In my discussion Me ‘n IQ (which Maggie’s very nicely linked to) and my other recent discussions that touch on race, I have had a picture in my head which has illustrated much of my thinking – a graph of overlapping bell curves. It occurred to me today that I have assumed, on the basis of no evidence or thinking whatsoever, that everyone else had the same overlapping bell curves in their minds as well. If I can be said to have been aware of this at all, with anything that might technically qualify as a “thought,” it would be that I was explaining to y’all that the overlapping bell curves did not look like this
which would not be much of a societal problem, but more like this*
If you like, you can try Bing images for “overlapping bell curves” and see a host of what I am talking about. All sorts of things are measured. Many of them are just made up illustrations, but the principle holds. For much of history, I think the pyramid shape of few elites, a few more competents, and then a great mass of proletariat, has dominated people’s conception of how the abilities of society are distributed. That has certainly been the European and elitist model. America has been more mixed. I think a third illustration, sort of a completely flattened curve also exists, in which people think that for every 100 people, 10 are exceptional, 10 are darn good, 10 are pretty good…all the way down to 10 being useless, but no particular place on the line being more common than others, is also common in our thinking.
But the idea that a whole lot of people are right in the middle, with very few at the extremes, is the one to hold onto, because it applies to so many things.
Whenever you see a bell curve with two bumps, it is almost certain that two populations are being measured, both quite nicely Gaussian on their own but being measured together. You can look at a few of these overlapping curves and slide ‘em back and forth, to see how much effect there is when the midpoints are nearer or farther apart. I think that will illustrate my irritation at people thinking that putting Algebra II to rap lyrics, or encouraging more children’s authors and illustrators to include hispanic-looking people is going to make the remotest dent in the problem, and my frustration at not having any better ideas myself. It also should give conservatives great pause before assuming that everything would be fine if the people at the 85 line or below – most of whom are white, BTW – would just try harder. There are things people can do – avoid drugs, look presentable, choose good friends, be responsible – but their road is still harder than yours, and going forward, there may not be enough jobs for all, no matter what we do.