Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Endorsing Racism: The Story of The Bell Curve

[This is part 3 of an article on the power of right-wing think tanks. See also part one and part two.]

If you have any doubt about the power of the think tanks, look no further than the story of The Bell Curve. Written by Charles Murray, who received over 1.2 million from right-wing foundations for his work, the book claimed that IQ tests revealed black people to be genetically less intelligent than whites, thus explaining their low place in society. Murray published the 845-page book without showing it to any other scientists, leading the Wall Street Journal to say he pursued “a strategy that provided book galleys to likely supporters while withholding them from likely critics” in an attempt “to fix the fight … contrary to usual publishing protocol.” Murray’s think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, flew key members of the media to Washington for a weekend of briefings on the book’s content. (What Liberal Media?, 94)

And the media lapped it up. In what Eric Alterman has termed “a kind of Rorschach test for pundits,” (WLM?, 96) every major media outlet reviewed the book without questioning the accuracy of its contents. Instead, they merely quibbled about its proposed recommendations that the dumb blacks, with their dangerously high reproductive rates, might have to be kept in “a high-tech and more lavish version of an Indian reservation” without such luxuries as “individualism, equal rights before the law,” and so on. Reviewers proposed more moderate solutions, like just taking away their welfare checks. (WLM?, 94)

But such quibbles aside, the amount of coverage alone was incredible. The book received cover stories in Newsweek (“the science behind [it] is overwhelmingly mainstream”), The New Republic (which dedicated an entire issue to discussion of the book), and The New York Times Book Review (which suggested critics disliked its “appeal to sweet reason” and are “inclined to hang the defendants without a trial”). Detailed articles appeared in TIME, The New York Times (“makes a strong case”), The New York Times Magazine, Forbes (praising the book’s “Jeffersonian vision”), the Wall Street Journal, and the National Review. It received a respectful airing on such shows as ABC’s Nightline, PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, the McLaughlin Group, Think Tank (which dedicated a special two-part series to the book), ABC’s PrimeTime Live, and NPR’s All Things Considered. With fifteen weeks on the bestseller list, it ended up selling over 300,000 copies in hardcover.

This wasn’t just a media debate about the existence of global warming or the merits of internment, this was a full-on media endorsement of racism, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.” Nor did the media mention the work’s political intentions. On the contrary, they presented it as the sober work of social scientists: Nightline’s Ted Koppel lamented to Murray about how his “great deal of work and research” had become “a political football”.

Of course, this was almost certainly Murray’s intention all along. In the book proposal for his previous book (Losing Ground, an attack on government welfare programs) he had explained: “Why can a publisher sell this book? Because a huge number of well-meaning whites fear that they are closet racists, and this book tells them they are not. It’s going to make them feel better about things they already think but do not know how to say.” That’s certainly what The Bell Curve did, replacing a debate over how to improve black achievement with one about whether such improvement was even possible.

There was just one problem: none of this stuff was accurate. As Professor Michael Nunley wrote in a special issue of the American Behavioral Scientist on The Bell Curve, after a series of scientific articles debunked all the book’s major claims: “I believe this book is a fraud, that its authors must have known it was a fraud when they were writing it, and that Charles Murray must still know it’s a fraud as he goes around defending it. … After careful reading, I cannot believe its authors were not acutely aware of … how they were distorting the material they did include.” (WLM?, 100)

Next: Part 4: Spreading Lies

You should follow me on twitter here.

June 8, 2006


I think African people are better at running 100m than white people. I also think Asian people are far more motivated and value education more than most Europeans. I think some races are more susceptible to addiction thank others. Do these three things make me racist?

posted by Chris on June 9, 2006 #

I think some races are more susceptible to addiction thank others.

You mean, for example, Chinees should thank British? ;-)

posted by Boris on June 9, 2006 #

to: Chris: If you have any solid scientific proof for you statements than you’re not a racist, but just stating facts. But I think your just stereotyping the different cultures. Cause the things you’re stating have not much to do with the race or genetic material and mostly are because of the different cultures in those parts of the world.

posted by Tom on June 9, 2006 #

Nothing about the postings, just the RSS feed - it’s not validating. You’ve got some wacky characters in the postings; copy-paste from Word perhaps?

AutoFormat is the devil.

posted by Paul on June 9, 2006 #

to: Chris. What you’re stating in your post simply seems to be your own ‘beliefs’. Beliefs which do not seem to be based on any solid scientific proof. Per the American Heritage Dictionary definition of racism above, I’m afraid that yes, those beliefs do make you a racist.

posted by tmk on June 9, 2006 #

One thing is perfectly clear from reading this post. You have never read the book. You’re relying on secondhand accounts to denounce it outright. First, as you noted, the book is over 800 pages long. Only a small portion of the book concerns itself with the topic of race and intelligence. Second, it does not make the claim of “black people to be genetically less intelligent than whites.” It says that there are statistically significant differences between the mean intelligence scores of whites and blacks that cannot be satisfactorily by environmental causes. The fact that a difference exists is widely believed. The big question that remains is why does such a difference exist. Murray does suggest that some genetic factors may play “some” role. That is an important distinction.

There was no “full-on media endorsement of racism.” The reason the book received so much coverage in the media was because it was so controversial and many people were denouncing it. Its cover story in The New Republic, for example, included 12 rebuttals.

Incidentally, Professor Michael Nunley is an anthropologist, not a psychologist, psychometrist, or even a staistician. However, many members of those professions have written reasoned critiques of The Bell Curve, just as many have written supportive reviews of the work.

posted by John Farmer on June 9, 2006 #

What about the “White Men Can’t Jump” myth, on the other side of the coin?

It’s nonsense, of course, but black players in the NBA have been quoted as being surprised when a white player plays well — e.g. Shaq made comments like that about Wally Szczerbiak a while ago (still googling for the exact quote) — why no effort to expose and denounce that?

posted by Anon4Now on June 9, 2006 #

I might suggest this way: ‘racist’ and racism is very weak and say, passive terms. Those words are for pointing out something wrong but doesn’t really tell how far we have to go - we have to change ourselves. List up all the past wrong doings from all sides? (with chronological order) - and try to get to ‘first’ genuine realization and remorses within ourselves - and then try to mobilize all the best possible resources within ourselves?

We know we are not upto this, so we tend to make much jousting noises without really going up the ladders or stairs. I can be dumb on something, but I can be good at other thing. When you want to catch me and ‘define’ ‘label’me? Hah? Our brain likes labeling and indexing, putting stickers on almost anything and everything in the world…

One article I read today in NYT, a sad or confusing one is that MLK’s papers are going to be auctioned at Sotherby’s. It’s not going to be in University or Library they say. But what does that mean? Article really didn’t give much elaboration. I really don’t get why this can happen.

What’s going on? Really. For researchers and students - and people - this causes no trouble?

posted by a.kusaka.sen on June 10, 2006 #

Correction: Written by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein.

posted by Mike Sierra on June 15, 2006 #

Well, the real questions here are really: What is “intelligence”? and then Is intelligence is innate or not? - the nature vs nurture debate.

I have not done any personal research into either, but if it was shown that intelligence (in some form or another) was genetically determined - and was accurately measurable. And if results did indeed show that black people were, on average, less “intelligent” than white people -

then making such a statement would be as racist as saying that black people, on average, have a darker skin tone than white people.

posted by David on January 24, 2007 #

You can also send comments by email.

Email (only used for direct replies)
Comments may be edited for length and content.

Powered by theinfo.org.