Black students, scholars are rejecting 'Bell Curve'

October 27, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Carol Simmons and her friend Shirley Simmons are studying at a table in the McKeldin Center at Morgan State University when I join them.

"I'd like to get your reactions to the new book, 'The Bell Curve,' by Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein," I say. "Have you heard about it?"

Shirley and Carol look puzzled.

"You must have heard about it," I insist. "The authors argue that blacks are inherently less intelligent than whites and that this disparity in IQ explains why most of this country's elite are white while many of those mired in poverty are black. And the authors conclude that blacks would be much happier if they accepted this and focused on their ethnic strengths -- like sports."

Shirley looks enlightened. "Oh yeah," she says to Carol. "Remember? People were talking about that yesterday."

"So what do you think?"

Shirley and Carol look puzzled again.

"Well," I probe, "are you now willing to accept that you're less intelligent than whites?"

"No," they answer, looking annoyed.

"Do you plan to change your career plans because of this book?"

"No," they reply, looking amused.

"Whew!" I say. "That's a relief!"

They laugh, while I move on to ask my questions of another group of students. Based on my investigations, I can report that 'The Bell Curve' has not had an immediate impact on the self-esteem of black students at either Morgan or Johns Hopkins University. And few reputable educators in the area seem to take the authors' thesis seriously.

"This controversy keeps popping up every decade or so," says Carrol Perrino, chair of Morgan's psychology department. "My reaction was, 'Oh my goodness, here we go again!' "

Dr. Perrino's reaction to the Murray/Herrnstein book was typical. Critics charge that Mr. Murray, a sociologist who champions conservative causes, and Dr. Herrnstein, a Harvard University psychologist who died last month, have added nothing new to the debate about the relationship between IQ and race. Critics note, for instance, that Arthur J. Jensen and William Shockley made the same arguments in the 1960s and 1970s, using much of the same data. The consensus among researchers, I was told, is that intelligence is a complex, multidimensional concept that is influenced by a great many factors, including heredity. But most researchers think there are too many variables involved to draw reliable conclusions about IQ and race. Finally, scholars dispute the authors' central thesis: That decades of change in the social, economic and political status of blacks has failed to affect the gap in average IQ.

"The methodology is always in question," says Dr. Perrino. "What are we measuring? How are we measuring it? Most researchers would argue, let's at least be careful. To believe there is a quantifiable link between IQ and race you have to make a huge jump, almost a leap of faith, between what we know and what we might conclude. As I say, the controversy keeps rising from the dead."

"Why does it keep coming up if the argument has no merit?" I ask.

"Politics," she answers simply. "When the politics of the time demands it, up it comes. We heard this argument in England 100 years ago when some people objected to the large numbers of immigrants. We heard it in the 1960s when traditionally white institutions were being compelled to accept minorities. Today, it may suit the ends of those who object to certain welfare policies."

Mr. Murray and Dr. Herrnstein argue that society should not infer that blacks are inferior to whites because blacks are less intelligent. And the authors believe that expectations that affirmative action and other social programs will permit blacks to move to the upper echelons of society will not only fail, but will also aggravate social tensions between blacks and whites.

Blacks would be better advised, the authors argue, to accept their "different" status.

That is a scary thesis. Sadly, many people seem prepared to embrace the idea. Happily, most people continue to reject it.

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