Kanye West I.Q. petition reeks of scientific racism

I was turned on to this petition by a “friend” from high school (I use the word “friend” loosely because I grew up behind the Orange Curtain, and don’t consider my high school peers to be comrades in arms), who was soliciting signatures on her Facebook page; or perhaps circulating the petition in an attempt to mock Kanye West’s reputation as an “idiot savant”.

The request that Kanye, as a Black person, confirm his intelligence (and more specifically, his claim to human intelligence by way of an always already racially biased I.Q. test) to a white supremacist audience — in a country with slave owners as “founding fathers” — reeks of scientific racism; which (as we all well know) is supposed to be a thing of the past: a dirty secret we don’t like to talk about as post-racial Americans with a Black man in the White House (a president who, it must be said, identified in the 2010 census as “Black” despite his mixed race, claiming that he “self-identif[ies] as African American” because “that’s how [he is] treated and that’s how [he is] viewed”).

kanye-west-1-660_zpsec0b1445The wording of this petition is also curious; it claims that the people — which people? — “need by right of [Kanye's] incessant claim to such title, proof that he is said ‘genious.’” The existence of this petition — though (at the time in which I write this) it has only 6 signatures (and yes, I recognize the political consequences of re-circulating the petition in this critique) — goes to show that Kanye really is the new slave of a world (order) hell-bent on his erasure and the erasure of those people who look like him.

I’m less concerned with the success of this petition or the number of signatures it accrues than I am with the impulse to draft a petition like this in the first place; and more generally, to make this demand of Kanye, a formidable artist in his own right. When entertainers make artistic or politically-charged statements as an extension of their brand or name – as white performers like Lady Gaga (or Brittney Spears before her, or Madonna before her) often do with impunity — they shouldn’t be forced to bear the burden of proof. Performance art is intended to provoke its audience, not to be taken literally (Madonna was obviously not a virgin); and for white artists, the message behind their art is rarely (if ever) literally interpreted. Indeed, I wonder why a petition has not circulated yet to qualify Lady Gaga’s implicit claim that she is a pop genius, and not a capitalist profiteer appropriating radical aesthetics in the interest of her own fame and fortune (an accusation that often gets thrown Kanye’s way).

I’m inclined to think that Kanye is being asked to quantify his intelligence not just because he has claimed on multiple occasions that he is a “genius”, but because he actively voices the urgent concerns of the Black community (often to the disservice of his own credibility in the mainstream). In contrast to his BFF, Jay-Z, Kanye has taken an unapologetic political position in opposition to white supremacist America. As Michael Arceneaux notes in his December 17th article for Esquire, Kanye “is the only person of his clout actively using his platform to speak on the frustrations that come with being a [B]lack creative [genius].” It’s no wonder that the weight of his intelligence is being put under a microscope: it’s because what Kanye is telling us about gratuitous racial inequality rings too true, it hits too hard, it attracts too much attention; Kanye is getting too “uppity”, and must be discredited — at a genetic level.

It must also be noted that I.Q. is not a comprehensive measure of intelligence; there are other forms of genius, not to mention intelligence, which are not quantifiable in standardized form (or quantifiable at all). The I.Q. test is also a racially-biased exam with a fraught history. In the 1920s eugenicists argued that racial disparities on I.Q. tests — which measure economic, social, and political capital (i.e. cultural knowledge and English literacy) as much as they do “intelligence” — were evidence of an evolutionary model of the human race: one in which the Black race is biologically inferior to the white, Anglo-Saxon race, and really, to all other human races (because, as Afro-pessimists have successfully argued, the Black body is intentionally excluded from the guarantees of a Humanist discourse).

The effects of the eugenics movement need no reminder. It was the eugenicists of the United States that inspired Hitler’s dream of a racially-pure Aryan nation; and though we are quick to point out the moral cruelty of Hitler’s political agenda, many of us have willfully forgotten America’s role in providing Nazi Germany with the ideology it used carry out the Holocaust. We have also forgotten that America attempted the same kind of racial cleansing when it forcefully sterilized Black women; but this second forgetting is intentional, because black lives were never worth a damn in the first place, and because in the aftermath of the civil war, Americans were under the impression that Black folk would die out (or more specifically, be starved out). We must remember, in the haunting words of Audre Lorde, that “we were never meant to survive” (The Black Unicorn: Poems, 1995).

In his May 13th article for The AtlanticBrink Lindsey reminds readers that “there is no such thing as a direct test of general mental ability. What IQ tests measure directly is the test-taker’s display of particular cognitive skills: size of vocabulary, degree of reading comprehension, facility with analogies, and so on. Any conclusions about general mental ability are inferences drawn from the test-taker’s relative mastery of those various skills.” Lindsey goes on to note,

This, then, shows the limits to IQ tests: Though the tests are good measures of skills relevant to success in American society, the scores are only a good indicator of relative intellectual ability for people who have been exposed to equivalent opportunities for developing those skills – and who actually have the motivation to try hard on the test. IQ tests are good measures of innate intelligence–if all other factors are held steady. But if IQ tests are being used to compare individuals of wildly different backgrounds, then the variable of innate intelligence is not being tested in isolation. Instead, the scores will reflect some impossible-to-sort-out combination of ability and differences in opportunities and motivations.

Lindsey’s observation about the racial disparities of I.Q. testing are not new; which is perhaps why I am responding so passionately to the resurgence of the I.Q. question in the context of a petition to discredit Kanye’s genius. There are two problems with the throwback to I.Q. testing as a way to quantify Kanye’s intelligence: creative intelligence cannot be measured by a standardized test (because creative genius, by definition, is the ability to think outside of the box); and further, Kanye’s intelligence (as a Black man who grew up with relatively fewer privileges than most Americans) cannot be assessed in an exam geared towards those people who were born and bred for “success in American society”.

To say that we no longer believe in race as a genetic concept (as the eugenicists understood it) is a ruse; because the technologies of scientific racism — like the technologies of lynching (i.e. Trayvon Martin’s gratuitous murder, or Oscar Grant’s, or Renisha McBride’s) and of Blackface minstrelsy — are changing with the times; but their logics, steeped in white supremacist ideology, remain the same.

This analysis is written by the blog’s author, M. Shadee Malaklou, who is a PhD candidate in Culture and Theory at the University of California at Irvine.  She can be reached at shadee.malaklou@gmail.com with inquiries.

6 thoughts on “Kanye West I.Q. petition reeks of scientific racism

  1. “We are quick to point out the moral cruelty of Hitler’s political agenda, many of us have willfully forgotten America’s role in providing Nazi Germany with the ideology it used carry out the Holocaust.” While Hitler did look to America for the ideology to carry out the Holocaust, it was actually the treatment (extermination) of Native Americans that was used as a ideology. examples are obvious: the rounding up of Jews into poor ghettos= Native Americans on reservations. Black treatment in American history is horrible in many ways, but in a different “many ways” than the Jews in the Holocaust. The statement “black lives were never worth a damn in the first place.” can seem true until you compare it to Nazi Germany. Before the Civil War black slave labor was essential for the cotton and tobacco economies of the south. Once slavery was abolished in 1865, the need for black labor in the south didn’t simply disappear No rational person from the 1860s onward actually thought that the Blacks would be “starved out.” Blacks in the south couldn’t die out because they were needed as sharecroppers. During reconstruction, their were black members of congress as well as many other publicly elected officials. It is shortsighted and foolish to believe that real intelligent Americans thought that blacks would just die out as a race. The idea of sending blacks back to Africa or Haiti and the idea of “separate but equal” was much more prevalent in 19th/20th century society. Jews on the other hand were not wanted by society during Hitlers regime. Germany almost succeeded in its very real “solution” to the Jewish “problem.

    • Dear friend (if I can call you that): you woefully miss the point, and seem to intentionally obscure the fact that the Holocaust sent Black and queer folk to the gas chambers as well. This is not the Oppression Olympics; white supremacist ideology is an ORGANIZING structure (or a totality) that affects Jewish bodies as well as Black bodies. Having said that, Jewish people do have passing white privilege, whether or not they categorically define themselves (or the world has defined them) as a different race of people; as do Native Americans. To borrow from Frank Wilderson’s observation in “Red, White and Black” (2010), Jewish, Native American, indigenous, and colonized people occupy a position of antagonism to the state (an antagonism that can be remedied) instead of one of perpetual, irredeemable, or “occult” conflict. You would be remiss to overlook the fact that Black slavery did not end in 1865. The Jim Crow South (which is to say, the political order of the day in post-Emancipation America) in many ways worsened the living conditions of Black folk, who — because they no longer constituted the property of the white man (i.e. the white man no longer had an obligation to keep his prized livestock fed or housed) — could now be discarded without a second thought to how Black erasure might destabilize white supremacist society. Black slavery has not ended; sure, its technologies have changed, but its ideology remains the same: Black bodies constitute livestock, or are carnally animal. They are not people. They are still imagined and instantiated as bodies that are “built” (at an ontological level) for this kind of labor. Today, the “new” Jim Crow (which is to say, the “new” Black slavery) is the prison-industrial complex. And therein lies the crux of my argument: the Holocaust came and went; the Jewish genocide was a one-time occurrence; the merciless murder of Jewish people was (at some point) put a stop to — for whatever self-interested reasons on the part of the European and American powers that be. The Black genocide has not subsided; not by a long shot; and I find it seriously disturbing that a post intended to make people think critically about Black erasure is being hijacked to talk about the Jewish “problem” (adding a level of discursive violence to the always already overdetermined, physical anti-Black violence of the modern world). More Black men are imprisoned today than there were enslaved in 1850 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/12/michelle-alexander-more-black-men-in-prison-slaves-1850_n_1007368.html). And if we want to continue to talk numbers — that is, if you’re inviting me to play Oppression Olympics — the bodies that were lost in the transatlantic enterprise are INNUMERABLE because: 1) black bodies were/are reduced to cargo, marked (again to borrow from Wilderson) fungibility and accumulation; and 2) there are no official ledgers of who lived and died on the ships, which is to say, the archive is necessarily incomplete (see Saidiya Hartman’s work).

      • I THOROUGHLY enjoyed reading this article. It gave words to many different thoughts and feelings that I’ve had about Kanye West and his role as a public figure in a white supremacist society. I also appreciate the discourse above from the comment/reply exchange because it highlights another kind of obfuscation that hinders the efforts of self-determination for Black people. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: Understanding anti-Black racism as species-ism: Reflections on Richard Sherman’s affective excess and the Twitterverse’s response | JESUS FUCKING CHRIST.

  3. Pingback: BLOG UPDATE: jFc blog gets a (mini) makeover, because mama’s got shit to do | JESUS FUCKING CHRIST.

  4. Pingback: Understanding anti-Black racism as species-ism: Reflections on Richard Sherman’s affective excess and the Twitterverse’s response | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

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