The Bell Curve is sending shock waves through America

November 11, 1994

Charles Murray, the conservative social scientist whose book The Bell Curve is sending shock waves through America is not surprised the book is causing a furore. In fact he is relishing the debate.

"Here was a case of stumbling on to a subject that had all the allure of the forbidden," he is quoted as saying. "Some of the things we read to do this work, we literally hid when we were on planes and trains. We were furtively peering at the stuff."

Almost everyone who is anyone has waded into the debate. President Clinton said he disagrees with the thesis in the book by Murray and Richard Herrnstein, who died just before publication, that blacks are about 15 IQ points less intelligent than whites, and that this difference is probably based more on genetic factors than environmental ones.

William Raspberry, the Washington Post's Pulitzer prize-winning black columnist, has denounced Mr Murray as "just a balding 51-year-old kid who loves to throw stink bombs".

None of this was as important as The New Republic's decision to devote a whole issue of its magazine to the book. That caused a furore at the political weekly, which was resolved only when an 11-page article by Murray was accompanied by 19 mostly critical rebuttals with such headlines as "Dumbskulls" and "Neo-Nazis".

The most incendiary aspect of the book is the link it makes between race and IQ. It goes on to argue that because of immigration by ethnic groups who are deemed less intelligent and because of high fertility among poor black people, the average American IQ is falling. America is becoming polarised between a white cognitive elite which is intermarrying and passing on its good genes to its offspring and a black underclass becoming ever poorer, imprisoned and dependent on government aid.

Instead of concluding, as Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson does, that disparities in IQ should be a "wake-up call" to America to improve education for blacks, the authors recommend doing away with affirmative action on the grounds that it poisons race relations by promoting unqualified blacks. They want to drop remedial education which they say does not work and spend the money educating talented students that the economy needs. They want to change immigration policy to prevent the influx of less intelligent people, and end welfare and other government benefits which they think encourage women with low IQs to have babies.

In short, they favour reducing the power of central government and returning it to the neighbourhood where people can become involved in "the stuff of life -- birth, death, raising children, making a living, helping friends, singing in the local choir or playing on the softball team".

That is the kind of neighbourhood in which Murray grew up in Newton, Iowa. Only in the 1950s Murray was not the conservative he is today. After an undergraduate degree at Harvard his latent Mid-western distrust of government began to flower during a stint with the Peace Corps in Thailand.

It became further reinforced at the American Institute for Research in Washington where he evaluated social programmes and found they did not work.

Today Murray is considered to be house intellectual to the American Right. His 1984 book Losing Ground was one of the most influential books of the Reagan era. It argued that the unintended consequence of welfare was to promote dependency and illegitimacy, not only for blacks but for whites too. The welfare safety net should be abolished, said Murray, because it encouraged failure.

Murray's work is always presented with pages of charts and tables, and he is taken seriously by both sides of the political spectrum, partly because of the way he marshals his evidence but also because of his formidable intelligence. He has prophesied a coming white underclass because of the number of unmarried white women having babies. President Clinton, while disagreeing with Murray's answers, said the warning about out-of-wedlock births "did the country a great service".

But there are signs of organisation against the Murray philosophy. Earlier this year 79 academics signed a statement condemning the proposal to abolish welfare. It would increase the incidence of homelessness and hunger among children, they said. And Donna Shalala, secretary of health and human services, has compared Murray's solution with Jonathan Swift's satirical recommendation that society eat poor children.

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