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Defending The Bell Curve

Murray and Herrnstein Might Be Unpopular, But Their Points Hit Home

By G. BRENT Mcguire

"There is but one practical and feasible program in handling the great problem of the feeble-minded. That is, as the best authorities are agreed, to prevent the birth of those who would transmit imbecility to their descendants."

Copies of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life reached bookstores a little over a week ago and already the word is in: This book is bad.

So far, the book's authors, Charles Murray '65 and the late Harvard Professor Richard Herrnstein, have been called "dangerous" (by The New York Times Magazine), "intellectual racists" (by the author Hugh Pearson), and "Neo-Nazis" (by Jeffrey Rosen and Charles Lane of The New Republic).

But despite the fierceness with which many have attacked the book, few have convincingly responded to any of the arguments Murray and Herrnstein present.

For instance, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., writing in The New Republic, considers pernicious the book's argument "that the gap between Black haves and have-nots is a reflection of natural variations within the group and is not a function of the cut-backs in the very federal programs that helped to create the new Black middle class in the first place."

But what cut-backs? Three trillion 1990 dollars have been spent on social programs since 1960. Even during the Republican years, real social welfare spending rose 44 percent. Despite all this largesse, we still had the L.A. riots.

What's Professor Gates's answer? More money on the same failed programs.

One failed program in particular reveals how hypocritical liberals are in castigating Murray and Herrnstein. Murray and Herrnstein are wicked men, we are told, because they dare to look at people in terms of groups. But liberals, at least since Marx, have not only viewed people in terms of groups, but have argued that individuals are entitled to certain benefits simply by virtue of their membership in an "oppressed" group. Liberals call this illiberal dogma "affirmative action."

In their book, Murray and Herrnstein have asked a simple question: If, as affirmative action exponents assume, whites and minorities are fundamentally equal as groups in ability, and the major force preventing Blacks and other minorities from attaining equivalent levels of socioeconomic success is discrimination, why must admissions officers lower relative admission standards for Blacks in order to achieve proportional representation?

As the authors make plain, there is no question colleges are engaging in "race-norming." Here at Harvard, for example, the mean Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) score for Blacks in the class of 1996 was 95 points lower than the mean SAT score for whites in the same class, according to the Consortium on Financing Higher Education.

And Harvard is actually one of the least aggressive among the top 20 schools in holding Blacks to lower standards. The average edge for a Black applicant to an elite college in 1992 was 180 points.

Liberals argue that this sort of double standard is justified by aggregate economic differences between Blacks and whites. Blacks as a whole are less equipped economically than whites, and this difference carries consequences.

An underprivileged youth who grew up in Roxbury and scores a 1200 on the SAT may represent more of an achievement than a white in a very privileged home on Beacon Hill who scores slightly higher. The advantage goes to the former. In these cases, the liberals are consistent with their dogma.

But how much of an advantage is reasonable? According to Murray and Herrnstein's examination of those within a sample of roughly 12,500 persons aged 14 to 22 who went on to four-year colleges, the Beacon Hill white who scored in the 57th percentile on the SAT has the same chance of gaining admission as a Roxbury Black who scored at the 12th percentile (an edge to the Black of over 140 points).

More perversely, however, an underprivileged white who scored in the 36th percentile has the same chance as a Beacon Hill Black who scored in the 17th percentile (an edge to the more privileged Black of roughly 80 points).

But, in fact, there is no reason to "adjust" SAT scores for either race or privilege. Colleges use the SAT in making admissions decisions for good reason. The SAT does correlate with college performance more strongly than any other measure available.

If the SAT were biased, we would expect it to underpredict Black and Latino performance. In study after study, however, the SAT has been shown to, if anything, overpredict minority performance.

The real consequence of affirmative action is the aggravation of racial tensions.

Instead of demanding more affirmative action, Murray and Herrnstein take a step back and consider the underlying assumption that, as groups, whites and Blacks are fundamentally equal in ability.

What they find is what scholars in the field of psychology have known for the last 30 years: there is a significant difference (on the order of one standard deviation, or 15 points) between the average I.Q.s of whites and Blacks.

While there is a debate over what I.Q. really means, there is little question that whatever I.Q. measures has a lot to do with what is involved in becoming a doctor or a lawyer or a professor.

If the average I.Q. of a white is higher than the average I.Q. of a Black, then we ought not expect there to be, absent discrimination, a proportional representation of whites and Blacks at each level of society. Therefore, a disproportionate number of whites in the academic profession does not necessarily mean, as our legal system presently claims, that there is anti-Black discrimination in the university.

Liberals ask about the effect environment has on I.Q. As the nature versus nurture argument has played out so far, Murray's and Herrnstein's critics have continually missed the point.

Murray and Herrnstein have never said that intelligence is solely a genetic attribute. With intelligence, there is clearly an interplay between genes and environment. The bone of contention is not the environmental element, but the existence of a genetic component at all.

Murray and Herrnstein, based on the overwhelming evidence collected over the last century, believe that genes do explain a part of the difference between Blacks and whites. Even to the extent that better socioeconomic conditions correspond to higher I.Q.'s, they correspond to higher I.Q.'s both for Blacks and whites.

In fact, the gap between upper-class whites and upper-class Blacks (although the I.Q.'s of each group are higher) is actually wider than the gap between lower-class whites and lower-class Blacks. This fact, borne out by decades of scholarship, strongly suggests a genetic component. But even if intelligence were in some significant or concrete way the product of environment, Murray and Herrnstein argue persuasively in the most recent New Republic that the burden of proof is on their critics to point to a "single educational, preschool, day care or prenatal program that is not already being tried" that could be shown to enhance one's I.Q.

In this light, the authors of The Bell Curve appropriately advocate a reduction in centralized government and the return of control to communities and of rights to individuals.

It is extremely ironic that the outcry over The Bell Curve has emanated mostly from liberal circles, since it is precisely the liberal ideology of group rights and governmental social engineering which could make the facts which Murray and Herrnstein point out so terribly dangerous.

This brings us back to the quotation with which this editorial began. It is taken not from The Bell Curve or from any of its sources, but from Margaret Sanger's Pivot of Civilization, published in 1922. Margaret Sanger, as many readers may know, is the celebrated founder of Planned Parenthood, and an unrepentant eugenicist.

Another editor of The Crimson, Brad Edward White, ended a review of The Bell Curve by asking "thinking conservatives" to reconsider their "urge to dismantle government." It seems ironic that Mr. White would consider strengthening the likes of Hitler, Stalin, and Sanger's favorite tool: a powerful central government meant to administer a program of eugenics.

But, then again, without the federal government, we wouldn't have Planned Parenthood. And without Planned Parenthood, we wouldn't have two Black babies dead for every three that are born.

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