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Thursday, April 16, 2015


My light-hearted post about "imposter syndrome" elicited more than the usual number of comments, perhaps not surprisingly.  In the same passage of the student review document where I encountered that faux term for the first  time was a reference to stereotype threat, which is in  fact a very serious phenomenon that has been the subject of a great deal of fascinating research.  It occurred to me that I ought to say a bit about stereotype threat, for those of you who are not familiar with the subject.  [One caveat:  I read up on this a long time ago and am writing from memory, so I may get some of the details wrong.]

It has long been known that African-American students underperform on standardized tests of the sort that have become ubiquitous in American elementary, secondary, and tertiary education.  When I say they "underperform," I mean not merely that their test scores are, on average, markedly lower than those of White students from the same socio-economic backgrounds, but also that their test scores do not comport with the quality of their minds and of their academic work, as observed and evaluated by experienced teachers.  This underperformance occurs at every level, even among Black students who have done quite well in earlier stages of their education.

Let me give one example from my personal experience.  In 1995, the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, of which I was then a member, received the first applications for our ground-breaking doctoral program, which would welcome its first class of doctoral students the next Fall.  I was scheduled to be the inaugural Graduate Program Director, a position I held for the best twelve years of my long career.  We received twenty-seven applications that first year, and the Graduate Record Examination scores were uniformly abysmally low.  Applicants with fine undergraduate records and interesting credentials appeared, if these scores were to be trusted, to be incapable of putting together coherent English sentences.  We had designed an unusually demanding first year program, the centerpiece of which was [and still is] a two semester double seminar, meeting five hours a week, in which the students would read fifty major works of Afro-American history, politics, literature, and sociology, and write a paper on each of the fifty works.  I was extremely apprehensive, fearful that our program would be far beyond the capabilities of the seven students we had admitted, but my colleagues assured me everything would be just fine.  Well, the students showed up, and they were not illiterate at all!  They indeed did just fine, and a number of them went on to earn doctorates, get tenure track jobs, and publish first-rate scholarly books.  I like to think that I am capable of learning from experience, even though I am a philosopher who is expected to view things sub specie aeternitatis, so as Graduate Program Director I deleted the Graduate Record Exam from the requirements for admission and substituted a requirement of a substantial sample of written work.  The program flourished, graduating a higher percentage of its doctoral students than almost  any other doctoral program in the Humanities, nation-wide.  The UMass Afro-Am doctoral students dominate the annual conventions and have assembled a brilliant record of publication.  The applicants, most of whom apply to several doctoral programs, still have appallingly low GRE scores.

What's up?

A good many years ago, a brilliant African-American psychologist named Claude Steele asked the same question, and launched a fascinating series of experiments to find out.  [When I had dinner with Steele in Amherst, MA many years ago, he was the Chair of the Stanford Psychology Department.  He is currently the Executive Vice-Chancellor and Provost of UC Berkeley.]  Steele formulated the hypothesis that Black students are well aware of the widely-held view that they are dumber than White students, and this awareness, which Steele labeled "stereotype threat," undermines their ability to do well on the sorts of "intelligence tests" that the White world expects them to do badly on.  Steele devised a variety of experimental protocols to test this hypothesis, and again and again, the data proved him correct.  For example, Steele would put together a multiple-choice test, and give it to two groups of college students [mixed White and Black.]  The first group would be told that they were being tested for intelligence;  the second group, given the identical test in identical testing circumstances, would be told that they were being tested on their general knowledge.  Sure enough, the first group of Black students did markedly worse than the second.

Steele then broadened his investigation to other stereotypes.  Women are commonly thought not to be able to do math, so Steele tested two groups of women on the same math exam.  Each group was asked to fill out a little personal data form before taking the test  -- name, address, age, college class, etc.  The last question on the first form, answered just before taking the test, was "gender."  The second form omitted that item.  Lo and behold, the women who were called on to identify themselves as women just before taking the test did worse than those who were not so asked!  Steele was even able to replicate the result by putting the gender question first on the form in one case and last in the other.

Some of Steele's associates tried the idea out on Black and White college athletes.  Two mixed groups of quite physically fit young men were run through a miniature golf course.  One group were told that they were being tested on their golfing ability [golf was a White sport back when the test was run, before Tiger Woods.]  The other group were told they were being tested on their innate athletic ability [which, according to a different stereotype, is an area of Black male superiority.]  Sure enough, the results confirmed the effect of the stereotypes on the subjects.

By the way, here is a truly weird fact.  Claude Steele is a man of the left whose work has done a great deal to counteract the baleful effects of the negative stereotypes of African-Americans and other non-White populations.  Steele has a twin brother, named Shelby Steele, who also has had a distinguished academic career.  Shelby Steele describes himself as a Black Conservative who opposes affirmative action and wrote a book describing Obama as a child of a mixed marriage [as are Claude and Shelby] who has a life-long need to "be black."  Shelby Steele is a fellow of the Hoover Institute at Stanford.

Go figure.




Magpie said...


I was already wondering about your silence...

An excellent post (thank you for it).

I particularly enjoyed learning about these experiments, because I had no idea about them; and the Claude-Shelby Steele case as illustration really was superb.

Can you provide more details on the experiments? Next time I stumble upon a Bell Curve believer I'd love to show them the references.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am not sure I can conjure more details out of my memory banks, but Google should give you a bunch. I think this work is very well known. I will take a look and see what I can find.