Racism, Eugenics and Testing -- Again

General Testing

The historical association between racism and standardized testing recently returned to haunt the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Educational Research Association (AERA). The APA was scheduled to present a lifetime achievement award to Raymond B. Cattell, a leading developer of standardized personality tests, until anti-racist groups revealed Cattell's work in the eugenics movement.


The Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith argued that Cattell "exhibited a lifelong commitment to racial supremacy theories," a criticism reinforced by others who have studied his work. The APA then postponed the award and appointed a committee to investigate the issue. Meanwhile, the AERA, which has an educational research award named after Cattell, said it also would investigate the claims.


Eugenics presents itself as a science which seeks to improve genetics by preventing people with "inferior" genes (as evidenced, for example, by their IQ test scores) from having children. Historically, it has claimed that Europeans, particularly those from northwestern Europe, are genetically superior intellectually, physically and morally. Beginning in the 1920s, and continuing in some European nations until at least the 1960s, women have been sterilized in the name of eugenics. Hitler pointed approvingly to the work of early eugenicists, many of whom were prominent in the history of the development of standardized testing.


Cattell responded that the critics have taken his writings from the 1930s "out of textual and historical context," and denied being a racist, saying, "I have not ever studied racial differences." He also said his "views of eugenics have evolved over the years," and he supports it only on a voluntary basis.


However, Cattell is the founder of the Beyondist Foundation, whose first newsletter dates from 1993 and which openly espouses eugenics, stating "the need is to lessen the excessive birth rate in the below 100 IQ range." People of African, Latin American and American Indian descent in the U.S. are disproportionately likely to have IQ scores below 100.


Cattell also has been on the editorial board of Mankind Quarterly, founded in 1960, which was denounced by U.S. Rep. Cardiss Collins as "a sinkhole of racist maundering." The work of the quarterly also received attention through criticism of Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve. Charles Lane, writing in The New York Review of Books, exposed the quarterly's racist orientation and the extent to which The Bell Curve relied uncritically on spurious "research" printed in the journal.


Institutional Implications

The claim that the APA and the AERA had no knowledge of Cattell's past is itself curious. It suggests that either the organizations and their leaders consistently separate their research from social context or that a racist and eugenicist approach is so common in the profession of psychological testing that Cattell simply did not stand out. Another researcher who has argued that IQ tests prove genetically-based racial inferiority, Linda Gottfredson, released a survey a few years ago noting that most "intelligence researchers" agree with her position. (Ironically, this came at a time when evolutionary biologists have reached wide agreement on the meaninglessness of race as a genetic concept.) Thus, the APA award to Cattell is a reminder that the racist history of testing is by no means over, but remains pervasive in at least some areas of mental measurement, despite condemnation by others in the profession.


Cattell has been praised as one of the foremost developers of personality tests. A skeptic might wonder what sort of person would be deemed "normal" by a eugenicist who has been quoted as saying that Hitler was in some ways reasonable.


As Stephen Jay Gould, among others, has shown, research into "intelligence" has been powerfully shaped by the social views of the researchers. The same may be true of the designers of "personality" tests, such as Cattell. Thus, the Cattell incident should raise questions about the extent to which purportedly "objective" tests continue to perpetuate race, class and gender biases rooted in the views of test designers and users.