The Bell Curve & Racism
Jude Wanniski
November 11, 1996

 

Memo To: Minister Louis Farrakhan
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The Bell Curve & Racism

An edited version of the following essay appeared in the Spring 1995 issue of the Forbes MediaCritic. The reason I dug it out to send you (via fax and cyberspace) is that I think you should consider locating racism at its roots, rather than merely confronting it head-on. At the time The Bell Curve was published, I thought it would surely be denounced soundly, left and right, as a racist tract. Little did I suspect a great many of my friends, liberals and conservatives alike, found the book not only plausible, but conventional. It was even more disturbing to find black journalists, left and right, giving credibility to the book's central statement, which is that skin pigmentation is a determining factor in the intellectual potential of a human being at conception and birth. The Establishment media is quite comfortable with this idea, as it seems to suit the demands of a social and political status quo. When I heard you speak at the Million Man March, asking your audience to be aware of the prevalence of white supremacy in America, I was therefore not surprised. If there is to be a bridging of the racial divide in America, this poisonous idea must be eradicated once and for all. Even in a separatist society, it is critical that men of color understand that the children they father are not intellectually deficient in any way at conception, by reason of their color. When a man understands that he can do for his son what his father could not do for him teach him from birth, when his young brain is most open to intellectual stimuli he may not be so quick to run off. It is when he feels it makes little or no difference that he will most likely abandon mother and child.

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Probably the most important book published in 1994 was The Bell Curve, by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, subtitled "Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life." The 845-page tract immediately ran up on the best-seller lists as the news media leaped to trumpet its findings. The book's importance does not mean it is worth reading, for it is not, but because its racist message has appeared at exactly the right moment in American history as the U.S. Congress was being delivered into Republican control for the first time in 40 years. Insofar as the GOP apparently has clear instructions to reshape the national economy and reform the welfare state, race is near the heart of this political agenda. This makes the book's message that human intelligence is inherited (the authors do allow 40% for environmental factors) a serious consideration for the folks in Washington.

While the message of the authors is racist, in that they argue the inherent inferiority of the black race, these are not the kind of garden- variety racists we would expect to find in the Ku Klux Klan. Indeed, from Mr. Murray's previous writings we can even imagine him encouraging his children to mate with black spouses as a way of dealing with the political implications of the book's assertions kind of a racial noblesse oblige. For if H&M are right, and blacks as a class are 15% behind whites in IQ, the only way black Americans as a class can catch up with white Americans is by becoming less black through intermarriage or by having fewer babies this latter "solution" being H&M's preference. Martin Peretz, publisher of The New Republic, opts for the former "solution" to black inferiority: "Almost no one is pure anything, and the process continues. When, finally, we are all mixed up together we will be a wiser, warmer, more witty, more lyrical, more beautiful people. And then, all the standard measurements will be able to tell us about individuals only." So there.

In my scientific survey of the press commentary on the book, plotting journalists along their own Bell Curve, I find a statistical correlation of political conservatives tending to agree more with the authors1 findings while political liberals tend to agree less. I also find on this media bell curve very little of excellence, with most commentary bunching around a middle-ground position that says H&M are no doubt right, but are exaggerating, i.e., less than 60% of intelligence is transmitted via the genes, and blacks can make up the lesser difference by striving harder (the conservative view) or by affirmative action (the liberal view). Reading through several dozen articles in preparation for this survey was not a pleasant experience. We essentially have a gaggle of white opinion leaders arguing among themselves about how much smarter white people are at the beginning of life than black people. Liberals think a little and conservatives think a lot. I also discovered that many of my friends are, like H&M, benevolent racists, who simply accept this sociological quackery as fact.

I've known for most of my 58 years that most white people think black people are inherently inferior in intelligence and physically superior when it comes to running and jumping. The fallacy of this conventional wisdom is especially why the publication of The Bell Curve is so important at this time. Gregg Easterbrook, perhaps the press corp's finest general science writer, puts it gently in "The Case Against the Bell Curve," The Washington Monthly, December '94: "I am glad Herrnstein and Murray (the principal author) wrote The Bell Curve, which is not a racist work, though it is fantastically wrong-headed. Bringing the arguments about race, inheritance, and IQ out into the open in Murray's straightforward writing style is a useful service especially because the more you know about this line of thought, the less persuasive it becomes."

Remarkably, most of the press commentary begins with the assumption that "scientists" already agree that to some degree intelligence is inherited. We get this from Tom Morganthau in Newsweek's cover story of 10-24, "IQ. Is It Destiny?": "Who really doubts that intelligence... is at least partly inherited?" William Allman of U.S.News & World Report turns the headline around in "Why IQ Isn't Destiny," 10-24, but still reports: "A rough consensus now exists among researchers that 40 percent to 70 percent of the variability in IQ among different people is due to the genes they inherit from their parents."

Mona Charen, a conservative columnist for The Washington Times, writes in "Excuse-Making in Our Genes," 12-5: "Do genes play a role in intelligence? Of course, everyone in the field agrees that this is so." Daniel Seligman, who makes fun of errant journalists in his weekly Fortune column, "Keeping Up," contributed to the National Review's symposium on "The Bell Curve," 12-5. In "Trashing the Bell Curve," he makes fun of those who dispute "expert opinion" on the genetic difference that explains the black-white IQ gap: "Of 661 scholars working in IQ-related fields, three times as many say they believe there is some genetic contribution to the IQ gap as say the gap is entirely environmental in nature." Time's Richard Lacayo writes "...few scientists would argue that genes have nothing to do with IQ," 10-24. Furthering this bandwagon effect, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which devoted considerable attention to the book, most of it favorable, on 12-14 ran an op-ed tract signed by 50 social scientists who more or less support H&M's assertions.

To be sure, they don't go quite as far as Herrnstein & Murray, who contributed "Race, Genes and LQ. An Apologia" to The New Republic's symposium of 10-31, which makes the flagrant assertion: "Most scholars accept that I.Q. in the human species as a whole is substantially heritable, somewhere between 40 percent and 80 percent, meaning that much of the observed variation in I.Q. is genetic." In his Washington Monthly essay cited above, Gregg Easterbrook is not so gentle in dealing with this H&M assertion: "The data they offer as impartial have...been elaborately scrunched to fit the desired ideological boxes. The book's main artifice in this regard is to present the work of those researchers who do conclude that IQ is mainly inherited and is the main determinant of life outcomes (there are a few such researchers, with full credentials), then describe their studies as generally accepted or no longer seriously contested by other researchers. This is duplicitous."

Indeed, the only "scientists" who come close to agreeing with the thrust of The Bell Curve thesis are "social scientists" of the kind who signed the Wall Street Journal tract. These are sociologists and psychologists who find variations in IQ between race categories and infer genetic causation, because they can't think of anything better. This is why the term "quackery" comes to mind. Of the few good pieces that appeared, several showed up in The New York Times, precisely on this difference between the social scientists and the physical.

In the Times of 10-25, for example, Jonathan Landman writes: "Social science looks at... questions its own way, with standard deviations, correlation coefficients and logistical regressions. But natural science has a completely different approach. When neurobiologists ask, What is intelligence?' they look not to tests but to the brain itself." In the Times of 10-23, science writer George Johnson does just that. In "Learning Just How Little Is Known About the Brain," we get a bit of reality the pontificators prefer to ignore: "Unlike kidneys, lungs, hearts, livers, pancreas, muscles and bones, the brain is designed to change with experience, molding and remolding itself to the outside world. The genes can carry only enough information to specify the most general features of the brain the rough shape of this blob of neurological clay. The fine sculpting that makes us who we are comes from the experience of living... The very essence of the brain is its malleability, and that is what makes many biologists skeptical when social scientists or psychologists claim...that they have found evidence that intelligence is essentially inherent... Social scientists and psychologists have the advantage of treating the brain as a black box."

The most angrily erudite critique of H&M appeared as "Curveball" in The New Yorker, 11-28, by Stephen Jay Gould, who has devoted much of his career to stamping out genetic quackery: The Bell Curve, with its claims and supposed documentation that race and class differences are largely caused by genetic factors and are therefore essentially immutable, contains no new arguments and presents no compelling data to support its anachronistic social Darwinism." But Gouldfs detailed fulminations are not as effective or persuasive as a quietly stated letter to the editor that appeared in a simple letter to the Times Sunday Book Review, 11-13, by Will Pflaum, an anthropology professor at Brooklyn's CUNY: "Until about 150 years ago the vast majority of all people on all continents were illiterate subsistence agriculturists. Before 10,000 years ago, we were all hunters and gatherers. The modern era has not existed long enough to cause genetic damage...Furthermore, evidence from mitochondria DNA suggests that the line leading to present-day Asian populations split from the line leading to Africans and Europeans before Africans and Europeans split from each other. So if Europeans and Asians are more intelligent than Africans, increased intelligence would have had to evolve independently on two occasions, which is highly unlikely and very hard to explain...In short, there is no evolutionary reason to expect genetic differences between races and classes...Don't give me statistics to prove something is true (and don't give a book cataloguing these statistics a positive review) until you convince me that the point you are trying to prove is within the realm of scientific possibility."

If Pflaum's brief letter astonished me with its penetrating logic, it also left me wondering why it is so difficult for a journalist to pick up a telephone these days and call around for some expert advice on an issue as politically explosive as this before sounding off. Peter Passell of The New York Times, for example, reviewed the book on 10-27 in "It's Grim Message: Dummies Fail More Often." Passell, who has a Ph.D. in economics, which he at one time professed at Yale, simply wimps out when he approaches the book's central issue of heritable intelligence: "But this reviewer is not a biologist and will leave the argument to experts." Nathan Glazer, one of the most distinguished urbanologists of our time, is shockingly inert on this question in his 12-5 contribution to the National Review symposium: "...it hardly matters whether the differences are genetic or environmental." The most pathetic commentary came from Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, who swallowed the book's flummery with one lip-smacking gulp: "The Herrnstein-Murray findings have violently shifted the ground from under these [liberal] intellectual foundations; hence the loud wailing and gnashing of teeth. Hence, as well, rapid efforts to shovel the earth back under the wobbly walls. Hence, finally, the hysterical effort to assassinate the messengers. Their message cannot be true because much more is at stake than a particular set of arguments from psychological science. A this-worldly eschatological hope is at stake. The sin attributed to Herrnstein and Murray is theological: they destroy hope."

Indeed, they do, and Novak, a Catholic theologian who writes despairingly of mankind in general, applauds them. In the same NR symposium, Father Richard John Neuhaus, another Catholic opinion leader, warns conservatives against thinking "that it is to their advantage to seize upon the race factor in The Bell Curve" but he implicitly embraces the book as scientific fact by chiding the authors for bringing up this delicate subject: "There are many other matters on which public debate should be generated, matters about which we can do something. But now, there will probably be a long and bitter debate over the alleged cognitive inferiority of blacks, about which, if the allegation is true, little or nothing can be done." The founder of the National Review, William F. Buckley, Jr., one of the most influential Catholic conservatives of our time, did not contribute to the symposium, but his magazine clearly relishes the "facts" presented by The Bell Curve: "'Intelligence,' vulgarly known as IQ, does exist. It can be measured. It matters enormously... It is substantially inherited. It varies among liberals. It also varies, on average, among races."

With conservative Catholics embracing The Bell Curve assertions, can conservative blacks be far behind? In The New Republic symposium, 10-31, Boston University economics professor Glenn Loury wrings his hands over the book and finds the authors "engaging in the crudest of racial generalizations," but he still gives the game away: "It cannot be proved that the evident average difference in cognitive functioning between blacks and whites in America has no genetic component." Worse, we find the Hoover Institution's Thomas Sowell, in Human Events, 11-4, in lock step with H&M: "What we are seeing now is the beginning of a campaign for the moral extermination of Charles Murray, in order to avoid facing the issues he raises and the empirical evidence that he presents. Ironically, the central thesis of The Bell Curve that heredity plays a role in intelligence is not seriously disputed among those who have done research in the field." Sowell, who will not permit liberal economists to sneak a simple regression past him without rigorous proof, here allows the social scientists to drive a Mack Truck over him without a protest.

There may be something I missed in my survey, but I could not find a single essay by a conservative journalist or opinion leader who attacked The Bell Curve's quackery. "Is it true?" Fred Barnes of The New Republic is quoted in Investor's Business Daily, 11-11. "Of course it's true. Everybody knows it's true." George Melloan, the editor of The Wall Street Journal's European edition, writes in the U.S. WSJ of 10-31, "Even if IQ is indeed a genetic trait and it seems to have a significant genetic component it is only one element in the total make-up of the human animal." John Leo of USN&WR writes in The Washington Times of 10-22: "What policy is this book supposed to advance? It leads nowhere, except toward pessimism and negative group-labeling. It seems clearly designed as a provocative political act," yet Leo says, "Yes, there is a genetic component of some sort to intelligence."

The only conservative who comes close to denying the "truth" of The Bell Curve is David Brooks, editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal, who concludes his review of the book, 10-20: "It's sad that this troubling book was released into such a rancorous era, when so many liberals are foul-tempered and so many conservatives, sensing the wind at their backs, are vengeful. Anyone who reads The Bell Curve in an open-minded spirit will long for a calm rebuttal to disprove its terrible vision."

Alas, the fact that rebuttals are readily available to David Brooks, and anyone else who takes the trouble to look, leaves us with the unhappy conclusion that the news media finds it easier to accept an erroneous conventional wisdom about heredity, intelligence and race. We all know we really aren't racists, like the KKK or Hitler, so we can indulge our benevolent racist predilections.

As I sifted through all this, my thoughts turned to Francis Galton, the genius of Victorian England who coined the term "eugenics." Galton was the first cousin of Charles Darwin, who tried to discourage him in his absolute conviction that intelligence was inherited and that family planning could lead to a super race. Like Charles Murray, Galton was a man of sweet disposition who made enormous contributions to our understanding of social mechanics. Murray's 1984 book, Losing Ground, was so effective in demonstrating the destructive effects of Great Society welfare legislation on the welfare of the black community that welfare reform is now a bipartisan certainty. Galton, the first man who saw that fingerprints could be used for identification in criminal investigations, was also original in demonstrating the intellectual power of people in the aggregate.

Galton was born in 1822, the seventh child of a well-to-do English family. His lifelong assumption was that he had inherited his brilliance. Yet his biography indicates an unusual beginning to his life that does not accord with eugenics.

In the England of the day, children of prosperous families would be given over to illiterate nannies who would attend to their physical needs, until they were of an age to begin their educations at the hands of selected tutors. In Gallon's case, there was a variation. At his birth, his 12-year-old sister asked her parents if she could serve as his nanny. They agreed, and as a result young Francis was given over to an educated 12-year-old sister/nanny determined to teach him everything she knew. It's a wonder it never occurred to Galton that the IQ he thought he inherited might never have appeared if he had an ordinary nanny. His eugenic arguments were so persuasive, though, that they persuaded the 19th century intellectual elites of Europe that their superiority was God-given. Like Charles Murray, Galton was a pleasant, well-meaning fellow, but his genetic determinism was not so innocuous, reaching full flower in the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler. In turning over the rock that exposes the benevolent racism among America's elite, The Bell Curve may have unwittingly arrived at exactly the right time to prevent another dismal flowering.