Zack Beauchamp has started an interesting discussion on TP Ideas on how and why conservatives love to link race and IQ. Allow me to point out that they don’t just stop with linking race and IQ. They also delight in linking economic inequality in general to IQ, for the same reasons: to make conservatives appear to be the reasonable ones not afraid to face the hard truths about a troubling social problem.
It should be no surprise to anyone that Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, is once again taking the lead in making this case. In last year’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, he argued that to understand today’s economic inequality you need to go back to the 1960s. Since then, American society has been coming apart. Under the baleful influence of a relativistic, anything goes, 60s morality, America’s work ethic and honesty have been destroyed: the commitment to religion and the institution of marriage has been all but lost. As a result, the less-educated bottom 30 percent of whites have seen their economic and social fates diverge radically from the well-educated top 20 percent of whites. Weirdly, Murray dubs the former group “Fishtown,” in honor of a white working-class Philly neighborhood on the banks of the Delaware River; the latter group is named “Belmont,” after a tony Boston suburb.
A segment of Belmont whites — comprising perhaps 5 percent of the U.S. population — make up what Murray believes is the new upper class. These are the folks who hold the most powerful managerial and professional jobs in our social institutions and really run the country. Unlike in the good old days, they live in a culture that is separate and distinct from the rest of America (think upscale coffeehouses and restaurants, gourmet food stores, “green” consumer goods, highbrow news media, and “serious” movies and TV). They even live together in the same places, huddled together in what Murray calls “SuperZips,” where they can escape the unrefined masses, send their kids to good schools, and marry each other. Oddly, it is this very same new upper class that most fervently embraces the values of the 1960s — and yet they are doing very, very well.
And why are they doing so well? For Murray, it’s simple: they’re smarter! In his view, the sorting mechanisms in our technologically advanced society have become ever more efficient at ferreting out the cognitively gifted among us (elite colleges play a big role) and slotting them into positions where they can reap the market’s increasing return for high-level skills. So the cognitively advanced Belmont whites pull even farther away from the cognitively challenged Fishtown whites, who, you will remember, no longer have even their sturdy values of honesty, hard work, marriage, and traditional religion to rely upon.
As for the problems of blacks and Hispanics, Murray stands by his earlier work in The Bell Curve, where he argued that they’re just not as smart as whites and hence do more poorly in a society that increasingly rewards cognitive ability. So blacks and Hispanics are dumber than whites and lower class whites are dumber than upper class whites. That’s Murray’s view of the world and his overarching explanation for the ongoing pathologies of racial and class inequality.
None of this makes any sense. On the one hand, Murray laments over and over the depth of the inequality problem we face; some of the economic trends he documents are the sorts of things you’d expect a liberal think tank or academic to lament. Yet that overlap has not led him to pay the slightest attention to the careful work these think tanks and academics have done analyzing the growth in inequality (well-summarized in Timothy Noah’s book, The Great Divergence). Murray dismisses out of hand explanations rooted in structural shifts in the economy, slower growth in educational attainment, changes in labor market institutions (unions, the minimum wage), or really anything other than increasing rewards for smart people and declining morals for dumb people. Thus in his quest for a scientific, hard-headed explanation for inequality, he winds up rejecting all the real science on the issue.
Don’t be surprised if this view, as appalling and absurd as it seems, continues to surface in conservative circles. The temptation to don the mantle of science, even when it is fundamentally fraudulent, will, for some, be too great to resist.