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Where Are the Gifted Minorities?

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Guest blog by Frank C. Worrell, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius and Rena F. Subotnik

For more than a quarter century, critics have faulted gifted education programs for catering to kids from advantaged backgrounds. These programs do, after all, typically enroll outsized numbers of European American and Asian American students hailing from relatively well-off homes. Members of other ethnic groups, meanwhile, tend to be underrepresented, as judged by the percentage of these students in a school district relative to that in its gifted program. In a study based on data from the 2006 Elementary and Secondary School Civil Rights Survey, for example, education researcher Donna Y. Ford at Vanderbilt University and her colleagues found that African American students are underrepresented in gifted programs by about 51 percent and Hispanic students by about 42 percent, relative to their proportion in the nation’s schools.

Of course, if minority students are systematically denied the benefits of such programs—a more sophisticated curriculum, motivated peers and, in some cases, specially trained teachers—gifted education serves to increase the gap between them and kids who are already proficient and enjoy access to resources. Correcting this problem requires trying to get at the roots of this discrepancy, which run far deeper than racism or bias in the selection process. Important social forces work against overall academic achievement in some races and cultures, and for it in others. The result is that fewer kids from poor families or of certain ethnicities end up qualifying for advanced programs.

In other words, the skewed population in gifted programs is largely a reflection of an overall achievement gap. African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are severely underrepresented among the top 1 percent, 5 percent and 10 percent on almost every achievement measure, including grades, GPA, class rank and standardized test scores—and at every level of education from kindergarten through professional school. Using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and state achievement tests, educational psychologist Jonathan Plucker at Indiana University and his colleagues documented in 2010 the underrepresentation of lower-income students and minorities who have been historically underrepresented at the highest levels of achievement. Without intervention, the achievement gap between high-ability European American and ethnic-minority students increases between grades five and eight.

The reasons and causes for the achievement gap include a host of factors that could be labeled educational malnourishment. Among them are lack of access to supplemental educational programs and tools including technology; poor quality schools; lower teacher expectations; low levels of parental education and parental involvement; negative peer influences; and lack of tacit knowledge about higher education. The most potent of these is poverty, which is related to many of the other variables listed.

Poverty is only a part of the problem, however. Although most gifted students appear to come from middleclass homes, not all are wealthy. In a 1992 study employing the Project Talent database, Lubinski and Humphreys separately identified students the top 1 percent on cognitive ability and in the top 1 percent on socioeconomic measures. They thus found 497 gifted boys, 508 gifted girls, 647 environmentally advantaged boys and 485 environmentally advantaged girls. Only 41 boys and 46 girls were members of both the advantaged and gifted groups, showing that gifted individuals are not uniformly the most well off. Further, over one million of the approximately 20 million children who qualify for free or reduced lunch rank in the top 25 percent of students based on achievement in Grade 1, although only 56 percent of these students remain high achievers by Grade 5. Thus, according to a 2007 study called The Achievement Trap, students from low-income families—who are also more likely to be from minority groups underrepresented in gifted education—lose substantial academic ground over the course of their elementary school careers.

Parent involvement and knowledge about educational systems and opportunities are often pivotal in guiding children toward achievement. A large proportion of gifted-program participants, particularly at the secondary level, are children of East Indian and Asian immigrants. These immigrant families seek to capitalize on opportunities in public education. When New York City offered special summer practice sessions for entrance examinations to selective public high schools, Asian American families enrolled in greater percentages than other groups, reported psychologists Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams of Cornell University in 2010. After these summer sessions, the Asian American student population in selective high schools rose from 40.8 percent to 60.6 percent while the percentage of African American students dropped from 11.8 to 4.8.

microscope, student with microscope, gifted educationThose gifted children whose parents are knowledgeable about special schools and programs, are savvy about negotiating the educational system, and have financial resources for supplemental programs do fare better. Not only do families have to be aware of after-school and summer Talent Search programs to apply for them, but such programs are also self-supporting and currently have insufficient funds to provide comprehensive access to all lower-income families. Consequently only a small percentage of gifted children—chiefly, those from wealthier homes—can take advantage of them.

Psychosocial factors are also likely to play a role in the underachievement of African Americans in particular. According to one theory, African American students actively resist doing well because they perceive that achieving academically is giving up their Black identity and acting White. Several studies support this hypothesis. For example, in a 2008 article, Ford and her colleagues found that high-achieving African Americans reported that doing well in school and taking honors and advanced classes were associated with acting White, whereas underachieving and pretending not to be smart were associated with acting Black. Thus, high-ability or high-achieving students from low-income or ethnically and racially marginalized backgrounds may have trouble reconciling their social and academic identities, making them feel they don’t belong in gifted programs or advanced classes. Scholars debate, however, about how well these effects generalize beyond the laboratory and to different school settings and populations.

Closing the achievement gap among demographic groups is an ongoing challenge to educators, researchers and policymakers. The difficulty lies in ensuring that talented students from all groups have equal access to gifted education programs while recognizing that significant achievement differences among groups will result in some unevenness as long as achievement gaps persist. In 2005 educational psychologist David F. Lohman at the University of Iowa suggested that one way to boost the number of minority students identified as gifted is to use local norms in making placement decisions, enabling gifted programs to serve the top 1 to 3 percent of students in the community. A newly released report by the National Association for Gifted Children endorses this idea and suggests other strategies such as mining achievement data to identify students who are making rapid improvement or exhibiting “upward trajectories.” Making gifted programs in schools more widely available and expanding funding (for example, from corporations and foundations) for out-of-school programs could also alleviate some inequities.

Also, as we did with Headstart, we should fund more enrichment programs in language arts, social studies, math and science so that they are widely available in the early elementary grades and in schools and districts serving students who are underrepresented in gifted education. The goal: to find and spark the interest of students with talent in these domains. We also need to highlight the contributions of gifted individuals from minority backgrounds as more than important historical figures, but also as scholars and academics whose contributions are tied to their investment in education and their giftedness. In schools, we need to showcase minority academic exemplars—from college students to doctors and engineers—from the community. In other words, we need to harness the power of role models in support of academic goals, not just those in athletics and entertainment. In addition, we need to find ways to increase the availability and appeal of various educational opportunities to minority and lower income families to increase the likelihood that these families will take advantage of them.

All of these efforts need to be long-term and complement those aimed at the broader achievement gap. The ultimate solution to underrepresentation of minority students in gifted education programs is an education system that puts all students on equal footing, no matter their race, culture or socioeconomic status.

This blog was adapted from the Psychological Science and the Public Interest article “Rethinking Giftedness and Gifted Education: A Proposed Direction Forward Based on Psychological Science,” at the Association for Psychological Science’s website:

For more on gifted education, also see “To Nurture Genius, Improve Gifted Education,” by Rena F. Subotnik, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius and Frank C. Worrell in Scientific American Mind, November/December 2012.

Frank C. Worrell is a professor at in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California at Berkeley. Paul Oszewski-Kubilius is director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University. Rena F. Subotnik is director of the Center for Gifted Education Policy at the American Psychological Association.

Credit: Flickr/judybaxter (top), Brookhaven National Laboratory Educational Programs (middle right)

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. dek0609 1:50 pm 11/2/2012

    I am a product of the public school and a member of Mensa.
    It seems to me, that being white, black, or green the social stigma of being intelligent beyond the normal is very real and comes very close to being racially different in discrimination at early ages. Most school kids know who the smart kids are and racial identity doesn’t make a smart kid act dumb until junior high or so. Most gifted kids are identified by that time.

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  2. 2. ssm1959 1:52 pm 11/2/2012

    The take home message here is that except for the truly genetically gifted, those that will rise regardless of the environment, nothing can make up for poor parenting. Lubinski and Humphreys should have taken their work to the next level to assess the frequency of two parent or other adequately structured households among the low SES kids in the gifted programs. Odds are kids from well functioning households are the ones “over represented” in the gifted programs regardless of their SES.

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  3. 3. Trulys101 1:55 pm 11/2/2012

    Interesting article however I thought Asian Americans were minorities.

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  4. 4. JayMan 2:01 pm 11/2/2012

    Where are they? Right here! As a person with color with well above average intelligence, I know all too well that I am the exception rather than the rule.

    The reason for this is simple. American minorities—specifically Blacks and Latinos—have a much lower average IQ than do White Americans. The average IQ of the various racial groups in America breaks down something like this:
    Jews: 110
    Asians: 107
    Whites: 100
    Latinos: 90
    Native Americans: 88
    Blacks: 85

    From the nature of normal distributions, there would simply be far fewer non-Asian minority children who cross the gifted threshold (IQ ≥ 130).

    I’m sure they’ll be tons of comments on this point. I’d invite the curious to read my blog, to start.

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  5. 5. jduringer 3:21 pm 11/2/2012

    Commenting on Comments: #1 – perhaps, but how are young kids identified as “gifted” and how did they become that way? Behavioral environment which is principally home, but can be nudged through public policy (like public education).

    #2. CORRECT! Thanks for pointing out how the researchers could increase their competence on the matter.

    #4. How would you account for the huge change in the distribution of male vs. female academic achievement? That prism is far more telling than SES or ethnicity.

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  6. 6. Richieo 3:22 pm 11/2/2012

    Perhaps DNA plays a much larger role than is realized?

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  7. 7. alexdrudi 4:31 pm 11/2/2012

    From the “Journal of Blacks in Higher Education” website:
    “Whites from families with incomes below $10,000 had a mean SAT test score that was 17 points higher than blacks whose families had incomes of more than $100,000.”
    Will some day SA tell me how come genetics can explain why some people run faster but not why others THINK faster?

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  8. 8. syzygyygyzys 5:06 pm 11/2/2012

    Ms. Wickelgren,

    You are likely to find one of the gifted minorities if you look in the mirror. From what I have read, the people who represent the majority of gifted people live in China and India.

    Should our goal be equal outcomes for IQ by racial group? Measures to encourage everyone to achieve their maximum intellectual potential should be promoted whenever possible. The suggestion that it is a bad thing for gifted schools to widen the racial IQ gap by advancing already smart children begs a reexamination of that premise.

    An argument could be made that society benefits from having smart people be as smart as possible. I don’t have any stats to back it up, but my guess is that we get the most bang for our educational buck from gifted schools. Gifted students typically are keen to learn. Why not start there? (Industrial Engineering teaches that you maximize sales by putting the best sales person in the best territory. I don’t have proof that’s true, but the professor said it was, it sounded right, so I bought it.)

    Better that worrying about a racial IQ gap, perhaps we should work to find ways for everyone to achieve their highest potential? I say this as someone who likely has genetic contributions from racial groups including Black, Native American, European, Neanderthal, Denisovan, and others. The only genetic shame I feel is that my daughter tells me I may be distantly related to Al Gore. She was in a gifted school, so she must know what she is talking about.

    I look forward to your next post.

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  9. 9. JayMan 5:56 pm 11/2/2012

    #6: “How would you account for the huge change in the distribution of male vs. female academic achievement? That prism is far more telling than SES or ethnicity.”

    And of course there have been no major cultural changes affecting the sexes in the last 50 years… :\

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  10. 10. Galtonian 6:33 pm 11/2/2012

    Where Are the Gifted Minorities?

    The answer is simple- it is all about IQ differences!

    Members of some minority groups (East Asians such as Han Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese, the Ashkenazi Jews, and the High Caste Indians such as Brahmins) tend on average to have substantially higher IQs than the general population of European Whites. Collectively, members of these higher-IQ minority groups often make up a huge proportion of most gifted programs in the USA. Similarly members of some minority groups (Blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics) tend on average to have substantially lower IQs than Whites, consequently members of these lower-IQ minority groups often make up a small proportion of most gifted programs in the USA.

    The Hereditarian theory of IQ differences recognizes that there is a large genetic component to human variation in IQ. Successful professional parents often have higher IQs (it took higher IQs for them to be able to get into professional schools and perform successfully in their careers) and therefore these upscale parents tend to transmit their genes for higher IQ to their biological children. This readily explains why children of higher IQ successful professional parents tend to be substantially more intelligent than children of lower IQ unsuccessful high school drop-out parents.

    The leading Hereditarian scholar in the modern era was Berkeley Professor Emeritus Arthur Jensen who recently died of Parkinson’s disease at age 89. Obituaries for Jensen appeared today in the LA Times and the NY Times. Interestingly, the LA Times obituary includes several positive comments by Professor Frank Worrell (the lead author of this current article) who took a class taught by Professor Jensen during the 1980s. Also the late Professor Lloyd Humphreys whose work was mentioned in this current article was also a Hereditarian on the topic of IQ. If readers are interested in learning more about the Hereditarian view on IQ differences, I suggest they look at the website of Professor Linda Gottfredson of Univ of Del who has many articles in pdf format that can be freely downloaded.

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  11. 11. marclevesque 6:57 pm 11/2/2012

    @JayMan #9 What ?

    Your comment #4 looks like you are saying “the reason that a group of trees contains less tall trees is because the average height of those trees is lower”

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  12. 12. marclevesque 7:08 pm 11/2/2012

    @Galtonian, of course IQ correlates with socio-economic factors, cultural factors, and with all kinds of stuff –and of course with genetics too. And. It also appears there is no evidence that average IQ differences between “minority” groups are genetically driven to any significant extent.

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  13. 13. JayMan 10:37 pm 11/2/2012


    #12: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying, because it’s correct.

    #13: And that is flat out wrong, of course.

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  14. 14. vagnry 1:25 am 11/3/2012

    Is there a gender difference to this, especially among the african americans?

    In Denmark, where I live, we see a major gender difference among our immigrants, especially among muslim immigrants and descendants from Arab/Middle-eastern countries. To be blunt, and oversimplistic, these boys act as african americans, while the girls act as asian americans, and actually get higher educations than the average girls of native danish origin.

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  15. 15. geojellyroll 2:23 am 11/3/2012

    Performance seems to trend the IQ’s of various human ethnic groups. Why would we expect otherwise? There is nothing magical about the human brain…it’s a product of genetic variation like any other physical characteristic.

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  16. 16. marclevesque 9:55 am 11/3/2012


    IQ studies –Moore (1986) compared black and mixed-race children adopted by either black or white middle-class families in the US. Moore observed that 23 black and interracial children raised by white parents had a significantly higher mean score than 23 age-matched children raised by black parents (117 vs 104), and argued that differences in early socialization explained these differences. Eyferth (1961) studied the out-of-wedlock children of black and white soldiers stationed in Germany after World War 2 and then raised by white German mothers and found no significant differences. Tizard et al. (1972) studied black (African and West Indian), white, and mixed-race children raised in British long-stay residential nurseries. Three out of four tests found no significant differences. One test found higher scores for non-whites.

    [Copied from Wikipedia]

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  17. 17. marclevesque 9:57 am 11/3/2012


    Heritability –[G]eneticist, Alan R. Templeton (2002) has argued that this question is muddled by the general focus on “race” rather than on populations defined by gene frequency or by geographical proximity, and by the general insistence on phrasing the question in terms of heritability of intelligence. Templeton argues that racial groups neither represent sub-species or distinct evolutionary lineages, and that therefore there is no basis for making claims about the general intelligence of races. He also argues that phrasing the question in terms of heritability is useless since heritability applies only within groups, but cannot be used to compare traits across groups. Templeton argues that the only way to design a study of the genetic contribution to intelligence is to the correlation between degree of geographic ancestry and cognitive abilities. He argues that this would require a Mendelian experimental design where specimens with different hybrid compositions are subjected to the same environmental influences, and he further argues that when this design has been carried out, it has shown no significant correlation between any cognitive ability and the degree of African or European ancestry.

    [Copied from Wikipedia]

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  18. 18. marclevesque 10:28 am 11/3/2012

    Race –C. Loring Brace (2005) and geneticist Joseph Graves (2001), have argued that while it is certainly possible to find biological and genetic variation that corresponds roughly to the groupings normally defined as races, this is true for almost all geographically distinct populations. The cluster structure of the genetic data is dependent on the initial hypotheses of the researcher and the populations sampled. –Kaplan (2011) concludes that while racial groups are characterized by different allele frequencies, this does not mean that racial classification is a natural taxonomy of the human species, because multiple other genetic patterns can be found in human populations that crosscut racial distinctions. In this view, racial groupings are social constructs that have also a biological reality which is largely an artifact of how the category has been constructed.

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  19. 19. whatmeworry 12:02 pm 11/3/2012

    I’d like to make two points. The IQ scale misleads in that it doesn’t adequately reflect differences in cognitive skills, in depths of complex reasoning possible. Person A has an IQ of say 130, Person B of 100. What does that tell you? I think it tells most people that Person A is, what, ~ 30% smarter than Person B, whatever that might mean. They see the difference as perhaps noticeable, but not significant.

    That would be wrong. For all you smart people out there, who know approximately what is their IQ, try this. Write an IQ test and try to score 100. DON’T first write it to test yourself; you already know approximately how you will score. Write it trying to think like how you think an average person might tackle the questions. Try to score 100.

    How did you score? Were you very surprised? All smart people should undertake that task; it will answer a lot of life questions for them.

    The second point I would like to make is in the form of a question. Why should the IQ of a black African American be the same as, say, a Yeminite Jew? They evolved over thousands of generations under completely different environment pressures … why would one expect their IQs to be the same, or even close, since there was little or zero interracial breeding going on? Seems to me maybe we should look at that 15 or 20 point IQ gap and wonder why it is that close. Except those of you who write that IQ test, trying to score 100, might shudder at the implications.

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  20. 20. Fanandala 6:00 pm 11/3/2012

    I can not prove it, but i think that Asians on average are not more intelligent than Westerners. The Asians that live in the US are already a chosen group. The dumb ones could not pass the hurdles of immigration.
    With Latinos the cause might be, that the poorest and least educated have the strongest reason to look for a better life in the US. A Mexican engineer or doctor has little reason to migrate.
    Jews over hundreds of years might have become used to being pushed around and dispossessed. So they developed a very strong study ethic. “You can take my possessions but not what is in my head”. Jewish families are willing to sacrifice a lot for their children to achieve.
    African Americans did not arrive in America voluntarily.
    They were taken there for their physical labour, not for their mathematical skills.
    I hope I did not insult anybody, but this is another way of looking at the differences.

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  21. 21. JayMan 6:31 pm 11/3/2012


    Didn’t they teach you in school that Wikipedia isn’t a reliable source?

    See here, by the late scholars Arthur Jensen and J. P. Rushton.

    I’m warning you now that if you come back with a response that indicates that you didn’t read or are deliberately mischaracterizing this, I’m not going to bother wasting my time with you.

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  22. 22. JayMan 6:34 pm 11/3/2012


    That isn’t the only way, but would be definitive if ever carried out. No one, apparently, has, as Greg Cochran explains.

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  23. 23. JayMan 6:37 pm 11/3/2012


    By posting that, it seems fairly clear that you don’t quite understand what you’re posting, just reciting the things you find that you think support your position. Because, that was a bunch of nonsensical gobbledygook:

    Information Processing: “No scientific basis for race”

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  24. 24. JayMan 6:40 pm 11/3/2012

    #21, that would have a point, except that IQ tests done in the various races’ home countries find similar results to those done in the US.

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  25. 25. syzygyygyzys 11:14 pm 11/3/2012

    #19 IQ isn’t a linear scale. In your example person B has exactly the mean IQ. That means 50% of people have a lower IQ than B and 50% have a higher IQ than person B.

    Person A at 130, is two standard deviations higher than the mean of 100. So, 97.5% of people have a lower IQ than person A and 2.5% of people have an IQ higher than person A.

    I hope this helps. You can always read more about IQ measurement on the web. I encourage you to continue reading SA online. Continued learning is a good thing. I find it tedious when people write snide putdowns to show how smart they are when they see someone hasn’t had experience with a topic, in this case statistics.

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  26. 26. marclevesque 10:19 am 11/5/2012


    The topic has gone off on too many tangents, too many points are lacking in clarity, and owing to my first comment I’m as much to blame as anyone.

    Maybe we can discuss these topics at another time in a more appropriate setting.


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  27. 27. amperryman111 4:35 pm 11/6/2012

    As an african-american female Mensan from an economically disadvantaged background, I can attest to a number of the factors pointed out in the article being spot on. There are also some regional factors. Being born and raised in Ohio, I felt much less pressure from peers to “dumb down” than I have seen in the several decades living in Texas. Also, something that can be a large contributing factor to those identified as gifted early on that fall out of that category by middle school is FAMILY. Most parents don’t like an 8 year old to tell them that their behavior isn’t really smart. For me, I grew up in poverty in a family that values education, but I have seen many bright children from similar backgrounds that are “broken down” by families that don’t cherish their gifts.

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  28. 28. duneyman 7:08 pm 11/6/2012

    I have enjoyed reading all the comments, and eveyone had made valid points. I must add the following, however. From my perspective, there is no “underrepresentation of minority students in gifted education programs” the ultimate solution being, “an education system that puts all students on equal footing, no matter their race, culture or socioeconomic status”.
    I don’t have the statistics on this, although I am sure that Jews, Chinese, Indians (from over there that is), and, who knows, perhaps Mormons as well, are far overrepresented in gifted programs, as well as in elite schools and universities. Should we establish quotas, and therefore limit those groups in favor of trying to help blacks, Latino, and others? Should we as a society go all out to help certain low performing minorities, and as a result disadvantage all those white Catholics, Protestants, Irish, Italians, Greeks, and all the rest?
    The whole point of this article seems rather strange to me, especially as the the good times of the past sixty plus years are now over, and we face a much more competitive future.
    If one adds up all the Jews, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, other Asians, and lest no one accuse me of being a racist, the Mormons as well, and accounting for those of mixed heritage, I wouldn’t be surprised if minorities as a group are doing better than expected. Helping one of them is fine, but don’t expect the white European Christian majority to easily go along with it, especially when the economy is not expanding, and may not be for a long while to come.

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  29. 29. Sandyinvid 4:54 pm 09/4/2014

    Members of Mensa:
    You failed to do your research. May I teach you the background of intellect within the African American community! You are not going to see this on the 6 oclock news! But 1st, in order for racism to prosper, information on that specific group MUST be suppressed.
    1. SPACE: Dr. Ron McNair, Astronaut-Challenger: Guion Bluford, First AA Astronaut, Charles Bolden, Irene Long, NASA: Frederick D. Gregory, NASA: Bernard Harris, Jr., Mae Jemison, robert Lawrence, Jr., Robert Shurney, Edward J. Dwight, Jr., etc.
    2. INVENTIONS: Robert Shurney; George Carruthers; Claytonia Dorticus; Charles Drew; Ralph Gardner; Wm. A. Hinton; Percy L. Julian; Ernest E. Just; Lewis Latimer; Daniel H. Williams; Levi Watkins, Jr.; R. A. Butler; etc. PATENT NOS. ARE AVAILABLE ( Black Inventors of American).
    My sons completed degrees in Biology and Physics. IQs have little to do with color. PRECEPTION is your flaw!
    Just a bit of research is helpful before you speak (write)!

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