The Inside Story Of The Harvard Dissertation That Became Too Racist For Heritage
The idea that some racial groups are, on average, smarter than others is without a doubt among the most discussed (and debunked) “taboos” in American intellectual history. It is an argument that has been advanced since the days of slavery, one that helped push through the draconian Immigration Act of 1924, and one that set off a scientific firestorm in the late 60s that’s hardly flagged since.
Yet every time the race and IQ hypothesis reclaims the public spotlight, we are caught slackjaw, always returning to the same basic debates on the same basic concepts.
The recent fracas sparked by Dr. Jason Richwine’s doctoral dissertation is a case in point. The paper is a dry thing, written for an academic audience, yet its core claim, that Latino immigrants to the United States are and will likely remain less intelligent than “native whites,” has proved proper tinder for a public firestorm. The Heritage Foundation’s Senior Policy Analyst in Empirical Studies is now a former Senior Policy Analyst — Heritage could not risk further tainting an immigration report it hoped would be influential by outright defending its scholar’s meditations on the possibly genetic intellectual inferiority of immigrants from Latin America.
It might seem like the book is closed on l’affaire Richwine: he’s left his job, Heritage is left with a black eye, and not a single mind has been changed about the value of research into race and IQ. But there’s still one major unanswered question.
If the dissertation was bad enough to get him fired from the Heritage Foundation, how did it earn him a degree from Harvard?
A popular answer among Richwine’s defenders is that, quite simply, it was exemplary work. Richwine’s dissertation committee was made up, by all accounts, of three eminent scholars, each widely respected in their respective fields. And it is Harvard.
But dozens of interviews with subject matter experts, Harvard graduates in Richwine’s program who overlapped with him, and members of the committee itself paint a somewhat more textured picture. Richwine’s dissertation was sloppy scholarship, relying on statistical sophistication to hide some serious conceptual errors. Yet internal accounts of Richwine’s time at Harvard suggests the august university, for the most part, let serious problems in Richwine’s research fall through the cracks.
Richwine Goes To Harvard
By his own account, Jason Richwine came to the Harvard Kennedy School deeply fascinated with the link between race and IQ. Richwine told The Washington Examiner’s Byron York that, as an undergraduate at American University, he fell in love with Charles Murray’s work on the topic. Murray, who will become an important player in Richwine’s story later on, is one of the authors of the infamous The Bell Curve, the 1994 book whose claims about the genetic roots of the black/white IQ gap set off the most famous public food fight over race and IQ. Richwine describes Murray as “my childhood hero.”
People that knew Richwine at Harvard describe him as an introverted, but kind, man. “He was a quiet and thoughtful person,” said Anh Ngoc Tran, a contemporary of Richwine’s at Harvard who now teaches at Indiana University. “[Richwine] was friendlier to international students,” Tran said.
Another contemporary of Richwine’s echoed Tran, saying Richwine was “not really all that outgoing. Always a really nice guy.”
Tran took pain to distance Richwine from accusations of racism. “I don’t think he is racist,” Tran told me. “His wife is an immigrant.”
After the first two years of coursework, PhD candidates in Public Policy at the Kennedy School move away from group classes toward individual research. That means taking comprehensive exams (“comps,” in grad student lingo) to show you’ve mastered the course material. After comps, you start work on a dissertation, a piece of original scholarship that’s supposed to demonstrate the candidate’s ability to produce research at the level expected of an expert in the field. Dissertation topics are determined in conjunction with a primary advisor, who goes on to become the “chair” of a three-person committee that determines the candidate’s fate. The topic is finalized in a formal “prospectus” outlining the research agenda.
Richwine’s chair, as listed in his dissertation, was Professor George Borjas, a prominent, if controversial, economist. A Cuban immigrant himself, Borjas was a natural fit for Richwine’s dour assessment of mass Latino immigration: he’s the nation’s leading academic immigration skeptic, famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for arguing that immigrants to the United States are likely to be unskilled drags on the US economy. One of his most influential articles, a 1987 paper called “Self-Selection and the Earnings of Immigrants,” argued that countries with more income inequality than the United States are likely to send over “low quality” immigrants— meaning people lacking the skills to march up the economic ladder — as unskilled laborers lead a more prosperous life here than in their home countries.
However much Borjas emphasized the skills, or lack thereof, of Latino immigrants in his own work, he knew and cared little about their IQs. “I have never worked on anything even remotely related to IQ, so don’t really know what to think about the relation between IQ, immigration,” he told Slate’s Dave Weigel. “In fact, as I know I told Jason early on since I’ve long believed this, I don’t find the IQ academic work all that interesting.”
It’s then perhaps odd that Borjas put up little resistance to Richwine’s proposed line of inquiry. “Jason had the topic fully formed in his mind before he talked to me,” he wrote via email. “I played no role in topic selection or forming the research agenda.”
This line raised eyebrows among some scholars familiar with social science dissertations. Dan Drezner is a Professor of International Politics at Tufts’ Fletcher School, an institution that’s somewhat similar to Harvard’s Kennedy School in character, who’s been following the Richwine case closely. “If I’m an advisor, and I have a student that comes to me,” Drezner said, “the last thing I would do is say ‘write this.’” They key issue is “how well formed was Richwine’s argument when he came to Borjas?” Students should come up with their own dissertation topics, Drezner said, but if an advisor didn’t sufficiently challenge them on whether it was a good, well-thought out program, that could be a problem.
What’s a “Hispanic?”
Some experts in the fields Richwine’s dissertation covered, judging from the final product, had harsh answers to Drezner’s question. “The committee was wrong to approve [Richwine's dissertation] and to accept the prospectus,” wrote Diego A. von Vacano. Von Vacano is a professor at Texas A&M University whose research focuses on Hispanic identity. After he wrote a harsh review of Richwine’s work on the academic blog The Monkey Cage, I got in touch with him to see if he could clarify the nature of his objections.
Von Vacano’s basic critique centers on Richwine’s definitions, or lack thereof, of the terms “Hispanic,” “white,” and “race.” The most grevious of Richwine’s errors lies in his account of the first: the lack of a meaningful definition of “Hispanic” dooms the dissertation’s ability to draw rigorous conclusions about the people he’s chosen to study.
There’s enormous debate about just what “Hispanic” means and who counts as one in any meaningful sense. Richwine’s third chapter, titled “Hispanic IQ,” treats this debate in the most cursory of fashions. This is the chapter’s full definition of the term Hispanic and defense of its use:
Over 56% of immigrants living in the U.S. in 2006 were Hispanic — that is, born in either Mexico (32% of total immigrants), Central American [sic] and the Caribbean (17%), or South America (7%)…Hispanics are not a monolithic group either ethnically or culturally, but the category still has real meaning. Hispanics can be of any race, but they are most often “Mestizo” — a mixture of European and Amerindian background. Mexico, for example, is 60% Mestizo (LV 2006, 241). Hispanics also share ethno-cultural tendencies that are different from the majority Anglo-Protestant culture of the United States (Huntington 2004, 253-255). Most come from Spanish-speaking nations with cultures heavily influence by Catholicism. And many Hispanics choose to identify themselves as such, as the existence of groups like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the National Council of La Raza (“the race” or “the people”), and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus readily demonstrates.Von Vacano sees this as fatally inadequate. “Any serious work at the doctoral level on these issues (even if mainly quantitative or policy-oriented),” he told me, “requires a substantive component of analysis from the qualitative, historical, cultural, normative, and theoretical perspectives (at least one or two dissertation chapters).”
These are not merely scholarly niceties: what Richwine means by “Hispanic” is critical to the success of both of his two core arguments. First, to prove that “from the perspective of Americans alive today, the low average IQ of Hispanics is effectively permanent,” he needs to show that one can speak meaningfully about“Hispanic” IQ. Richwine needs this claim to be true for the entire third section of his dissertation, the one that spells out the dangers of low IQ Hispanic immigration, to succeed. Establishing the negative consequences of Hispanic immigration means first establishing there’s such a thing as “Hispanic immigration” in a scientifically useful sense.
Because Hispanic identity is so hotly contested among scholars of race and ethnicity, that means both providing a clear account of why people from an arbitrary set of geographic locations are homogenous enough for generalizations about them are meaningful, controlled social science. Richwine fails to do so.
First, Richwine asserts Hispanics are mostly some “Mestizo” mix of Native American and European, making them genetically similar. But in the unnerving world of race and IQ research, what mix they are matters. Richwine believes that “socioeconomic hierarchies correlate consistently with race all across the world” because some races are biologically smarter; “there are no countries,” he writes, “in which ethnic Chinese are less successful than Amerindians.” It stands to reason, on his theory, that “mixed” Hispanics with more European or Asian DNA will be concomitantly smarter, on average, than more heavily Amerindian or African ones. But Richwine doesn’t attempt to show that the mix of racial DNA inside any one “Hispanic” subgroup is consistent enough for generalization, let alone the category as a whole.
That’s because it’s not. Even a cursory examination of research on Latin American genetics uncovers an impossibly complex genetic admixture, one that varies widely from country to country or even region to region. To take one simple example, the average percentage of identifiably African, Native American, and European DNA among Brazilians varies widely by region (although some definitions of “Hispanic” would exclude Portuguese-speaking Brazil, Richwine’s includes it). Hispanic immigrants to the United States come from a bewildering array of countries, each with its own particular internal diversity. As von Vacano puts it, “there is no literature that can meaningfully support the idea that ‘Hispanic’ is a genetic category,” let alone one that can be equated with the colonially-superimposed “Mestizo” identifier.
Second, Richwine asserts that Hispanics share a similar culture that’s distinct from so-called “Anglo” culture. Richwine’s only support for this claim is a citation of Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We?, a book that warns of a wave of Hispanic immigration irrevocably altering American culture for the worse. Huntington’s claims about Hispanic inability to assimilate have been subjected to serious quantitative challenge, but more to the point, citing a polemic tract about immigration does not constitute explaining what the purportedly unified Hispanic culture is and why the fact that it involves a lot of Spanish-speaking and Catholicism might be seen as allowing one to make generalized claims about the group.
This is especially egregious when the scholarly consensus is that there is no obvious unified Hispanic or Latino culture. As the introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Modern Latin American Culture puts it, “as all the chapters [in this book] reveal, any search for a communal ‘Latin American’ culture has remained an elusive, somewhat quixotic idea.” This, again, is because Latin American countries vary widely — compare Mexico to Brazil to Costa Rica to Argentina and find extraordinary differences in wealth, social norms, political systems, and ethnic backgrounds. Indeed, the vast diversity among “Hispanic” societies should be obvious even to someone whose only experience of these cultures involves dining out: Mexican chile rellenos are not Cubano sandwiches, which definitely are not Argentine steak platters.
Finally, Richwine notes that Hispanic immigrants to the United States have a sense of shared identity, but, again, it’s not explained why that allows one to make generalizations about group IQ, let alone the genetic component thereof. It’s just simply asserted, without any explanation of who shares the shared identity — Cuban-Americans, for example, have a different view of their American experience than Salvadoreans — and why that’s relevant.
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