Book excerpt: On Hernnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve

Excerpt from my book Who Are You? What is Your Faith? America’s 21st Century Alt-Right and Catholic Social Doctrine (In press):

Modified applied eugenics: The Bell Curve. The above views about the intersection of education and opportunity became very overt when Hernnstein and Murray (1994) called for the nationwide establishment of a cognitive elite through their bestselling book The Bell Curve. Hernnstein was a psychologist who had written a revisionist history of the intersection of eugenics, intelligence testing, and racism (Snyderman & Hernnstein, 1983). Murray was a political scientist and Bradley Fellow of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research; one of the oldest and most influential public policy institutes in Washington, D.C. The bell curve was the original standard distribution curve that had been adopted by the intelligence theorist and eugenicist, Charles Spearman, to denote the unequal distribution of fluid intelligence[1] based on the unequal distribution of the races (Jones, 1997).

Hernnstein and Murray (1994) declared the urgent need for the establishment of a cognitive elite, to construct and implement policies and practices across the US, on the basis of four points. These points were that:

  1. Intelligence quotient (IQ) was the best predictor of success in American life;
  2. IQ could be assessed in an accurate manner through intelligence tests;
  3. There were statistically significant correlations between metacognitive capabilities and race, with mean African American and Latino scores lying at one to one-and-a-half standard deviations below the mean scores for Whites and Asians;
  4. Race was biological and hereditary.

Using regression analyses of scores obtained by 12,000 youth on the US Armed Forces Qualifying Test in 1979 and 1990 as part of the US Department of Labor’s (DOL) National Longitudinal Studies of Youth, Hernnstein and Murray called for the social engineering of births in America toward women with high IQ, to counteract the presumed legal, political, psychological, and social endorsement of mothers with low IQ – by extension, children with low-IQ – through neoliberal welfare and child support policies. They proclaimed that America was headed toward substantial downward social-cognitive causation from the ongoing failure of the Great Society programs of President Johnson, which had resulted in filial regression to less-than-mediocrity. Hernnstein and Murray added that barring change, “a significant part of . . . the population must be made permanent wards of the states” (ibid.). The DOL studies had been bankrolled in part by the Pioneer Fund: a hate group as classified by the SPLC (2006). The Fund also financed social darwinist research that foregrounded the genetic superiority of races from Northern Europe (Flanders, 1999).

According to Hegarty (2007), the argument of Hernnstein and Murray echoed that of “Galton’s imperialist vision of a society lead by a male cognitive elite.” It was an argument that reflected the old positive and negative eugenics agendas of selective inbreeding of the fittest and coercive sterilization as moral imperatives, while integrating both psychological nativism and scientific racism. It was this precise agenda that had been endorsed in 1927 by the SCOTUS, which was exemplified by the words of Chief Justice Holmes:[2] “Three generations of imbeciles are enough” (Mehler, 1988). The agenda, both covert and overt, of Hernnstein and Murray was reminiscent of the travels of Goddard in the early 20th century, when he had frightened Americans into believing in the rapid growth of feeblemindedness through lantern-slide presentations across the Union (Selden, 2007).

It should be noted that the argument set forth by Hernnstein and Murray (1994) ignored in a consistent and repeated manner the facts that:

  1. The AFQT is not an intelligence test, but a general knowledge test (Darlington, 1996);
  2. Intelligence tests (e.g., the Wechsler or Stanford-Binet tests) are not race-normed. Their verbal and nonverbal subtests[3] are culturally-biased toward, and loaded with, the formalized middle-class and English-based educational system in the nation (Dana, 1992, 1999; Helms, 2006; Sternberg, Grigorenko, & Kidd, 2005; Suzuki, Ponterotto, & Meller, 2007; Valencia & Suzuki, 2000).
  3. Intelligence tests do not assess all components of the multiply defined construct of intelligence (Neisser et al., 1996; Sattler, 2001; Sternberg, Grigorenko, & Kidd, 2005);
  4. The nativist perspective of intelligence had been debunked over and over (Gould, 1996; Neisser et al., 1996);
  5. Fluid intelligence[4] operates in environmentally and culturally-contextualized ways (Sternberg, Grigorenko, & Kidd, 2005);
  6. Formal education shapes crystallized intelligence (Snow, 1996);
  7. Racial and ethnic minorities had been excluded for longstanding periods from formal education;
  8. Human persons in performance-based settings tend to fulfill expectancy effects[5] (Speight, 2007; Valencia & Suzuki, 2000; Weinstein, Gregory, & Strambler, 2004) according to stereotype threats (Steele, 1997, 1998). These effects are correlated with a change of up to 27 IQ points.[6] Academic performance is positively correlated with ‘raceless’ student identities (Arroyo & Zigler, 1995).
  9. Intergenerational intelligence distributions at the filial dimension regress to the mean (Sattler, 2001; Smith, 2005);
  10. Race is a social, not biological or heritable, construct (Helms, 2005; Human Genome Management Information Systems, 2003; Shih, Bonam, Sanchez, & Peck, 2007; Smedley & Smedley, 2005; Sternberg, Grigorenko, & Kidd, 2005);
  11. Consistent African American and Latino mean score differences of about one to one-and-a-half standard deviations below that of Whites and Asian Americans are thought to reflect class and/or other multicultural individual differences[7] (e.g., racial identity ego statuses).

[1] g.

[2] Holmes was a student of eugenics. Before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the coercive sterilization of the financially, legally, and mentally challenged was enforced by law in 30 states (Guthrie, 1997, 2004; Strickland, 2000).

[3] These subtests are presumed to assess both fluid and crystallized intelligence capabilities.

[4] The heritable component of intelligence.

[5] The Pygmalion effect.

[6] Almost two standard deviations.

[7] Within-group variations.