A Look at The Bell Curve’s Mainstream Commentators

Against the Current, No. 54, January/February 1995

Mike O'Neill

SINCE THE APPEARANCE of The Bell Curve, mainstream commentators have scrambled to differentiate themselves from Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. No reasonable liberal wants to be associated with the idea that African-Americans are at the bottom of U.S. society because they are actually inferior.

The problem is that The Bell Curve disturbs those of the center and center-left precisely because most — whites, at least — have trouble finding something to disagree with.

Christopher Winship of Harvard, for example, commented on Ben Wattenberg’s PBS program “Think Tank” (Nov., 6, 1994):

“I’m worried that the book is not going to be constructive because I think 95% of the discussion is going to be about race. I think I agree with Roger [Wilkins] that it would have been better if they had left those two chapters [about IQ and race] out of the book or of they had put them in appendices or kept them at home or whatever…”

Nathan Glazer in The New Republic (Oct. 31, 1994, 16) writes, “The only justification for making this case is that it is true, and I believe that is primarily what motivated Herrnstein and Murray. For this kind of truth, however, one can also ask, what good will come of it?”

Mainstream critics have distanced themselves from Herrnstein-Murray’s thinking chiefly in three ways: 1) they contend that environment is more important than the authors are willing to admit; 2) they point out that the same ethnic or racial group may evidence different IQ scores in different places and times; 3) they assert that educational programs for disadvantaged youngsters have been inadequately funded and badly managed.

These points, though valid, leave Herrnstein-Murray’s framework intact: Its commonality with mainstream ideology is substantial. Liberals have in common with Herrnstein and Murray the belief in a meritocracy, in which individuals succeed through merit, not class.

Consequently mainstream ideologues do not even attempt to argue that growing poverty, crime and other social problems result from class oppression–rather than “low intelligence.” Herrnstein and Murray’s liberal critics simply contend that some solution, whether educational or governmental, can probably increase the intelligence of “low-IQ people.”

For both The Bell Curve and such critics, social problems are thus the result of membership in the lowest “cognitive class,” rather than a function of oppression within the capitalist class structure. Murray makes this point quite clearly in his comment about the increasing polarization between the “cognitive elite” and those at the bottom of the IQ chain:

“We are going to have an eruption in the upper class, if you want to think of it that way, or what we call the cognitive elite in the book, which says, `let’s just get these people out of our hair.” (“Think Tank,” Oct. 23)

That mainstream critics accept such reasoning is witnessed by Richard Cohen’s comment, “The worst possible outcome is that [Herrnstein-Murray’s ideas] will be used to justify an abandonment of the American underclass, both white and black.” (“Meanly Misused,” Washington Post, Oct. 18)

But aren’t the working poor among the most oppressed of the working class? Isn’t the large U.S. lumpenproletariat a peculiar phenomenon of a society that has for centuries systematically excluded and discriminated against non-whites, immigrants and others, thereby creating the largest prison population in the capitalist world?

Since low intelligence is presumed the root of the problems, the social and political measures that have led to this situation suddenly lose their significance. Increasing class stratification and social polarization are not seen as problems inherent in capitalist class structure, but as the natural consequence of increasing concentration of the most intelligent people at the top. Within the mainstream, no one finds this reasoning circular.

Finally, while everyone has concentrated on chapters 13 and 14, connecting race with IQ levels, almost no one comments on chapters 21 and 22, where the authors spell out their vision of the future, explicitly connecting their intelligence-based notion of class with their politics.

“The possibilities for police surveillance and control of behavior are expanding rapidly,” and the “cognitive elite” will most likely accept these new police controls on the “underclass.” (The Bell Curve,” 524) Put into this perspective, The Bell Curve can be seen as the sinister and reactionary tract it really is.

ATC 54, January-February 1995