Half-Truths and Consequences

Did Doctors Mislead the Parents of Kids They Experimented On?

Of the 126 boys in the study as a whole, 97 per cent were black or Hispanic. This skew, say the researchers, is an "unfortunate" accident of geography. Located in upper Manhattan, NYSPI worked with the Manhattan and Bronx family courts, where the vast majority of juveniles are minorities. NYSPI Deputy Director Jack Gorman quipped, "If our institute was located in Iowa, [the subjects] would have all been white."

Yet in the original research plan, white children were explicitly excluded from the study. Only African American and Hispanic boys were to be allowed in. The IRB demanded that this provision be dropped, but even after race was stricken from the protocol, researchers continued to conceptualize the study racially. A subsequent grant application to the National Institute of Mental Health describes the study as "limited only to Black and Hispanic boys." The research protocol states that it "is restricted to boys of two major minority populations in New York City because these restrictions maximize the sample's risk for developing disruptive behaviors/conduct disorder."

"If someone presented that to me, I would be very troubled," says Poussaint. "There's the implication that these problems are something special to black and Hispanic kids, and not to white kids who are delinquents. But there are a lot of white kids who are antisocial doing all kinds of things. Why are they so focused on blacks and Hispanics?"

The researchers deny "any ethnic-specific hypothesis," adding that they recognized the racial skew and eventually sought to make the study more diverse. But that study was not funded.

Does race matter? The research found that witnessing violence increases the odds that a child will himself commit violence, and that inadequate parental supervision is more likely to lead to antisocial behavior. This is undoubtedly true for all races. Even the results of the fen-fluramine experiment—which suggest that harsh parenting can alter brain chemistry—would almost certainly be true across racial lines. Thus, the researchers maintain, it would be tragic if their findings are "contaminated by the unfounded allegations of bias."

But that misses a critical point. Science begins with the selection of what and whom to study. "Whenever they look for predictors of violence," says Poussaint, "they seem to target only low-income people. It's possible to go into a suburban court and collect all kids who got into trouble with law, but they don't tend to do that."

Partly because researchers don't do that, society continues to conceptualize criminals in terms of race—and that creates its own vicious circle. Why, after all, are black and brown kids so overrepresented in the juvenile courts to begin with? What makes police, social workers, and teachers see some troubled children as a menace and others as worth salvaging? And why did this study originally set out to look only at black and brown boys?

Research assistance: Sam Bruchey

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