Racism, IQ and Down Syndrome


 Racism, IQ and Down's Syndrome

Published in Disability & Society, Vol 11, No. 3, 1996, pp. 403-410
There is a consistent difference of some 15 IQ points between the test means of American black and white citizens, and there has been a fierce debate as to whether this can be best accounted for by black intellectual inferiority or by such environmental factors as prejudice and discrimination. However, even supporters of the environmental hypothesis have neglected to apply it to the population - people with Down's Syndrome -to which it is most clearly applicable, and this failure of imagination indicates the boundaries of discourse in the field of intellectual disability.
The complex relationship between racism and prejudice against people with Disability is illustrated by Dr Down's use of the term 'mongolism'. Down's characterisation of people with intellectual impairment as equivalent both to children and to people of different races fits the need for a working explanation of intellectual impairment. The characterisation is none the less worthless, and we need new frames to shape our observations.
With the publication of Murray and Herrenstein's The Bell Curve (Herrenstein & Murray, 1994) there has been a recent flurry of interest in 'race' differences in IQ. It has been frequently observed that there is a consistent difference between the IQ test means of American black and white children and adults, the difference amounting to some 15 IQ points [1] and resulting in a considerable imbalance in the proportion of people from each group regarded as mildly retarded. There has been a considerable debate as to whether this observable fact can be best accounted for by a general black intellectual inferiority or by the influence of environmental factors. Those such as Herrenstein or, earlier, Eysenk & Jensen, who believe in the former say that a gap remains when all other possible sources of environmental influence have been controlled for-that the gap cannot be the result of socioeconomic status because Hispanic Americans have lower SES ratings and higher IQ scores, that the gap cannot be the result of racial prejudice because it has not been reduced by the progress made since Brown v. Board of Education, and that it cannot be the result of poor education because the gap still exists between whites and blacks at the same schools. Environmentalists such as Kamin retort that:
(1)            it has not been demonstrated that IQ scores are in fact connected to cognitive capacity;
(2)            that in any case all sources of environmental influence have not been controlled for--in particular, that the influence of racism has been underestimated.
I believe that the latter argument is superior, but I do not intend to recapitulate the debate here [2]. Rather, I wish to show that the field of intellectual disability is bounded by significant, but unasked and uncontemplated questions; in particular, I wish to point out that supporters of the environmental hypothesis have neglected to apply it to the population to which it is most clearly applicable.
Those suggesting that the difference is not innate argue that a group that is clearly visually distinguishable from the dominant group, that has been until recently widely regarded as intellectually inferior, that has historically received inferior education, that has historically been socialised into an acceptance of subordination, and that has realistically low expectations of its ability to raise its social and economic status through individual performance, might be expected to have their scores depressed by these factors. As has been often pointed out, American blacks are just such a group, and they show a deficit of 15 IQ points (or more; southern blacks have been measured at 20 points below northern whites).
If one were to add to those factors the further stipulations that the group under study was, even now, regarded as utterly and unquestionably intellectually inferior, that it has been regarded as inferior universally and in all cultures, that individuals in the group are regarded as inferior even by their own families and in relation to their own siblings, that the supports of a common culture are entirely absent, that not only their formal education but their basic instruction had historically been rudimentary or non-existent, that they have high rates of visual and hearing impairment, and that no positive role models for them have ever existed, one would expect a larger difference still; and one would be describing people with Down's syndrome.
If one asks why the relationship between IQ testing and people with Down's syndrome have not been analysed in the same terms as the relationship between IQ testing and blacks, the basic answer is that people with Down's syndrome are universally regarded as being essentially, rather than accidentally, different from the ruling culture. Liberals, conservatives, socialists and racists alike 'know' that people with Down's syndrome are intrinsically deficient. Unlike blacks, they have never in any society achieved great works; they have no astronomers, poets, mathematicians or novelists. They are not, as blacks are, functionally identical to their oppressors; they have an extra chromosome, and associated with this difference comes an increased difficulty in performing certain operations.
No series of observations, however, and no demonstration of practical incapacity, can remove the basic question common both to Down's syndrome/normal and black/white comparisons; are these differences-in a weaker formulation, are all these differences-due to differences in underlying cognitive functioning or can they be accounted for (in whole or part) by particular social (or physical) deficiencies unrelated to what the standard classification describes as 'significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning'?
Down's syndrome used to be called 'mongolism', and the relationship between racism and views of Down's syndrome has correspondingly received some attention.
Dr. Down was medical superintendent of the Earlswood Asylum for Idiots in Surrey when he published his "Observations on an Ethnic Classification of Idiots" in the London Hospital Reports for 1866. In a mere three pages, he managed to describe Caucasian 'idiots' that reminded him of African, Malay, American Indian, and oriental peoples. (Gould, 1980, p. 135.)
The significance of Down's paper is now generally reduced to its having been the first paper to describe the condition as a discovery, in the same way that one might find and name a hitherto unrecognised species of beetle. The term 'mongolism' is, correspondingly, seen as an unfortunate irrelevancy, as if a German etymologist in the 1930s had christened a newly-discovered species of turtle Chelonia Hitleri. As Stephen Jay Gould makes clear, this underestimates both the intention and effect of Down's work.
In his time, it embodied a deadly earnest attempt to construct a general, causal classification of mental deficiency based on the best biological theory (and the pervasive racism) of the age. (Gould, 1980, p. 135.)
Down's namings, including the term 'mongolian idiot', were explanatory, as well as descriptive. They worked from the theory of recapitulation, which postulated that:
(1)            higher animals in their embryonic development passed through a series of stages representing the adult forms of their lower ancestors;
(2)            higher human races had passed through and developed beyond the stages now represented by the existing civilisations of the lower races.
The evolution of animals and races were two comparable ladders, with lower forms stopping their climb at lower levels. Some recapitulationists added to this a further ladder:
(3)            within a race, some individuals might slip back down to ancestral levels - ‘throwbacks' or 'atavisms'.
Down realised that the last two ladders could be merged into one through a theory connecting personal atavism to racial backwardness.
It is in this context that Dr. Down had his flash of fallacious insight; some Caucasian idiots must represent arrests of development and owe their mental deficiency to a retention of traits and abilities that would be judged normal in adults of lower races .... (Gould, 1980, pp. 136-137.)
Oriental ethnic groups obviously bear virtually no resemblance to people with Down's syndrome, the only common point being the epicanthic fold, and the term ‘mongol' is gradually becoming less popular. The underlying image, however-the image of the ladder of development-remains influential, and the conception of disability groups as quasi-races is still a powerful ordering force.
Gould notes in Down 'the prevailing cultural prejudice, not yet extinct, for ranking people on unilinear scales with the ranker's group on top' (Gould, 1980, p. 134), but he underestimates its pervasive effect. The analogy between 'mongolian idiots' and Mongolians was, of course, insulting to Mongolians, and contributed to their dismissive treatment by Westerners in the colonial era. Analogies, however, point in two directions. If it was insulting to compare Mongolians to people with impaired functioning, it was also insulting to compare people with a disability to the Victorian stereotype of an uncreative, limited, passive race that had ceased its development before the British. Both groups were seen as developmentally delayed. More specifically, it was thought that they would not be able to do certain things because they were like children.
All the three levels of progress in Down's theory of recapitulation depend on the opposition between adulthood and childhood. Backward races were, as Kipling described them in 'The White Man's Burden', written in 1899,
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
(Kipling, 1940.)
Evolution, civilisation and intelligence were all equivalent to adulthood. This analogy was eventually given precise form with Binet's invention of mental age, and the subsequent formulation of the IQ scale, being originally constructed from the ratio of mental age to chronological age, incorporated it.
The IQ scale itself was, of course, required to serve purposes more precise than simply discriminating between races. Its emblem is the normal curve, which is continuous, not stepped, and whose underlying metaphor is wealth, not race. A partial survival of the older quasi-racial concept of absolute difference is, however, shown in the frequently hypothesised division between 'organic' and 'non-organic' retardation, where
... there are really two separate distributions of intelligence ... the first [nonorganic] distribution would approximate the normal curve, while the one for organically damaged persons would overlap the first but have different features. This second distribution begins at IQ 0 (e.g. the case of an anencephalic individual), peaks at approximately IQ 30, and has a long tail ... (Zigler & Hodapp, 1986.)
At a more subterranean level, however, both concepts still function simultaneously. Down's characterisation of people with intellectual impairment as equivalent both to children and to people of different races fitted precisely the need for a working explanation of intellectual impairment. These people were different not because they were like us, only damaged, but because they were intact and complete specimens of a lesser order of being. It is a conceptualisation that has maintained a firm hold on the area ever since. Even now, the ghost of the racial analogy is an essential part of the overall picture, and the fact that the original analogy has proved to be wrong in every possible respect does not affect its subliminal reassurance. It is the racial analogy that underlies the assumption of difference in kind; indeed, the belief that there are two distinct varieties of mind within the one human species is not easy to support on any other ground. It is this belief in a difference in kind, in retardation as a global characterisation, that leads us to assume that achievements in any individual diagnosed as mentally retarded are peaks rising from a low base rather than to consider the possibility that their shortcomings may be troughs in a plateau. 'Idiot-savants' are seen as cognitively feeble people with single splinter skills, not cognitively sound people with multiple splinter deficits. As the base or the plateau of cognitive functioning is unobservable-we can observe only the behaviour patterns-the same observed behaviour patterns may be consistent with either of the two assumptions. Different assumptions may suggest different interventions. Estimates of the average intelligence of people with Down's syndrome have in fact been trending upward steadily for the last 60 years.
Up to the early 1900s, people with Down's Syndrome were typically viewed as being profoundly mentally retarded. Surveys of children and adults during the first half of this century classified most Down's Syndrome people in the severely mentally retarded category. Kirman's (1974) review suggested that the majority of Down's Syndrome children fell in the moderately to severely retarded range, with only a very small minority (2-3%) achieving at the mildly retarded level. In the 1960s there were reports of up to 10% of cases being educable or mildly retarded. By the mid 1970s it was suggested that perhaps as many as 30-50% of older children and adults with Down's Syndrome were in the mild range with a small number even achieving within the normal range. (Clunies-Ross, 1986.)
The pattern has been, in any case, that people with Down's syndrome have tended to approach the level of expectations that their parents and teachers have for them, and these expectations have been based on marginally surmounting the upper limits of professional expectation in each generation. While encouraging, this is a slow and incremental process, and involves no questioning of the basic paradigm.
These developments represent a general shift in the Down's syndrome mean of some 30 IQ points, from an average IQ of approximately 15-20 to an average IQ of, depending on the study, between 40 and 60. The difference remaining after these adjustments between recent estimates of mean IQ scores for people with Down's syndrome and the general population norm is approximately 50 points, not the 15 or 20 points between black and white IQ means. The underlying question in both differences, however, is whether the initial assumption should be
(1)            that the underlying cognitive levels of the two groups are similar, but that other factors intervene to prevent equivalent levels of test scores;
(2)            that the differing score levels represent different levels of cognitive functioning.
If, for the moment, we accept that the effect of prejudice might be to depress IQ scores by 20 points, we might then look to see whether the particular circumstances of particular people with Down's syndrome might contain other factors that would depress scores. Most people with Down's syndrome have physical disabilities. A 1990 study of children with Down's syndrome found that 38% had heart problems, up to 77% had visual defects and 62% had hearing loss (Turner et al., 1990). Very little work deals with the extent to which level of cognitive functioning can be masked by physical disability. Hearing loss and visual defects can affect test-taking both directly, in that they slow down operations on the actual test and indirectly, in that they handicap the student in acquiring the information needed to take the test successfully. There are no studies of the intelligence of people with Down's syndrome that control for these factors (or, indeed, for racial attribution). Just to open the bidding, one might suggest that these would raise the average score by a further 10 IQ points.
Once we had adjusted for those known physical or perceptual impairments that depress IQ score, but do not necessarily affect the underlying cognitive structure we might then look at hypothesising and testing for unknown impairments; we might, following the lead of one tendency in the debate over facilitated communication training (Crossley & Remington-Gurney, 1992), raise the possibility of performance being influenced by apraxias and aphasias. Another-even more hypothetical-ten?
If the adjustments are summed, the average measured level of about 50 could be raised to 70, then 80, then 90-well into the normal range, not far distant from the average.
The suggestion, then, is that people with Down's syndrome may be, precisely, handicapped, as racehorses are handicapped-that they carry lead in their saddlebags from the effects of prejudice and physical disability, and if it was possible to remove these then they would be expected to come further up the list of finishers than they do. The further implication is that any conceptualisation of 'intelligence' that does not allow for the influence of these factors (and for racial attributions, culture and gender) is fatuous; conversely, one that did make such allowances would be so weak as to have relatively little content.
Without the models of racism and infancy to draw on, we might be forced to set aside our use of IQ scores to convert difference into inferiority. We might attempt to reconceptualise how and at what level it is that people diagnosed as mentally retarded differ from us. Extending an analogy of Pinker's, we could ask whether the deeper cognitive structures of the human mind are more like human height, which is normally distributed [3] or the number of legs each human has, which is initially almost invariant (you can break a leg, or lose a leg, or refuse to stand up, but these are seen as subtractions, not deviant forms).
The current model of language, for example, in the field of intellectual impairment is that it is a skill which has to be learned, and its learning depends on the kind of mind you have. If you have a lot of intelligence you learn high-level skills like writing sonnets, if you have average intelligence you handle newspapers, if you have low intelligence you can't read, and if you have very low intelligence you can't even speak. The propositions are put most clearly in the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-IV (1994). Mildly retarded people '...can learn academic skills up to approximately sixth-grade level' including, presumably, literacy. Moderately retarded people '...can acquire communication skills ... (but) are unlikely to progress beyond the second-grade level in academic subjects...'. Severely retarded people 'During the early childhood years ... acquire little or no communicative speech.... During the school-age period, they may learn to talk...'. With profoundly retarded people '...communication skills may improve [from an unspecified base] if appropriate training is provided'. It is assumed that someone who cannot speak will not be able to spell; speech is referred to as if it were cognitively identical with language.
Language studies in other fields are now moving towards a consensus that language is, in the words of one recent book title, The Language Instinct (Pinker, 1994), that language is not a thing to be learned, as one learns the rules of poker, but rather a fundamental element in the composition of a human mind, and that while the expression of language may be disturbed or disrupted this does not necessarily relate to the continuing existence of the basic structures of language in the mind, still less to degrees of intelligence. This consensus has until now been held at bay at the boundaries of intellectual impairment. Intellectual disability texts, for example, discuss exercises for 'prelingual' adults; it is thought that there is a form of mind common to most adults that involves the growth of language, and an undeveloped form of mind common to children and people with mental retardation that does not. If the field did not have a general though unarticulated belief in a quasi-racial or quasi-species difference between ordinary people and people with intellectual disability, the attribution of infancy to adults would sound less plausible.
Dr Down said in 1866:
Those who have given any attention to congenital mental lesions must have been frequently puzzled how to arrange, in any satisfactory way, the different classes of this defect which have come under their observation. Nor will their difficulty have been lessened by an appeal to what has been written on the subject. The systems of classification are generally so vague and artificial, that, not only do they assist but feebly, in any mental arrangement of the phenomena which are presented, but they fail completely in exerting any practical influence on the subject. (Gould, 1980.)
Whatever Down's deficiencies as a theorist, his critical summation of the literature of intellectual impairment has over the intervening 125 years lost none of its relevance.
If we are to discard our old models, we will need new frames to shape our observations. One might be computing.
It is not the case that some people are XTs, some 286s, some 386s, some 486s and some Pentiums--that there are high- and low-powered systems. We all have essentially the same machine, and use essentially the same operating system; some of us, however, have programming viruses that have introduced bugs into the system--particular problems, with particular solutions.
[1]            See, for example, Eysenk & Kamin (1981).
(2]            These few paragraphs are, of course, only a skeletal presentation of the debate (a good analysis of The Bell Curve's logical defects is given in Fraser, 1995) and I would not wish it to be thought that any of the arguments left unaddressed have therefore been conceded.
[3]            It should be noted that the distribution is not in this case, as in the quotation from Zigler & Hodapp (1986), required to begin at zero.
American Psychiatric ASSOCIATION (1994) Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders
(DSM-IV) (Washington, American Psychiatric Press).
Clunies-Ross, G. (1986) The development of children with Down's syndrome; Lessons from the past and implications for the future, Australian Paediatric Journal, 22, pp. 167-169. Clunies-Ross, G. (1991) Intellectual disability-language and reading, in: The Right to Read - publishing for people with disabilities, (Canberra, National Library of Australia). Crossley, R. & Remington-Gurney, J. (1992) Getting the words out; Facilitated Communication Training, Topics in Language Disorders, 12(4), pp. 29-45.
EYSENK, H. & Kamin, J. (1 98 1) Intelligence: the battle for the mind (London, Pan).
FRASER, S. (Ed.) (1995) The Bell Curve Wars (New York, Basic Books).
Gould, S. (1980) 7he Panda's Thumb (London, Penguin Books).
HERRENSTEIN, R. & MURRAY, C. (1994) ne Bell Curve (New York, Free Press).
KIPLING, R. (1940) Verse (London, Hodder & Stoughton).
PINKER, S. (1994) The Language Instinct (London, Penguin Press).
TURNER, S., SLOPER, P., CUNNINGHAM, C. & Knussen, C. (1990) Health problems in children with Down's syndrome, Child Care, Health and Development, 16, pp. 85-97.
ZIGLER, E. & HODAPP, R. (1986) Understanding Mental Retardation (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

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