The Reality of "Race Realism"
And why it's the worst possible way to fight "wokeness."
Amidst concerns that America’s social justice revolution threatens liberalism’s foundational values of pluralism and free debate, controversial social scientist Charles Murray charges into the fray with a new book titled Facing Reality: Two Truths about Race in America. Murray, 78, says he has written the book because he believes the American experiment is in danger, its foundational principles threatened by identity politics. Unlike, I suspect, most of Murray’s critics, I agree with him that the “woke” threat to liberalism is real. But Murray’s prescriptions amount to destroying the village in order to save it.
Here, I should pause to acknowledge that I have only read excerpts from Facing Reality, as well as two detailed and at least somewhat sympathetic reviews: Robert Verbruggen’s for National Review and Razib Khan’s for Quillette. I also watched a 90-minute interview with Murray by Coleman Hughes, who was critical but respectful and gave Murray every opportunity to explain his views. (Hughes, who is black, is also a strong critic of progressive racial politics.)
The interview convinced me that Murray’s project is an utter train wreck. That was before I saw some of his latest forays into Twitter polemics, more on which later.
(Another disclaimer: I have met Murray several times—going back to 1990, when we were both at a Cato Institute conference in Moscow—and have had several brief, cordial email exchanges with him on professional matters.)
The racial difference discourse in some segments of what one may call the “anti-woke” or “heterodox” community is a tough subject—both because of how fraught the underlying issues are and because this discourse has been a target of “cancel culture” in ways that raise legitimate concerns about free exchange of ideas. Murray himself was not only shouted down but physically mobbed at Middlebury College in Vermont in 2017 (when giving a talk on a non-race-related topic). Last year, psychologist Bo Winegard’s contract was not renewed at Marietta College in Ohio, which he attributes to an email campaign targeting his writings about human biological variation (Marietta says it does not publicly explain internal decisions on contract renewal). In England in 2019, Noah Carl was terminated by St. Edmund’s College at Cambridge after protests related to his research on ethnicity and behavior. (The college said that Carl’s work violated “established criteria for research ethics and integrity” and that the way in which he presented his ideas had a “detrimental effect” on the campus atmosphere; his supporters say that the charges were vague and Carl was fired for “thoughtcrime.”) Podcaster and author Sam Harris has been attacked as a racist merely for platforming Murray and allowing a discussion of his views on race and intelligence (which have been a lightning rod since his 1994 book, The Bell Curve). All this, I believe, should be disturbing to anyone who values intellectual freedom.
But I also believe the “heterodox” discussion of race, cognition and behavior—whether you want to call it “human biodiversity” or “race realism,” a term perhaps echoed in the title of Murray’s new book—often flirts with racism, and sometimes crosses the line from flirtation to full-on embrace. (Yes, the term “racism” has been overused and stretched; in this case we’re talking about the real thing.) This discourse is toxic, especially in this highly charged cultural moment.
Murray’s thesis in Facing Reality is simple: The racial disparities currently blamed on “systemic racism”—whether in earnings and social status or in law enforcement and the criminal justice system—are primarily due to two fundamental facts.
The first is that American Whites, Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, as groups, have different means and distributions of cognitive ability. The second is that American Whites, Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, as groups, have different rates of violent crime.
Until everyone stops evading these facts, Murray argues, we are going to tear ourselves apart looking for phantom racism and pursuing remedies that make society more racist—such as policies that stress race-consciousness rather than race-blindness and explicitly discriminate in favor of blacks and other disadvantaged minorities.
Murray does not come out and say these differences are innate or genetic, but he strongly implies it. For example, he says racial differences in cognitive ability will exist “indefinitely.” In the interview with Hughes, he did not at any point dispute that he views the gaps as largely genetic in origin.
Ironically, Murray’s thesis mirrors an argument often made by anti-racists of the Ibram X. Kendi school: if the racial disparities we see around us today are not the result of systemic racism, then they can only mean that black people are innately deficient—which is morally unacceptable. (This view is echoed in a recent defense of critical race theory by Chris Bousquet, a graduate student in philosophy at Syracuse University, for Arc Digital.)
In fact, as Hughes pointed out in his dialogue with Murray, the either/or is a false binary: one can see racial disparities as caused by a combination of the socioeconomic legacy of past discrimination and racism, and of the cultural effects of that historical baggage (sometimes perhaps made worse, as Thomas Sowell and other black conservatives have suggested, by well-intentioned but misguided policy “fixes”). In his review of Facing Reality, Verbruggen notes that Murray’s allegedly forbidden truths—the racial gaps in academic performance and in crime—are in fact widely recognized. Yes, progressive discourse around race and policing tends to twist itself into elaborate pretzels to evade the role played by racial disparities in crime. But I, for one, have written about it, and so have many other mainstream commentators.
Like most scholars who advocate normalizing discussion of what they regard as intractable and probably genetic racial differences in intelligence and criminality, Murray has made statements condemning racism as immoral. Our priority, these scholars say, should be treating people as individuals, regardless of group averages, and stressing that all humans have equal moral worth and dignity regardless of IQ.
Maybe it’s a good argument in theory. But now, let us (as it were) face reality.
On the podcast, Hughes repeatedly pointed out that in the real world, the normalization of race/IQ discourse will play out very differently than in the intellectual debates Murray envisions. Many will inevitably take is as license to treat black people as inferior, regardless of what some professor says. Some black kids are going to be taunted by peers or even adults for whom the racial facts Murray wants to confront translate into “black people are dumb and violent.” Racial tensions will be exacerbated, not alleviated. Murray gave no satisfactory answer to any of this.
Indeed, Murray’s own application of (supposedly) reality-based racial discourse on Twitter is not a pretty sight.
David French @DavidAFrenchWe live with the legacy of the bigoted structures racists created. Our obligation to seek justice does not depend on our personal fault. And there is nothing “conservative” about denying the consequences of centuries of racist harm. My Sunday essay: https://t.co/ITSV1BPrs4
I say “supposedly” because the factual basis for this claim about crime is highly dubious, as demographer Lyman Stone pointed out. Reported homicide rates in many African countries are quite low—though there are questions about the reliability of the data. Surveys on personal crime victimization by muggings and assaults do show a high level of assaults and robberies in sub-Saharan Africa, with South America close behind; but as Stone points out, there are problems with relying on personal reporting. In any case, lower-level violent crime is correlated primarily with poverty and a young population, not race.
In another recent tweet, Murray appears to defend employer discrimination in hiring as “economically rational” behavior based on IQ gaps. Which is it, then? Is treating people as individuals a fundamental value, or is it rational to treat people based on statistical probabilities and averages?
Robert VerBruggen @RAVerBruggenResults from a huge new white name/black name job-application study: https://t.co/SVcMjpJmDp
It is also worth noting that others in the race/IQ camp have rather clearly suggested that low-IQ people and demographics are less desirable. Policy analyst Jason Richwine—for whom Murray served as dissertation advisor in 2008-2009 and whom he defended in 2013 after Richwine was pushed to resign from the Heritage Foundation due to an outcry over said dissertation—argues that large-scale immigration from Central and South America is a problem because Hispanics have a persistent, probably genetic cognitive deficit and “the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.” Richwine proposes addressing this issue by skill-based selection of immigrants as a politically acceptable proxy for IQ-based selection. (In fairness, Murray noted in his defense of Richwine that he “had disagreements then and now about his policy recommendations”; nonetheless, it remains true that race and intelligence discourse is very frequently linked to the premise that low-IQ populations should be viewed as undesirable.)*
There was another aspect of Murray’s comments on Hughes’ podcast that I found striking: the fact that he talked about colorblind, race-neutral individual rights as an “American creed” without ever acknowledging that for most our history, this creed was not only routinely violated in practice, but explicitly rejected by mainstream America and most American institutions. There was a particularly remarkable exchange toward the end of the program (around the 1:18 mark), when Murray returned to this theme again:
The poison I see leaking into the system is decades of betraying the American ideal that the government is supposed to be impartial, that it's supposed to treat all American citizens the same … because the devotion to that ideal among whites has been really, really high historically.
This is the point at which I thought, You’ve got to be kidding. Hughes may have had the same thought, because this was his slightly exasperated reply:
So I mean the obvious response to that is… the devotion among whites to that ideal is some 60 years old, right? What many black people are going to feel in response to that is … we've only gotten half a century or a little over half a century of a true effort at legal equality, which came on the back of … couple hundred years of almost no attempt at that and quite the opposite.
Under these circumstances, Hughes argued, mainstream discussion of black people being innately less intelligent than whites was “such a fundamental insult to the possibility of living in harmony”—especially given the way such information would trickle down to the general population—that perhaps such claims should be regarded as “extremely detrimental to the health of a society.”
I normally detest the phrase “tone deaf” in its current progressive usage, where it’s basically a synonym for “doesn’t see things through the correct social justice lens,” but I can think of no other term to use for Murray’s final reply to Hughes. He dismissed Hughes’ heartfelt plea with “we have to agree to disagree.” Then he simply reiterated his earlier point: We’re in danger of abandoning “the core ideal that made this country distinctive—an ideal we have failed to live up to in many ways and many times—of believing that everybody has the same innate human dignity as a person and that everybody must be approached as an individual, it's wrong to judge people as groups.” If we discard that, Murray insisted, we’re back to the tribal favoritism that the U.S. was the first country to reject, and the American experiment is over.
So… let me get this straight. Ninety years of slavery (along with laws that overtly restricted the rights of free blacks) and decades of Jim Crow were merely “failing to live up to our core ideal,” but affirmative action and Robin DiAngelo-style diversity workshops are going to destroy it forever?
If Murray’s current messaging brings out my inner Nikole Hannah-Jones, I can only imagine how it goes over with the center-left—i.e., the people he’d have to win over to make an impact. And so, like Khan and Verbruggen, I have to wonder to whom this book is addressed. For most people who don’t already agree with him, Murray will likely have a reverse-psychology effect, further convincing them that “wokeness” is the only alternative to racism.
As it happens, I agree with some things Murray says. I believe the current fixation on race is pernicious. I would even agree that racialism dressed up in progressive garb has unique dangers, because it’s much less likely to encounter liberal pushback. (Of course, Murray is doing a lousy job of explaining this—especially since his advocacy of colorblindness fits awkwardly with his call for more awareness of racial differences.)
I also agree with his only specific recommendation: that “the people who embrace the American creed should start declaring it out loud.” For instance, he urges Biden (as well as other Democratic leaders and “liberal opinion leaders in the media and academia”) to treat racial preferences as “pragmatic measures to deal with residual racism, endorse equality before the law as the ultimate goal, and disassociate himself from the rhetoric of systemic racism.” He also urges Republican leaders to stop posturing as the guardians of true Americanism and instead say out loud that the people who love this country have always been on both sides of the political spectrum and still are today.” This, he says, would make it a lot easier for the people on the center left and center right to openly “repudiate the extremists on their own side.”
So far, so good. I just don’t see how trying to mainstream discussions of racial differences in intelligence and criminality is going to get us there, especially while claiming the differences are enduring and likely rooted in genetics. Quite the opposite, I would say.
There is another aspect to this issue that must be mentioned: The relatively mainstream scholars who advocate frank discussion of racial differences in intelligence and crime while condemning racism in the abstract have been overwhelmingly silent about the racists and bigots who infest the “race realism” or “human diversity” community.
Take, for instance, blogger Steve Sailer, who back in 2005 was slammed by John Podhoretz for penning “the most disgusting sentence yet written about [Hurricane] Katrina” on the nativist website VDARE. Sailer blamed the inept response to the disaster on locals’ fecklessness and put it thusly: “What you won’t hear, except from me, is that ‘Let the good times roll’ is an especially risky message for African-Americans. The plain fact is that they tend to possess poorer native judgment than members of better-educated groups. Thus they need stricter moral guidance from society.”
That’s a fairly subdued sentence for Sailer, whose more recent blogposts have featured such pithy headlines as, “Bill Clinton Denounced in SLATE for Denouncing Murderous Blacks Hopped Up on Crack.” And then there’s this on Twitter: “America has lots of guns and lots of blacks, so it has a high murder rate.”
Sailer also has issues with Jews. Thus, in a 2016 review of the Amy Chua/Jeb Rubenfeld book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, he quotes the authors’ assertion that members of successful minority groups tend to feel insecurity and “instill it in their children,” and then throws in a bizarre aside: “Or in the case of the wealthiest, most powerful group, they use their influence over the media to instill it in their children and to depress, demoralize, and divide other groups’ children”—with a link to an article on a book commemorating the Holocaust. (He seems to be channeling the thesis of fellow VDARE blogger and retired psychology professor Kevin MacDonald that Jewish minorities have a group strategy of subverting majority cultures to maximize their power.) He has also flirted with the nutty notion that Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s 2014 Rolling Stone article about a fraternity gang rape at the University of Virginia, soon exposed as a hoax, was a Jewish assault on UVA as a white Christian institution. (His fans openly pushed the idea; Sailer played a nudge-nudge, wink-wink game with Kristallnacht and blood libel analogies.)
Or take Emil Kirkegaard, a Danish independent scholar who currently runs the “hereditarian” journal Mankind Quarterly and is preoccupied with the subject of low intelligence and criminality among certain groups, Africans and Muslims in particular. He also has a long trail of anti-black tweets. (After I called attention to them on a couple of occasions, Kirkegaard mocked me for being “obsessed with spotting muh hidden racism,” but really, it’s not very hidden or hard to spot.)
Kirkegaard’s Twitter commentary about black people ranges from putative scientific observations (e.g., that the issue is not whether IQ is influenced by environment but “whether it can be increased among Blacks”; or that “areas with lots of blacks are (generally) poor/crime prone/low trust because there's more blacks and blacks are poor/criminal/low trust”; or that the black/white IQ gap in the US is “100% genetic”) to random racist jokes. Thus, he tweeted a news story about welfare fraud charges against Rachel Dolezaal, the black-passing white activist, with the comment, “Acting black.” Meanwhile, on his blog, Kirkegaard has suggested that statistical probability makes it rational to convict blacks of crimes on less evidence than whites—though, to be fair, he argues for a similar standard with regard to men vs. women and poor people vs. affluent ones.
When Kirkegaard isn’t bashing blacks, he’s touting “browser extensions that automatically highlight jewish influence”—the infamous (((Jew))) parentheses popularized by the alt-right—or arguing that the Jewishness of an academic disputing the existence of liberal bias in the media is relevant because “there’s a lot of Jews in the media” and it’s in their self-interest to deny media bias. Or listing “trannies bad, women irrational” among “suppressed truths.” Or … I could go on, but I think that’s quite enough.
I have not seen any respectable advocates of race/intelligence/behavior research criticize either Sailer or Kirkegaard. I have seen them engage with and promote both (including publishing in Kirkegaard’s Mankind Quarterly and Open Psych, a website he launched a few years ago), despite being, at least in some cases, fully aware of their record.
If you’re a conservative/rightist and are about to cry “guilt by association” at this point, ask yourself if you’d feel the same about criticizing a progressive who collaborates with communists. I deplore the Maoist fad for demanding disavowals and “callouts” of people who have offended “social justice” codes; but in some narrowly delineated cases, condemning vile speech is appropriate and necessary. Murray says that people on both left and right need to repudiate their extremists to detoxify the culture. I agree. But by the same token, if you espouse a controversial view that can easily lend itself to racist uses, it is not too much to expect you to repudiate people who espouse the same view and routinely vilify blacks (and, for good measure, peddle anti-Semitic conspiracy theories). Condemnations of racism in the abstract ring hollow if you never condemn any specific racist rhetoric or conduct.
Sailer and Kirkegaard, of course, are just the big names. The “racial difference” corners of social media are pretty much the cesspool of racism one would expect, and it’s not hard to find fairly large accounts that bill themselves as pro-“realism” and anti-“blank slate” and post egregiously bigoted stuff. To be sure, no one should be asked to repudiate random Twitter fans. But again: if you’re making arguments that are popular in a community swarming with bigots, shouldn’t you at least make it clear that you do not condone the use of your arguments for racist purposes? (I’ve been pretty tough on misogynists in the “manosphere,” in part precisely because I know that my views overlap with some “men’s rights” positions and I’d rather not be quoted on websites that make a normal person want to take a long shower.)
A few months ago when I first thought of tackling this topic, I did an email interview with Rutgers University psychologist Lee Jussim, who is involved in “anti-woke” intellectual circles and has written on touchy subjects (such as the general accuracy of group-level stereotypes) but has also urged a “moratorium” on race/IQ research. Jussim stressed that there is strong evidence of the heritability of intelligence on an individual level. However, he wrote that, having read “the critiques and defenses of genetic bases of IQ differences between groups,” he had come to the following conclusions:
The methods are incapable, at the moment, of providing a clear, definitive answer
This makes the question nonscientific
Consequently, the area is basically a Rorschach test onto which people, including scientists, project their political beliefs and racial and/or racist stereotypes and attitudes
Add in the long and ugly history of this stuff being used for actual racism to the inability of the science to produce a definitive result, and you have an area that can only cause harm without producing viable knowledge.
Jussim also suggested that people who have a genuinely scientific interest in group differences should start out by studying simpler species, such as mice or monkeys:
Making a complex scientific problem tractable by studying nonhuman groups has a long and productive scientific history (much of modern neuroscience is based on work with animals). The unwillingness to spend the years, maybe decades, doing this with other species strongly suggests to me that it is not "pure" scientific motives that underlie a lot of the "scientific" efforts to get at the genetic bases of race/ethnic differences in IQ.
The moratorium Jussim proposes is obviously not going to happen. Neither is the normalization of claims about the alleged racial roots of crime and underachievement.
Racial gaps in crime, education, and economic status are not only a political minefield but a vastly complex issue. Do we need candid discussion free from the taboos and orthodoxies of “wokeness” and Kendi-style “anti-racism”? Of course. But trying to subvert a far more fundamental taboo on the linkage of race and intelligence can only backfire—because to most people, this certainly looks like an attempt to lift the cordon sanitaire around actual racism.
In that sense, Murray’s new project is, at best, self-defeating.
*Update: Added a clarification that Murray has said he has “disagreements” with Richwine’s policy proposals. Thanks to Aaron Gross (@Rongwrong_) for pointing this out on Twitter.