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Black Brains and Green Cheese

May 06, 2008 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright put forward a peculiar view of African- American versus European brains in his Press Club speech. It was a garbled mess, and it's surprising that his ideas on this subject have gotten very little attention in the mainstream media.

Wright argued that African-American children have a different way of learning than white children, with whites focusing on objects and African-American children focusing on people.
"The Left brain is logical and analytical, " he said. "Object-oriented means the student learns from an object. From the solitude of the cradle with objects being hung over his or her head to help them determine colors and shape to the solitude in a carrel in a PhD program stuffed off somewhere in a corner in absolute quietness to absorb from the object. From a block to a book, an object. That is one way of learning, but it is only one way of learning."

African American children, he said, " Are right-brain subject oriented in their learning style. Right brain -- that means creative and intuitive. Subject-oriented means they learn not from an object, but from a subject. Because they learn from a subject, not from an object. Tell me a story. They have a different way of learning."

Here, Wright makes the common mistake of thinking that you can put people and their brains in little boxes--in this case, marked Black and White. But when it comes to cognitive skills, the whole story is variation. Whether it's blacks or whites, males or females, research finds that there's so much overlap that you just can't say anything meaningful about individuals. Do some African-American kids learn better from a story-telling method than from a textbook? Sure. So do a lot of white kids. And a lot of black kids learn from books, from manipulating blocks and working with numbers.

Besides, none of us are totally left-brained or right brained. As University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman notes, "In my opinion, it's insulting to them (blacks) to suggest that they're incapable of being 'logical and analytical,'and insulting to European and European-American children to suggest that they're incapable of being 'creative and intuitive.' And Rev. Wright's version of the left brain vs. right brain dichotomy is exaggerated, as most talk about the cerebral hemispheres is."

He points out that there's plenty of object-related brain activity that tends to be" right-lateralized," such as visualizing the rotation of objects in space, and plenty of people-related brain activity that tends to be left-lateralized, such as the ability to speak.

We do know that, generally, culture can have an impact on learning syle, but to go back to African storytellers as the genesis of all black brains is silly. All human knowledge was once handed down through an oral tradition--in the very long course of human history, writing is a fairly recent invention.

Did Barack Obama get through Harvard law because a Shaman was sitting by his side whispering tort law in his ear? All those black doctors, professors, journalists, scientists, and astronauts did not to seem to be harmed by some genetic inability to tolerate "the solitude in a carrel in a PhD program stuffed off somewhere in a corner in absolute quietness to absorb from the object."

Some might deduct from Rev. Wright's rant that Barack Obama is so smart because of those white genes he got from his mother. I suspect that there still may be many Americans who believe this.

It's another dumb idea. When blood is typed to identify European vs. African genes, the tests find no association between degree of European heritage and I.Q. In other words, it's just not true that your European genes will take you to Harvard, while your African genes will take you to the NFL if you're lucky or to Burger King if you're not.

Richard E. Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan says, "During World War II, both black and white American soldiers fathered children with German women. Thus some of these children had 100 percent European heritage and some had substantial African heritage. Tested in later childhood, the German children of the white fathers were found to have an average I.Q. of 97, and those of the black fathers had an average of 96.5, a trivial difference."

And, he notes, if European genes were the smart genes, those African-Americans with the most Euro-genes should be the smartest. Not true.

"When a group of investigators sought out the very brightest black children in the Chicago school system and asked them about the race of their parents and grandparents, these children were found to have no greater degree of European ancestry than blacks in the population at large."
So we should file Reverend Wright's scientific ideas in the same drawer as the notion that the earth is flat and that the moon is made of green cheese. It's exactly where they belong.

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women (University Press of New England.)