Charles Murray, co-author of the contentious 1994 book “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” doesn’t so much enter the fray as he stakes out his well-trod turf. In his latest offering, “Facing Reality: Two Truths About Race in America,” Murray doubles down on the assertions from the most controversial chapters in “The Bell Curve” by declaring two things: Black Americans, as a group, have lower cognitive ability than White Americans, and Black Americans — again, as a group — are more criminally violent than other races and ethnicities. His argument is straightforward in its proclamation that to resolve society’s wicked problems, we must first accept that group differences in cognition and adverse social behaviors, not systemic racism, bear a significant share of the responsibility for racial socioeconomic disparities.
The book opens with a short introduction that ends with a statement frequently heard over the last couple of years: “We are engaged in a struggle for America’s soul.” Murray goes on to say in the ensuing chapter that the nation’s soul is bound up in the founding ideals that affirm we are all created equal, with certain unalienable rights. He says forthrightly that he does “not dispute evidence of the racism that persists in American life” and acknowledges that racial injustice in criminal justice, for example, is a real problem in a system in need of reform. Indeed, he accepts that systemic problems — in education, in employment, in law enforcement — exist, but he makes it clear that while those things may be exacerbated by interpersonal racism, “the racism is not systemic.”
This lattermost claim is central to the book, a short volume with concise chapters that move through the details of his methodology and findings. Murray’s contention is that it’s not only incorrect but destructive to believe that systemic racism is the cause of inequality and injustice in our society. Instead, he argues that the biggest challenge to the nation’s soul is identity politics — a threat he labels as existential to the American experiment. And he sees identity politics as an instrument used by the left wing of the Democratic Party to ground individuals’ identities in the racial and gendered groups (among others) to which they belong and unmoor them from collective American life. For Murray, identity politics leads to public policy that assigns blame for society’s ills to systemic racism and ignores the “reality” and “truth” that differences in cognitive ability and violent crime are the prime factors when considering socioeconomic disparities among racial groups.
Murray does what trained scholars do by explaining his methodology and sharing with the reader how he arrived at his conclusions about Black and Hispanic people’s intelligence and criminality. Many will — some already have and should — question his analysis, but Murray ultimately attempts to convince the reader that he is only interpreting the data as objectively as possible. He goes to great lengths to prove it’s the numbers, not him, that suggest White and Asian Americans’ superior cognitive ability relative to Black and Hispanic Americans. It’s just the numbers that say Black and Hispanic Americans’ violent crime rates are higher. And it’s these two things that explain disparate outcomes among racial groups in employment, pay, education and the other aspects of society that fuel upward social mobility.
But it’s what Murray spends the least time on that actually offers the most insight about the group differences he focuses on so intently. In his dogged determination to prove the existence of a thing, his explanation for why such a thing might exist — if indeed it does — is left wanting. Even the data and his words belie his implication that these group differences are innate or a function of culture and not a product of discriminatory public policy. He casually observes that “race differences between [Blacks] and [Whites] in cognitive test scores narrowed significantly during the 1970s and 1980s.” And after spending a fair amount of space arguing that cognitive ability makes White Americans better workers than Black Americans, he points out data showing that Black Americans in the military have better combined measures of job performance than White Americans.
These instances are not anomalies, stray pieces in an otherwise complete puzzle. They are products of public policy that targeted systemic racism. The narrowing Murray observes took place just after the first generation of Black children grew up in an America where the historic Brown v. Board of Education was decided and where the Great Society legislation that included the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was implemented. And is it really surprising that the military, which was forcibly integrated by presidential executive order nearly two decades before the rest of America, would be a place where Black Americans’ job performance outpaced that of their White compatriots?
How curious that Black people no longer under the boot of Jim Crow would perform better on cognitive testing. And how strange that Black service members in a highly regulated, integrated and mission-oriented institution with strong cultural norms toward fairness would be exceptional workers. Murray provides examples of how public policy reduced racial group differences but insists on arguing that race-conscious policy is inappropriate and un-American.
He is right that racism remains a problem and that the nation faces an existential threat when racial groups employ partisan politics to demonize others. But he describes identity politics as the exclusive domain of progressives in the Democratic Party and gives short shrift to the rise of a violent White identity politics. Murray writes, “If working-class and middle-class Whites adopt identity politics, disaster follows.” If? Events in Charlottesville in 2017, when the Unite the Right rally turned violent, and on Jan. 6 of this year, when right-wing rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, suggest that disaster is already here.
Moreover, it has become increasingly apparent that identity politics is being welcomed by the Republican Party. It is no coincidence that some of the loudest voices on the right demanding that critical race theory no longer be taught at universities, or denouncing the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project as American sacrilege, are parroting the talking points of those who believe that a White Christian country is America in its purest form.
Those familiar with Murray and his work will leave his latest effort feeling more of whatever they felt about him and his claims before it. There will be few epiphanies and few converts. And it is certain that much of the conversation around the book will be critiquing its methodology and hotly contesting the insinuation that there is something inherently intellectually and culturally inferior about Black America — the two “truths” the nation supposedly must accept if it is to rediscover its creed. In making such an argument, Murray asks the reader to take the impassioned plea for a united America in his closing chapter with his professed dispassionate analysis of group difference. He writes as if his conclusions are just a product of cold calculus and doesn’t pause long enough to consider that perhaps it’s the assumptions in his theorem that are antithetical to the soul of America.
Two Truths About Race
By Charles Murray
151 pp. $25.99