Psychological Testing of African Americans in the Army Thesis

Excerpt from Thesis :

American writers from both the antebellum South and the North commented on the great differences between the white people in the two regions (Ibid; Samuda).

Note though, the table data below regarding the percentage of males who completed high school by race, 1940-1980, which will provide data for further discussion regarding utilization of testing to stratify recruits:

Table 1 -- Males 18-21 Who Completed High School By Percentile



















(Source: Binkin, p.94)

How is it that tests designed to measure information that was given in school could be administered to populations who did not even attend school? And, when one takes population and demographic statistics into account, this historical bias deepens. At the outbreak of World War I, for instance, African-Americans were about 11% of the general population, and the Selective Service draft act ensured that about that proportion would be enlisted. Despite Black leaders like W.E.B. Dubois, who hoped that if Blacks served admirably in the armed services, they would be more accepted in general society afterwards, because of low test scores, most black soldiers were assigned to menial occupations and not placed on tract for self-improvement (Nolson, 2005).

However, because of pressures from Congress and the Supreme Court, by the World War II era the War Department was required to place African-Americans into service. However, the test bias was well-known in the military, specifically indicating that the word knowledge subtest "will disproportionately reflect a cultural background typical of the majority male population of white test-takers" (See: Eitelberg, 1981 and Green, 1980). The Air Force has continued to investigate the issue of test bias, but finds that there are no "technical" errors in the construction of the test -- which of course does not mean there are no issues of test bias (Samuda).

However, the racial implications of using testing are well documented: African-Americans are less likely to qualify for higher categories in military services, high levels of technical training, and fast tracking to the more elite services requiring intellectual acumen. Minimum composite scores are utilized to find the most appropriate candidates for particular positions, ostensibly designed as predictive towards successful completion of the assignment (Binkin, 91-6).

Deciding that Black soldiers were less capable that White soldiers to manage and lead in critical areas had an effect not only on moral, but also on the ability for soldiers to adequately perform their duties. In World War I, for instance, many Black soldiers, had they had adequate training, would have been more adept in helping their units when under fire. War is color-blind, it does not pick out only certain ethnicities for carnage, and clearly it would have been preferable to have every person within the unit trained for appropriate combat (Kennedy, 2004). And, while it was true that many African-American's performed lower on tests, these tests were non-predictive in terms of performance under fire. They did not demonstrate whether testing about facts would predict any sort of acumen for military behavior (Schaffer, 1994, p. 138).

Both the alpha and beta tests, used in World War I, of course, and only slightly modified for World War II, could certainly be answered by those persons who were sophisticated urbanites, who had the funds to purchase the latest consumer products, understand popular media, art, entertainment, and have a background in European culture and history. However, if one looks at the demographics of a typical soldier 1900-1945, one finds that many of all races came from insular rural or religious families, had little money to spend on popular culture, and certainly no access to the type of environment that would allow for leisure reading or study of the classics. This is clearly illustrated in the table below, showing some of the cultural components of the test -- one must duly ask, did receiving a correct answer on any of these questions prove to the armed forces that the testee would be "predictive" as a better soldier -- or does the knowledge of any of these points even indicate whether a candidate would be officer material? Perform under fire? Handle pressure? Lead comrades? Or even understand survival against egregious odds? (Rushton, 2005).

Table 2- Examples of culturally biased questions on the Military Alpha Test


Possible Answer

Correct Answer


"Five Hundred is played with…"

Rackets, pins, cards, dice


Assumes leisure activity of a certain sort, clearly chronologically based, could even a college educated contemporary person be expected to know this answer?

"Becky Shapre appears in…"

Vanity Fair, Romola, The Christmas Carol, Henry VI

Vanity Fair

Would a rural student who had only an elementary education have read Vanity Fair? How is this a predictor of innate intelligence?

"The Pierce Arrow car is made in…."

Buffalo, Detroit, Toledo, Flint


In the decades preceding the 1950s, the percentage of car owners remained relatively low -- what point or assumption can be gleaned from knowing where a luxury car is manufactured?

"Marguerite Clark is known as a…"

Suffragist, singer, movie actress, writer.

Movie Actress

Contemporaneous assumes that everyone has access to this information, popular culture and is fleeting.

"Velvet Joe appears in advertisements for…"

Tooth powder, dry goods, tobacco, soap.


Again, assumes readership of advertising, or at least the publications featuring the character.

"Hasn't scratched yet' is used in advertising a…"

Drink, revolver, flour, cleanser


While seemingly obvious, assumes commonality with advertising medium.

(Source, Black, p. 81).

The only value scholars see in any of the dialog, at least coming out of the World War I era, was to put "psychology" on the map as a legitimate discipline which had special methodology that could help win a war -- not testing, but psychology (Ibid, p.139). Yerkes himself stated that the tests showed if would be "impossible to exclude all morons, because 47% of whites and 89% of Negroes" had a mental capacity below that of a "normal" 13-year-old boy. Rather than this calling attention to a poor test, Yerkes' believed it was valid because, within certain ethnic groups (Dutch, Germans, English, Swedish), less than 1/2 of 1% were in the moronic category (Black, 81-2). What could not be explained was why northern Blacks, specifically outscored both Black and White soldiers from the South, particularly Blacks from New York, Illinois, and Ohio (Broadnax, p. 11).

The demands of war changed the culture a bit during World War II -- there were Black units, Black pilots, and while the majority of Blacks were still denigrated to menial jobs, there was some hope of upward mobility, likely because after the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, more African-Americans were encouraged to continue with schooling, some even into college.

The barrier continued to break during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and into the 1970s and 1980s, many African-American men (as well as poor, rural Whites), were unable to attend college, and opted on the military as a career and educational path. The use of IQ and other psychological tests to determine suitability for duty, however, now seems impossible. Yet, for thousands of minorities, their inability to perform well on an ethnic and class-based exam relegated them into military duties that neither provided respect, officer level advancement, or career education (SNCOA, 2008).


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Cited in:

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Cited in:

For instance, the alpha test is so clearly biased towards upper middle class white education that when a contemporary reader views the…

Sources Used in Document:


Benjamin, L. (2009). "The Birth of American Intelligence Testing." Monitor on Psychology. 40(1): Cited inL

Binkin, M., (1982). Blacks in the Military. Brookings Institution Press.

Black, E. (2004). War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create

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