Black Lives MAFFer
John Derbyshire, a columnist for the National Review, wrote an essay last week implying that black people were intellectually inferior to white people: “Only one out of six blacks is smarter than the average white.” Derbyshire pulled these figures from a region near his large intestine.
One of Derbyshire’s claims, however, is true: that there are no black winners of the Fields medal, the “Nobel prize of mathematics”. According to Derbyshire, this is “civilisationally consequential”. Derbyshire implies that the absence of a black winner means that black people are incapable of genius. In reality, black mathematicians face career-retarding racism that white Fields medallists never encounter. Three stories will suffice to make this point.
The first involves Saunders Mac Lane, one of the most influential algebraists of the last century. He co-authored, with Garrett Birkhoff, a text that enthralled me as a first-year undergraduate. I first encountered lattice theory, which for a long time I loved more than anything in life, in that book. In 1951, Mac Lane was president of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). Vanderbilt University hosted an MAA conference, and three black mathematicians wished to attend the conference’s banquet. They were barred and Mac Lane refused to take a stand: Vanderbilt University was in racially segregated Tennessee, and he did not want to offend his hosts.
The second story involves one of the few black mathematicians whom white mathematicians acknowledge as great – or, I should say, “black American mathematicians”, since obviously Euclid, Eratosthenes and other African mathematicians outshone Europe’s brightest stars for millennia. His name was David Blackwell. I first met Blackwell in 1995, in the common room of Berkeley’s maths department, one of the few times two black people had ever been in the room. Blackwell obtained his PhD in mathematics when he was only 22.
While he had a fellowship to work at the Institute for Advanced Study, the American home of Einstein and the other-worldly logician Kurt Gödel, nearby Princeton University refused to allow Blackwell to attend lectures because he was black. Although he later became the first black member of the National Academy of Sciences (with a colleague saying, “he would come into a field that had been well studied and find something really new that was remarkable”), the University of California at Berkeley’s maths department would not hire Blackwell on account of his race (a European later asked Blackwell to join the statistics department).
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To check Derb's figures, we need to do a little MAFF ourselves. Again, not terribly taxing.
For the anoraks among you, this is the actual formula:
(I do so love LaTeX...)
- For the population as a whole, where the average is 100 and the S.D. is 15, exactly 50% of the population is smarter, and 50% is dumber, than the average IQ of 100- which is not exactly a surprise
- For whites, though, given an average IQ of 103, 58% of whites are smarter than the 100 mark
- For blacks, only 16% are smarter- and that's after rounding up
We can extend the analysis done above a little bit further, by the way.
Consider, for instance: what are the general, white-specific, and black-specific probabilities of hitting genius-level IQ? This is generally considered to be an IQ score of 130 and above, but it depends somewhat on exactly which assessment method you're using.
(The usual caveat about genius-level IQs applies; just because someone has a nosebleed IQ doesn't mean he isn't an idiot in many respects. Jimmy Carter supposedly has an IQ of around 150; Ronald Reagan had an IQ of about 140. Odoofuss, of course, has an IQ of roughly 116. The defence rests.)
Now then: if you use the same method to figure out what percentage of people would be over genius level, here are the results:
- General population: 2.275%
- White Americans: 3.593%
- Black Americans: 0.135%