The Bell Curve

How a Dangerous Book Won Legitimacy

Illustrator: Schorr, Kansas City Star.

Credit: Schorr, Kansas City Star.

In the late 1980s, Charles Murray started seriously researching the links between race and intelligence. At that time, many conservatives considered his research beyond the pale. Murray’s employer, the conservative Manhattan Institute in New York, suggested he leave lest he cause the institute major embarrassment. Murray found a new home at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and for many years his new research garnered little publicity.

Until this October. Amid an unprecedented blizzard of media attention, The Bell Curve, co-authored by Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein, skyrocketed onto best seller lists and ignited a new round of justifications for the increasing racism and poverty that plague the United States.

The book’s most disturbing formulations are that intelligence overwhelmingly determines social class; that intelligence is a unitary and unchangeable quality largely determined by genetics; that IQ tests accurately measure this intelligence; and that African Americans are disproportionately poor because as a group they score lower on IQ tests than whites and therefore are irrevocably less intelligent. We are confident that in coming months the scholarly critiques that are beginning to appear will give the book the word-by-word, statistic-by-statistic critique it deserves. In this issue of Rethinking Schools, we have included excerpts from critical reviews that have already appeared (see the articles by Adolph Reed Jr. on p. 14 and by Howard Gardner on p. 15).

The book’s attempts to give scientific credence to racial hierarchies is not the only disturbing aspect of The Bell Curve.

Equally disturbing is the book’s reception among the intellectual and political elite. A surprising number of both liberals and conservatives have downplayed and/or ignored the racism inherent in Murray and Herrnstein’s perspective, have overplayed Murray’s pretense toward scholarly objectivity, and have overlooked the book’s connections to right-wing organizations.

No look at such political issues would be complete without first examining the role of The New York Times in setting the stage for The Bell Curve’s reception.

The opening shot in the national debate came in a cover story on Charles Murray in The New York Times Magazine on Oct. 9, coinciding with the book’s release. Merely to grace the magazine’s cover bestows a certain legitimacy. More revealing was the article itself.

The headline tipped off the Times’ perspective. It asked of Murray’s research, as if both perspectives were equally valid: “Daring Research or ‘Social Science Pornography?’ ” (Asking questions is a standard journalistic ploy when one does not want to take a stand on a controversial issue, particularly if one is unsure how the political winds are blowing.) The headline was bolstered by several thousand words that favorably described Murray’s upbringing, education, and proclivities for a nice glass of Bordeaux. (Oh yes, he’s a good father and his friends adore him.)

The story — and an affirmative review of The Bell Curve in the Book Review section the following week — salvaged a semblance of credibility by including some criticisms. Together, the articles set the parameters for “acceptable” response to The Bell Curve. After all, if The New York Times— the country’s leading arbiter of legitimate social and political discussion — believes there might be merit to Murray’s thesis, then only the “politically correct” fringe might think otherwise.

The New Republic went further and printed an 11-page excerpt from Murray and Herrnstein, accompanied by brief responses. Defending the excerpt, the magazine wrote: “The notion that there might be resilient ethnic differences in intelligence is not, we believe, an inherently racist belief.” It went on to argue that not to print the Murray and Herrnstein excerpt would constitute “suppression of responsible debate about a vital public issue.” Not to be outdone, TheWallStreetJournal devoted an entire op-ed page to excerpts from the book. Newsweek published a cover story on The Bell Curve that, while more critical, also included a strong defense of IQ tests as a measure of intelligence.

Such press coverage helps answer one of the questions posed by progressives: Why grant The Bell Curve the legitimacy of a critique? We wish there were such an option. But conservatives and liberals alike have placed the book in the national limelight. Their failure to adequately expose the book’s spurious assumptions and ideologically motivated conclusions mandate a response.

Interestingly, the paucity of in-depth reviews at this point is not due to the laxity of concerned scientists. Rather, it reflects a conscious marketing ploy by the book’s publisher, The Free Press. Defying publishing protocol, The Free Press tried to “fix the fight” by selectively releasing review copies to supporters while withholding it from likely critics, according to the Oct. 20 Wall Street Journal.

“The tactic may have been especially effective because of the sheer heft of the book,” the Journalnoted, “which has 875 pages and includes lengthy analyses of data that make any careful assessment daunting.”

The Bell Curve and the Right Wing

Unbeknown to most people, the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation — the country’s leading funder of conservative research — paid Murray nearly $1 million over the last eight years to research and write the book. While controversy has swirled locally over the foundation’s support, its role has received little national attention.

The Bradley Foundation was well aware of the nature of Murray’s research. In fact, when Murray was asked to leave the Manhattan Institute in 1989, the Bradley Foundation specifically decided to continue his funding. By 1994 the foundation had decided it liked Murray’s work so much that it raised his annual stipend to $163,000.

Further, Michael Joyce, president of the Bradley Foundation, has reiterated throughout the current controversy that he is proud to sponsor Murray’s work. He has called Murray “one of the foremost thinkers of our time” and applauds him for tackling a “taboo subject.”

The Bradley Foundation has long been known for its attempt to impose a neoconservative agenda on American politics. With assets of $425 million, the foundation funds a list of projects that reads like a Who’s Who of nationally prominent conservative organizations, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, which sponsors the right-wing cable network, National Empowerment Television. (For an analysis of the Bradley Foundation, see Rethinking Schools, vol. 8 no. 3.)

Even more damning has been the book’s relationship to scholarship funded by the pro-eugenics Pioneer Fund. While neither Murray nor Herrnstein appears to have directly received money from the Pioneer Fund, the book cites favorably and relies on the work of a number of fund recipients such as Arthur Jensen, William Shockley, Richard Lynn, and J. Phillipe Rushton. (see article p. 14.)

The Pioneer Fund is a little-known group founded in 1937 with the explicit purpose “to promote ‘race betterment’ through the reproduction of descendants of ‘white persons who settled in the original 13 colonies prior to the adoption of the Constitution and/or from related stocks,’” according to Michael Lind, a senior editor at Harper’s. One of the Fund’s founders, Frederick Osborn, described Nazi eugenics policy in 1937 as the “most important experiment which has ever been tried.” More recently, the group has been involved in immigration issues, and subsidizes the Federation for American Immigration Reform which supported California’s Proposition 187, and the English-only group U.S. English.

Some might argue that even though Murray receives funding from a right-wing foundation, he himself is an independent scholar concerned with research, not political policy. Not so. With his first book, Losing Ground, Murray established his pattern of going beyond research toward advocacy of specific public policies — a move which always involves a turn from science toward politics. Losing Ground, in fact, took such a clear political tack that it has often been cited as the Bible of the Reagan administration’s stance on welfare. And with his new book, as Newsweek noted, Murray has become “the star salesman for a neoconservative policy agenda.” As much as Murray might like otherwise, he cannot have it both ways. He cannot jump into the policy fray and then claim he is merely a disinterested scholar presenting the facts.

Nor is the American Enterprise Institute, where Murray is a resident fellow, a disinterested research facility. In fact, the institute is a virtual den of right-wing ideologues. Just a few of the scholars (many of them former Reagan appointees) at the American Enterprise Institute include Robert H. Bork, Dinesh D’Souza, Lynne Cheney, Irving Kristol, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Richard Cheney.

But it is Murray himself who most effectively smashes the claim that he is a scholar, not a right-wing ideologue with a political agenda. Indeed, Chapters 17, 18, 19, and 20 — chapters dealing with attempts to raise cognitive ability, K-12 education, affirmative action in higher education, and affirmative action in jobs — all end with specific sections titled, “A Policy Agenda.”

Murray’s Education Agenda

For those concerned with education, the recommendations of Chapter 18, “The Leveling of American Education,” are most disturbing. Murray and Herrnstein argue that they will leave for others to discuss the pros and cons of specific reforms such as national achievement tests, national curricula, school choice, apprenticeship programs, and so forth. Defying what they had just written, however, the two go on to suggest that the key educational policy recommendation flowing from their book is support for school choice, including public funds for private and religious schools.

They write: “Current movements to provide increased parental choice in schools are a hopeful sign, whether it be choice within the public school system, vouchers, or tuition tax credits. Without being anymore specific than that, we urge that increased parental choice extend to private as well as public schools, and to religious private schools as well as secular ones.”

The passage is notable for its lack of analysis. Murray and Herrnstein argue that parental choice, as if by magic, will lead to “orderly classrooms and well-enforced codes of behavior.” Further, “gifted” children would benefit because “policy should make it as easy as possible for them [parents of gifted children] to match up with classes that satisfy their ambitions.”

Not coincidentally, the Bradley Foundation also cites school vouchers as the central education reform. Bradley president Michael Joyce has gone so far as to dismiss issues such as curriculum reform or funding equity as “palliatives” that stymie the only worthwhile reform, choice.

Regarding federal policy, Murray and Herrnstein mention two other specifics. First, the federal government should establish a scholarship program awarded not on the basis of need, but to those earning top scores on standardized tests. Second, Washington should “reallocate some portion of existing elementary and secondary school federal aid away from programs for the disadvantaged to programs for the gifted.”

Other items on the policy agenda are not as specific, but call for a shift in thinking away from the “disadvantaged” toward the “gifted.” On p. 436, for example, Murray and Herrnstein write that “policymakers need to be more realistic about what can be done to improve the education of students in a heterogeneous, nontotalitarian country.

Specifically, critics of American education must come to terms with the reality that in a universal education system, many students will not reach the level of education that most people view as basic.” (emphasis in original.)

Later in the chapter, Murray and Herrnstein argue for a return to “the concept of the educated man” — placing greater emphasis on gifted children under the rationale that they are destined to lead our country. “Most gifted students are going to grow up segregated from the rest of society no matter what,” they write. “They will then go to the elite colleges no matter what, move into successful careers no matter what, and eventually lead the institutions of this country no matter what.”

“Our proposal will sound, and is, elitist,” Murray and Herrnstein later admit.

In the chapter’s final sentence, they summarize their perspective: “All that we ask is that educational leaders … demand much from those fortunate students to whom much has been given.”

Thus in a few succinct paragraphs, Murray and Herrnstein lay bare their agenda: educate the elite and the rest be damned, thrown onto the heap of those who “have reached their limits.” And what if the “elite” will be overwhelmingly white and those “with limits” will be overwhelming students of color? In essence, Murray and Herrnstein have a two-word response: tough luck.

In earlier times, such a perspective might have earned Murray and Herrnstein the epithet “racist.” One of the more curious twists in the debate around The Bell Curve is that the co-authors have been allowed to slither out of such an apt designation.

Indeed, The New Republic went out of its way to plainly state, “Neither is a racist.” Such a claim muddles the nature of racism and reduces it to the rantings of a David Duke. But one can be a well-educated scholar and a nice person, kind to animals and children, and still be a racist. A defining principle is whether one advocates views and policies that assume the racial superiority of one group over another. It is immaterial whether those views are expressed with the swamp-fever ugliness of a Pat Buchanan, the polished charm of a Ronald Reagan, or the academic finesse of a Charles Murray.

“If we reduce racism to hatred we must rewrite history and give a moral holiday to those responsible for enslaving and segregating black Americans,” writes Daryl Michael Scott, assistant professor of history at Columbia University. “Contrary to popular belief, the old South was not dominated by whites who hated blacks.

Paternalistic slave owners like Thomas Jefferson thought Africans were inferior, but harbored no animosity against them. The notion of black inferiority, however, still served as an important justification of a system that placed whites over blacks.”

That such arguments have been largely ignored by the intellectual and political elite demonstrate how much Murray and Herrnstein’s assumptions are an accepted part of American political reality. The pair have managed quite successfully to provide legitimacy to racist views that color the major policy decisions that face this country, from immigration to welfare, poverty, and crime.

Like so many others, we would prefer to ignore The Bell Curve and throw it onto the trash heap of history along with Mein Kampf and other racist tracts. But we can’t. Whether we like it or not, The Bell Curve has become a major force in American political debate.

It is not a time for people of good conscience to stand silent.