More on Ryan and Murray

March 13, 2014 11:10 p.m.

At Slate Dave Weigel picks up and gently critiques my post below on Paul Ryan, being misunderstood on race and relying on the work of Charles Murray. The gist of my argument was that it is easy to be ‘misunderstood’ when you use racially loaded language to describe the ingrained, intergenerational laziness of men from the “inner city”, especially when you cite the work of Charles Murray, a man best known for his 1994 book The Bell Curve, which argued that a key reason for persistent disparities between blacks and whites in America (test scores, incomes, et al.) is the genetically-based mental inferiority of black people.

Weigel notes that it’s not necessarily clear that Ryan was referencing The Bell Curve. He might just as well have been talking about Losing Ground, the critique of liberal social policies, particularly welfare, which put Murray on the map in the 1980s or his more recent work on the ‘white underclass’.

To which I would say, maybe? Who knows? And really, who cares? At the risk of sounding wrenchingly corny, The Bell Curve is a bell you simply cannot un-ring.

As Joan Walsh notes here, in the years since publishing The Bell Curve, Murray has slightly softened his argument. He now refers to IQ and what he believes is the mental inferiority of African-Americans not as ‘genetic’ but rather as ‘intractable.’ By this Murray seems to mean that there are too many factors playing into intelligence to definitively say genetics are behind what he claims are the mental/intellectual shortcomings of black people. The deficit is simply ‘intractable’ – by which he means that whatever mix of genetics, culture and circumstance create it, nothing can be done to change it in any meaningful way.

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The Bell Curve isn’t something you can write off as one might a bad novel from an otherwise great writer. It is connected to all his other work on social policy and goes to the heart what he believes about black America. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that The Bell Curve made uncomfortably explicit what was implicit in Losing Ground.

As I noted, you can set the issue of race aside entirely and simply see Murray as the chief exponent of neo-Social Darwinism: that any efforts to ameliorate society’s disparities and injustices only makes them worse. And we’re based leaving the marginalized to ditch their ghetto ways if they can and if nothing else not subsidize their having so many children.

But back to main point. If you say urban poverty is largely the result of a ghetto culture and “inner city” male aversion to work, people might jump to the conclusion you’re trotting out some hoary stereotypes about black men being chronically lazy. If you cite the work of Charles Murray in making these arguments and using this loaded language, they’ll probably feel even less need to give you the benefit of the doubt.

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