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Sharon Smith

Letter from the US

Alarm bells

(January 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 182, January 1995, p. 24
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Politicians are always looking for new ways to justify their racist and anti working class policies – especially when they are in the process of launching a new wave of attacks. US lawmakers used the theory of eugenics, the so-called ‘science’ of improving the human gene pool, to justify their crackdown on immigration and forced sterilisation of the poor earlier in this century. Now the same eugenicist arguments are being resurrected to justify a new set of attacks – including Republican proposals to throw all teenage mothers and their children off welfare, and to deny most social and medical services to both legal and illegal immigrants, as in California’s new Proposition 187 law.

The Bell Curve is a new book which has provided the ‘scientific’ rationalisation. The authors, Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein, argue that US society has become more and more egalitarian during this century. This has meant, they say, that the most intelligent people become rich and powerful, while the poor languish in poverty, have illegitimate children, become dependent on welfare and commit street crimes.

Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately poor, according to the authors, not because of racist discrimination but because they are less intelligent. Furthermore, they argue, intelligence is mainly determined by ‘genes that people inherit’, so the poor are incapable of ever improving their status. Not surprisingly, therefore, they oppose affirmative action (positive discrimination) programmes for racial minorities, which they think poison race relations by promoting unqualified blacks.

The only solution, according to Murray and Herrnstein, is to prevent the poorest people from reproducing new generations of inferiors. The Bell Curve suggests that policy makers should discuss ‘how to manipulate the fertility of people with high and low IQs.’ But unlike earlier eugenicists, Murray and Herrnstein say they oppose forced sterilisation. Instead they would make poor families go hungry and homeless, by cutting off all welfare, food stamps and subsidised housing to the poor.

They would have the government stop spending money on remedial education and instead spend more money on children with high IQs. They also worry about ‘an immigrant population with low cognitive ability’, and would stop admitting immigrants who score lower than average on IQ tests, just like the eugenicists in the 1920s.

Had it appeared at another time, The Bell Curve may have been dismissed as the right wing stupidity that it is. Instead, it has been treated as a work of great intellectual importance, even by most of its critics. The New York Times called it a work of ‘serious scholarship’, while the Economist described it as‘fascinating’.

The Financial Times, meanwhile, praised it for ‘attempting to smash what has become a ridiculous taboo on open discussion of IQdifferences’.

But there is nothing scholarly about The Bell Curve. It is a political treatise written to advance the agenda of its authors – two right wing ideologues posing as scientists. Over the last two decades, Murray and Herrnstein earned a reputation as racist crackpots, who espoused views too extreme even for Ronald Reagan to support at the time. Back in 1971 Herrnstein argued that those who experience economic misfortune should blame their genes. He wrote, ‘The tendency to be unemployed may run in the genes of a family about as certainly as bad teeth do now.’

Murray has built his career as an enemy of social programmes, especially those which benefit people who are poor or black. For well over a decade he has been obsessed with attacking single mothers on welfare, calling out of wedlock births, ‘the single most important social problem of our time’. He argues that the US government should end all welfare support to single mothers and their children. He even believes that fathers should refuse to make child support payments to unwed mothers – as a form of punishment. Murray says of unwed mothers, ‘I don’t want society to say to her, “You made a mistake.” I want society to say, “You did wrong”.’

Though Murray insists, ‘I really don’t think I’m a racist,’ his actions show otherwise. As a teenager he and a group of white friends burned a cross in his home town of Newton, Iowa – a town with only two black families. In the proposal for his 1984 book, Losing Ground, Murray stated, ‘A huge number of well-meaning whites fear that they are closet racists, and this book tells them that they are not. It’s going to make them feel better about things they already think but do not know how to say.’

For the record, Murray is also disdainful of poor whites. He describes the poorest 10 percent of the white population as ‘white trash ... sitting at home in their undershirts drinking, and they really didn’t care anyway.’ Murray claims that scrapping the welfare system altogether would mean that ‘generous people will have stopped kidding themselves.’

Moreover, Murray’s and Herrnstein’s research methods and sources were less than scientific. They relied on the research of others like themselves – who use pseudo-science to advance the cause of racism for the ‘evidence’ given as proven fact in The Bell Curve. Of the researchers cited in the book’s bibliography 17 were contributors to the journal Mankind Quarterly – a journal of ‘racial history’ founded by white supremacists, Nazi sympathisers and supporters of apartheid.

One of The Bell Curve’s research sources is Richard Lynn, an associate editor of Mankind Quarterly, who they describe as ‘a scholar of racial and ethnic differences’. Lynn once wrote, ‘If a nation with a more advanced, more specialised or in any way superior set of genes mingles with, instead of exterminating, an inferior tribe, then it commits racial suicide.’

The Bell Curve praises the ‘convincing empirical reports’ of Canadian psychologist J. Phillipe Rushton. Rushton asserts that whites and east Asians are more intelligent, have larger brains, smaller penises and lower sex drives than those with lesser intelligence. In a recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine he said quite plainly, ‘Even if you take things like athletic ability or sexuality, not to reinforce stereotypes, but it’s a trade off: more brain or more penis. You can’t have everything.’

Bizarre as it may seem, many of those who advance such reactionary ideas are getting a hearing today. Throughout the 1980s, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein operated mainly behind the scenes, providing intellectual fodder for the right wing of the Republican Party. But with the publication of The Bell Curve they have emerged as the Republicans’ ideological hitmen. The central theme, ‘the ideology of equality has done some good, but most of its effects are bad’, is music to the ears of those who want to do away with all the gains won by working class people since the 1930s.

Perhaps more significantly, many of Murray’s and Herrnstein’s ideas are now being echoed by middle of the road politicians whose own racist tirades about crime, immigration and welfare helped bring Murray and Herrnstein into the mainstream in recent years. Bill Clinton himself recently heaped praise upon Murray, saying he ‘did the country a great service’ in warning about the sharp rise in children born out of wedlock. By aping the ideas of the Republican right wing, liberals only opened the door to them.

Scientific racism has been used since the days of slavery:

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