Jason Richwine doesn’t understand why people are mad at him

August 9, 2013
Jason Richwine. (Choice Media)
Jason Richwine. (Choice Media)

Jason Richwine, the former Heritage Foundation staffer whose PhD dissertation at Harvard caused an uproar after Wonkblog reported on it few months back, has written a piece at Politico both defending his record and arguing that the backlash to his dissertation suggests deep problems in our public discourse about IQ. This is how he describes what he wrote:

So what did I write that created such a fuss? In brief, my dissertation shows that recent immigrants score lower than U.S.-born whites on a variety of cognitive tests. Using statistical analysis, it suggests that the test-score differential is due primarily to a real cognitive deficit rather than to culture or language bias. It analyzes how that deficit could affect socioeconomic assimilation, and concludes by exploring how IQ selection might be incorporated, as one factor among many, into immigration policy.

Because a large number of recent immigrants are from Latin America, I reviewed the literature showing that Hispanic IQ scores fall between white and black scores in the United States. This fact isn’t controversial among experts, but citing it seems to have fueled much of the media backlash.

Let's leave aside the question of whether Richwine's thesis actually establishes what he claims it establishes, or whether the claims here are actually supported by the totality of research. What's troublesome here is that Richwine appears to not understand what it was about his dissertation that disturbed people. He argued for a clear and persistent genetic basis to IQ, used that to argue for an immigration system based on IQ tests, and then provided political advice on how to hide the intent of that system.

Here are a few things Richwine claimed in his dissertation but leaves out of this summary:

• Richwine does not merely claim that there is a "real cognitive deficit" among Hispanic immigrants. He claims that "the totality of the evidence suggests a genetic component to group differences in IQ." No one disputes that there are group differentials in IQ, and many of Richwine's critics concede there are differences in average cognitive ability between racial groups. The question is whether those differences are attributable to centuries of oppression and deprivation or due to immutable biological differences. What outraged people was not the mention of the score deficit, but his belief that it is biologically caused and irreversible.

• Richwine, to be fair, does not rest his argument on his belief in genetic determination of differences between the races. But his argument depends entirely on his belief that the differences are "persistent," a point that he leaves out of this summary. He writes, in perhaps the most quoted section of the dissertation, "No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against." He leaves this striking prediction out of his summary.

• Richwine says that he only embraced IQ selection as "one factor among many." This downplays the enthusiasm for the policy he espouses in the dissertation. He very clearly wants to integrate IQ into every facet of the immigration system. "Other commentators will offer various 'X' factors as alternative selection criteria," he writes. "These X's can range from increasing racial diversity, to filling labor shortages, to unifying extended families. Fortunately, considering IQ does not preclude the use of other factors. Highly intelligent people can be found all over the world, with all sorts of physical and cultural characteristics. If X is increasing racial diversity, then we should ensure our racially diverse immigrant class is also very smart. If X is filling the labor shortage in the construction industry, then we should find the most intelligent construction workers. Use of IQ as one selection factor is compatible with most any X." Emphasis ours.

• Richwine argues in the dissertation for using language of "skill-based" immigration as a Trojan Horse for adopting IQ-based immigration policy. "One way to at least blunt the negative reaction is to drop the use of the word IQ and to replace it with skill," he writes. "A new immigration policy could use 'skill tests' to find disadvantaged people with 'raw skill.' The tests would still be ordinary intelligence tests, but the emotional baggage that the term IQ sometimes carries with it would be much reduced."

This has obvious political relevance, as much of the debate over the immigration bill surrounds how much immigration should be allowed of "low-skilled" versus "high-skilled" laborers. Richwine and others at the Heritage Foundation have argued for the latter at the expense of the former. Indeed, the report of Richwine's and Robert Rector's estimating the cost of the Senate immigration bill relied heavily on the so-called "cost" of low-skilled immigrants to reach its conclusions. Richwine's dissertation puts these views in context, and suggests his views on IQ, and on the IQ differentials between the races, may motivate his beliefs on actual immigration bills before Congress.

Richwine is obviously welcome to believe what he wants about the permanent intellectual inferiority of Hispanic immigrants to the United States, and about the relevance of that belief to practical immigration policymaking. But he should not sugar-coat his views.

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