Students, parents and staff at C.K. McClatchy High School are upset over a science fair project by a student in its elite magnet program that questioned whether certain races of people lack the intelligence to handle the program’s academically challenging coursework.
Some of those outraged by the racially charged project say it points to a larger problem: the lack of ethnic diversity in the school’s elite HISP program.
The project that started the controversy was titled “Race and IQ.” It raised the hypothesis: “If the average IQs of blacks, Southeast Asians, and Hispanics are lower than the average IQs of non-Hispanic whites and Northeast Asians, then the racial disproportionality in (HISP) is justified.”
The project was put on display with others on Monday afternoon to be judged by a team of community members as part of the fourth annual Mini Science Fair. It was removed Wednesday morning after students, parents and staff complained. The science fair was open to students and parents.
The controversial project also included a bibliography and quotes from five books, one a text from 1904 called “The Essential Kafir” that argued South African blacks were intellectually inferior to whites. The term “kaffir” has since evolved into a racial slur in South Africa, where it is sometimes referred to as the “k-word.”
“I think that a lot of people, especially of color, are really hurt and upset by this,” said Chrysanthe Vidal, a senior in the HISP program.
She said the student who prepared the report has a history of making racist remarks in class. He is described by peers as a boy of Asian descent and a participant in the accelerated Humanities and International Studies program, or HISP. The Sacramento Bee did not speak to the student and is not identifying the minor.
The HISP program is designed to promote cultural awareness and sensitivity. Often, it includes alternative viewpoints on history. For example, one HISP student said that while learning about Christopher Columbus, students also learned about “the Indian genocide” and the perspective of Native Americans on white settlers.
The program currently has 508 students enrolled, including 12 African American students, 80 Hispanic students and 104 who are Asian, according to data provided by the district.
“We’ve clearly not progressed as much as the students want to think we have,” said one freshman in HISP. “It’s just kind of shocking to think someone could enter into that program knowing that is what we are learning about and being so closed-minded.”
The idea of race being tied to intelligence has a long and controversial history and is considered fringe. It is associated with other ideas including eugenics – often euphemistically referred to as “human biodiversity” in recent years – that attempt to tie racial superiority to science.
In the United States, the notion of a racial tie to intelligence gained notoriety with “The Bell Curve.” The 1994 book by political scientist Charles Murray brought the idea into the national consciousness, though it has been widely criticized by mainstream scientists.
Many notions involving ethnicity and ability are popular with the so-called alternative right movement, and have gained increased prominence recently as topics of race and immigration have dominated national rhetoric. In 2013, the then-director of the Heritage Foundation – a leading conservative voice for immigration reform – resigned over his Harvard Ph.D. dissertation, which argued among other things that American born “Hispanics” are less intelligent than American-born white people, also using IQ scores as a marker.
Recently, some academics argued that President Donald Trump was alluding to race and intelligence when he questioned why American immigration policy should allow people from certain African, Caribbean and Central American countries to come to the United States instead of people from countries like Norway.
The McClatchy student tested his race and intelligence hypothesis by having a handful of unidentified teens of various races take an online intelligence test.
His report concluded that, “the lower average IQs of blacks, Southeast Asians, and nonwhite Hispanics means that they are not as likely as non-Hispanic whites and Northeast Asians to be accepted into a more academically rigorous program such as HISP. Therefore, the racial disproportionality of HISP is justified.”
Sacramento Unified school district spokesman Alex Barrios said the district was aware of the controversy and is looking into the matter. He said that while the district understood the project was offensive to some, it may not have violated policy if the question fell within the guidelines of the assignment.
“We are looking into the appropriate response to a situation like this,” said Barrios. “We understand it concerns a lot of people and doesn’t reflect our culture here.”
Barrios couldn’t say whether the science teacher saw the project before it was put on display. He said district officials are looking into the issue to better understand what happened.
On Thursday, students were posting comments about the project on social media sites and bringing concerns to administrators.
Principal Peter Lambert also Thursday sent an email message to parents. “I want to be clear that at McClatchy High School we promote and embrace an inclusive environment and way of thinking which excludes any form of discrimination,” he wrote. “Many of you have asked me what our school is doing in response to this incident. I want you to know we are taking this incident very seriously and we will be reviewing the incident and implementing all measures as appropriate to provide a safe and inclusive environment for all of our students.”
Lambert, who is African American, met with his staff to further discuss the project Friday morning.
Vidal, who said she is one of four African American students in her senior class, said the incident reflects an undercurrent of racism at the school, although she hasn’t experienced blatant racism.
Students at the school who aren’t in the HISP program see it as a closed culture made up mostly of white and Asian students, Vidal said. “They don’t feel they can talk to us,” she said.
Students in the program have similar economic backgrounds and belief systems, creating an echo chamber, she and other HISP students said. HISP students don’t get the insight of people of color or from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
One HISP student interviewed by The Sacramento Bee said the program is challenging and has “great” teachers, but is separated from the general population of the school and not racially diverse.
“My HISP class, I don’t think we have a single African American person in my class, which is kind of shocking consider HISP’s big deal is cultural expression,” the student said. “We have very little interaction with anyone outside our classes. I definitely think we would benefit at some level to being exposed to a community outside our circle.”
Joyce Brown, an adviser to the Black Student Union at the school, arrived Thursday after the project had been taken down, but was still able to view it.
Brown said Thursday night she received a call from an African American student at McClatchy who said the incident made her feel “unsafe and uneasy.”
“These kids should not feel that way,” said Brown.