141 years later, bigotry still sells

January 13, 1995|By Derrick Z. Jackson

IN 1854, JOSIAH NOTT, an Alabama physician, and George Gliddon, a businessman-turned-expert on Egypt, published the "Types of Mankind." The 800-page book said different colors of human beings represented separate species, with different intellectual capabilities. They said they proved with "practical facts" Nott's long-standing feeling that "the Mongol, the Malay, the Indian and the Negro are now and have been in all ages and places inferior to the Caucasian."

Gliddon bragged that his writing on black inferiority "would draw plenty of customers." Nott said his work was "niggerology" and the "nigger business." They gained credibility through biologist Louis Agassiz of Harvard University, who said black people were so "degraded and degenerate" that he could not "repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as we are." "Types of Mankind" sold out its first printing of 3,500 copies in four months despite the high price tag -- for that time -- of $7.50. The book had 10 printings in its first 17 years.

One hundred forty-one years later, niggerology still sells.

The 845 pages of "The Bell Curve" by Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein have drawn more than 250,000 buyers, or $7.5 million worth of business. This is despite scholarly drubbings of the book's claims that different ethnic groups have different levels of "intelligence," that most people of color have less of it than white people, and there is little that you can do about it. Despite its high price tag -- $30 -- it is at eighth and ninth place on the respective nonfiction best-seller lists of Publishers Weekly and the New York Times. It was 13th last week among all books at Barnes & Noble.

Such sales are quite a statement on this country, given the book's parallels to "Types of Mankind." Nott and Gliddon used their "facts" and "deductions" to justify slavery. Nott also fought Reconstruction, the decade after the Civil War in which freed slaves had political rights. Rep. James Brooks of New York said in 1867, "The Negro is not the equal of the white man, much less his master; and this I can demonstrate anatomically, physiologically and psychologically too, if necessary."

Mr. Murray and Herrnstein use their "facts," culled with "relentless and unassailable thoroughness," according to their publisher, The Free Press, to call for an end to key parts of what many African Americans nickname the Second Reconstruction of the civil rights movement. Mr. Murray and Herrnstein pooh-pooh Head Start. They want to end college and workplace affirmative action programs. "The ideology of equality has done some good," they write. "But most of its effects are bad."

In 1963, historian Thomas Gossett wrote that Gliddon was "one-half serious student and one-half P.T. Barnum." Mr. Murray, who became a darling of conservatives a decade ago by calling for an end to welfare, and Herrnstein, whose long obsession with fixed IQs was cloaked like Agassiz's in Harvard credibility, are the latest ringmasters of elite white rage. An America where Charles Stuart and Susan Smith felt free to say a black man did it is being hypnotized by the incantation of "The Bell Curve" that black people cannot genetically do it in the classroom, and therefore we should not waste time or domestic dollars on them. A comparison of quotes a century and a half apart show that Mr. Murray and Herrnstein are one-half P.T. Barnum and one-half Gliddon and Nott's "nigger business."

* The jacket cover of "The Bell Curve": "Only by facing up to this undeniable news [that IQ is unequally distributed] can we begin to accurately assess the nation's problems."

* Nott and Gliddon: The "permanence of moral and intellectual peculiarities . . . [cannot] be denied."

* * *

* Murray and Herrnstein: "It is tough to alter the environment for the development of general intellectual ability by anything short of adoption at birth."

* N and G: "To one who has lived among American Indians, it is vain to talk of civilizing them. You might as well attempt to change the nature of the buffalo."

* * *

* M and H: "An inexpensive, reliable way of raising IQ is not available."

* N and G: For black people, there is no hope of "a brighter future for these organically inferior types."

* * *

* M and H: "It is time for America once again to try living with inequality."

* N and G: "Nations and races, like individuals, have each a special destiny: some are born to rule, and others to be ruled. . . . No two distinctly marked races can dwell together on equal terms."

* * *

* M and H: "Latino and black immigrants are, at least in the short run, putting some downward pressure on the distribution of intelligence."

* Nott: "Everything in the history of the bee shows a reasoning power little short of that of a Mexican."

* * *

* M and H: "Our proposal will sound, and is, elitist, but only in the sense that, after exposing students to the best the world's intellectual heritage has to offer and challenging them to achieve whatever level of excellence they are capable of, just a minority of students has the potential to become 'an educated person.' "

* N and G: "The Creator has implanted [in Caucasians] an instinct that, in spite of themselves, drives them through all difficulties, to carry out their greatest mission of civilizing the earth."

* * *

* M and H: "Most gifted students are going to . . . go to elite colleges no matter what, move into successful careers no matter what, and eventually lead the institutions of this country, no matter what. Therefore, the nation had better do its damnedest to make them as wise as it can."

* Nott: "A great aim of philanthropy should be to keep the ruling races of the world as pure and wise as possible."

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.

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