i-e1003b13638050040bea14fa3d3fabe0-repost.jpgAfrican American children may have reduced verbal ability compared to other children to a degree that is roughly equivalent to missing a year in school, according to a recently published paper.

Is this evidence of a racial difference?

The study by Sampson et.al., published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences included more than 200 children aged 6-12 living in Chicago, and followed these children over seven years. The study controlled for poverty, and interestingly, poverty was not found to be a good predictor of differences in verbal ability.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThe researchers consider the “Bell Curve” hypothesis, that “cognitive ability, or what they more generally consider the underlying dimension of intelligence [intelligence quotient (IQ)], is an important explanation for inequality in American society, and that its sources are largely genetic.” They point out that research on home environment and poverty explain some of the purported racial differences, but that very little research has been done on the effects of neighborhood and the racially based segregating effects of society.

They argue that severely disadvantaged neighborhoods involve repressed communication infrastructures (and other factors) that impair cognitive development in verbal areas. The study shows that a key variable affecting cognitive ability was “concentrated disadvantage” … a characteristic of neighborhoods, especially segregated neighborhoods.

The meat of the argument is as follows:

We hypothesize that residing in a severely disadvantaged neighborhood cumulatively impedes the development of academically relevant verbal ability in children. The theoretical notion underlying our work is that spatial disadvantage is encompassed not in a single concurrent characteristic but rather in a synergistic composite of social factors that mark the qualitatively distinct aspect of growing up in truly disadvantaged neighborhoods… To consider only neighborhood poverty as the causal treatment of interest is too narrow, because poverty is strongly associated with other ecological characteristics, such as percentage of single-parent families, percentage of family members on welfare and unemployed, and racial segregation … We leave for future research to investigate potential mediating mechanisms; the logically prior or first-order task is to assess the causal status of the link between concentrated disadvantage and verbal ability.

And the conclusion:

…exposure to concentrated disadvantage in Chicago appears to have had detrimental and long-lasting consequences for black children’s cognitive ability, rivaling in magnitude the effects of missing 1 year of schooling (3). Policy discussions of investment in children are to be applauded (1), but if our study is any guide, these discussions should be expanded to include a more comprehensive approach to investing in and thereby improving the neighborhood contexts to which children are exposed as they develop cognitive skills crucial for later achievement in life.

Robert J. Sampson{dagger},{ddagger}, Patrick Sharkey§, and Stephen W. Raudenbush (2007) Durable effects of concentrated disadvantage on verbal ability among African-American children. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0710189104. Open Access Article.


  1. #1 Pen
    October 20, 2008

    That seems particularly surprising because my experience of adults of African ancestry, e.g. African-Americans, Blacks in Britain, and plain old Africans is that verbal ability is where they particularly shine. But that’s completely anecdotal, of course, and I don’t think I’ve met who grew up in very extreme poverty.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    October 20, 2008

    Pen: Right! If we use “race” as the independent variable, this stuff does not work. If, however, we identify the relevant independent variables, such as poverty, urban toxins, nutrition, etc., then we start to discover the effects of such things as economic racism and such.

  3. #3 wazza
    October 21, 2008

    There appears to be some evidence that Jews have higher verbal ability, because for some 1000 years in Europe, only a third of Jews were married, and the tendency was for the mothers of the best daughters to arrange marriages with the boys who did best in their Bar Mitzvah.

    But I’ve no idea what could be causing the effect here; the natural assumption is poverty, but apparently that didn’t seem to be having an effect. One thing which is often noted is that lower expectations lead to lower performance; perhaps there is an expectation that black kids won’t do so well, and they’re picking up on that?

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    October 21, 2008

    Wazza: With the Jewish verbal ability thing: There have been periods of time when the prevailing opinion was that Jews were sub-normal as a group in terms of intelligence, and periods of time when they were believed to be above normal intelligence. At no point has any scientific evidence emerged pointing to a material cause for this belief. There is no Jewish Intelligence Allele. The apparent fact that there is a kind of linguistic intelligence contest related to mating patterns does not mean that there is a genetic connection, but it does show a strong cultural value that will translate sometimes through practice into some kind of result.

    If one had a bad attitude about Jews, one would point to this practice and say “Ah, inbreeding …. that explains their tails and cleft palates..” As has been said in the past.

    March 2, 2009

    I am an African-American who grew up segregated and in relative poverty. I was tested to have a college junior’s verbal abilities while a high school junior. I tested at 98 percentile the armed forces entrance exam. I read avidly at an early age. All your tests for IQ are bogus. They test only accurmulated knowledge. Just for your knowledge, I was also a class athelete.

    I am not going to write a social analysis here but just want to let you know that I have my own way of thinking about the Greg Ladens of the world. I classify they as “intelligent idiots.” and hold out that they are functionally negative to the point that they are, as a group, responsible for many of the major prolems involved with persons on this planet living together. They are the direct opposite of genius in its operant definition and make the geniuses of the world have to work much harder.

    Please think deeper on your own and see what you can come up with.

  6. #6 Brian X
    March 2, 2009


    You are completely missing the point of the article. First off, you are a sample of one. You are a point of data in a much larger picture. The article (at least the parts Greg quotes) say nothing about inherent abilities and much more about the aspects of social isolation that a) a visibly distinct and frequently scorned minority b) with disproportionately many members living in poverty c) often raised speaking a dialect noticeably different from standard English that is often thought of as being uneducated all create. It’s already been pointed out that many Ashkenazic Jews were thought of the same way in past times in the US (I’ve heard Polish jokes were in fact created to mock poorly educated Jewish immigrants), and I’m sure quite a few of these conditions exist for many poor whites as well, with similar failure to thrive intellectually for their children.

    In other words, the article is calling for greater investments in poverty-stricken areas with large numbers of underperforming students. In fact, you haven’t really made a point except that you’re firmly within the mainstream. The point is that the young African-Americans who aren’t measuring up to the mainstream certainly could as well, if poverty and intellectual deprivation wasn’t a significant part of their daily lives. (Not for nothing was the ancient Greek concept of academia based around learning for leisure. Dodging bullets and not being able to afford books isn’t exactly a path to intellectual success.)

  7. #7 gryandkin
    March 2, 2009

    To Brian X. I did miss the point because Laden did not properly cite that the authors of the “Bell Curve/genetic” hypothesis were not the same as Sampson, Sharkey and Radenbush who wrote the very perceptive paper generally under discussion. I saw red with I thought they were coming up with that same old lame genetic theory. I have since found the paper on the web, and read most of it. Still, these things have been talked about for generations. Most parole and probations officers know about these causes and effects. The only thing new is the study. I hope that the study brings some results. I know many exceptions and perhaps someone need to study us!

  8. #8 the real shizzle my nizzle
    March 2, 2009

    Wassup Dat? We jus be invenin langwij our own.


    peer pressure as predictor of failure anyone?