For whatever reason, conservatives can’t get over their fascination with race and IQ. The recent revelation that a lead author of the Heritage Foundation’s immigration plan study had written his graduate dissertation at Harvard on the intellectual inferiority of Hispanic immigrants is merely the latest in a string of controversies, starting with the publication of The Bell Curve in 1994, prompted by conservative speculation (depressingly common in the immigration debate) about links between race and IQ.
These spats don’t generally endear conservatism to the general public, so it’s not like this is a political move. So why is it that the right-of-center intelligentsia keeps coming back to this topic? I’d suggest two reasons: first, a link between race and IQ moots the moral imperative for public policy aimed at addressing systemic poverty; second, it allows conservatives to take up the mantle of disinterested, dispassionate intellectual they so love.
Jason Richwine, the newly controversial Heritage author, makes the first point explicitly in his dissertation. Richwine argues that the genetically low IQ of Latinos is responsible for the persistent fact of Latino poverty; in his words, the existence of “a larger and increasingly visible Hispanic underclass…cannot be understood without considering IQ.”
One of the reasons this is true, Richwine suggests, is that Latinos are too dumb to realize that remaining on welfare is hurting them. Richwine points to a real hole in the classic conservative theory that welfare is entrenching poverty — that people must be able to realize that they can make more money in the long run by trying to get a job — and plugs it by arguing that Latinos are, like most unintelligent people, incapable of weighing future rewards against short-term costs. “In order to explain the creation of the underclass,” he puts it in typically euphemistic fashion, “the welfare theory requires present-oriented recipients, a common trait in low-IQ populations.”
This vein of argument was pioneered by Richwine’s mentor, Bell Curve author Charles Murray. Murray’s research focused more on the purported unintelligence of African-Americans, but his conclusions about its role in sustaining poverty were similar. Murray has taken this conclusion and used it to argue against everything from affirmative action to essentially all policy interventions aimed at reducing economic inequality. It’s easy to see how this argument works — if some people are less intelligent than others, as a consequence of either genetics or “underclass culture,” then government programs aren’t likely to help equalize society — creating an economically more level playing field will only cause the most talented to rise to the top again. Inequality is thus natural and ineradicable; poverty might be helped at the margins, but helping the unintelligent will be fraught with unintended consequences.
Moreover, this framing allows conservatives to explain the obviously racial character of American poverty without having to concede the continued relevance of racism to American public life. If it’s really the case that people with certain backgrounds simply aren’t as smart as others, then it makes sense that they’d be less successful as a group. What strikes progressives as offensively racial inequality thus becomes naturalized for conservatives in the same way that inequality and poverty writ large do.
Not only does positing a link between race and IQ provide conservatives with an overarching intellectual framework that supports their public policy preferences, it does so while allowing them to claim the mantle of objective scientists persecuted for telling “hard truths.” One of the founding myths of modern conservatism is that conservatives are hard-headed rationalists, while liberals let their soft-minded care for the downtrodden get in the way of rational public policy. Race and IQ theory, despite being based in truly shoddy data, presents itself as neutral social science, allowing conservatives to take refuge in the “it’s not our fault that the truth is what it is” argument when dismissing public policy ideas to take on American racism.
Moreover, positioning race and IQ as a “hard truth” allows conservatives to cast themselves as defenders of free intellectual inquiry in the face of stifling political correctness. After John Derbyshire, a 12 year contributor to National Review and self-described “race realist,” was fired last year for penning a particularly offensive screed, his colleague Mark Steyn defended Derbyshire on the grounds that one should never concede to PC zealotry:
My default position is that I’d rather put up with whatever racist/sexist/homophobic/Islamophobic/whateverphobic excess everybody’s got the vapors about this week than accept ever tighter constraints on “acceptable” opinion….The net result of Derb’s summary execution by NR will be further to shrivel the parameters, and confine debate in this area to ever more unreal fatuities. He knew that mentioning the Great Unmentionables would sooner or later do him in, and, in an age when shrieking “That’s totally racist!” is totally gay, he at least has the rare satisfaction of having earned his colors.
Or, as Andrew Sullivan (who first published a symposium on the Bell Curve whilst editor of The New Republic) puts it, “the study of intelligence [has] been strangled by P.C. egalitarianism.” In a world where conservatives constantly under fire for know-nothingism on topics like climate change and evolution, standing up for the so-called “science” on race and IQ allows them to position liberals and liberal anti-racism as the enemies of reason.