Elon Musk endorsed a tweet Tuesday that suggested graduates from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have IQs approaching “borderline intellectual impairment.” This isn’t the first time the billionaire celebrated blatant bigotry on his platform in recent months. In November, Musk promoted a tweet that said Jews push “hatred against whites.”
This example deals with a United Airlines program announced in 2021 that gives students at three HBCUs the opportunity to interview with the company’s career development program for pilots. On X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, a popular user called @eyeslasho went online to argue the United program is dangerous because graduates from these colleges are unintelligent, and therefore unfit to fly a plane.
“The mean IQ of grads from two of those United Airline HBCU ‘partners’ is about 85 to 90, based on the average SATs at those schools. (The SAT correlates reasonably well with IQ.),” @eyeslasho wrote. “The HBCU IQ averages are within 10 points of the threshold for what is considered ‘borderline intellectual impairment.’”
The user went on to compare those numbers with typical IQ scores they claimed to have dug up for US Air Force Pilots and commercial airline pilots.
“I’ll add that IQ is a well-studied and well-known predictor of job performance, especially for quick-processing and mentally-demanding occupations like major airline pilot,” @eyelasho said.
“It will take an airplane crashing and killing hundreds of people for them to change this crazy policy of DIE,” Musk responded, rearranging the letters of the acronym for Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, which encourage the participation of Black people, women, and other historically underrepresented groups in the workplace.
Musk has been fixated on race over the past few days. The CEO and his followers spent the last 24 hours on a tirade against both DEI programs and immigration, which Musk seems to think is part of a coordinated effort to commit election fraud on behalf of democrats. Like other fact-free arguments Musk recently countersigned, the ideas in this complaint against United Airlines fall apart after a few moments of scrutiny.
For one, there’s a mountain of evidence that demonstrates that the SAT mirrors and even encourages racial disparities in the United States. That’s been true since the test’s inception. Both the SAT and the IQ test were developed in part by eugenicists who were concerned that “racial mixture” would lead to the decline of the US, according to the National Education Association.
“On average, scores of underrepresented groups are lower than scores of Whites and Asians for a host of societal reasons,” Akil Bello, Senior Director of Advocacy and Advancement at FairTest. Among a variety of factors, the cost of SAT prep classes and of taking the test multiple times means that money and socio-economic status play a major role in test scores. Some colleges and universities have even moved away from mandatory SAT test scores in the admission process in recent years, in part because of the race issues baked into the test. Any conversation about race and the SAT that ignores these well-known problems is nonsense, Bello said.
Some studies have found correlations between SAT scores and IQ. However, the whole idea of IQ, itself, has problems. While the public might treat it as the gold standard of intelligence, a huge body of research shows that IQ isn’t a good measure of cognitive ability. Furthermore, the College Board, which writes and administers the SAT, says that the test is not designed to measure intelligence. The College Board says SAT scores shouldn’t be used “as the sole basis for important decisions” in general.
Jerome White, a spokesperson for the College Board, did not immediately respond to questions for this article.
Beyond that, the comments about the HBCUs’ test scores are simply wrong. United Airlines’ program partners with Hampton University in Virginia, Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, and Delaware State University. According to the College Board, Hampton University students’ average SAT scores range from 990–1170 and Elizabeth City State University’s range from 880–1060. The majority of students at these schools have scores that are at or just below the national average, which was 1028 last year. It’s also important to remember these are averages; some students score much higher, and others lower.
The College Board doesn’t publish scores for Delaware State, but the university’s website says students need a minimum of an 800 SAT to apply for admission. 800, the lowest possible score any of these students might have, is a poor showing on the SAT. But that’s the score you need before the school will even look at your application, not the student body’s average rank. Regardless, these scores are nowhere near an indication of “borderline intellectual impairment.”
“Even if you accept that SAT equals IQ, these averages are meaningless if you know how programs like United’s work,” Bello said. “Not every student will be accepted into this program, and not everyone who gets accepted to the program will be put in an airplane.” United’s partnership with HBCUs doesn’t guarantee admission to its flight school; it gives historically underrepresented students an opportunity for an interview.
A spokesperson for United Airlines declined to comment but shared details about the rigorous requirements for applicants to the company’s career training program and the additional qualifications necessary to become a pilot, including those set by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Hampton University, Elizabeth City State University, and Delaware State University did not immediately respond to requests for comment. X and Alex Spiro, a lawyer who represents Musk and often speaks to the press on his behalf, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“The whole conversation is obviously racist on its face,” Bello said. “It specifically insults the intelligence of entire universities, picking and choosing statistics and ignoring facts to make the basic argument that if you’re Black, you’re unqualified.”
The last time Musk shared his thoughts on race it had serious consequences for his businesses. After Musk called a conspiracy theory about Jews working to turn minorities against White people the “actual truth” in November, a number of X’s major advertisers including Apple, Disney, and IBM pulled their ads off the platform, and Tesla investors called for his suspension.
Musk, who later denounced antisemitism, immediately embarked on a campaign to restore his image, including an impromptu journey to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Musk spent the ensuing months railing against Hamas for its role in the recent conflict in Gaza. This week, X banned and then unbanned a number of popular journalists, podcasters, and leftists without explanation. After Gizmodo published an article noting that all of the banned accounts recently criticized Israel, right-wing influencers called Musk out on X over the issue. Musk blamed the issue on X’s anti-spam algorithms and quickly reinstated their accounts.
It’s been a bad week for the world’s richest man. Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal published an article quoting numerous sources close to Musk about his alleged use of cocaine, ecstasy, ketamine, LSD, and other drugs. Some board members blamed drugs for bizarre and erratic behaviour that repeatedly jeopardized the CEO’s various businesses. Musk denied he has an alleged drug problem.
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