From his earliest days, Charles Murray was—to put it charitably—a shockingly oblivious human being when it came to matters of race. As a teenager in the 1950s, he and some high school friends staged a cross burning on top of a hill. Murray claims he was stunned when the residents of his Iowa town instantly thought the flaming cross was somehow racist. “It never crossed our minds that this had any larger significance,” he insisted. Forty years later, with the publication of The Bell Curve, Murray would once again profess himself surprised that people could view him as a racist. “I’m befuddled by it… I don’t know what to make of it,” Murray said when even old acquaintances began calling his book dishonest and bigoted. Murray wondered why he was being “punished” for producing perfectly valid social science research on a matter of public import.
One thing that has always fascinated me about Charles Murray is just how incapable he is of understanding why people do not like him. He seems to believe that if someone thinks him a racist, it must be because that person has not actually read Murray’s work. They must be irrationally accepting caricatures of him from the press. They certainly cannot possibly have seriously engaged with his writings, for, in his mind, nobody who has done so could possibly come away with the idea that Murray is some kind of white supremacist.
Murray’s self-perception as a persecuted truth-teller, who uses real facts that the politically correct simply don’t want to hear, is reinforced by the fact that many people who hate him haven’t read his work. Press coverage of Murray has distorted his positions, and it’s frequently true that people label him a “white supremacist” or “eugenicist” without knowing what he actually says about race, genetics, and intelligence. Plenty of writings about Murray, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center’s long file on him, are sloppy or biased, failing to engage seriously and fair-mindedly with his various claims. This has allowed Murray, and those that appreciate his writing, to claim that there are two Bell Curves, the book that people believe exists, and the book that actually exists.
But while this is partially correct, it’s nevertheless extraordinary that Charles Murray can believe the negative reaction to him must be irrational and politically motivated. For while it is true that people unfairly attribute positions to Murray that he does not hold, the positions he actually does espouse in his work are, if anything, more extreme than even the most unsympathetic public portrait of him has depicted. People who see Charles Murray being violently hounded off college campuses might wonder what the fuss is about, and why left-wing protesters become so viscerally angry with Murray rather than dealing with his arguments. But while I am strongly opposed to the tactic of shutting down speakers on campus, it’s important to realize that the rage at Charles Murray is entirely justified. For it can be very easily proven that Murray is a man with a strong racial bias against Black people, insofar as he fails to respect them as equal human beings and believes them to be, on average, inferior to white people in matters of intelligence, creativity, and inherent human worth. Any serious inquiry into Charles Murray’s actual body of work must conclude that, if Murray is not a racist, the word “racist” is empty of meaning. I do not necessarily believe Charles Murray thinks he is a racist. But I do believe that a fair review of the evidence must necessarily lead to the conclusion that he is one. Efforts to keep him from speaking on college campuses are, while in my opinion wrong both in principle and strategically, are entirely understandable. For Murray’s intellectual project does involve passing off bigotry as neutral scholarship, and people who worry about “legitimizing” prejudice by giving it a platform should very much be worried about giving Charles Murray a platform.
It is crucial to distinguish between the things Charles Murray actually does argue, and the things he is said to have argued. Murray often gets the better of his opponents because they stretch the case against him beyond its limits, allowing him to correctly point out that they are misrepresenting him. Let us be clear, then: Charles Murray does not conclude that the black-white gap in IQ test scores must entirely be the product of genetic inferiority, nor that black social outcomes are entirely genetic in origin. The Bell Curve is not, strictly speaking, “about” race and IQ. And Murray does not argue in favor of a program of eugenics (though the error is easy to make, as Murray speaks positively of the work of previous eugenists and seeming to lament that the Nazi “perversion of eugenics… effectively wiped the idea from public discourse in the West”). Nor should Murray necessarily be called, as so many label him, a “pseudoscientist.” His writings are above-average in their statistical scrupulousness, and he uses no less logical rigor than many highly qualified social scientists do. The problem is far less in his use of the scientific method than in his normative values and conceptions of the good, which affect the uses to which he puts his science.
However, having made clear what Murray does not say, let us examine what he does. The following claims are defended in Murray’s writings:
- Black people tend to be dumber than white people, which is probably partly why white people tend to have more money than black people. This is likely to be partly because of genetics, a question that would be valid and useful to investigate.
- Black cultural achievements are almost negligible. Western peoples have a superior tendency toward creating “objectively” more “excellent” art and music. Differences in cultural excellence across groups might also have biological roots.
- We should return to the conception of equality held by the Founding Fathers, who thought black people were subhumans. A situation in which white people are politically and economically dominant over black people is natural and acceptable.
Taken together, these three claims show Murray to be bigoted, ignorant, and ignorant of his own bigotry. They more than justify the conclusion that he is a racist. And they make it extraordinary that anyone could be surprised that Murray’s acceptance as a legitimate mainstream scholar causes a reaction of raw fury and disgust. Charles Murray would likely dispute that the above three points are made in his work. But the textual evidence is conclusive.
First: “Black people tend to be dumber than white people.” The Bell Curve, which Murray co-authored in 1994 with Richard Herrnstein, is a book about the role of “intelligence” in society. Murray and Herrnstein wished to prove that intelligence, as measured by IQ scores, played a crucial role in determining a variety of social outcomes, and that as a result a new kind of “cognitive elite” was arising. Murray and Herrnstein did not endorse the preeminence of the cognitive elite, and in fact worried over the effects of the change.
A core premise of the book is that intelligence is a meaningful and important concept, and that it is captured by IQ scores. As they write, “IQ scores match whatever it is that people mean when they use the word intelligent or smart in ordinary language.” And the opposite of being “smart” is, they seem to believe, being “dumb”:
- “What are this person’s chances of being in poverty if he is very smart? Very dumb?”
- “Statistically, smart men tend to be more farsighted than dumb men.”
- “…fertility patterns among the smart and the dumb, and their possible long-term effects on the intellectual capital of a nation’s population.”
The Bell Curve ignited a multi-decade controversy not due to its core thesis about class structure, but because of a multi-chapter detour into questions about ethnicity and intelligence. Murray and Herrnstein report the (undisputed) empirical finding that black scores on IQ tests are—as a statistical average—lower than white scores on IQ tests. They then speculate on some possible reasons for this difference (both genetic and environmental), while being careful to avoid solid conclusions.
Here, Murray’s opponents occasionally trip up, by arguing against the reality of the difference in test scores rather than against Murray’s formulation of the concept of intelligence. The dubious aspect of The Bell Curve‘s intelligence framework is not that it argues there are ethnic differences in IQ scores, which plenty of sociologists acknowledge. It is that Murray and Herrnstein use IQ, an arbitrary test of a particular set of abilities (arbitrary in the sense that there is no reason why a person’s IQ should matter any more than their eye color, not in the sense that it is uncorrelated with economic outcomes) as a measure of whether someone is smart or dumb in the ordinary language sense. It isn’t, though: the number of high-IQ idiots in our society is staggering. Now, Murray and Herrnstein say that “intelligence” is “just a noun, not an accolade,” generally using the phrase “cognitive ability” in the book as a synonym for “intelligent” or “smart.” But because they say explicitly (1) that “IQ,” “intelligent,” and “smart” mean the same thing, (2) that “smart” can be contrasted with “dumb,” and (3) the ethnic difference in IQ scores means an ethnic difference in intelligence/smartness, it is hard to see how the book can be seen as arguing anything other than that black people tend to be dumber than white people, and Murray and Herrnstein should not have been surprised that their “black people are dumb” book landed them in hot water. (“We didn’t say ‘dumb’! We just said dumber! And only on average! And through most of the book we said ‘lacking cognitive ability’ rather than ‘dumb’!”)
Next, Murray and Herrnstein argued that black people’s dumbness was probably partly responsible for their differing economic and social outcomes. The central argument of The Bell Curve is that, given the structure of American society, IQ is a core determinant of where one will end up in life. When it comes to ethnicity, Murray and Herrnstein use the fact that blacks, Latinos, and whites who have the same IQ scores will have roughly similar economic outcomes to argue that it is IQ differences, rather than racial oppression, that cause differences in those outcomes:
“If one of America’s goals is to rid itself of racism and institutional discrimination, then we should welcome the finding that a Latino and white of similar cognitive ability have the same chances of getting a bachelor’s degree and working in a white-collar job. A black with the same cognitive ability has an even higher chance than either the Latino or white of having those good things happen. A Latino, black, and white of similar cognitive ability earn annual wages within a few hundred dollars of one another. Similarly, the evidence presented here should give everyone who writes and talks about ethnic inequalities reason to avoid flamboyant rhetoric about ethnic oppression. Racial and ethnic differences in this country are seen in a new light when cognitive ability is added to the picture.”
Murray and Herrnstein firmly believe that “flamboyant rhetoric about ethnic oppression” ignores the fact that America is largely “stratified according to cognitive ability” rather than race, i.e. there are rich black people and poor white people, but the rich black people tend to be smart and the poor white people tend to be dumb, and as America continues to stratify its economy by intelligence, the thing rich people will tend to have in common is not that they’re white but that they’re smart, though that will still mean they are disproportionately white because white people are disproportionately smart. It should therefore be uncontroversial to point out that Murray and Herrnstein are arguing: (1) that black people tend to be dumber, (2) that they are not disproportionately poor because they are oppressed, they are disproportionately poor because they are disproportionately dumb. They stress that they are not saying this is a good thing (they’re worried about it!), they are just saying that this is how it is.
We should be clear on why the Murray-Herrnstein argument was both morally offensive and poor social science. If they had stuck to what is ostensibly the core claim of the book, that IQ (whatever it is) is strongly correlated with one’s economic status, there would have been nothing objectionable about their work. In fact, it would even have been (as Murray himself has pointed out) totally consistent with a left-wing worldview. “IQ predicts economic outcomes” just means “some particular set of mental abilities happen to be well-adapted for doing the things that make you successful in contemporary U.S. capitalist society.” Testing for IQ is no different from testing whether someone can play the guitar or do 1000 jumping jacks or lick their elbow. And “the people who can do those certain valued things are forming a narrow elite at the expense of the underclass” is a conclusion left-wing people would be happy to entertain. After all, it’s no different than saying “people who have the good fortune to be skilled at finance are making a lot of money and thereby exacerbating inequality.” Noam Chomsky goes further and suggests that if we actually managed to determine the traits that predicted success under capitalism, more relevant than “intelligence” would probably be “some combination of greed, cynicism, obsequiousness and subordination, lack of curiosity and independence of mind, self-serving disregard for others, and who knows what else.”
For a person of left-wing values, what any correlation between IQ and success means is that the structure of rewards in society should be readjusted so that they do not disproportionately favor people who have some particular random arbitrary characteristic (like being good with numbers), just the same as a society in which the elite is comprised solely of people who are good painters would also be unfair. The controversial aspect of The Bell Curve, then, is not its core thesis about IQ and class. Rather, it is that Murray and Herrnstein are contemptuous of the idea that racial oppression place a significant role in American society, and attempt to attribute black-white economic differences to factors intrinsic to black people.
The most notorious way in which they do this is in their speculation about the role of genetics in the ethnic IQ gap. In their conclusion on the subject, Murray and Herrnstein were explicit that they were agnostic on the extent of the genetic component:
“If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or environmental explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other. It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences.”
Note, however, that the agnosticism is on the amount of genetic contribution to ethnic IQ testing differences; the fact that there is a genetic contribution they find “highly likely.” Murray and Herrnstein attempt to bolster the case for a genetic component by offering evidence that the gap persists even controlling for socioeconomic status, and that people in Africa also have lower IQs than white Americans.
But why did this claim actually make people so angry? It is, after all, an empirical hypothesis rather than statement about moral value. Murray and Herrnstein professed not to be able to understand what difference it would possibly make whether the gap was genetic or the result of environmental factors. As they wrote:
“Imagine that tomorrow it is discovered that the B/W difference in measured intelligence is entirely genetic in origin. The worst case has come to pass. What difference would this news make in the way that you approach the question of ethnic differences in intelligence? Not someone else but you. What has changed for the worse in knowing that the difference is genetic?… We cannot think of a legitimate argument why any encounter between individual ethnicities and blacks need be affected by the knowledge that an aggregate ethnic difference in measured intelligence is genetic instead of environmental.”
In this statement, one can see why many people felt The Bell Curve to be a “dishonest” book. Murray and Herrnstein suggested that nobody should be upset by the question of genes, race, and IQ, because unless we assign some normative worth to IQ, the answer should make no moral difference. (Leave aside the fact that Murray and Herrnstein did slip into normative language about IQ.) Why would a genetic answer make a difference, unless you were a racist? If you believe all people are equal, surely you believe that this would hold regardless of what their genes turned out to be.
But this statement buries the fact that there are very important moral implications to the genetic question: the more the difference can be proven to be genetic in origin, the less responsible white people are for the disproportionate poverty affecting black communities. The massive black-white wealth gap, and the millions of black people in prison, aren’t the lingering effects of multiple hundred years of brutal oppression: they’re the inevitable and intractable results of something to do with black people themselves.
This is the aspect of the book that makes me the angriest, and that I sense is responsible for a lot of people being unwilling to take Murray seriously: he pretends not to even realize that his thesis allows white America to feel exonerated for the condition of black America. He says that it would make no difference whether the IQ test differences (and therefore economic differences) were genetic. But it would make a massive difference: it would relieve white people who think intelligence means merit from having to feel guilty about reaping the benefits of living in a society built on racial discrimination. His thesis is not just an academic question about nature and nurture: it would also provide grist for the argument that slavery didn’t matter very much in the creation of present social outcomes; the reason black families have, on average, 1/10 of the wealth of white families, has little to do with the fact that they were prevented from accruing assets for over half the history of the United States, during which time they were kept in chains, beaten, raped, and murdered. Rather, it’s because of them and the fact that they just inherently lack the “cognitive ability” to catch up. And that lack of cognitive ability has little to do with the fact that for hundreds of years, if a black child was caught with a book, white people would whip them. (As they say, since “the African black population has not been subjected to the historical legacy of American black slavery,” and Africans are even less intelligent, “the hypothesis about the special circumstances of American blacks depressing their test scores is not substantiated by the African data.”) The question may be empirical, but there are potential social ramifications here, and anyone discussing the issue could at least try to demonstrate a marginal awareness of them.
It’s Murray’s flippant treatment of this history that makes some scholars so angry at his work. He doesn’t even take the widespread existence of racism seriously as a hypothesis. After all, a black-white IQ score difference, combined with evidence that IQ is in some degree heritable, is actually consistent with the idea that black people are genetically superior to white people in intelligence, and that their scores are depressed by early exposure to a society that devalues them from the earliest years of their lives (recall Malcolm X’s teacher responding to his aspiration toward being a lawyer by telling him carpentry was more realistic). To put it differently: Black people could inherit average IQs of 110, while white people inherit average IQs of 100, but the disadvantages of living in a racist society from birth could mean that by a young age, black people end up with average IQs of 95 and white people stay at 100. As Ned Block explains, there is a hidden premise that a role for genetics must necessarily disadvantage blacks, but that’s not necessarily the case.
Murray evidently considers the hypothesis of black genetic superiority too laughable to be worth disproving, even though the only reason for ignoring it is if one has already assumed the conclusion one is seeking to demonstrate; namely that racism doesn’t matter very much. The only reason why you wouldn’t even entertain the hypothesis of black genetic superiority is if you felt it couldn’t exist, something you would only think before examining the evidence if you were… a racist. (And no, Murray’s scanty and unsystematic data on Africa doesn’t help. People in the Congo, for example, probably had a difficult time holding their pencils to take IQ tests after the Belgians cut off all their hands. If you haven’t considered the history of colonialism, war, and starvation in Africa, you haven’t even begun to control for the variables necessary for any conclusion about genetics.)
WARNING: GRAPHIC/DISTURBING CONTENT
Thus I suspect people are offended and appalled by The Bell Curve just as much for what is not in it as what is in it. Murray treats seriously the hypotheses that attribute black poverty to things about black people (both cultural and genetic), but casually dismisses hypotheses that suggest a strong role for the massive, centuries-long crime that was perpetrated upon black people (a crime that is hardly mentioned or examined). As Orlando Patterson put it, for 248 of the 377 years of U.S. history before The Bell Curve’s publication, black people were “an enslaved group, physically, economically, socially, legally, sexually, morally, and psychologically, subjected not only to the exploitative whim of individual white owners but at the violent mercy of all whites, under the encouragement and protection of the predatory dominant whites.” For Murray to not take that seriously as even a hypothesis in explaining contemporary racial disparities suggests both a lack of empathy and a lack of social scientific neutrality.
In fact, however, too much has been made of The Bell Curve’s discussion of race and IQ as evidence for why Charles Murray is a racist. As Murray has pointed out, the book is now two decades old (although he stands by it completely), and most of its contents were not about how black poverty was partly the fault of black stupidity. A far more illuminating piece of evidence about the Murray racial worldview is found in his little-read 2003 book Human Accomplishment, the text that substantiates point 2 on the above List Of Racist Charles Murray Beliefs: Black cultural achievements are almost negligible.
Human Accomplishment is one of the most absurd works of “social science” ever produced. If you want evidence proving Murray a “pseudoscientist,” it is Human Accomplishment rather than The Bell Curve that you should turn to. In it, he attempts to prove using statistics which cultures are objectively the most “excellent” and “accomplished,” demonstrating mathematically the inherent superiority of Western thought throughout the arts and sciences.
Human Accomplishment is actually funny in how poorly reasoned it is. It is full of charts like this:
Murray purports to show that Europeans have produced the most “significant” people in literature, philosophy, art, music, and the sciences, and then posits some theories as to what makes cultures able to produce better versus worse things. The problem that immediately arises, of course, is that there is no actual objective way of determining a person’s “significance.” In order to provide such an “objective” measure, Murray uses (I am not kidding you) the frequency of people’s appearances in encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries. In this way, he says, he has shown their “eminence,” therefore objectively shown their accomplishments in their respective fields. And by then showing which cultures they came from, he can rank each culture by its cultural and scientific worth.
You can see instantly where this goes off the rails: however possible it might be to rank scientists by citation count, how on earth does this work for music and art? First, by using encyclopedias, aren’t you stacking the deck against cultures without written traditions? By counting individuals, aren’t you favoring individualistic cultural achievements rather than communal ones? But even worse, how can you even produce an “objective” measure of achievement in music and art to begin with? Every aspect of a definition must be circular: the significant people are significant because they have significance. The classical values of Western thought are correct because they are the classical values of Western thought.
When Murray does actually attempt to defend his underlying values for artistic excellence, the results are a mess. He simply declares that objectivity exists, and that the alternative is refusing all judgment, and since this is impossible, there must be such a thing as objectively better art. He speaks derisively of “multiculturalism,” of course. Most of his defenses of objectivity are mere assertion; there’s no actual argument for why we should accept any of it. They amount to yet more circularity: My values are objectively correct because there are objective things and my values are the things that are objective. If you respond “Okay, prove it,” Murray has nothing. Instead, he simply says that if “experts” believe it, it is objectively correct:
“I hold to a statistical understanding of objective: given a large number of expert opinions about a dozen specific qualities of a work of art, we will not see a random set of responses, but ones that cluster around a central tendency…. The relationship of expertise to judgment forms a basis for treating excellence in the arts as a measurable trait.”
Art and music pose a particular problem for this perspective, though, since Murray hates everything produced since 1950, even though experts in art and music disagree. If he permitted anything from the last half-century to intrude into his canon of human cultural accomplishments, he might end up having to include something postmodern (or worse, art made by blacks and women). Murray resolves this question by declaring that art and music since 1950 simply do not count; his list of achievements and methodology explicitly exclude anything after this date. That’s because these things are postmodern, and postmodernism cannot produce excellence no matter what the experts say, even though “what the experts say” is the only coherent measure of excellence that Murray has actually offered. But the arbitrary time cutoff doesn’t matter anyway, because:
“In the arts, it is not clear that cutting off the inventories at 1950 involves the loss of much material at all. No doubt some art, music, and literature created from 1950 to the present will survive, but it is hard to imagine that the last half-century will be seen as producing an abundance of timeless work.:
Very well, then, the last half century objectively sucked. (Sorry, Sgt. Pepper, you’re not a “human accomplishment.”) Let’s just concede that. What do Murray’s statistical analyses of artistic accomplishment actually produce? Well, let’s take music. Only Western music is considered, because non-Western music does not constitute Accomplishment. And what do you know, shockingly enough, out of hundreds of significant figures in Western music, there are almost no black people on the list. (Duke Ellington makes it.) Now, remember, this is a list of the objectively highest human accomplishments in music, and it doesn’t cut off until 1950. Let’s just remember, then, what happened in music in the time leading up to 1950.
Before 1950, black people had invented gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, samba, meringue, ragtime, zydeco, mento, calypso, and bomba. During the early 20th century, in the United States alone, the following composers and players were active: Ma Rainey, W.C. Handy, Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, J. Rosamond Johnson, Ella Fitzgerald, John Lee Hooker, Coleman Hawkins, Leadbelly, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Son House, Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk, Muddy Waters, Art Blakey, Sarah Vaughan, Memphis Slim, Skip James, Louis Jordan, Ruth Brown, Big Jay McNeely, Paul Gayten, and Professor Longhair. (This list is partial.) When we talk about black American music of the early 20th century, we are talking about one of the most astonishing periods of cultural accomplishment in the history of civilization. We are talking about an unparalleled record of invention, the creation of some of the most transcendently moving and original artistic material that has yet emerged from the human mind. The significance of this achievement cannot be overstated. What’s more, it occurred without state sponsorship or the patronage of elites. In fact, it arose organically under conditions of brutal Jim Crow segregation and discrimination, in which black people had access to almost no mainstream institutions or material resources.
Yet in Charles Murray’s “objective” measure of the worth of Western musical creations, none of this appears. Instead, in addition to the usual heavyweights like Bach and Wagner, we get a slew of minor, forgotten English composers like John Jenkins, Nicholas Lanier, and Matthew Locke. This is (and I am not kidding) because Murray believes that their work better fits the Aristotelian standard for transcendent human feeling, with a “rootedness in human experience, seriousness of purpose, and intellectual depth.” (I would, by the way, trade the entire musical output of all three of the aforementioned composers for a single measure of a single song from Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens sessions. It is my position that any book on Human Accomplishment that does not include Louis Armstrong is actually a book on human mediocrity. But I do not claim to be objective.)
Do I have to explain why Murray’s framework is racist? Because Charles Murray thinks classical English composers were rooted in human experience and had intellectual depth (which we know, because they showed up more in the encyclopedias he picked), while black American composers (for that is what they are) were not. He’s committed to that proposition by his framework, which claims to prove that the music on his list is objectively more accomplished. He’s not just more interested in old English music, he literally thinks black music is worse, and that it’s inarguably worse. He thinks this while seemingly never having actually engaged with or attempted to appreciate black music. Because he thinks human accomplishment is a measure of the fulfillment of the potential of the human mind, he thinks black culture is less sophisticated, less deep, and less intelligent than white culture. And he thinks he has proved it using science.
Of course, as always with Murray, biology is involved as well. Murray determines—again, using math—that “no woman has been a significant original thinker in any of the world’s great philosophical traditions.” (This might, of course, be because most philosophical writing throughout the history of the world has been little more than masturbatory nonsense, which women are less inclined or encouraged to produce, a hypothesis Murray does not consider.) And he is persuaded that “disparities in accomplishment between the sexes are significantly grounded in biological differences.” Of course, accomplishment is defined as the things that men have historically done (philosophy, science) because the things that women have historically done (everything necessary to make those other activities possible) are not considered objective manifestations of excellence.
Human Accomplishment is a far more offensive book than The Bell Curve, and also far more persuasive as evidence that Charles Murray has no interest in doing serious social science (which is not supposed to consist of graphs showing why the art you like is clearly the best art). It’s also a good book for countering Murray’s assertion that his critics fixate on the contents of a single chapter of The Bell Curve. Human Accomplishment shows that Murray has a long obsession with racial difference, and with using statistics to prove the lesser intellectual gifts of black people.
But what of the third Racist Charles Murray Belief: We should restore the conception of equality held by the Founding Fathers, who thought black people were subhumans. Here, we return to The Bell Curve. Murray is right; people do get stuck on the “Ethnic Differences in Cognitive Ability” chapter and neglect the rest of the book. It’s a shame, because the infamous chapter isn’t actually the worst chapter. The worst chapter is actually the last: “Chapter 22: A Place For Everyone,” which makes a normative argument about how people are to be kept in their proper places.
In “A Place For Everyone,” Murray and Herrnstein finally give their actual recommendation for the philosophical foundation on which society should be organized. Given the empirical realities they have just claimed to demonstrate, that people differ in their intellectual capacities and that this affects social outcomes, how should we think about equality? Murray and Herrnstein recognize that their findings could be used in defense of social democracy, to say that rewards should not accrue to people on the basis of their intellect. But this is not the route they take. Instead, they say, they will defend “an older intellectual tradition” and a wiser one. They tell us how Confucius, along with the Greeks and Romans, believed everyone had a certain designated place in society. “Society was to be ruled by the wise and virtuous few,” with “the most menial chores left to the slaves.” After all, “neither the Greek democrats nor the Roman republicans believed that ‘all men are created equal.’ Nor did the great Hindu thinkers of the Asian subcontinent, where one’s work defined one’s caste.” Murray and Herrnstein then quote John Locke, who believed that “there is [such] a difference of degrees in men’s understandings, apprehensions, and reasonings… that there is a greater distance between some men and others in this respect, than between some men and some beasts.” (For example, Locke wrote, “Amongst children, idiots, savages, and the grossly illiterate, what general maxims are to be found? What universal principles of knowledge? Their notions are few and narrow.” Herrnstein and Murray inexplicably do not cite this passage.)
Murray and Herrnstein show that this political philosophy, which saw human beings as fundamentally unequal and deserving of particular individual stations like Hindu castes, was also held by the Founding Fathers. They cite Thomas Jefferson’s belief that there should be a “natural aristocracy” of “virtue and talent.” As they say, Jefferson “thought that the best government was one that most efficiently brought the natural aristocracy to high positions,” and he wrote that the “best geniuses” should be “raked from the rubbish annually.” The Founders, Herrnstein and Murray write, “were fully aware of how unequal people are, that they did not try to explain away natural inequalities.” Instead, they simply instituted a formal system of political equality, in which there could be gross social and economic inequalities but government would be open to all who were wise.
This is the conception that Murray and Herrnstein endorse. They say that it was the one held by Aristotle, who thought that some equality was good, but that “the question we must keep in mind is, equality or inequality in what sort of thing.” (For Aristotle, there couldn’t be complete equality, because some men are “as different [from other men] as the soul from the body or man from beast – and they… are slaves by nature….For he is a slave by nature who is capable of belonging to another – which is also why he belongs to another.” Note the “man and beast” distinction between those fit for equality and “natural slaves,” directly echoed in the Locke quote that Murray and Herrnstein cite approvingly.) They sum up their position on human difference:
“In reminding you of these views of the men who founded America, we are not appealing to their historical eminence, but to their wisdom. We think they were right…. The egalitarian ideal of contemporary political theory underestimates the importance of the differences that separate human beings. It fails to come to grips with human variation…. It has become objectionable to say that some people are superior to other people in any way that is relevant to life in society…. Discrimination, once a useful word with a praiseworthy meaning, is now almost always used in a pejorative sense. Racism, sexism, ageism, elitism-all are in common parlance, and their meanings continue to spread, blotting up more and more semantic territory.”
It is essential, according to Murray and Herrnstein, for us to stop attempting to impose equality on a world of natural inequality. They recommend ending affirmative action; after all, it attempts to impose equality instead of letting inequality take its course. They reject “the idea of compelling everyone to help produce equal outcomes by race,” and are “comfortable with the idea that some things are better than others-not just according to our subjective point of view but according to enduring standards of merit and inferiority.” They believe instead of being granted social equality, everyone should find their proper place.
I wonder if Charles Murray has ever considered what it would be like for a Black person to read Murray’s praise of the “Jeffersonian” conception of equality. It’s truly puzzling to me that he could be surprised that people react to him with rage, given that his book endorses (without qualification or reservation) the conception of human difference espoused by (1) Aristotle, whose idea was that some people were naturally fit for slavery, (2) the thinkers behind the Hindu caste system, (3) John Locke, who believed that “savages” lacked sophisticated mental capacities, and (4) Thomas Jefferson, whose “natural aristocracy” existed because he thought that:
“The blacks… are inferior to the whites in the endowment both of body and mind…Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior . . . and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous . . . They secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour… [N]ever yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait, of painting or sculpture.”
When Murray fondly praises Jefferson’s idea of human social difference, he neglects to mention what Jefferson believed the human social differences actually were: he believed that black people smelled bad and were incapable of reason. How, in a book that is literally about people’s greater and lesser reasoning capacities, and that literally claims black people are less endowed with such capacities, can you harken back to Jefferson, leaving his racial views unmentioned, and then act shocked when people think you’re a racist? How can you not be a racist? How is there any way?
Nor can one simply historicize Jefferson, and suggest that his prejudices were merely ill-considered products of his time and might have been fixed if he had been exposed to our modern conceptions about race. Jefferson was actually told his views were heinous, by a Black person. Benjamin Banneker was an ex-slave who had taught himself to read and write, and who had become a land surveyor and astronomer. He was highly skilled, building clocks and predicting eclipses. Banneker compiled a notable almanac, which he sent to Jefferson along with a letter. The letter, which made a stirring case for the equality of races and begged Jefferson to cease owning slaves, is one of the most remarkable documents in all of American history. Banneker wrote:
“We are a race of Beings who have long laboured under the abuse and censure of the world, that we have long been looked upon with an eye of contempt, and that we have long been considered rather as brutish than human, and Scarcely capable of mental endowments…. I apprehend you will readily embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevails with respect to us, and that your Sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are that one universal Father hath given being to us all, and that he hath not only made us all of one flesh, but that he hath also without partiality afforded us all the Same Sensations, and endued us all with the same faculties, and that however variable we may be in Society or religion, however diversifyed in Situation or colour, we are all of the Same Family, and Stand in the Same relation to him….”
Banneker called Jefferson out on his hypocrisy, for writing so eloquently of liberty while keeping Banneker’s fellow people in chains:
“This Sir, was a time in which you clearly saw into the injustice of a State of Slavery, and in which you had just apprehensions of the horrors of its condition, it was now Sir, that your abhorrence thereof was so excited, that you publickly held forth this true and invaluable doctrine, which is worthy to be recorded and remember’d in all Succeeding ages. “We hold these truths to be Self evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happyness.”… Sir how pitiable is it to reflect, that altho you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of those rights and privileges which he had conferred upon them, that you should at the Same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.”
Jefferson wrote Banneker a brief reply, thanking him for the almanac and wishing the best for his race. (Later, in a letter to a friend, Jefferson disparaged the almanac’s quality.) He continued to own slaves until his death, even though he was ridiculed by contemporary abolitionists. (“If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.”) Nor was Jefferson a benevolent slavemaster. He “punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time” and “advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks.” And he didn’t even free his slaves upon his death, as many of his contemporaries did, instead sending 200 of them to the auction block. This is not to mention the fact that he began having sex with (i.e. raping) Sally Hemings when she was 14 years old, and did not even free her in his will. He was, in nearly every respect, a thoroughgoing bastard.
All of this is crucial context for understanding why people call Charles Murray a racist. To black people, “Jeffersonian equality” cannot be separated from Jefferson, a man who continued to beat and rape black slaves despite the most eloquent pleas from black abolitionists. Murray is a racist in part because he doesn’t think American history from the black perspective even counts. It doesn’t even need mentioning. One can simply dismiss those who are horrified by your “Aristotelian/Hindu caste system/Jeffersonian” notion of “inherent human inequality.” They must be irrational. They must simply be spewing politically correct dogmas. They must be some of those “beasts” unfit for the “natural aristocracy” of the talented, virtuous, and wise.
I do not see, then, how if the word “racism” has any content, Charles Murray is anything other than a racist. He has argued: (1) that black people are dumber than white people, (2) that black culture is objectively less accomplished and worthwhile, and (3) that the Founding Fathers’ conception of social equality, an inherently racist vision in its every aspect, is worth reviving. Of course, I do not know whether Charles Murray knows he is a racist, just as I do not know what was in his mind when he burned a cross on a hill. But, when we put aside all of the distortions and exaggerations about his work, and examine its text closely, I do not see how we can escape the conclusion that Charles Murray thinks black people are inferior to white people, and that having them in socially, economically, and politically subordinate positions is acceptable. (And let me be clear: this is about black and white. Murray often praises Asians in order to prove that he is not a white supremacist. But with racism, the question is not: “Do you think you are the best race of all the races?” It is: “Do you hold bigoted and unfair perceptions of a particular race, and endorse their social subjugation?” There is a unique white bias against blacks in particular, as a result of the color line that has run through the entirety of American history.)
Some people may say that I have taken Charles Murray too seriously here. His work, so the argument goes, is self-evidently worthless and racist, so why bother dealing with his claims rigorously or carefully? Doesn’t a serious examination of Murray’s work “legitimize” him? By parsing his texts in detail, and making sure to be fair to them, I am spending more time than this man is worth. But while I understand this perspective, I do not share it. Charles Murray, like it or not, has already been legitimized by his very public presence. He is supported by a major think tank, his books are put out by mainstream publishers. While I believe his body of work is socially worthless and filled with a vile anti-black bigotry, and that anyone who publishes his books or invites him to speak is complicit in spreading prejudice, avoiding confronting his claims directly only helps bolster his case to the public that he is being persecuted by people who cannot deal with his arguments. Murray says that The Bell Curve is “relentlessly modest” and “mainstream science cautiously interpreted.” Unless one proves otherwise, people might be tempted to believe him.
Throughout American history, each generation has had its Charles Murray types. During the era of the founding, there were those like Jefferson who believed that since black people’s “griefs were transient,” one could break up their families and destroy their bodies. There were those who measured “negroid” skulls to prove black inferiority, those who believed, like Murray, that in a system of “natural” inequality everyone should find their place, and that some people’s places were in cotton fields or minstrel shows. And when, after centuries of being shackled, black intellect was finally set free to produce the most extraordinarily diverse body of musical composition in the history of sound, there were those who, terrified at the subversion of their dominance, scoffed at the supposed immorality and simplicity of “jungle music.” That particular ugly strain in American thought, the trivialization and dismissal of black genius, lingers in books like Murray’s Human Accomplishment and among those who use “multiculturalism” and “postmodernism” as derisive synonyms for black art.
Fortunately, the story of America is also the story of a defiant black resistance to these relentless attempts at diminution. It is not just the story of Thomas Jefferson, but the story of Benjamin Banneker, the scientist and ex-slave, whose ringing words made sure that Jefferson’s racism did not go unrefuted, and made sure that nobody could say Jefferson “didn’t know” the extent of his own monstrous crimes. Today, as Charles Murray attempts to revive Jeffersonianism, he should be met with an army of Benjamin Bannekers, ready to expose, with superior eloquence and moral force, the vicious lie of racial hierarchy and the flimsy idiocies of the “natural aristocrats.”