I was listening to some older podcasts this morning when I came across Radiolab’s Cut and Run – a short story about the Kalenjin, an ethnic group in east Africa which has utterly dominated the world of distance running. The ‘cut’ part of the title refers to a tribal ritual in which Kalenjin males are forced to endure a painful circumcision ritual in early pubescence, one in which showing any sign of weakness, pain, or suffering would brand them as ‘cowards’ and traditionally relegate them to the tribe’s lowest caste. Fail, and you’d likely be denied the right to mate.
The idea, essentially, is that not only do the Kalenjin already have scientifically proven biological advantages for distance running (among them, thinner ankles which allow for more efficient running and more diffuse, thinner bone structure and body surface area conducive to cooling and endurance activity), but their population essentially self-selected for pain tolerance, a culturally ‘self-bred’ advantage accruing over mere thousands of years. Great athletes benefit from advantageous body structure (as different sports have essentially self-selected for over time, though obviously with occasional exceptions) and pain tolerance. Kalenjin runners recently had more marathon finishers in under 2:10:00 in one recent event (32) than ALL such runners in American history (17).
One of the main sources for the podcast is David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene (an eye-opener and a good read, easily digestible even for people who don’t know a lick about sports). Now my main point here was inspired by what Epstein revealed early in the podcast, and I’m paraphrasing here:
“[I seriously considered just not writing my book, I really did. And that’s because, going across the world to talk to scientists and researchers, some of them had clear and irrefutable biological evidence, and they refused to share it with me. They were afraid they’d lose their tenure.]”
Simply put, by Epstein and the pod hosts, assigning racial or ethnic generalizations, even if scientifically proven, is incredibly dangerous. History shows that humanity has never been able to go down this road without catastrophic consequences. Before and after the quackery from the ‘Eugenics’ movement of a century ago, people have been doing terrible things to each other on the basis of racial differences, real or imagined.
Therefore, unsurprisingly in the American public awareness, anything that seems to be leaning even in the direction of ethnic classification is politically suicidal, akin to how any criticism of Israel is sometimes automatically branded as anti-Semitic. This is especially true when speaking about ethnic or culture groups who have both legitimate historical circumstances for sensitivity AND a powerful voice in the United States. And I’m not saying that’s wrong, but it’s not always for the best.
But the ugly truths are that not only will racism continue to exist, but groups who do NOT meet both of those requirements can easily be marginalized or overlooked in related conversations. If you think the ‘Redskins’ name is too offensive for the Washington football team to keep it, I must ask why this was permitted for so long. Do you think a team called the ‘Coons’ could have lasted nearly this long?
The Specialized High School Admissions Debate in New York City
If you’re a New Yorker, you know by now that there’s a big debate over proposed changes to the SHSAT test used for admissions to the city’s specialized high schools. There are plenty of eloquent arguments and concrete facts that you can find that I mostly won’t rehash here.
I’m against wholesale changes to the admissions system which make it basically a miniature college application, because I feel that introduces a huge amount of subjectivity (which can easily be controlled or tilted for political considerations), and irrelevant, easily fulfilled or disproportionate metrics (GPA/attendance/statewides). And things like leadership. Yeah, how does a fucking prepubescent kid show legitimate leadership again, without rich parents able to pay for exclusive extracurriculars? I won a hall election in 7th grade, does that count? Do we really want an education arms race taxing kids even earlier and further, which tilts hard in favor of the wealthy?
As a Chinese-American, I ask you to consider the racism in the whole process that I think people aren’t bringing to light, but which I feel certainly exists. Consider the reformers’ main argument:
“The schools aren’t diverse enough.”
But what does diverse even mean, and what do you want it to mean for specialized high schools admitting kids based on some standard of merit? In a perfectly race-neutral world, which is the claimed endpoint at which racism is finally done away with, people’s ethnic origins shouldn’t matter when judging the results of fair competition. By implying that a massive concentration of Asian (a minority group in America, obviously) students in specialized high schools doesn’t serve the purposes of diversity, you’re assuming that there’s something other ethnic groups bring to the table that Asians don’t. You’ve made a race value judgment, right or wrong. How many people making this argument want more non-Asian students in these specialized high schools so they can learn and pick up things FROM Asian students? Guess what, that’s also a race value judgment. And you probably don’t hear that last opinion going around very much, because that’s often not the perception of Asian students.
Maybe it’s socioeconomic diversity you’re shooting for? Well, as plenty of people have said, that doesn’t fly either, because a large chunk of current specialized high school students qualify for free or reduced lunch. My school had its share of rich kids, but also plenty of poor kids. Plenty of people trying to realize immigrant ambitions from humble beginnings. For most other ethnic groups in America, that’s a triumphant narrative of perseverance and bootstraps – for us, it’s implications of academic robots fresh from the assembly line.
And I’ll let you in on something: by any conceivable race-neutral evaluation, my school (Stuyvesant) was diverse as fuck, half Asian as it was. I think it’s stupid to just throw out random anecdotal examples as a masquerade for ‘evidence’, so I’ll refrain – the numbers are already out there. People had vastly different upbringings and outlooks and eventual career paths, and very different levels of academic aptitude and tolerance even then, which led to divergent attitudes and experiences.
Is the test biased? As far as I remember, you had to be good enough at the English language to know basic grammar and be able to order sentences into coherent paragraphs. You had to know more math than you might learn in junior high school, but nothing absurd, and according to a clear standard. Is that biased against minorities? Well, the test was created and approved both AFTER the height of the Civil Rights movement and BEFORE large numbers of Asians began coming to the city and country (after the railroad building, there were longstanding laws prohibiting or seriously restricting Asian immigration until Lyndon Johnson’s Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965). We were, are, and always have been in the significant minority compared to most of New York City’s other groups. Did they create the SHSAT just for Asian-Americans?
This leaves two non-exclusive possibilities for why as Asian or Chinese-Americans we have been disproportionately successful at passing the SHSAT, and done pretty well well in the American education system in general. One is that we give more of a shit. The other is that we’re ‘smarter’. If you cannot accept, as current American and New York public sentiment will not, that one minority group has better ‘book smarts’ for existing standards of academic aptitude, then you have a problem with the existing specialized high school demographics because:
(1) you have a racially-motivated idea of what diversity means, and/or you think the city’s specialized high schools should more closely reflect its overall demographics.
(2) you think caring more and trying harder shouldn’t necessarily be rewarded in a school admissions system.
If (1) is the case, I think there’s either some level of racism involved which needs to be called out, or you’d like a Noah’s Ark system where some number of every group the city has are allowed in, for the purposes of racial and ethnic diversity. I actually haven’t heard anyone arguing for the latter. I’ve only heard that some proportions are too high, and some too low. Why shouldn’t every single group be on equal footing then? How, and in what exact ratio, does proportion satisfy diversity?
If (2) is the case, remember that if you’re not accepting nature as an explanation on any level, then it’s all nurture. Should minorities who place more importance in nurturing for admission be punished to make space for those who don’t? I haven’t specified minority groups and won’t, because this could just as easily happen in favor of one Chinese-American instead of another.
Race and Academics
Ask people what race or ethnicity of person they think produces the best athletes, and you’re likely to get a similar answer. People usually won’t say it because it can be tinged with unwanted racial connotations, but in many instances and for some groups, science is proving it.
The answer you’re most likely to get is black (African or African-American), although that’s so broad and undefined as to be almost meaningless, according to Epstein’s book. Africa, to which people we commonly refer to as ‘black’ usually trace their ancestry, has the largest spectrum of human genetic differences on the planet. Apparently much of the ‘Out of Africa Theory’ stems from the fact that humans even a few hundred miles away from each other on that continent are more genetically distinct than, say, an East Asian and a European. That strongly implies that populations even with drastic differences in physical features probably migrated out of Africa relatively recently compared to how long people had already been there in that original evolution pot. There are, of course, many populations of native Africans (the ‘pygmies’ for example) who have physical characteristics and tendencies that are undesirable for a wide range of popular sports.
African-Americans, though it may seem cold to look at it this way, were also brutally selected, bred, and conditioned for physical prowess. It’s an ugly, abridged Kalenjin narrative. But as much as we condemn and revile the process and reasons by which that took place, the American public sentiment is okay with the advantages that sprang from it.
I don’t have a personal story about some Chinese kid long ago who had to perform his academic equivalent of running to and from school while fighting through circumcision-related pain and injury, honing an innate talent that might have been augmented by many centuries of unintentional self-selection. From what I know of most Chinese history, I’ll say this though:
(1) though not applicable to all of Asia by any means and sometimes not to China itself, Chinese society has long had distinctly bureaucratic and organized structures which reward and value book learning and ‘playing by the rules’ as tools for advancement and prosperity. This would tend to select for and propagate the genes of people who could thrive in this system over those who couldn’t. I think this is a much more complicated issue due to the sheer size and relatively low ‘minimum system requirements’ for resources and reproduction in historical China, but that’s a totally different topic. Basically, a few decades of Maoist rule and thought corroded many things, but not thousands of years of exalting book learning and scholarship.
(2) most of the people from China and other Asian countries who comprised the post-1965 and eventual ‘model minority’ immigration to the United States had either found success and/or opportunities through academics itself (my mother, for example), grew up in parts of China with much more ‘western’ access, paradigms, and values (Hong Kong and south China), or were poor immigrants with few to no existing connections and networks here whatsoever, and thus saw and nurtured their children’s education as their only vehicle for upward mobility. These are all rather circumstantial, but still a form of selection. You had a high proportion of people who cared about school, and a lot more who were already good at it and would pass on some combination of ‘talented’ genes or habits to their kids.
And guess what: not only do plenty of Asian kids who spent loads of money and time preparing for the SHSAT fail to get into the schools they wanted or at all, but studies have found that the newer generations of Chinese immigrants aren’t doing nearly as well in school. This phenomenon has been reported in the Chinese language press as well – some of the people coming over are part of the nouveau riche generation who don’t see or care about academics as anything but a possible indicator of prestige, while others simply have enough family and friends or networks to get by without school or even bothering to learn English.
It goes without saying that school is just one avenue for potential success, and that Stuyvesant, like any other school, had people who ultimately didn’t do well academically and in retrospect may not have been as ‘deserving’ of the spot as someone else (I actually count myself among this group). And obviously, ‘smart’ is a hugely malleable and undefined idea. There are of course plenty of highly intelligent people who ended up going to their zoned schools and doing much ‘better’. But if you didn’t know these things already, you wouldn’t have made it this far.
It’s incredibly difficult, both practically and politically, to do research into finding some kind of verifiable evidence of innate academic ‘talent’ on a large scale. It’s also dangerous. But that doesn’t mean those differences don’t exist.
And to be perfectly clear, for the reasons I outlined, I do believe that in many senses larger minorities who have been here longer than Asian-Americans are at a substantial disadvantage when it comes to the SHSAT for reasons other than innate ‘talent’. Some of these minorities are still fighting against the effects of centuries of subjugation, and asking them to suddenly embrace their oppressors’ paradigms for school and success just won’t fly, or there are simply too many obstacles for now.
I believe there may be a day when we can do this kind of research, and find ways to benefit from it. We accept and sometimes embrace innate biological differences of the body, but not the mind. Maybe today we’re just not ready to go down that road. Work still needs to be done, but in sports women can play against anyone they want, but they also have the opportunity to compete exclusively against each other. Men and women can go to school together, but there are also schools specifically for each. All this sprang from eventually acknowledging our (often blurry, according to Epstein) innate differences, but not in the spirit of oppression that predominated male/female separation in many past societies, but rather one of acceptance and opportunity.
We can’t currently meaningfully support much research into innate mental differences between ethnicities, but I think the same kind of thing is possible. If tangible differences existed and we found them, we could accommodate them not by a return to the dark past of segregation or worse, but leave open the doors that exist now and create more. There is already evidence of this in American education, shaky as it is, a cognizance and growth of alternative learning methods.
For the time being, I fully support continued and increased efforts to raise awareness in the city about specialized high schools to underrepresented groups, as well as preparation services whenever possible.
But as long as the selection method is fair and open, and as free from subjectivity as possible, I do not support changing it to pursue equal results over equal opportunity. That seems to be much of the unacceptable core of the current SHSAT reform movement, a power play against a group with no rallying cry and not as much of a voice in today’s America. We may not be ready to explore what race could mean in the future, but we should be plenty ready to shed the racism of the past.