Nova workboard

a blog from young economists at Nova SBE

Why don’t black people win Nobel prizes?

Ever since the creation of the Nobel prize in 1901, only Sir William Arthur Lewis, a Saint Lucian economist, won a scientific Nobel Prize (i.e., other than Peace or Literature).  Considering that about 1.5 billion people in the world are black (around 20%), this number seems oddly low.

A first glance at this data led people to advance different explanations depending on the historical time or current paradigms. Not many years ago, the accepted justification was simply that Black people were less smart, as they consistently performed worse in IQ test scores. After the post-war period, this hypothesis became much more controversial and nowadays it would probably be easier and likelier to find people accusing the Nobel Committee of race discrimination.

Does empirical research confirm any of these hypotheses?

Focusing on the US reality – due to data availability -, and contrary to politically correct arguments, the truth is that the existence of a Black-White IQ gap is indeed a robust and well documented empirical regularity.[i]

But does this mean Black people are less smart? Well, over the years, many potential explanations for the observed gap have been advanced. Some claim environmental reasons, including differences in health and nutrition, socioeconomic status or test bias; others believe the differences are mainly genetics.  However, there is little evidence for the former reason, and no support for the latter interpretation[ii].

Why then do we observe this gap? Can Education, i.e. differences in the quality of education[iii], be the main explanation? In fact, many economists believe so.

Among the firsts to grasp this relation are Steven Levitt and Roland Fryer. In 2002, they showed that contrary to previous research, the gap among Black and White kindergartners disappeared when they controlled for a set of observable characteristics of the children and their environment[iv]. However, between the beginning of kindergarten and the end of first grade their paths start to diverge and Black students start to lose ground relative to White students with similar characteristics. After testing for a number of possible explanations, the only hypothesis which received any support was that Black students attended lower quality schools on average. What is interesting about their research is the definition of quality. Even though Blacks and Whites attended similar schools in terms of traditional dimensions of quality (class size, teacher education, etc.), whey they considered a wider range of “non-standard” quality measures (gang problems in school, percent of students on free lunch, amount of litter around the school, whether or not students need hall passes, etc), Blacks did indeed appear to be attending much worse schools.

Although their results suggested no strong genetically-driven racial differences in intelligence, they pointed out that it does not preclude all potential roles for genetic contribution either, as the control variables included in the regression can themselves be partly genetically determined.

Despite this evidence, some economists still believe in different explanations. Jack Heckman is one of them. For him, racial gaps in achievement are primarily due to gaps in skills that emerge even before children enter school. More than passing along their genes, families are the major producers of skills which in turn are determinants of life success. Therefore, inequality in family environments is strongly linked to inequality in skills and school achievements. Investment in the early lives of children is therefore the best policy to help close achievement gaps of Black kids.

Whatever the true explanation is (different innate ability, quality of education or human capital of the parents), the solution seems to be consensual: more public intervention in early childhood education. Experts believe that more than remediate the problem later on, policy should prevent in early stages of the children development. If our Governments succeed to do so, we will probably be seeing much more Black Nobel Laureates in the next generations.

Ana Lemos Gomes


[i] According to Rushton & Jensen (2005), this gap is about 15 to 18 points or 1 to 1.1 standard deviations, which implies that only 11 to 16 percent of the Black population have an IQ above 100 (the White mean).

[ii] According to reports by American Psychological Association (1996) and a 2005 literature review article on the links between race and intelligence in American Psychologist (confirmed by Johnson & Houlihan (2009)) that stated that no gene has been shown to be linked to intelligence.

[iii] Even though the majority of them points the quality of schools as the main cause, Hala Elhoweris, Kagendo Mutua, Negmeldin Alsheikh and Pauline Holloway have advanced the ratial discrimination by the teachers as the main reason.

[iv] The variables included: children’s age, child’s birth weight, a socio-economic status measure, WIC participation, mother’s age at first birth, and number of children’s books in the home.

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