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The Bell Curve: Conservative Manifesto

Almost a year ago, I started a discussion on welfare reform by writing:
I just watched a segment on "Eye to Eye with Connie Chung" (CBS) during which someone named Charles Murray very seriously and rationally suggested that welfare for single mothers be eliminated. Not phased out or cut back, but eliminated. Not eliminated "as we know it" (as suggested by President Clinton), but flat-out eliminated.

His premise is that even white America is facing an epidemic of teenage pregnancies supported by welfare. He believes welfare provides an incentive for young women to become pregnant and have children they would otherwise not be able to afford. Eliminating welfare, he says, would be painful, but would provide a powerful incentive to reduce pregnancies, and help turn around the trend toward single parent families. Therefore, under his proposal, welfare grants would not be available to young, unwed mothers. They would have to work, get support from family and friends, or starve!? No governmental financial support would be available.

The story was replete with pictures of white teenagers and young adults who have had or are having children out of wedlock and who will be supported by the welfare system. Later in the story, there were pictures of black folks in the same situation. The story pointed out that 70% of black babies are now born out of wedlock, and said that while the situation is not as bad for whites, it is moving in that direction. Finally, he expressed concern about the growth of a "white underclass" with all the problems faced by the "black underclass". His idea was supported by some of the "usual suspects" I typically find fault with, and can easily find fault with on this issue. The idea was opposed by some of the other "usual suspects", as well.

The reason I raise this issue is that the black community obviously faces some very, very serious problems, including the breakup of families and a whole generation of youth seemingly considered "disposable" by society. Normally I would dismiss the total end of welfare as the idea of a lunatic, someone appealing to the right wing. And that may be. I would also dismiss the idea as being politically untenable, and that is probably true also.

Nevertheless, I was struck by the fact that I calmly sat and listened to the report and wondered to myself if this is something that should at least be seriously considered. And so, I'd be curious to hear any serious reactions on this issue.

Over the course of the ensuing discussion -- which raged for weeks -- and some additional research on the issue, I learned more about Murray's position, concluding at the very least that H.L. Mencken was right when he said, "For every complicated problem, there is a simple solution -- and it's wrong." I'm in favor of welfare reform, but his approach struck me as cruel, unusual, overly simplistic and just plain wrong.

I still wondered, however, about my own initial reaction to Murray's idea. The fact that many, many conservative "luminaries" were quoted in the media as agreeing with Murray was not necessarily a problem for me because I like to think I have an open mind and can come to my own conclusions regardless of who, liberal or conservative, agrees or disagrees. Clearly, despite my rejection of the idea, there was something about it that was appealing. Something that made "sense." There was also something very troubling about the idea, and about Murray that I couldn't (or hadn't put my finger on. Until now.

Murray, along with his co-author, the late Psychologist and Harvard Professor, Richard Herrnstein, has published a new book entitled The Bell Curve. It is seen by many as scholarly discussion of the links between intelligence and life success, and, in particular, explores the links between intelligence and genetics and race. Flatly, the book demonstrates that blacks as a group score lower on IQ tests than do whites, and argues that, despite many studies that have concluded otherwise, this lack of performance is genetically rather than environmentally determined.

Furthermore, Murray argues that there is nothing we or anyone else can do about this inferiority problem and that we shouldn't even try. And, not surprisingly, he argues the government, especially, should not try. This theory (or these facts, depending on your point of view) fits comfortably with his prior recommendation that welfare be eliminated, but it goes further to challenge notions of educational equality, integration, affirmative action, and so on.

I should point out that this inferiority vis-a-vis intelligence is a group phenomenon, with plenty of room for very intelligent African Americans. As a group, however, Murray believes in blacks are inferior to whites. Not as belief or theory or ideology. Believes in factually, believes that the data bears this conclusion out.

My purpose is not to discuss Murray's book. I haven't read it and, given what is on my reading list already, I doubt it's going to make the cut. I have read the extended article (based on the book) that Murray and Herrnstein published in the October 31, 1994, issue of The New Republic, (which contains a number of articles from different authors commenting on aspects of the Murray/Herrnstein book), and have also read a number of reviews and articles, including an article in the October 9, 1994, issue of The New York Times Magazine, and several articles published in this week's Newsweek (the cover story), Time and US News and World Report magazines. Therefore, while I don't consider myself an expert on Murray, Herrnstein or their book, I nevertheless feel comfortable in making the following observations:

This Is a Happening

Publication of The Bell Curve constitutes a significant cultural, political and moral event. It's a happening. While I haven't seen much substantive discussion of it by African Americans yet, it has become a major media event and many people outside of the black community are reading and discussing it seriously. As a consequence, Murray's ideas will gain currency within the broader society without those who adopt his viewpoint being required to actually read and understand the book, let alone review the considerable literature to the contrary. While many correspondents consider this to be flawed, selective "pseudo-science", it is fascinating to see how many people, particularly conservatives who already agreed with Murray's policy recommendations, are prepared to give Murray the benefit of the doubt and to argue that his book and its conclusions and the policy choices that flow directly therefrom should be taken very seriously.

The Bell Curve is a Conservative Manifesto

The book provides "scientific" support for those conservatives who, regardless of professed racial beliefs, believe that government should do nothing (or at least, less) to aid or assist the poor. Murray argues that the poor are that way because they lack the intelligence to be otherwise. So, again, it follows that welfare should be ended, not just because it is costly and promotes dependency, but it should be ended, primarily, because it promotes breeding of intellectually inferior humans (many of whom, he argues, are black).

Similar anti-black, anti-minority, anti-poor policies flow from this work as well. Affirmative action is not bad because it discriminates against white people who haven't discriminated, as is typically argued, but primarily because the beneficiaries of affirmative action are intellectually inferior to whites and incapable, for genetic reasons, of benefiting from such help. Moneys devoted to Head Start and similar programs should be diverted to assist the cognitive elite because the current beneficiaries are intellectually incapable of ever catching up. And so on.

These are all policies supported by conservatives either directly, or indirectly as a consequence of their effort to shrink the size and role of government. These positions have been argued on many grounds, and only sometimes with a more direct racial message implied (as in the "Willie Horton" commercials used effectively by the 1988 Bush campaign). But Murray provides a scientific justification for racial inferiority, and additional ammunition (at least emotional ammunition) for those who seek to abandon any efforts at racial justice or helping racial minorities better participate in what America has to offer.

Racism is OK!

By providing the "scientific" argument in favor of black inferiority, The Bell Curve bolsters the central underpinnings of racism, and legitimizes those who hold what would otherwise be defined as racist beliefs. In addition, Murray's work emboldens those who hold such beliefs to express them more openly than has been considered acceptable in the recent past. Consider the following message recently posted on one of the electronic bulletin boards which discusses black or minority concerns:

"Anyone with a clear eye can tell that white people are more intelligent than black people. And anyone with common sense can discern that a part of that difference is genetic. The relatively small differences between Asian populations and white populations is within the margin of error, and accounted for by a better developed sense of character & pattern recognition generated from their alphabet.

"The challenging question that derives from The Bell Curve is what to do with the black population now that all the cotton has been picked. Not only are they uneducated, they are ineducable. Malign neglect seems the best solution: the Hutu and the Tutsi are doing a fine job on one another, and it's not costing us a penny."

There are certainly more where that particular message came from. That such opinions exist is certainly not news. I simply argue that Murray, by providing the intellectual foundation for such beliefs, implicitly sanctions those beliefs and creates an environment where they can and will be expressed more openly than before.

Bell Curve and Popular Culture

As I said above, I consider The Bell Curve to be a conservative manifesto, a major happening on our political and cultural scene. It is not so much what the book actually says, since, at 895 pages, most people are not going to read it. Rather, the book's impact will emanate from how its ideas enter the popular culture. In that regard, one thing the book does is change and bifurcate the discussion of issues. In addition to discussing the merits or demerits of various public policies, we will now spend time debating the scientific merits or demerits of Murray's proof of genetically determined racial inferiority. And the book and public discussion will, I submit, not necessarily change minds so much as confirm the opinions of those who already think the worse. And that, I believe, not science, was Murray's objective in the first place. As Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic wrote in the October 31st issue of that magazine, "Having delivered African Americans to inferiority and inequality, [Murray] tells them to have a nice day."

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Meanderings 1.07 -- October 25, 1994