Monday, June 14, 2010

New Study from NYU Gives Insight Into Trauma, IQ, Racism and Distancing

This week, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has a study from New York University about the affect of traumatic exposure on children's IQs.  Specifically, researchers looked at the IQ scores of children in Chicago who lived in a neighborhood where a murder had taken place, whether or not they had witnessed it, and compared them to children in the same neighborhood who were not tested close to the time of a murder.  They found that, for 7-9 days following the murder, children's IQs dipped about one half of a standard deviation, or 7-8 points.  Given the disparity in crime rates and demographics in American neighborhoods, the researchers surmise that this effect might account for half of the noted gap between the average IQ scores of African American students and their White counterparts.

For people who work with children, and for people who work with people exposed to trauma, this finding is not particularly shocking.  Anyone who has experienced a homicide in their neighborhood can tell you that they feel distracted and not 100% functional for a week or a week and a half afterwards.  Educators have long noticed the dip in academic performance for children who are experiencing stress at home.  The notion that this can be measured scientifically is not much of a stretch.

Apparently, for some people, however, it is.  The Reuters story on this new study is followed by a number of comments, some of which are really disturbing.  One commenter writes:
Just another case of inverted correlation.  Dumb kids from dumb parents do dumb things and end up living in the same area. Smarter kids from smarter parents gradually move out and integrate into a progressive culture.
The same principle explains academic success. Lesser graduate students end up at NYU and have to fave [sic] research results to get attention – and maybe tenure. The brighter ones end up at Harvard or Yale and live by the scientific method.

There are many things wrong with this comment, and I am only going to skim the surface.  The least offensive reading of this is that the commenter misunderstands how the study itself was conducted and presumes that the children who were not exposed to homicide lived in a different neighborhood than those who were.  The most offensive reading is that the commenter is so steeped in their own privilege and the societal racism that comes with it that they cannot even imagine that a study that exposes that privilege and suggests that poor, African-American children may actually be just as smart as anyone else has scientific validity.  My personal opinion is that both of these things are true, at least to some extent.  There is, however, another factor at work here -- a really fervent attempt by the commenter to distance themselves from the violence itself. 

Nobody wants to live in a neighborhood with a high homicide rate.  If you do not live in such a neighborhood now, you also would like some reassurance that you are not at risk of winding up in one so you can feel secure and not spend a lot of time and stress worrying about it.  If you acknowledge that it is some combination of luck, inherited privilege and societal discrimination that has some people living in those neighborhoods and you not living there, then that opens up the possibility that your luck might change.  You might someday live there, and might someday be in danger.  But if your living situation is caused by something inate -- say, inborn intelligence -- then you are not at risk.  You don't have to worry about living in such a neighborhood because only dumb people live there, and you are not dumb. 

The fact that I can explain why someone would think this way, and how it relates to an understandable wish to distance ourselves from violence, should not be misconstrued to mean that I agree with the commenter or approve of what they wrote.  I think this comment is truly repulsive.  We all have a natural urge to distance ourselves from certain types of things.  In this instance, if it's all the same to you, I'll distance myself from this commenter and their way of thinking.

image copyright istockphoto/akajeff


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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