A bigot's science

Monday Book Review

November 28, 1994|By Kweisi Mfume

THE BELL CURVE. By Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein. Free Press. 845 pages. $30.

THIS CONTROVERSIAL new book, which portends to find a link between intelligence and race, is really an exercise in generalizations, stigmatism and cynicism.

Charles Murray, an ultra-conservative sociologist, and the late Richard Herrnstein, a Ph.D. psychologist, have attempted to use flawed science to support a crusade against federal programs that help the poor. They do this while side-stepping the fact that IQ has less to do with one's income than a good education.

At the center of their argument is the statistical difference between blacks and whites in their average IQ scores. Studies have shown a lower overall score for black people, but the reasons are scientifically unclear and the importance is uncertain.

"The Bell Curve" is a concoction designed to support a negative and pessimistic view of our society. The book doesn't intelligently address the various theories of IQ and race but rather attempts to justify ambivalence about America's underclass.

The authors' reasoning is dangerous and the acceptance of their argument by others may actually contribute to black people scoring lower on IQ tests. For example, this could happen if teachers' expectations of black students are lowered after reading this book. The authors say that black people are, on average, intellectually inferior and, therefore, it's futile to help them improve with such programs as Head Start, etc.

Racial superiority is a dangerous, patently absurd notion. It was used by the founders of the eugenics movement and by Adolf Hitler when he attempted to create a master race. Unfortunately, some Americans have bought into such hair-brained ideas before and it has had the chilling effect of lowering personal ambitions and our nation's economic competitiveness.

What "The Bell Curve" doesn't address is why many black people score higher than the average white person on IQ tests. By not even attempting to explain this, the authors appear only to be concerned with finding evidence supporting their premise that blacks are unequal and inferior. Even the data they use is questionable. For example, the book relies on outcomes from the Armed Forces Qualifying Test which the military says is not a measure of IQ.

The authors side-step the fact that IQ scores (when you remove the racial component) don't determine whether you're poor or rich. What matters more than an IQ test in determining income is education and training.

The flawed reasoning behind "The Bell Curve" is part of a disturbing trend in American society to point fingers at and punish racial minorities.

We have seen this trend in California where immigrants are the scapegoats for economic woes. We have seen attacks in Congress on welfare mothers who are being typecast, stereotyped and stigmatized. And now with "The Bell Curve" we see a rationalization for scrapping important programs designed to help the poor.

It is something we've seen throughout history. Whether it was Jim Crow, religion used to justify slavery or now these elitist pseudo-scientific rationales. It has had the affect of enslaving people, physically and/or mentally, to a lesser role.

There are many questions revolving around IQ testing that still need to be researched in an honest and scientific manner. However, having a high IQ does not guarantee wealth, happiness or superiority in life. There are many factors that determine those things and the authors' attempt to tie intelligence to economic success is contrived at best.

IQ tests aside, much can and should be done by society and government to improve the lot of those below the poverty line. Success starts with a good education and the value of such cannot be dismissed. Government programs such as the Job Corps and AmeriCorps, the national service program which began this fall and is similar to the youth work programs of the New Deal era, are valuable resources that have a greater impact on people's lives than an IQ score.

People peddling ideas like these authors' have come and gone with their premises debunked. The real danger is the rationale it gives bigots and the underlying message it sends ambitious, talented and intelligent African Americans.

Rep. Kweisi Mfume, of Baltimore's Seventh District, is chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

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