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Richwine’s Predecessors: IQ, Race, and Immigration Policy

Lauren Taylor • Jun 01, 2013

“The average IQ of immigrants in the United States is substantially lower than that of the white native population, and the difference is likely to persist over several generations. The consequences are a lack of socioeconomic assimilation among low-IQ immigrant groups, more underclass behavior, less social trust, and an increase in the proportion of unskilled workers in the American labor market.” – Jason Richwine, 2009 PhD Dissertation “IQ and Immigration Policy”

“We were getting too many immigrants of unassimilable races, but especially too many individuals regardless of race, who lacked inborn the intellectual and spiritual qualities of the founders of the Nation.”  Harry H. Laughlin testimony before the House Committee, including Immigration Restriction Act, 1924

Three weeks ago, Jason Richwine, co-author of a recently published Heritage Foundation report on the economic impact of immigration reform, resigned after his 2009 Harvard dissertation titled, “IQ and Immigration Policy,” came to light. Excerpts like the one above generated a firestorm that led to his dismissal from the conservative think tank. Richwine has defended his writing, denying charges of racism, and others like Bell Curve author Charles Murray have rushed to Richwine’s defense. On the other side, some have questioned Harvard’s decision to approve Richwine’s PhD, and several petitions have circulated, including an open letterfrom Scholars Against Scientific Racism.

Jason Richwine

Though the letter doesn’t mention it specifically, intelligence tests have a history of being used to advocate for discriminatory legislation – from school segregation to immigration restriction. Some of the earliest to argue the connection between race, IQ, and immigration policy, were the founders of American intelligence testing. Many of these early promoters of the IQ test teamed up with eugenicists and the immigration restriction lobby to argue for a drastic curtailment of immigration – based on intellectual ability.

Eugenics and the IQ test

Though Alfred Binet, a French psychologist, developed the first IQ tests, it was Henry Herbert Goddard who brought them to the US. Binet developed the exams in order to screen for students who might benefit from special education. Goddard, understood to be the father of intelligence testing in the US, translated Binet’s articles, proctored exams, and more generally promoted and distributed IQ tests across the country. A eugenicist, Goddard believed the “feeble-minded” in the country should be isolated in institutions and prevented from reproducing, and those outside the country’s borders should be prevented from entering.

He was the first to use Binet’s tests on immigrants at Ellis Island. In The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould writes that “Goddard rejoiced in the general tightening of standards for admission. He reports that deportations for mental deficiency increased by 350 percent in 1913 and 570 percent in 1914 over the average of the five preceding years.” Gould goes on to cite Goddard specifically arguing for intelligence-based immigration screening: “If the American public wishes feeble-minded aliens excluded, it must demand that congress provide the necessary facilities at the ports of entry.” (168)

Lewis Terman, the Stanford psychologist who adapted the IQ test, believed that some racial groups were intellectually inferior, and wrote in his 1916 book, The Measurement of Intelligence, that barely below normal IQs, or “high-grade moronity” were “very, very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among negroes. Their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come.” (91) Though Terman targets African Americans as well as Chicano and Latino families, the echoes of Richwine’s concerns about Hispanic immigrants are hard to miss.

Intelligence testing and the National Immigration Act of 1924

Eugenics-based arguments about the inferiority of certain immigrants had tremendous influence on the 1924 National Origins Act. This law created the Border Patrol, limited immigration to 165,000 per year, and most famously, imposed a national quota system of immigration based upon the 1890 census. In effect, this drastically reduced immigration from much of southern and eastern Europe, the Middle East, and South and East Asia.

The bill’s cosponsor and the chair of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, Albert Johnson, was also president of the Eugenics Research Association. He used his influence to appoint Harry Laughlin, a prominent eugenicist, as Expert Eugenics Agent. Laughlin advocated directly for intelligence testing and screening for all immigrants. In his 1922 testimony to Congress he stated: “Natural intelligence is a factor which constitutes a great element in the evolution of peoples, and consequently should weigh heavily in emigration and immigration standards.”

Harry Laughlin

While eugenicists were not able to push through the intelligence testing at ports of entry, they were able to use the race-based results of such tests to argue for extreme restrictions on immigration, based on national origin. Such restrictions targeted racialized groups who were scapegoated for unemployment, social unrest and rebellion, violence, and crime; and ultimately ended most non-white immigration to the US until 1965.


Though in his PhD Richwine dismisses his early 20th century predecessors, and minimizes their influence on policy, his own arguments are strikingly similar and equally dangerous. Like those before him, Richwine argues that intelligence is largely genetic, and that recent waves of immigrants are intellectually inferior, and thus bound to destabilize or burden society. Earlier proponents of this thread of scientific racism targeted Jews and immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe; contemporary proponents target immigrants from Latin America. Richwine, however, doesn’t advocate for national quotas, nor IQ-based immigration, acknowledging that it would be politically difficult to win. Instead, he argues that skill-based immigration policy would accomplish the same thing, and the Heritage Foundation Report recommends exactly that.

While many have contested the validity of Richwine’s dissertation and the Heritage Foundation’s report (rightly debunking the faulty science),  it’s important to not only challenge the claims of the report but also to look at how such arguments are reflected in the current immigration reform debate – and in the bill. We should be wary not only of people like Richwine or groups like the Heritage Foundation, but also of their recommendations, and the coded and bureaucratic ways that poor people and people of color could be locked out and prohibited from immigrating to the US.

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