Testing for Race: Lewis Terman, Psychometric testing, and Asian Americans in Early Twentieth-Century California

David Palter
UC Santa Cruz

This dissertation examines the role of intelligence testing in the racial formation of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans in California, 1920-1935. During these years Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman and his graduate students administered thousands of tests to Asian and Asian-American students in the California public schools, and the tests provided fodder for statewide and nationwide debates over segregated schooling, land ownership, immigration and naturalization. This dissertation asserts that that the power dynamics that framed interactions between the largely white-supremacist cadre of psychometric testers and the Asian immigrant community were more contested and nuanced than previously imagined. Asian immigrant organizations such as the Japanese Association of America, Japanese and Chinese psychology graduate students, and pro-immigrant researchers were themselves important contributors to the testing project. Their involvement, which influenced the tone and the substance of the testing, pivotally altered larger racialized debates over schooling and citizenship in the United States.