| JONATHAN TILOVEc. Newhouse News Service
January 29, 1995
WASHINGTON – Don’t ask Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, for whom “The Bell Curve” tolls. He hasn’t read it. “I don’t know anything about it,” drawls the Ph.D. with presidential ambitions, flinching at the very mention of the incendiary best seller.
“The Bell Curve” may have seared the national consciousness with its argument that whites are on average smarter than blacks, but among the new kings of Capitol Hill, who only a season ago thought co-author Charles Murray was the greatest thing since white bread, the 845-page tome appears on its way to becoming the official doorstop of the Republican ascendancy.
“It’s irrelevant,” says William Kristol, formerly chief of staff to Vice President Quayle and now leading egghead of the GOP. House Republican Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas, hasn’t read it and couldn’t comment. Likewise House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill. “It’s one of the jillions of things I haven’t gotten to.” Ditto Speaker Newt Gingrich, though spokesman Tony Blankley says Gingrich has read enough about “The Bell Curve” to know one thing: “It’s completely wrong.”
To many on the right (and especially those who don’t have to run for office), Murray remains as he was before the book was published an intellectual Lancelot who more than any other individual has the liberal welfare state on the run. His dragons are theirs, and now he has now further thrilled them by writing the most politically incorrect book of a generation.
But as the sharp criticism by Gingrich and the read-no-evil silence of Gramm and the others demonstrate, there is as yet no consistent Republican take on the book, even among people who otherwise approve of Murray’s attacks on welfare and affirmative action.
Democrats can simply dismiss the book out of hand. As President Clinton put it, “it goes against our entire history and our whole tradition.”
But the lasting irony of the “The Bell Curve” may be the fissures it reveals on fundamental issues of race within a Republican Party that has profited politically over the last 30 years by throwing its lot with white America while leaving it to the Democrats to tear and bleed on race.
Already, a growing chorus of conservative opinion argues that Gingrich is right, that the book’s conclusions about racial differences in intelligence are poisonous, that they could undermine efforts to reform welfare and rein in affirmative action just as those goals are for the first time within reach.
As Glenn Loury, a leading black conservative, wrote in a recent symposium on the book in the National Review, the co-authors of “The Bell Curve” Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein have written themselves into “a moral and political cul de sac. I see no reason for serious conservatives to join them there.”
But not everyone believes Murray will be that easily written off.
Writing in Commentary, as mainstream a conservative figure as Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, predicts that “even if only half or one quarter of this book endures the assault, its implications will be as profound for the beginning of the new century as Michael Harrington’s discovery of `the other America’ was for the final part of the old.”
And Murray argues that what he reports in his book about racial differences is merely a more rigorous and refined version of what many whites, whether they prefer the opera or the Opry, already think and talk about among themselves.
The subtitle of “The Bell Curve” is “Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.”
In their book, Murray and Herrnstein argue that the United States is becoming increasingly stratified by intelligence. More than ever, they say, smart people rise to the top, regardless of the social class they are born into. There they find jobs that increasingly put a premium on, and pay a premium for, intelligence.
Meanwhile, the less intelligent fall behind, and the least intelligent are the most likely to fall into crime and welfare and illegitimacy.
The result, they warn, is that America is to an ever greater extent being run by smart people who have very little contact with anyone other than each other, even as the least smart people swell the ranks of an increasingly burdensome and despised underclass.
Now, if Herrnstein and Murray had stopped there they would have written a provocative book, but it is unlikely, for example, that Murray would have been pictured on the cover of The New York Times Sunday Magazine labeled, “The Most Dangerous Conservative.”
Instead, Herrnstein and Murray go on to argue that the elite is disproportionately white and the underclass disproportionately black precisely because whites on average have higher IQs than blacks.
Furthermore, they argue that the racial difference is a product of both genes and environment, but that the evidence does not exist to say how much of the difference is genetic and how much environmental. However, they contend it makes no practical difference because, they say, as the failures of the social welfare efforts of the last 30 years demonstrate, the environmental impact on intelligence is not any more malleable than the genetic.
In an interview, Murray says that he believes that most of the many whites who he says are engaged in a subterranean discussion of racial differences, “still want deeply not to be racist.”
“The same guy who is scared to death of black crime and who is moving into a gated community, if tomorrow he interviews a black guy who comes in to apply for a job and he looks like he can do the work, that same person will jump at the chance to hire that black guy without any federal compulsion to do it,” says Murray.
In fact, in their book Herrnstein and Murray argue that, even if the racial difference were entirely genetic something they do not claim to be the case “we cannot think of a legitimate argument why any encounter between individual whites and blacks need be affected by the knowledge that an aggregate ethnic difference in measured intelligence is genetic instead of environmental.”
To which the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a conservative theologian and Murray friend, replies in the National Review symposium: “There is an astonishing naivete in the suggestion that we should have a nice polite national conversation about the alleged cognitive inferiority of blacks.”
Or as historian Eugene Genovese asks in that same symposium,“What world do they live in?”
“Employers would have to be either saints or idiots not to be influenced by the collective statistics in choosing between competing individuals,” writes Genovese. And, he adds, “Individual blacks would have to rise to heroic stature to resist such an assault on their self-confidence.”
Loury, a professor of economics at Boston University, says he is not one to raise the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow at every convenience. But, he says, for Murray to argue that it doesn’t matter whether the difference in average scores on IQ tests between blacks and whites is a consequence of their DNA or their history in America is absurd and one totally unmindful of how often in American history the consequence of oppression has been used to justify the oppression.
“It’s a peculiar mind that fails to fathom how destructive that can be,” says Loury.
“The Bell Curve” also speaks to all the hair-trigger issues now coming to the fore.
For example, while there is growing sentiment for limiting immigration, most advocates for that position do not argue it on the basis of race. “The Bell Curve,” however, does just that, insisting that the heavy influx of Latinos whose average IQ falls between that of whites and blacks is bringing down the national IQ.
Similarly, there is growing momentum to end racial preferences in hiring.
But few of the leading opponents of affirmative action would argue, as “The Bell Curve” does, that, taking IQ into account, blacks were already adequately represented in professional and technical jobs even before enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“It’s throwing gasoline on the fire,” says Linda Chavez, who was a colleague of Murray at the Manhattan Institute and now presides over the Center for Equal Opportunity.
Chavez says she opposes affirmative action precisely because she thinks it is racist and condescending toward people who can make it on their own. But, she says, if she believed “The Bell Curve,” she might have to support affirmative action to ensure that America did not devolve into racial castes.
Clint Bolick, who torpedoed Lani Guinier as the “quota queen” and is now crafting the coming Republican legislative assault on racial preferences, also thinks buying into “The Bell Curve” would undermine that effort.
“I really worry that Republican motives have always been subject to suspicion, and this will make it only more so,” says Bolick.