The Common Good
December 1994-January 1995

Racism in Academic Robes

by Jim Wallis | December 1994-January 1995

When I first heard about The Bell Curve, the new book by Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein, I remembered an incident last year at Sojourners Neighborhood Center.

When I first heard about The Bell Curve, the new book by Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein, I remembered an incident last year at Sojourners Neighborhood Center. A little girl, new to the children's program, was talking to one of our volunteers. She said, "I'm ugly." "No you're not," replied the Sojourners worker. "You are a beautiful child. Why do you say that you're ugly?" The 8-year-old African-American girl replied, "I'm ugly because I'm black." Murray's book will most likely make her feel uglier and stupid.

Who does this book hurt? Those already on the bottom. Who does it help? The rich and powerful elites who are already on top. There is really nothing new here in this hot new book that preaches black genetic inferiority in relation to IQ and cites the genetic difference between blacks and whites as the primary reason for black disadvantage. Racial theorists like Jensen and Shockley in the late 1960s said much the same thing. Murray and his colleagues have merely given old racial notions new life.

Bluntly put, Murray and Herrn-stein's book is a pseudoscientific justification of wealth and power staying in the same hands. When racism appears in academic robes instead of hoods and sheets, it somehow is more acceptable and becomes a media phenomenon. At least hoods and sheets are more clear.

The Bell Curve chooses nature over nurture as the cause of our many social ills. Yet the book fails to take adequate account of the fact that the environment in which the black poor live is a virtual war zone. I live there. Murray does not. This book is the political and moral justification for continuing to make war on the black poor. It is the ideological cannon fodder for a policy assault against the disenfranchised.

There is the starkest contrast between the support system of family, community, school, and church in which I was nurtured as a white, middle-class child and the horrific conditions endured by the African-American children in whose neighborhood I now live. To say that such an environment of human destruction is not the central cause of low educational achievement and test scores is so utterly foolish, it could only be proposed by someone who has never been there. I would like to invite Murray to come and visit the children that he writes off to bad genes.

WHO WILL BUY this book and what color will they be? How many people will actually read this 850-page tome? Perhaps many white people will just put it up on their shelves as the presumed intellectual evidence for why "those people" have problems that are mostly their own fault and for which the rest of "us" bear no responsibility.

Blaming the oppressed for their oppression is nothing new. It's as old as the Bible, which speaks to the problem directly. People are poor, according to the Bible, because of oppression, which was a biblical word long before Karl Marx wrote it down. And the prophets said that a nation's righteousness was determined not by its GNP, military power, or high IQs, but by how it treated the poorest and most vulnerable in its midst.

Murray's arguments and conclusions are simply not supported by the evidence. The book leaves too many unanswered questions. What does IQ actually mean and how accurately is it measured? Why should greater intelligence (which, no one would argue, some individuals have over others) result in a better quality of life and resources for those who have it? Is smarter better? Who says? By what moral criteria?

What moral value says that Murray's "cognitive elite" should rule and get the greatest rewards? Are there other values that are equally or more important than intelligence? What about integrity, honesty, compassion, kindness, service, and even love? Such characteristics can be found in abundance in many of the people who are low on Murray's scale.

Murray's book is less a scientific statement than it is a political and even theological argument on behalf of the strong over the weak. As such it is both bad politics and bad theology. Murray claims he has shown courage in saying the things he has said, and insists we must not use the "r" word here. Let me be as bold as Murray thinks he has been: Charles Murray's book, The Bell Curve, is a racist book. I don't know Murray and can't see into his heart or intentions. But the results, use, and consequences of his book will be decidedly racist, and that is enough to make the charge.

The oppositon to Murray should not come solely from African Americans, who must again rise to defend themselves. He should also face rage from white people who are diligently trying to build community across racial lines in this troubled nation. We must oppose what Charles Murray wants for America.

Murray's argument will be defeated more by theology than by politics. Only language rooted in the religious proposition of the sacred value of all human life will ultimately triumph over the changing cultural constructions used to divide us-IQ, beauty, youth, height and weight, or skin color. Biblical standards challenge all such constructions.

Only a theologically rooted discourse will ultimately defeat the racist Right. If there is any religion left in the Religious Right, we should hear a denunciation soon of The Bell Curve by the Christian Coalition. We're waiting.

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