that of the general American Negro population, the researchers noted that “an American ‘Negro’ may range from practically pure white to pure Negro. . . . This group of Negro children of superior intelligence, however, constitutes a typical cross-section in racial composition of the American Negro population.“45 Witty and Jenkins also found that twenty-eight of the subjects were “gifted” children, having IQs of 140 and above. The racial mixture of this group corresponded closely to that of the total group.


These and similar supporting data led the authors to conclude that intelligence-test performance was not conditioned by the relative proportion of Negro and white ancestry.

This investigation also drew conclusions from a case study Jenkins had done as part of his dissertation research in 1935.46 It concerned a nine-year-old black girl whom he had discovered in one of the Chicago elementary schools and who had scored 200 on the Stanford-Binet. In the case study,47 he had presented a genealogical account of her development. He showed, as Bond had in his 1927 study of an exceptional black girl, that no indications of white ancestry existed on either the maternal or paternal side. Moreover, he found that she had been exposed to museums and centers of culture, and that her home environment had nourished her ability and stimulated her attainment. He later asserted that the provenance of the girl’s rare ability could be traced to a fortunate biological inheritance plus a fairly good opportunity for development, and that Negro blood was not always the limiting specter so universally proclaimed.

A second published phase of Jenkins’s dissertation concerned itself with identifying the incidence of black children of superior intelligence in a segment of the school population in Chicago.48 Teachers identified 539 children as “intelligent,” and Jenkins administered an abbreviated form of the McCall Multi-Mental Scale to 512 of the nominees, of whom 127 scored above 119. When 103 of these pupils were tested with the Stanford-Binet, their scores ranged from 120 to over 200. Noting that the highest IQ score was obtained by a girl, Jenkins reported that no significant sex differences existed in IQ, the mean IQ for boys being 134.6 (E 10.8) and 133.9 for girls (E 13.0). Boys, however, manifested superiority in subject-matter attainment, the girls showing superiority to the boys in only two subtests of achievement, namely, spelling and language usage. He found further that while there was a relatively small percentage of children in this superior group who were born in the South (15.6 percent), not a single one had attended a southern school. Jenkins’s use of the Sims Score Card for Socio-Economic Status disclosed that the collection of his subjects had come from schools of a somewhat higher socioeconomic level than that of the average black residential area in Chicago. The median educational levels of the fathers and mothers were 13.9 and 12.8 years of schooling, respectively, findings that correlated with those of Terman49 and Witty.50

These data basically confirmed the earlier findings of Witty and Jenkins,51 whose research at that time focused solely on the educational achievement of twenty-six black children ranging in age from six to thirteen, with IQ’s of 104 and above. They discovered that there were striking similarities between gifted blacks and other gifted groups. Concluding that their findings were limited to this group and those from a strictly comparable milieu, they also reported that the Stanford-Binet was a valid instrument for identifying potentially capable black pupils in the elementary school.

Jenkins52 concluded further that the effective functioning of the individual was greatly enhanced when environmental conditions were optimum, and that blacks of superior intelligence emerged when these environmental conditions were propitious. Other significant conclusions were that Negro ancestry was not a limiting factor in psychometric testing, and that abstract mental tests did not measure factors of personality and motivation, which largely determined success in life.

Researchers such as Jenkins and other black psychologists,53 studying the influences of racial admixture and gender on IQ scores, had developed a greater degree of testing sophistication than had blacks of the 1920s. These researchers found that racial admixture was not a factor in the attainment of higher test scores. Instead, children with above-average intelligence test scores came from homes of higher SES and attended urban schools having greater numbers of children from similar backgrounds. These youth also showed a greater educational superiority in their verbal skills, which these researchers believed were independent of school experiences. Such patterns conformed closely to those of other gifted children. In the matter of gender differences, there were large and reliable differences in verbal and numerical performances, females being favored on the verbal and males favored on the numerical.54 These new data were potentially useful to black educators in making decisions about youth and for identifying the talented within the racial group.


A few black researchers acquired a particular interest in the effects of test familiarity and rapport between the examiner and the test subject. The earlier predictions of Pressey and Teter had cautioned:

It may surely be questioned whether tests given by white examiners to colored pupils can give reliable data for a comparison of races. There may even be some doubt as to whether, with examiners of their own race, the reaction of colored children to the test situation would be quite the reaction of white children.55

Black researchers’ reservations regarding the impact of rapport on test scores were largely speculative until they too began to conduct experiments to determine the validity of such opinions.

One black psychologist of this period who contributed to empirical studies on the effects of rapport was Herman G. Canady. Incorporating the results of his 1928 master’s thesis written at Northwestern,56 Canady’s study57 was one of the earlier assessments by black researchers of the importance of rapport in test administration. Testing the hypothesis that black children do not respond to white examiners as white children do, Canady administered the Stanford Revision of the Binet-Simon Intelligence Scale to forty-eight black and twenty-five white children attending elementary school in Evanston, Illinois. Twenty-three black and eighteen white children were tested first by a black examiner and then by a white examiner. The remaining twenty-five black and seven white children were tested by a white and then by a black examiner in order to measure the gains and losses of both groups of children. The interval between testing ranged from a day to a year.

Canady found that the average increase in IQ for black children was about the same as the average loss of the white children. Only four children in the combined black group gained more than ten IQ points under a black examiner, and only five children of the combined white group lost more than ten points. An average increase of six points in IQ was found for blacks tested by a black examiner and an average decrease of six points for the whites. Canady saw these fluctuations as haphazard rather than progressively upward or downward. He noted further that a change of ten points occurred in 18 percent of the combined groups. These figures seemed to correlate well with those in studies by Terman,58 which showed on the average a change from the first IQ of about five points up or down, while a change of as much as ten points appeared in only l0-15 percent of all the cases. Holding that the IQ was not characteristic of the individual, Canady concluded that the group-for-group comparison of the performances of black and white subjects failed to reveal any differences that might legitimately be interpreted as due to the personal equation of the examiners.

Similarly, A. S. Scott,59 Canady’s colleague at West Virginia State College, set out to determine the effects of testing methodology on test-score validity by examining seventy-five black Florida high school students who had never before taken a standardized test. He administered the Army Alpha (Beta Form 6), the Otis Self-Administering Test of Mental Ability (Form A), Haggerty Intelligence (Delta 2), and Miller Mental Ability Test (Forms A and B) to randomly selected groups to determine the effects their familiarity with testing might have on their scores. Group 1 improved with practice and time by 8.25 points while Group 2 improved with practice and time 13.92 points. Group l’s average score on Miller Form A was 43.08; Group 2’s was 40.28, a 2.8 difference. Over time and with no practice, Group l’s average score on Miller Form B rose to 51.33 while with practice Group 2’s average score rose to 54.20, a 2.87 difference. Scott concluded from these data that there are decided advantages in taking standardized tests as a possible method for improving IQ test scores.

Conclusions by Canady suggested that concerns over possible negative effects of whites’ administering tests to blacks and vice versa may have been unduly exaggerated. However, Canady was critical of the problems that arose from extrapolating data drawn from culturally biased exams. He contended that tests were applicable only to individuals of similar backgrounds and those on whom the tests had been standardized. Meanwhile, Scott allayed fears that blacks scored poorly due to factors other than their testing experiences. He concluded that pupils in schools in which tests were often administered had a distinct advantage over the ones who were unfamiliar with these new types of exams.

These and similar conclusions supportive of IQ tests as an educational tool generated an enthusiastic support for testing in black schools and colleges, which were now being affected by the entry of large numbers of pupils from diverse social and economic backgrounds.



Psychologists of the 1920s who espoused a hereditarian perspective of mental differences had compiled a compendium of data on the innate inferiority of blacks to whites. Still influenced by Spencerian evolutionary theory, they tended to view their data from a morphological perspective, categorizing racial groups in a vertical hierarchy of “superior” and “inferior” types. This taxonomy categorically stereotyped blacks as inferior, to the detriment of the exceptions who did not conform to the stereotype. The development of scientific tools to quantify degrees of individual and group differences, therefore, greatly enhanced the interest in and prospect for influencing political decisions about blacks and certain immigrant groups on the bases of this “scientific evidence.”

Conversely, blacks from all areas of the social sciences seemingly adopted the environmental world view, which placed responsibility for lower test scores of so many blacks on such variables as SES, the cultural bias of the tests, errors in test administration, and logical inconsistencies in assumptions about the subjects. Initially, their enthusiasm for environmental hypotheses was aimed at a reinterpretation of earlier research data supporting a conceptual ideology based on “superior” and “inferior” racial characteristics. Approaching their analyses from a horizontal slant, they inferred from research data that some blacks scored as well as many whites had scored, and some whites scored as poorly as many blacks had. They perceived that this overlapping stemmed more from the greater differences within the racial group than from differences between racial groups.

Significantly, as these social scientists were polarized in an ideological controversy over the effects of nature and nurture on intelligence-test scores, arguments on each side underwent major modification. This paradigm shift causes important questions to be raised in the sociology of knowledge. According to Mannheim, two or more socially determined modes of interpretation within the same society may come into conflict. Through mutual criticism, a new consensus emerges. As a result, “the outlines of the contrasting modes of thought are discovered . . . and later get to be the recognized mode of thinking.“60 These conflicts, Mannheim continues, which emerge in the criticisms, are the consequences of various positions of power within the same social structure.61

This suggests that while black environmentalists attempted to discredit hereditarians, exponents of the latter view modified their positions even to the point of recanting many of their conclusions from the 1920s. Meanwhile, as blacks entered powerful policymaking positions in education, they adopted some tenets of the hereditarian viewpoint. Several examples will illustrate these shifting positions and synthesis formation.

Brigham disclaimed earlier racist and nativist assumptions published in his 1923 book A Study of American Intelligence. He asserted that “comparative studies of various national and racial groups may not be made with existing tests. . . one of the most pretentious of these comparative racial studies—the writer’s own—was without foundation.“62 In opting out of the hereditarian camp, he accused fellow psychologists of a “naming fallacy which easily enables them to slide mysteriously from the score in the test to the hypothetical faculty suggested by the name given the test."63

Similarly, Terman, who had held intelligence as constant and unaffected by nurture,64 later acknowledged that IQ was subject to environmental influences and to errors resulting from inadequate sampling, personal qualities of the examiner, and standardization errors in the tests.65

Thompson showed a significant increase in the percentage of one hundred psychologists, thirty educators, and thirty-nine sociologists and anthropologists who now questioned previously accepted notions that test-score differences between racial groups represented actual differences in native mental ability.66

Not only were social scientists modifying their individual positions on mental tests, but in 1934 the Social Studies Commission of the American Historical Association was emphatic in its observation that “there seems to be no general agreement among students as to what it is that the test actually measures.“67 It went on to assert that any assumptions that tests are efficient guides for instruction in the social sciences are misconceptions, and that intelligence tests offer no “precise and positive guidance in determining whether a child with a given level of intelligence should be advised to enter a particular occupation or profession irrespective of his economic and cultural circumstances.”68


At the other end of the paradigm spectrum, blacks had gained a greater power base and social position in the research community. They had achieved more visibility in the dominant world of scholarship, and had earned, through philanthropic support, more doctorates in the social sciences, especially in psychology.69 Their work had conformed to the prerequisites of quantitative research and analysis. With the rise in respectability of the study of blacks in American scholarship, and given new commitments from academic journals to publish their research about the racial group, black social scientists now approached the nature-nurture issues from new perspectives.

Long, one of the staunchest and most astute critics of Brigham and his conclusions, had gravitated toward a more sanguine view of heredity, mental differences, and the immense possibilities the tests offered.70 As a high-level administrator for educational research in the public schools of Washington, D.C., he asserted:

Today we witness a marked balance and sanity in scientific circles. It is believed that they are two sides of a whole and are functionally inseparable. Through all of the conflict of opinion and assertion, the scientist sees the tremendous importance of both nature and nurture. Not withstanding their inseparableness, it cannot be gainsaid that nurture is the more fundamental of the two. This would seem to be self-evident to anyone who has given study to this question.71

By accepting the premises that mental tests measured a quality called “intelligence,” blacks were coopted into a legitimation process. Under these terms, they now accepted even more than before the utilitarian value and predictive validity of mental tests as modern, scientific mechanisms of social control for sorting, selecting, and adjusting black youth for their place in a segregated social order. Social adjustment was to be accomplished through testing for curricula differentiation, for predicting the probable success individuals would meet in a given educational and occupational endeavor, and for objectively identifying strengths and weaknesses affecting the individual’s academic and social adjustment.

This seemingly paradoxical institutionalization of mental testing in black schools suggests additional concerns in the sociology of knowledge. One compelling issue is the role that the changing power base of black social scientists played in concert with the consensus shift in paradigms. That is to say, intellectuals, an elite corps of scholars, have a special role in interpreting the world both to and for their societies, thereby enjoying what Mannheim termed “a monopolistic control over the moulding of that society’s world view.” He continues that they are also conditioned by the forces of this “organized collectivity.” This means that those seeking access to this collectivity are bound by the modes of thought that sanction the epistemology and ways of knowing implicit in these modes of thought. Mannheim theorized further that these monopolistic intellectual enclaves are, however, subject to the rise of a free intelligentsia, characterized by its increasing recruitment from constantly varying social strata and life situations. This mode of thought of the new order is no longer subject to the regulations and sanctions of the closed order. Instead, in the throes of competing ideologies, in which the fundamental questioning of traditional “truths” begins, the almost unanimously accepted world view that had been artificially maintained through a “closed society” of intellectuals falls apart. With this liberation of the scholar, new ways of interpreting the world are gradually recognized.72

As these theoretical propositions are applied to the nature-nurture controversy, then, it is important to note that black social scientists had been peripheral to the centers of control in the dominant intellectual community. In their relatively powerless state, they had little access to national media for knowledge production and diffusion, However, when they gained, through foundation grants, greater opportunities for advanced studies in the social sciences and when they demonstrated their abilities to conform to the rigors of experimental research, for example, they qualified for entry into the intellectual circles formerly monopolized by white social scientists. At that time, the prevailing ideology among social scientists about racial differences was attached to a hereditarian Weltanschauung. By issuing into the community of scholars a contrasting and thereby competing ideology, or mode of thought, these black social scientists, with the assistance of whites espousing a similar and supportive world view, ingeniously challenged the traditional “truths” of the dominant intellectual community. Their activities were in part a factor in the reclassification of mental-test data in the minds of many white social scientists. It appears that while these whites were abandoning earlier claims on the influence of nature, blacks, having gained access to the scholarly community, adopted the intelligence test and some of the old assumptions on which it has been earlier administered and interpreted.

The consequences of this paradigm shift and power diffusion, whereby black scholars were coopted to the “magic of scientism,” proved problematic for some members of their own racial group. Significant to the paradigm and power shifts during the 1930s was an apparent agenda for blacks to build a black-controlled, bureaucratic educational superstructure. It would be a vehicle for increasing their influence over the education of blacks.73

This agenda, coupled with a southern drive for regional modernization,74 coincided with new educational opportunities for black youth. In fact, in a major educational building program during the 1920s and 1930s, the number of public secondary schools for blacks had increased by a phenomenal 2,000 percent.75 By as early as 1930, 79,388 black youth were already enrolled in public high schools in ten southern states.76 As high schools became more available, increasing numbers of blacks maintained the traditional belief that education and individual achievement would yield greater benefits, diminishing the ascriptive emphasis on family status and race. However, the diverse population of blacks in secondary schools and land grant colleges provided an impetus to the spiritual interest black educators would have in mental testing as an objective method to sort out the “unfit.”

Under these terms, black educators were concerned about the better-than-average students who were being subsumed by the large numbers of educationally deprived, lower-achieving pupils. This submerged group, they feared, would not assume the leadership positions to which they had reason to aspire.77 The plaguing question now facing black and white educators78 was how best to identify and separate this potential leadership class from the masses. For the answer, they turned to scientific empiricism. Illustratively, Ambrose Caliver, Senior Specialist in the Education of Negroes in the U.S. Department of Education, suggested that the application of science to education had moved toward the vanguard of social progress. He further asserted that “we are basing decision on facts. This can free us from educational moguls. Perhaps the most significant contribution which science has made to our educational thinking is the creation of the concept of the controlling power of facts. . . . It seems therefore, that our only escape from the educational morass in which we find ourselves is more religiously to apply scientific methods in our educational procedures.“79

Their enthusiasm was exponential. As advisors in their newly instituted graduate schools of education, for example, former mental-testing critics directed the research by elementary and secondary school teachers. As graduate students, these teachers correlated their pupils’ achievement, their vocational and educational aspirations, and their personality with intelligence. Moreover, many of these novices to mental-testing research being conducted in their schools were aspiring educational guidance counselors, seeking training and certification in this relatively new profession in the South.80

Now situated in positions of educational policymaking, educators such as Horace Mann Bond, dean at Dillard University in Louisiana and once an outspoken opponent of the early research by some white psychologists upon blacks, wrote that

we may not be getting inferior students into our colleges, but it is time we recognize the fact that our entrants do differ widely in the kind of preparations and abilities represented by such tests as the American Council Psychological Examination. I do not think this is an occasion to develop a violent anger at intelligence testing, and to say that intelligence testing is “the bunk.“81

Rhetorical statements by black educators about the “capacities,” “abilities,” “ aptitudes,” and “natural talents” of black youth are further compelling evidence that blacks had linked intelligence testing, at least inferentially, to some form of native endowment. Moreover, what some educators concluded about the “native capacities” of their students may have been greatly influenced by their views on the age-old Washington-DuBois debate. Central to this theme was the question of the ends to which blacks should be educated—in an industrial or a classical tradition. Tragically, their answers to this question were legitimized by blacks’ lower scores on intelligence tests. Teacher notions of blacks, documented by Frazier,82 that “blood will tell” ironically ran counter to earlier posits by liberal whites who had asserted on behalf of blacks that “we do not know just what it tells, nor which blood it is which speaks.“83

Progressive educator William A. Robinson, principal of Atlanta University Laboratory School, was acutely aware of such invidious conclusions levied against black youth by members of their own group when he wrote:

These men, who are consciously or unconsciously establishing their ideas in the thinking of boys and girls, have very little faith in the possibilities of Negroes in industry or business or professions. They believe far more in the inherent inferiority and perversity of Negro people than in the fact that, as human beings, they normally act like all other people and are worthy of equal consideration with other human beings. In other words, too many of us in Negro schools are accepting without much inner protest a deterministic and defeatist philosophy about a group with which they are connected and willy-nilly, we are indoctrinating our charges with our professional belief.84

The distinct conservatism and ideology of some educators’ responses to the social circumstances of their pupils were part and parcel of the power shift these educators had experienced. According to Bond, such responses of an emerging intelligentsia indicated their acceptance of “the tastes, ambitions, and viewpoints of the American middle class.” Many, Bond noted, who had risen from the ranks of the poorer strata of society had “lost their orientation with the masses of their race. . . having no sympathy with the poor and the weak of their own people.“85 The case of intelligence-testing adoption appears to be a classic illustration of what Odum called “a conquered people dominating the culture of the conqueror.“86 As a manifestation of a social-class rift between the intelligentsia and the masses, black educators held a special interest in intelligence tests as explicit measurement tools and as implicit mechanisms of class distinction and social control. Data gleaned from these tests, which had now been validated by black researchers themselves,87 aided in the identification and rigid classification, labeling, and sorting of young people whom test users were supposedly assisting.88

In conclusion, perhaps the greatest irony of all in this paradigm shift, and the ultimate cooptation of blacks as standard-bearers of a cultural mechanism alien to many of their pupils, was that these intelligence tests generated data that were used by southern attorneys attempting to thwart the 1954 desegregation efforts in Brown v. Board of Education.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 85 Number 3, 1984, p. 477-501
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 850, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 4:56:14 PM

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About the Author
  • William Thomas
    University of Pittsburgh
    WILLIAM B. THOMAS, a Fulbright teaching fellow in Denmark and Belgium, teaches sociology of education at the University of Pittsburgh. His works appear in The American Sociologist, American Journal of Education, Journal of Negro Education, Urban Education, Phi Delta Kappan, and Education and the Rise of the New South (Ronald K. Goodenow and Arthur O. White, eds.).
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