Culture, Discrimination and Psychology Testing on Specific Ethnic Groups

The aim of this article is to explain why the knowledge of minority culture in Psychological testing can better facilitate intelligence testing. I will explore the history of Black’s relationship to education and how standardized intelligence testing has affected Black’s economic mobility. I will show through the pioneering research of key academics how different ways of assessing intelligence can be an inclusive means of measuring cognitive ability and facilitate an accurate statistical norm. I will explore how intelligence tests have been used historically to bar Blacks from full participation in the dominant culture and provided reasoning for racial discrimination. Then I will explore the efforts to make the tests more culturally inclusive and how this has enabled a greater understanding of intelligence itself, and the means by which it is measured. I will conclude with a summation of the aspects of intelligent testing and what can be done to work toward a true and balanced measurement of intelligence.

Here I will show how research in applied intelligence testing on Blacks can improve assessments of intelligent tests. I will look at the history of intelligence testing and how it has been used to justify the denial of access to the wider culture of Black people. I will show the different aspects of discrimination in use historically on intelligence tests and the cultural bias that has led to the view of black inferiority by some Psychologists. I will show the nature and function of these intelligence tests and show how they fit into the wider scheme of cultural mobility and disenfranchisement. It is well-known one’s ability to get an education is one of the greatest determining factors as to who will remain in poverty and who will get out. Intelligence tests play a role here by limiting or aiding in this endeavour. It is one of the chief means by which a person will have the opportunity, to raise themselves out of poverty. If we consider the effect of a minority person’s performance on these intelligence tests as a determining factor in their upward trajectory we will see just how important it is for these tests to measure a person’s true aptitude. Many livelihoods are predicated on a true administration and understanding of intelligence tests. Too often cultural misunderstandings have been an impediment to a proper assessment of a person’s intelligence. When does the test taker not possess the cultural context to understand the questions how can he be expected to perform well on the test as it is given?

Some suggest that Black people score lower on intelligence tests because of an innate intellectual inferiority but this has not been borne out in genetic studies. There has also been discussion around the environment but when these factors are considered the results are not born out by the data. A Nigerian Anthropologist named John Ogbu wrote about what he called a cultural-ecological model he believed is the underpinning of the black intellectual situation. He wrote “Black Americans lived a kind of paradox. They occupied the bottom rungs of a caste-like society, yet, they were expected to work as hard as Whites (the favored group) for fewer rewards. Because of this paradox, he argued that African Americans have chosen not to work as hard as Whites to reduce the dissonance about expending effort for incommensurate rewards. The flip side of the same coin, Ogbu asserted, is that this lack of effort on the part of African Americans feeds into folk theories that Whites already hold about Black intellectual and cultural inferiority.” Contributions, Controversies, and Criticisms: In Memory of John U. Ogbu (1939-2003) (Harpalani & Gunn, 2003) Blacks have been blocked from taking advantage of the American system of education. Black people receive an inferior education which predisposes them to a lack of opportunities for higher education and higher status jobs. This makes black people abandon their education because of a lack of social and economic mobility and furthers the lack of desire to do well on intelligence tests. Ogbu here is showing how cultural oppression has manifested in Black culture works to the detriment of Black people and performance on IQ tests. If there is not a desire by the person taking the test to make the best showing given a fear or disdain of all things associated with the wider culture, the test will not assess the person’s true intellectual ability. And when considered in administering tests that do not address the culture of the test taker the test itself becomes an impediment to a data-driven assessment.

When we take culture into consideration, we realize not everyone can take full advantage of the society we are a part of. Some Academics have been able to understand the difficulties experienced by Blacks. They have seen that a reorienting of the test to measure true intelligence gives a more accurate sense of a person’s ability. Approaching the facilitation of test giving from a culturally normative position provides a wider reach to harness the abilities of people who thought themselves to be less than.

Intelligence testing has been touted as a reliable statistical science by most but there are critics. Some believe it has not established its edifice and is thus lacking in some fundamental areas. Stephen Murdoch author of IQ: The Brilliant Idea That Failed said “The theory of general intelligence is the very foundation of mainstream intelligence testing over the past century, but even the most ardent proponents of g (general intelligence) will admit that it has not been established… Until there is proof beyond statistical relationships of g‘s existence and measurability, society should not treat IQ tests as if they can meaningfully rank people along a continuum of innate intelligence. For the same reason, all inferences based on IQ test results about race differences are dangerously unfounded”. (Murdoch 2007). If intelligence tests are to be the instrument, we measure a person’s cognitive ability we need to make sure it is an established measurement, and it is elastic enough to take into consideration the variety of human experience and cognition. There must be a way to determine a measure of true cognitive ability that is not just an exercise in Western European homogeneity.

Increases in performance on intelligence tests have observed in blacks over the past one hundred years. One reason for this is due to the Flynn effect. The Flynn effect named after James R. Flynn has proven implications on how we think about intelligence tests. For instance, we see from the Flynn effect how intelligence, as measured, has more to do with one’s closeness to the wider culture than innate ability. We see as more Blacks have greater access to education the more their scores on intelligence tests go up. The effect showed blacks IQ today is higher than whites IQ 70 years ago. And this cannot result from differences in genetics because human genes do not change this. IQ tests such as the Cattell Culture Fair III has given us the potential to identify talented individuals from all walks of life. And this shows again how Western intelligence tests can be seen as culturally biased.

A sign that academics are looking to improve the accuracy of intelligence tests can be seen in the work of three researchers. Howard Gardner, Ph.D. who popularized the phrase “multiple intelligences” that measure musical, mechanical, physical, social and verbal and mathematical skills. Psychologist Robert Sternberg, Ph.D., who created a three-tiered approach that measures analytical, creative and practical intelligence. And Robert Serpell, Ph.D. who studied rural African community’s concepts of intelligence in the 1970’s. We can see in Howard Gardner’s concept of Multiple Intelligences or MI that there are different ways of viewing intelligence, see below The Nine Intelligences of MI Theory. These intelligence concepts are as good an indicator of success as standard intelligence tests but they measure a greater range of abilities. The Nine Intelligences of MI Theory (Gardner, 1983).

The Nine Intelligences of MI Theory/Skills and Career Preferences

Robert Sternberg researched the Taiwanese-Chinese concepts of intelligence and found their views were concerned with how well people understood and related to each other and when to show and not show intelligence. This is a significant departure from the western views of intelligence. Sternberg’s Triarchic Abilities Test was used to measure aspects of intelligence using multiple choices. Sternberg aligned his Triarchic Abilities test with the College Board-sponsored Rainbow Project to determine if there were great differences in the test takers. The aim of the project was to bolster prediction of how successful students would be in college. Eight hundred college students took the test. Sternberg found that the test predicted a variance in college grade point average even after other testing and grades were accounted for. There were also smaller differences between the scores of ethnic groups than what was produced with just the SAT. Sternberg later researched concepts of intelligence in Africa among the Luo people of Kenya. He found there were four main concepts for the people here. They are “rieko” which is akin to the western concept of intelligence, “luoro which is a social aspect including responsibility, respect, and consideration, “paro” which would be like our concept of common sense or practical thinking and “winjo” or what we would consider comprehension. These were found to be a greater predictor of success among the tribesmen. During another study with the Luo Sternberg found children adept at the knowledge of herbal tinctures used by their tribe scored poorly on tests of academic intelligence. But well with the intelligence measurements needed by the tribe. This illustrates how these non-standard measurements of intelligence measure one’s aptitude for performing the duties of life.

Dr. Robert Serpell studied the concepts of intelligence among rural African communities in the 1970’s. Serpell found that in African communities where there had been no western education blended what we would consider the western concept of intelligence with social competence. He found in a village in rural Zambia a concept the people called “nzelu” which mean cleverness and responsibility. Ora person’s ability to understand their environment to the extent of being able to manipulate it to their advantage (cleverness) while continuing to interact in their community as a contributing part of it (responsibility). For parents in rural Africa, they do not separate what we would consider intelligence from social responsibility. These people were adept at functioning in their society given the intellectual requirements of their group and those requirements were just as important a multifaceted as any group.

Unfortunately, intelligence tests have historically disenfranchised Black people, there are several instances one can point to in western society. But there are changes occurring that are altering the direction of these tests and forging an inclusive narrative. This discrimination has kept many from being full participants in society, but academics are making strides to close this achievement gap and make testing sensitive to different cultural views of intelligence. The work by Dr. Ogbu, Dr. Gardner, Dr. Sternberg and Dr. Serpell have shown that it is possible to have a test that can quantify intelligence and be inclusive. The theories discussed here indicate what is possible with further research and a willingness to ask difficult questions. The research spoken of here is not the absolute answer to the issue but they point the way forward to a future that includes diverse views of intelligence and a measurement that will assess intelligence.

-Brotherhood of Sincerity

References Harpalani, V. & Gunn, R. (2003) Contributions, Controversies, and Criticisms: In Memory of John U. Ogbu (1939-2003). Retrieved from Murdoch, S. (2007) IQ: The Brilliant Idea That Failed Gardner, H. (1983) The 9 Intelligences of MI Theory. Retrieved from

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