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Testing for Race: Stanford University, Asian Americans, and Psychometric Testing in California, 1920-1935

  • Author(s): Palter, David
  • Advisor(s): Frank, Dana
  • et al.
Abstract

Between 1920 and 1935, researchers at Stanford University administered thousands of eugenic tests of intelligence and personality traits to Chinese-American and Japanese-American children in California's public schools. The researchers and their funders, a diverse coalition of white supremacists and immigrant advocacy organizations, sought to use these tests to gauge the assimilative possibility and racial worth of Asian immigrants, and to intervene in local, national, and transpacific policy debates over Asian immigration and education. By examining the Stanford testing projects, and exploring the curious partnerships that coalesced around them, this study seeks to expand our understanding of the intersection between race science and politics in early twentieth-century California.

Racial psychometric testing was a key technology of the Progressive-era eugenics movement, and Stanford's testing projects reflected the assumptions of this movement. Like scores of other race-based testing projects during the era, they adhered to careful, premeditated formulae predicated upon the dual-hinged fallacy that race and intelligence were fixed and quantifiable categories.

Despite the hereditarian and racial essentialist foundations of the tests, however, the researchers and funding institutions affiliated with the Stanford projects approached their work from a wide array of political positions. Lewis Terman, who directed the balance of the testing, was a prominent eugenicist, and he used his cache as a faculty member at Stanford and President of the American Psychological Association to advance eugenic causes, including race-based immigration restriction. By contrast, Terman's largest funder, the Japanese Association of America, three of his students, Kwok Tsuen Yeung, Hisakichi Misaki, Reginald Bell, and one of his colleagues, Edward Kellogg Strong, attempted to use testing to augment the social status of Asian immigrants and their children, end racial segregation in the public schools, and stem the tide of California's nativist movements.

By highlighting the contributions that individuals and organizations affiliated with Stanford University made to eugenic testing during the 1920s and 1930s, this study complicates our understanding of the eugenics movement, and renews our sense of the movement's broad and lasting influence over American institutions. Many of the Stanford testers had an agenda that was progressive compared to that of Terman's, but they never escaped the constraints of the eugenic testing paradigm. In part because their tests drew upon and helped to reify false notions of intelligence and racial hierarchies, their projects ultimately failed to change anti-Asian sentiment or public policy. The participation of Asians, Asian Americans, and pro-immigrant progressives in the testing projects, however, reminds us that eugenic technologies were once so pervasive that they compelled the intellectual and material investment of those they were designed to marginalize.

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