"Brains and the immigrant," by Melville Herskovits, The Nation (2)
"Brains and the immigrant," by Melville Herskovits, The Nation (2)
388. Feb. 11, 1925] The Nation 141 nearer, there are many eminent Europeans who have declared that they feel that they could not possibly pass such a test. Of course not! After all, the American scene is typical, and, to a very large degree, peculiar. And the experiences of the persons who live in it are not those of the persons who live in other lands. And just because the immigrant shows bewilderment when he is catapulted into our throbbing civilization, does not mean that he is without ability to learn to get about in it if he is given the chance. But let us suppose that the tests were constructed with an eye to allowing for past differential experiences, and attempts were made to incorporate in them forms which might not be too foreign to the persons taking them. In most tests there are several forms constructed comparable, after thorough preliminary analysis. These may be given out to different groups, or to the same one if it is to take the test more than once. But how to make comparisons across the barrier of cultural differences? How to compare the value, as an indication of intelligence, of a knowledge of the proverbs of different lands? Or the types of buildings? Or the manners? It is a nice problem, and one which will have to be solved before such tests can be given. Of course, it must be assumed that there is no field for psychological tests. When they attempt to do definite things, such as showing which persons of a given group are most likely to make the best stenographers, or the best soldiers, there can be little quarrel with their use. But when these tests, devised for definite purposes, are translated into forms of general intelligence, one must refuse to go along with those who draw conclusions. As irreparable harm has been done by reasoning of this type - the immigration laws, the rise of the Nordic mania, and the belief in the Nordic's innate superiority are mainly the result of such deductions. The army tests were constructed to find out, in the shortest and most efficient manner possible, the types of men who, because of previous training and reaction to given situations, would make the best officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlisted men, or those who were fit only for work in labor battalions and the like. It was a time of emergency, and emergency measures were employed, and successfully. But when the facts were translated into terms of absolute intelligence, and then norms for racial groups developed and the assumption made that this represented the differences in the innate ability of the races to which the men tested belonged, scientific sanction was given to a dogma which was growing in its popularity. The question of the restriction of immigration is not a racial one. In no group are there results to be seen which cannot be accounted for from the person background, inherited and learned, of the individuals tested, rather than from the fact of the racial origin of the group to which the individual belongs. Take the Negro, for example, since the Negro element in our population is perhaps the most widely differentiated racially in our population. The low standing of the Negro in psychological tests is notorious, although a recent Los Angeles study casts grave doubts on the general applicability of the previous findings.* But even granting their correctness, when one considers the fact that a large proportion of the Negro population of the United States has had little education, that the persons we call Negro are the result of much racial mixture with whites, and too often of crossing between the less competent element of both racial groups, added to the diffidence which must be part of the training of every Negro because of the ever-present prejudice he must meet, one does not have to have recourse to the racial hypothesis. The very term "Negro" is social rather than racial. Negro, in the United States, means, really, "not-all-white." If we were to imagine a situation where white were to mean "any-portion-white," we can easily see what a difference it would make in the situation of the vast majority of our Negro population. Gone would be the restriction as to opportunity and the feeling of diffidence that is ground into the Negro almost from the moment of birth; gone would be the insistence on a Negro quarter and the reluctance of the blonder portions of the population to associate with their darker fellows; and we might then have a group comparable to the white group as it is constituted at present. But to speak of typical Negro characteristics and intelligence, when conclusions are based on studies of a group mixed as largely with whites as the American Negro is mixed, is sheer folly. How much greater folly, then, is the assumption that there are differences in innate intelligence between the so-called "racial" groups of Europe, which are so much more closely affiliated than Negro and white. We do not distinguish in our official policies between north and south Germans, between the Norman Breton and the Mediterranean south Frenchman, between the blond and the dark-haired Scandinavian. Yet we speak as though all Italians were small and dark, and all Germans were tall and blond, and the discrimination becomes one of nationality rather than of race. And the national distinction, it must be admitted, has no meaning at all from any racial point of view. The Alpine may be a peasant type, but the Alpine is not refused admittance unless he happens to be a Polish or Russian Alpine, while in the Mediterranean, if he happens to be a Frenchman, is admitted readily along with his northern fellow-countryman. The myth of the Nordic is founded on the rationalization that because we are an English-speaking people we are of Northern European blood, and it is being bolstered by rash conclusions drawn from what is often carefully suspended scientific research. The problem of the selection of the type of person who is to come to this country to live is not one of race, but of individual fitness. And the determination of this fitness is not within our power. One agrees heartily with the statement made by Professor Woodworth some years ago: Wisdom would dictate that the nation which is in process of formation should exert some selective influence on its own account, but from all the facts in hand, the part of wisdom would be to select the best individuals available from every source, rather than, trusting to the illusory appearance of great racial differences in mental and moral traits, to make the selection in terms of races and nations. And "equitable tests of the distinctly intellectual processes are hard to devise, since much depends on the familiarity of the material used." The invidious comparison, between races as between individuals, is always odious, and it is to be hoped that the present craze for the Nordic myth will go the way of all crazes. The problem of who is to settle in this country is a real one; our need is to put it on the economic and social basis where it belongs, and to leave out of it vague hypotheses concerning racial intelligence. [footnote] *Educational Status of Los Angeles Negro Children, a preliminary report, By Willis W. Clark, Assistant Supervisor, Department of Psychology and Educational Research, Los Angeles City Schools. This report has not been published, but is in mimeographed form.
- ID: 10383
- Source: DNALC.EA