HBD: Human Biodiversity

The African Talent for Mimicry

Recently, I was sent this hilarious video (“Reporter turns ghetto in 3 seconds”) of a Black television news reporter “losing it” after a fly flew into his mouth.


My sense is that most people find this video funny in the way they find the famous "Winnebago Man" video funny, or the way they find the legendary Bill O'Reilly meltdown on Inside Edition funny. A television “straight man” gets angry; his mask slips; and loud cursing, wild gesturing, and cruel epithets ensue.

But there's something else to this video. Not only did the reporter become insanely angry, but his intonation, accent, and vocabulary changed completely. He went from sounding “White,” to sounding “Black”—indeed, sounding like a character out of Cleopatra Jones.

Even when Bill O'Reilly was mad with rage, he was still recognizably Bill O'Reilly.

What the video reveals is an important aspect of Africans that leads Whites to misunderstand and misjudge them. Alongside—and perhaps connected to—their well known talent for rhythm, Africans possess an innate gift for mimicry.

Joseph Kay delved into this component of the Negroid race in the context of academia:

There is a certain type of black student on today's campus who outwardly is smart, articulate, motivated, ambitious, punctual, socially engaging, and all else that any professor might want. For both the champions and the doubters of affirmative action, such black students seem to be just what the doctor ordered to banish racial stereotypes. Unfortunately, the performance of such students on intellectually demanding tasks usually disappoints. The anticipated "A" on a research paper, for example, turns out to be a minimal "C," and, to make matters worse, writing style, logic, footnoted references, and all else indicating cognitive talent contradict the splendid outward appearances. Compromise typically resolves the discrepancy. To avoid trouble, the "A"-looking African American student is given a "B" for "C" work. If he or she complains of the unanticipated "B," matters can deteriorate yet further. Discussions may reveal an inability to grasp the assignment's aim or why the performance was judged sub-standard. He or she may claim that similar work always won "A's" elsewhere. It is as if professor and student resided on different planets.

Because these surprised professors only know their own students, and are not aware of the general phenomenon, they seldom dig deeper. The lousy grade is easily attributed to shoddy high school preparation, lack of prior help, and the other liberal excuses that are proffered for low black academic achievement. Moreover, similar outcomes have occurred with white students, i.e., the classroom brain unexpectedly flunks the course. But what makes this "disappointing smart-appearing black" phenomenon interesting is that it is pervasive. When the subject is raised in personal conversations, countless professors say, "Yes, now that you mention it, I've had several like that, but I thought I was the only one."

These disappointing outcomes are predictable, and have consequences far beyond the campus. The problem begins with the fact that few African Americans at a given university, thanks to lowered admission standards, have the IQs necessary to compete with their white classmates. If merit alone determined admission, this mismatch would not occur. All students would vie on a roughly level IQ playing field, and, given overall IQ distributions, few blacks would populate top academic programs.

What can paper over this deficiency is that many black students master the outward signs of "being smart." This is traditional outsider adaptive behavior, regardless of ethnic/racial backgrounds, and is reflected in phrases such as "passing" or "fitting in." For those with above average intelligence, a keen eye plus a gift for mimicry is often sufficient to play imposter. Familiar academic tools include learning fancy words like "paradigmatic" adroit name-dropping, affecting the professorial sartorial style (e.g., a tweed jacket, blue Oxford shirt), certain verbal mannerisms, even a sprinkling of Yiddish in some venues. A PowerPoint presentation with multiple equations bedazzles. A few Black Panthers once pulled off this deception by tossing around a little Marxism. This is no different from a competent actor with a few weeks of observation plus some props convincing an audience that he is a business tycoon though the real tycoon would sense the charade.

There is a scientific basis to this skilled imitation. IQ test data indicate that blacks usually perform better on items reflecting social norms, less well on abstract, highly "g" loaded items. This is the opposite of popular criticisms of IQ testing, which argue (falsely) that blacks score low because they lack access to the "white" culture underlying IQ tests. In reality, blacks perform worse on abstract, non-cultural sub-tests like spatial relations and better on questions reflecting everyday life (e.g., "What is a bed?" an actual question on the popular WAIS-R IQ test). Thus, a black sociology student who confidently asks about a "construct validity of a multi-dimensional operational indicator" at the department's Thursday symposium will be deemed a rising star and doubters risk being called racist ("Are you hinting that blacks can't do measurement"?). And with actor-like performances rewarded by approving professors, this superficial verbal facility improves. But when lengthy tests require students to evaluate and apply in detail alternative validity approaches to varied statistical indicators, the game is up. 

Non-university people cannot grasp just how simple it is to fool those wanting to believe that outward appearances signify intellectual ability. This is particularly the case in soft disciplines that do not require mathematics. The clever law student imposter can conspicuously carry around legal tomes, ask "serious" questions whose sole purpose is to name-drop obscure cases, complain about spending too much time in the library, join organizations to build a stellar resume, and otherwise construct a false persona. Success at one level leads to triumph at the next. Few professors have the gumption to flunk a pretender who has successfully fooled dozens of others (con artists use this technique when telling potential suckers about all the others who have bought the scheme). But assuming that the lightweight must be the real thing is painless.

My impression is that it is often even easier to fool so-called conservatives. These folk are always suspected of racism, and when they find that seeming stellar African American intellectual, the fawning can be embarrassing. This, they hope, will convince the world that they are not racists, and they may even exaggerate the imposter's abilities--a mediocrity becomes brilliant. Needless to say, these highly presentable intellectual lightweights are often sufficiently savvy to exploit conservatives anxious to demonstrate their anti-racist bona fides.

What separates real life, including politics, from the academy is that real life seldom requires the individual to pass a tough test to demonstrate genuine mastery prior to being given a position. Only afterwards, when the candidate is elected or the junior executive hired, are there unexpected "surprises." At least initially, superficiality always carries the day. A well-tailored, eloquent black office seeker can easily impress audiences by announcing "the declining yield of each marginal investment suggests a cautionary approach." But the listener can never know if this high-sounding verbiage reflects knowledge, or just a knack for picking up economic lingo. Certainly no media personality will ask if this declining yield still represents a net gain in light of alternative investments elsewhere, or whether the opportunity costs associated with alternatives still warrant investment. If this occurred, the interviewer, not the befuddled black candidate, would be condemned with the withering statement that "No white candidate would be so badgered." Thus no incentives exists to expose the arriviste.

Conflating articulateness with high intelligence invites disaster, since the "smart style" is all too easily acquired. Think of Eddie Murphy playing Prof. Sherman Klump in The Nutty Professor. The tip-off is usually the lack of tangible accomplishment, for example, a well-crafted research paper done with minimal assistance. Verbal ability and "white" style is decisive. Again, the fact that many whites, particularly conservatives, desperately want to believe the best, only facilitates the swindle. Perpetrators may even believe their own act since it goes undisputed.

Thus, after decades of failed efforts to achieve racial equality, the market for black empty suits is booming. We've invested billions, perhaps trillions, to get blacks into high-level positions, and to demand a genuine demonstration of intellectual competence, not just mesmerizing appearances, risks exposing massive wastefulness. What you see is not what you get. 

One wonders how many of the conservative movement's beloved “Black conservatives” are, in truth, brilliant actors... (And what does it really matter, as the field of punditry is based on posturing and reciting buzz words?) I fear that movement idol Terrance George, whose speech sounds like a campy parody of William F. Buckley Jr., is one stray fly away from revealing his inner self.