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Writing About Racism

By Hallie Z. Levine

* Critiques of The Bell Curve vary in content and style.

Who would have thought that more than 800 pages of glossy academic racism could have generated such a national debate?

Yet scholar Charles A. Murray '65 and the late Harvard Professor Richard J. Hernstein have hit the country's raw nerve with the publication of The Bell Curve, a book which suggests a link between race and intelligence.

In early August, the Boston Globe was predicting that the book would provoke an "intellectual fire-fight" upon its October publication. When it hit the bookstands, over one hundred articles in newspapers and magazines immediately questioned whether The Bell Curve was solid scientific research or racist propaganda.

The theories behind The Bell Curve aren't new, although social Darwinism isn't exactly trendy nowadays. But notions of racial supremacy were the justification for such barbarous acts as slavery and the Nazi genocide, and Murray and Herrnstein's views are chillingly reminiscent of the most divisive of racial theories.

For the past month, major political and academic figures have reacted with cautious outrage. And while basic criticisms against The Bell Curve have been leveled--namely that it is absolutely ludicrous to use the two scholars' data as justification of scrapping social programs such as welfare and Head Start--many of the fundamentals of its research have remained unchallenged.

Until Harvard Professor of Geology Steven Jay Gould launched an attack in the November 28 issue of The New Yorker. Gould, a leading evolutionary biologist, hit the mark when he denounced The Bell Curve as a "manifesto of conservative ideology." The book is not an academic treatise in social theory and population genetics, he argues, and furthermore "the book's inadequate and biased treatment of data displays its primary purpose--advocacy."

Gould isn't afraid to challenge the basis of The Bell Curve's questionable research, something which many of his colleagues have shied away from. Lay reviewers, he notes, have let themselves become frightened by the statistics and charts thrown at them by Murray and Herrnstein, materials which are filled with errors and misapplied research.

It does seem strange that more attention hasn't been focused on the fact that the two scholars gathered much of their data from questionable sources. In the acknowledgments to The Bell Curve, for example, Murray and Herrnstein say they "benefited especially from the advice" of Richard Lynn, a scholar who in 1991 wrote in the neo-eugenicist journal Mankind Quarterly that "the Caucasoids and the Mongoloids are the only two races that have made any significant contribution to civilization." Then there's J. Phillipe Rushton, a Canadian psychologist who suggested in 1986 that Nazi Germany's military prowess was connected to the purity of its gene pool. A rogue's gallery of scholars, to say the least.

You have to wonder what the nation's reaction would be if those 800 pages had been authored by Afrocentrists who sang the praises of black supremacy. It would have been dismissed--and rightly so--as outrageous racism, no matter how many charts and stat sheets had been presented to the general public. Yet the data presented by the Harvard-pedigreed Herrnstein and Murray is debated analyzed, and publicized not as bigotry, but as provocative research that deserves thorough discussion on Nightline and on the front pages of the New York Times.

It's amazing how far you can get by ringing the bell of racism.

Hallie Z. Levine's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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