In middle school, though, she encountered a new set of teachers and a more diverse student body, and she gained confidence in herself. "My IQ didn't change," Richeson says. "Yet my trajectory was completely different—from a C student to an A student." She cites her own story as an example of how situation affects self-perception, which in turn affects performance. She also had a racially mixed group of friends, and "having a truly diverse space, not a token space, was incredibly important," she says. "All of my friends, black and white and Jewish and Asian, we all felt like we belonged."
Though her schools were 80 percent black, she found that students taking advanced classes with her were disproportionately non-African-American—a fact that led her to become a student activist and aspiring politico (when she wasn't going to ballet classes, another childhood passion).
After high school, Richeson traded her ballet dreams for Brown University. "Again, a flip-around," she recalls: now she was one of only a few minority students. A course in the psychology of race, class and gender turned her focus from politics to psychology.
In graduate school at Harvard, one of the faculty members in her department had written a book claiming that blacks were, on average, less intelligent than whites. "I was like, ‘Oh, man, I don't belong here. Look, even some of my own professors say I don't belong here,'" she says. Still, she was determined to stick it out. "I worked liked hell the first year."
In her office after class, Richeson makes it clear she's still working like hell, planning more experiments and deciding how to use a 2006 MacArthur Foundation grant. Her energy is a potent mix of a scientist's passion to know and an activist's passion to change the world. "We talk in class about Jim Crow, and my students sometimes say ‘that was so long ago.' I tell them look, my mother couldn't try on clothes in a Baltimore department store. This isn't ancient history. People who lived this are still alive."
David Berreby is the author of Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind. He lives in Brooklyn.