Jason Richwine and the "R" Word

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 13 2013 11:39 AM

Jason Richwine and the "R" Word

Between the release of the Heritage Foundation's immigration study and his decision to resign from the Heritage Foundation, Jason Richwine didn't really talk to the press. I emailed him during my own reporting on the scandal over his writing about race and IQ; when he didn't get back to me, I totally understood why. But Richwine contacted Byron York, the Washington Examiner's lead political correspondent. The result: a sensitive character study ("The son of an engineer and a bookkeeper from the suburbs of Philadelphia, Richwine was quantitatively inclined") and a discourse on how awful it is to be accused of racism because you're intellectually daring.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Richwine tells York, unsurprisingly, that he "had read Charles Murray's The Bell Curve" and was fascinated "the author's approach to a complex topic." Richwine later worked with Murray, thanked him in the first page of his dissertation, and was defended by him when Heritage dropped the ax. But another part of Richwine's intellectual biography caught my eye.

Richwine pointed to a piece a few years ago by Slate's William Saletan that discussed the fact that there are IQ differences between groups but that many people simply don't want to hear about them, preferring instead to believe in an ideal of intelligence equality. "Saletan called this 'liberal creationism,'" Richwine said. "For liberals, that's their creationism -- something that is obviously not true from a scientific perspective, but that they have to believe." In the article, though, Saletan included all the caveats and explanations that Richwine had left out of his remarks at AEI back in 2008. As Richwine learned, those "nuances" are absolutely critical when discussing the issue of intelligence in a political context.
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This is a slightly redacted version of the story. As anyone who clicks through to Saletan's series can see, its first three parts consist of a pretty careful look at diversity between racial groups. "There's a mountain of evidence that differential evolution has left each population with a balance of traits that could be advantageous or disadvantageous, depending on circumstances," wrote Saletan. The fourth part of the series is a short apology; one of the studies cited was connected to the racist Pioneer Fund. Saletan was "not an expert," just a reporter looking at new data on human biology. (I joined Slate in August 2010, pretty long after the controversy.)

It's curious to see Richwine compare his insights with those of a journalist. He, unlike Saletan, was working toward a career in policymaking. He didn't use much "nuance" because he was presenting IQ research as cold, hard data that had to influence the making of laws.

Were people too cruel to him anyway? York lets the idea hang in the air.

"The accusation of racism is one of the worst things that anyone can call you in public life," he says. "Once that word is out there, it's very difficult to recover from it, even when it is completely untrue." ...  A Google search for "Jason Richwine" and "racist" now yields four million hits.

Here's a sidebar that might actually prove useful for understanding the story. In 2009, York wrote a column asking whether Barack Obama's "sky-high ratings among African-Americans make some of his positions appear a bit more popular overall than they actually are." I wrote a cheeky blog post asking why York was so surprised, or why the discrepancy mattered at all, characterizing the column as: "Democrats wouldn’t be so popular if it wasn’t for the 14th Amendment. Or something." I didn't think I'd called York a "racist." Indeed, I never used the word, because that would be crazy—he's not a racist! But other pundits piled on, and a year or so later, when I ran into York at an event, he explained just how offensive my item had been—he'd been called a racist—and made it clear I should talk to someone else.

I respected that, because there's entirely too much false modesty and false forgiveness in D.C. But it was reflective of a sense on the right that ... well, it's like Richwine says. To accuse someone of "racism" is to tar them forever, ding their name on Google, try and bully them out of the public debate. Conservatives see liberals accusing everything they dislike of being rooted in racism, or as Michelle Malkin calls it, "raaaaaaaaaacism!" It's especially tiring in the Obama era, when they might be accused of hating black people because they dislike a president who happens to be black. In the long run, this points the way to Richwine's redemption on the right. In the meantime, I think I'm with the Harvard advisers and Heritage colleagues who disagree that Richwine's research really led to his preferred policy conclusions.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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