Posted on September 12, 2022

The Influencer

Robert VerBruggen, City Journal, Summer 2022

Charles Murray’s 1984 book Losing Ground was the type of consequential study rarely seen anymore. Culminating in a radical “thought experiment” of eliminating the social safety net, it captured public attention, drew academic fire, laid the groundwork for the welfare reforms of the following decade, and launched a career in which Murray would provoke—and shape—debates over IQ, genetics, class, race, education, and more. As both welfare policy and racial disparities return to prominence in our political debate, it’s worth looking back on that career. A mix of preparation and happenstance catapulted him into the closest thing to superstardom to which a social scientist can aspire.

“The whole thing about Ronald Reagan ‘shredding the safety net’ had been a big deal,” Murray recently recalled from his home in Burkittsville, Maryland. The president had popularized the term “welfare queen” and tightened some welfare rules by signing a 1981 bill. And by that point, Murray had some informed thoughts about the safety net.


Losing Ground is the story of how things were supposed to improve after the 1960s but didn’t. Disadvantaged young women were having children out of wedlock, disadvantaged young men were dropping out of the labor force, crime was up, and education had gone to hell.


A few years after Losing Ground, Murray became interested in the topic of IQ. It related to themes he’d already been writing about, he found, and most social scientists had neglected the literature on the subject. He decided to write a book about it but worried that the Harvard psychology professor Richard J. Herrnstein—who had written IQ in the Meritocracy in the early 1970s and an article in The Atlantic about fertility differentials by IQ in 1989—might be thinking the same thing.

Murray called to ask. Herrnstein had no such plans, but he suggested that the two write a book together. Murray agreed. For this project, he moved to the American Enterprise Institute. The Bell Curve, appearing shortly after Herrnstein’s death in 1994, is several books in one. It summarizes the academic literature about intelligence and its measurement. It presents an original study based on the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79), testing the theory that intelligence is a powerful predictor of life outcomes. And in its later chapters, it dives headfirst into the forbidden topics that it’s best known for, including racial differences in IQ.


Then the book turned to race. It’s undisputed that black Americans score lower on IQ tests than whites, on average. Herrnstein and Murray emphasized that a difference in averages says nothing about individuals: millions of blacks are smarter than millions of whites. They also summarized the debate over whether this gap was a function of whites’ and blacks’ differing social environments or instead reflected some genetic difference.

After laying out the evidence in detail both ways—for example, statistically controlling for SES reduced the black/white IQ gap by only about a third, but the gap had been shrinking in recent years, and children fathered by white and black U.S. servicemen in Germany following World War II had similar IQs—they presented their ultimate verdict: “It seems highly likely to us that both genes and environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate.”


The Bell Curve inspired even greater pushback than Losing Ground had. Articles and entire books appeared in response, raising every conceivable objection: the AFQT isn’t an IQ test; IQ tests are racially biased; many forms of intelligence exist; other ways of measuring the environment make it more competitive with IQ as a predictor of outcomes; race is a social construct; racial groups’ IQ scores respond to social conditions more than the book acknowledged; Herrnstein and Murray’s sources were racist.


Murray returned to the topic of race in 2020’s lengthy Human Diversity—which didn’t reiterate his position that the black/white IQ gap is partly genetic but did summarize the emerging science of genetic differences across human populations, in addition to exploring the literature on sex differences. For this reason, I found Human Diversity more cautious than The Bell Curve, but Murray disagreed. Given the broader scope of the newer book, including differences in personality and social behavior, he didn’t think that there was a good reason to focus on IQ specifically: “The only reason to have emphasized IQ is to say, ‘And oh, by the way, on something I took so much shit about, we were right on that, too.’ ”

Murray’s latest book, the shorter Facing Reality, steers clear of discussing the causes of racial gaps. But, inspired by the mess of a public debate that followed the George Floyd protests of 2020, it tries to force America to confront the fact that racial gaps in crime and cognitive ability exist. It explains, for example, that the race gap on academic tests stopped narrowing in the 1990s and that blacks commit crimes at higher rates than whites by every available measure.

Yet where his earlier books drew critics’ ire for years after their publication, Human Diversity and Facing Reality hardly registered on the national radar. Why can’t Charles Murray annoy people like he used to? “I went into Facing Reality saying, ‘It is your obligation to write this book because you’re one of the few people who is in a position to do it without putting their career in jeopardy’—and nothing happened,” he said. He’d even declined to dedicate the book to anyone and kept his usual agent out of the process in order to protect her from blowback. “It’s almost as if, in the current intellectual climate, it is no longer necessary to argue with people who say things like I’ve been saying,” he observed. “Given my history and my age and everything else, apparently I’m ignorable. You don’t have to confront the data.”


{snip} In a recent discussion with Murray, writer Coleman Hughes urged viewers to think about the situation that black parents would find themselves in if it became normal to talk about the IQ gap on the nightly news.

Murray believes that compelling reasons exist to talk about racial differences, that efforts to sideline the genetic question have failed, and that any practical consequences of opening up the discussion can’t be worse than the status quo. For many purposes, he notes, public policy and public debates start with an assumption that any racial disparity must result from discrimination. If we cannot talk about racial gaps in IQ and crime, we cannot explain why this assumption is false, and therefore we cannot stop the stampede toward race-based policies designed to equalize outcomes.

When I noted his discussion with Hughes and asked if he worried about the consequences of a franker debate, especially adding genetics to the mix, Murray responded:

We’ve had a natural experiment; we’ve tried for 60 years to not talk about all those wounding things in public. And what has come out of it is the worst racial polarization since the Civil Rights Act—it’s been building over a long period of time. We have colleges dropping the SAT. We have Oregon outlawing minimum standards in math and reading and writing and so forth. We have a rhetoric in which whites are called evil and oppressive, and not just privileged but, worse than privileged, racist, no matter how hard they try not to be racist, and in which “colorblind” is hate speech, “melting pot” is hate speech. . . . I could keep on going. . . . So when you tell me that I am going to create bad stuff by now saying, “Look, we’ve probably got differences that are genetic to some degree,” I don’t buy it. I don’t see how it could be any worse.


Nearly 20 years after The Bell Curve, Murray published Coming Apart, the third book of his to make a major impact. It tied into The Bell Curve’s theme of a society increasingly stratified along class lines but viewed the topic through a less IQ-focused and more sociological lens. Murray told the story of how the social problems once associated with the “underclass,” including unwed childbearing and lack of work, had afflicted lower-educated whites more generally, while elite whites had self-segregated. Some accused Murray of neglecting the role of economics in these patterns. But Murray saw something happening within white America that few others noticed, and that no one can deny a decade later, given lower-educated whites’ role in both Donald Trump’s election and the opioid epidemic.