“Law and Order”: State Violence and People with Disabilities

Two recent news stories call attention to the inability of police officers and the criminal justice system to deal fairly and constructively with the disabled community.

Last night, two men with intellectual disabilities were executed after being found guilty of murder. Robert Wayne Holsey was executed by lethal injection in Georgia, after the state Supreme Coart rejected his lawyer’s argument that the state’s “unusually strict standard for judging mental disability violated the Constitution,” reports the New York Times. Holsey had an I.Q. of around 70, putting him on the borderline of the legal level of disability that would have made his execution illegal. In a similar case, Paul Goodwin was put to death in Missouri, after being convicted of murder. His IQ was said to be around 73, also on the precipice of a seemingly arbitrary borderline of legal disability.

In Maryland, a grand jury recently declined to indict a police officer involved in the death of 26-year-old Robert Ethan Saylor. Saylor, who has Down Syndrome, was killed in an altercation with police who were attempting to remove him from a movie theater. He was unarmed.

In August, the Twitter hashtag #disabilitysolidarity called attention to experiences of prejudice, intersectionality, and police discrimination faced by people with disabilities. The issues are especially pertinent for people of color with disabilities, who face multi-layered discrimination in their encounters with law enforcement. Participants highlighted the death of Kajieme Powell, a black man who was shot and killed by police officers in St. Louis this summer. Mental health advocates who watched video footage of the altercation said it was clear that Powell was dealing with an untreated or under-treated mental illness.

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Read more:

How misunderstanding disability leads to police violence (The Atlantic, May 2014)

Police brutality’s hidden victims: the disabled (The Daily Beast, September 2014)




Race and Intelligence: ‘The Bell Curve’ 20 Years Later

20 years after its initial publication, The Bell Curve co-author Charles Murray is revisiting his book’s troubling arguments about race and IQ. But The Bell Curve is part of a much longer history of arguments about race and intelligence, critically rooted in early scientific racism and later, the eugenics movement. We revisit this history and its implications for Murray’s familiar brand of modern scientific racism.

Racial hierarchies have long relied on assumptions that (1) races are biologically distinct and differentiable categories, and (2) that these races differ in important physical, behavioral, and intellectual capacities. Early iterations of scientific racism, such as the influential 1854 book Types of Mankind  (authored by Josiah Clark Nott and George Robins Gliddon), argued for an evolutionary ladder of humankind that positioned Europeans at the top and blacks (caricatured as physically and behaviorally similar to the Great Apes) at the bottom.

Types of Mankind, 1854

50 years later, eugenicists offered a uniquely modern take on the question of race and intelligence through the use of “standardized” intelligence test, such as the Stanford-Binet test, the predecessor to the modern IQ test. The results of these seemingly “objective” tests allowed eugenicists to deploy hard data in support of their theories of racial superiority/inferiority. Similar tests were also used to “diagnose” intellectual disability, with test results leading to the exclusion of “mentally inferior” immigrants, and mass institutionalization and sterilization of “feebleminded” individuals.

1146-Europe-as-an-emigrant-exporting-continent-Harry-H-Laughlin-testimony-before-the-House-Committee-including-Immigration-Restriction-Act copy
Number of US Army officers showing “superior or very superior” intelligence by race and country of origin. From testimony given by ERO superintendent Harry Laughlin to the House of Representatives during hearings on immigration restriction, March 1924.
5 Imbecile Scale
Widely circulated “imbecile scale” from the 1920s and 30s. Each “step” was defined by a “mental age” determined by performance on the Stanford-Binet test.
Sample Binet test, c. 1921. From the Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement.
01 Differ in Mental Capacity (dragged)
Lecture draft: “Do races differ in mental capacity?” By ERO Director Charles B. Davenport, n.d.

Today similar arguments about race and intelligence continue to be redeployed. Famously, 1994’s The Bell Curve and Nicholas Wade’s recent book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History argued that the supposed “fact” of racial differences in intelligence (as measured by IQ tests) necessitated societal reckoning, regardless of political correctness.


In a Q+A marking the 20 year anniversary of The Bell Curve, co-author Charles Murray stood stoically by the book’s pronouncements:

“There is a mean difference in black and white scores on mental tests, historically about one standard deviation in magnitude on IQ tests (IQ tests are normed so that the mean is 100 points and the standard deviation is 15). This difference is not the result of test bias, but reflects differences in cognitive functioning.”

Murray goes on to argue that academia has silenced conversations about racial differences in intelligence due to “political correctness,” which he likens to “corruption.”

But critics like author Stephen Murdoch (IQ: The Brilliant Idea That Failed) have long questioned the very existence of a measurable “general intelligence” that IQ tests purport to measure:

“The theory of general intelligence is the very foundation of mainstream intelligence testing over the past century, but even the most ardent proponents of g (general intelligence) will admit that it has not been unquestionably established… Until there is proof beyond statistical relationships of g‘s existence and measurability, society should not treat IQ tests as if they can meaningfully rank people along a continuum of innate intelligence. For the same reason, all inferences based on IQ test results about race differences are dangerously unfounded.” – IQ, pp. 229

How do we define intelligence – let alone measure it? From a historical perspective,  it seems proponents of standardized testing have been less interested in the objective answers than in testing’s usefulness in reconstructing tired hierarchies of humankind.