Charles Murray, Public Menace

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 2 2014 3:08 PM

Charles Murray, Public Menace

On March 13 I stumbled into the controversy over Paul Ryan's "inner city" quote by defending one of the congressman's citations. He'd referred to the work of Charles Murray; Josh Marshall, one among many observers, wondered whether Ryan was dog-whistling to racists. Why else praise the author of The Bell Curve? "Not being able to read Ryan's mind," I wrote, "I assumed he was thinking of Murray for his Losing Ground/Coming Apart work, and not for Chapter 14 of his book about how some races just ain't got what it takes."

On March 19—don't ask me how I noticed this—a Wikipedia editor updated my public profile to inform readers that I had "stated [I was] a fan of Charles Murray, co-author of the The Bell Curve, a book known for advancing the theory of racial differences in intelligence with dubious methodology." The source was a page at the S.H.A.M.E. Project, a sort of reported wiki for the dark side of libertarian celebrities and pundits; the quote attributed to me was "I'm a Charles Murray fan..." Ellipses theirs. The full quote, which is linked by the S.H.A.M.E. Project, was "I'm a Charles Murray fan, but David Frum has him dead to rights here." I sided with Frum over Murray in an argument about whether "elite" status was determined by money and inheritance (Frum) or by education (Murray). But because I'd pronounced myself a "fan" of Murry, the assumption was made, then stamped across the Internet, that I surely endorsed Chapter 14 of The Bell Curve.

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There's a lot of this going around. The Huffington Post is up with a story titled "Candidate For Texas Governor Invokes Man Who Believes Women And Minorities Are Inferior." The SEO tags include the phrases "Charles Murray White Nationalist" and "Charles Murray White Supremacist." The story, as you can guess, infers that Texas Republican Greg Abbott has dog-whistled his endorsement of racist theories because his education plan cited Murray's 2008 book Real Education

"Family background has the most decisive effect on student achievement, contributing to a large performance gap between children from economically disadvantaged families and those from middle class homes," Abbott writes, citing Murray's book Real Education in the footnote. (Abbott's plan misspells the book's title as "Read Education.")
Murray is a very problematic source of inspiration for an education plan. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes him as "one of the most influential social scientists in America, using racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor."
"In Murray’s world, wealth and social power naturally accrue towards a 'cognitive elite' made up of high-IQ individuals (who are overwhelmingly white, male, and from well-to-do families), while those on the lower end of the eponymous bell curve form an 'underclass' whose misfortunes stem from their low intelligence," the Southern Poverty Law Center, which describes Murray as a "white nationalist," writes.

HuffPo points out that Real Education is not actually a tract about race. (Its publisher does call Murray "the author of the Bell Curve" on the cover.) In it, Murray "argues that students with lower IQ's are not as educable as smarter children and should be siphoned off to vocational programs instead of sent to college. He estimates that only 10 to 20 percent of young adults are capable of doing college-level work." The idea that some students are better suited to vocational schools has been advanced by President Obama, who is not often accused of harboring white supremacist beliefs. The 10–20 percent number might be too low—only 27 percent of Americans hold a bachelor's degree or higher. 

But that's not much to hang an attack on. Assuming that Murray will be kicked around many, many more times, is there some viable standard for determining when a candidate may be judged to hold the same beliefs as an academic/author he's been citing? In 2012, when Breitbart.com released video of the young Obama hugging Derrick Bell, the Huffington Post pronounced it "not particularly controversial" and made no assertion that Obama had to answer for all of Bell's work. That seemed like a fair standard to me. Are we updating it?

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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