A racist PhD for hire

April 22, 2014

Charles Murray is a right-wing fraud, but he's still cited as an "intellectual" authority--which tells us a lot about the conservative shift in Washington, writes Lance Selfa.

"WE HAVE got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working, and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with."

With those words, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who passes as a "serious thinker" in Washington, brought down a cascade of well-deserved criticism on his head. Ryan's House colleague, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) stated what was plain for all to see: "Let's be clear--when Mr. Ryan says 'inner city,' when he says, 'culture,' these are simply code words for what he really means: 'Black.'"

Ryan, of course, protested that there's not a racist bone in his body, and that he was simply referring to a cultural fact, established by social science research. Ryan even had a venerated academic authority to cite for this observation.

And who is it? None other than Charles Murray, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Charles Murray
Charles Murray

The name alone will be enough to send the blood pressure rising among many longtime readers of Socialist Worker. But for those of you who don't know who Charles Murray is, let's let the Southern Poverty Law Center--the group that monitors and exposes racist, neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic and anti-gay hate groups--introduce him:

[Murray] has become 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. According to Murray, disadvantaged groups are disadvantaged because, on average, they cannot compete with white men, who are intellectually, psychologically and morally superior. Murray advocates the total elimination of the welfare state, affirmative action and the Department of Education, arguing that public policy cannot overcome the innate deficiencies that cause unequal social and educational outcomes.

If you're judged by the company you keep, Ryan certainly hasn't chosen his intellectual bedfellows very carefully.

Or maybe he has. Over his 30-plus year public career, Murray has become the go-to writer on U.S. social policy that "serious conservatives"--as Ryan pretends to be--go to for their talking points.

If the Southern Poverty Law Center is right that Murray is "one of the most influential social scientists in America," it's not because of the scientific merit of anything he has written. In fact, the vast bulk of it has been shown to be scientifically and statistically worthless, tainted by its reliance on white supremacist writers and damned for its blatant and unethical manipulation of data.

No, Murray is "influential" because, in exchange for millions in largesse from conservative foundations and think tanks, he has provided the pseudoscientific rationales for a host of regressive social policies--from mass incarceration to what President Bill Clinton (because Democrats have adopted his policies, too) called "ending welfare as we know it."

IN HIS media appearances, Murray portrays himself as an ordinary, but traditional, man from Iowa, who is just concerned about the state of American society.

He generally avoids talking about that part of his Iowa youth when, at the height of the civil rights movement, he burned a cross on a hilltop. He later told the New York Times he had no idea that there was any racial connotation to cross-burning.

Murray's initial foray into social science quackery came as a researcher for the American Institutes of Research (AIR) in Thailand in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during the Vietnam War. What was presented to the world (and its research subjects) as an anthropological study was actually a Pentagon- and CIA-sponsored counterinsurgency operation. The "research" included assassinations of U.S. political opponents and the use of crop destruction and starvation for pacifying restive rural populations.

The New York Review of Books exposed the project in 1970, leading to its termination. Since then, the AIR study has been used in anthropology ethics training as a textbook example of unethical research.

Back in the U.S., Murray co-authored a series of reports, under Justice Department contracts, that advocated mass incarceration for inner-city youth. The Carter Administration dismissed the reports, but the Reagan, Bush I and Clinton administrations took up their central advocacy of "zero tolerance" punishment--an important aspect of the modern-day system of mass incarceration.

According to Eric Alterman, writing in The Nation in 1999, during the early Reagan years:

Murray was living in obscurity in Iowa, having written nothing more than a few pamphlets. According to Michael Joyce, Murray sent an article to [neoconservative godfather Irving] Kristol at Public Interest, whereupon Kristol immediately called Joyce, who was then running the Olin Foundation, and scared up the money necessary for Murray to turn his article into a book.

Murray's article made the case for abolishing social welfare programs. Joyce and his wealthy conservative friends "scared up" hundreds of thousands of dollars to place Murray on the payroll of the Manhattan Institute, a newly founded right-wing think tank. The book that grew from that original article, Losing Ground, became a sensation when it appeared in 1984.

LOSING GROUND took every conservative trope raised against social welfare programs and laid a patina of social science "scholarship" over them. Social welfare programs should be abolished, Murray argued, because they encouraged destructive and anti-social behavior, like out-of-wedlock births, among the poor. Murray pitched what the New York Times called a "new Social Darwinism" as the way to help the poor to break their "dependency" on government and get their lives together.

The "scienticity" of the book helped the harsh message go down easier, as Murray suggested in his book proposal, quoted by the Southern Poverty Law Center: "A huge number of well-meaning whites fear that they are closet racists, and this book tells them they are not. It's going to make them feel better about things they already think, but do not know how to say."

Losing Ground caught the moment of high Reaganism. Politicians and congressional staffers looking to slash social welfare programs were citing it in op-eds, congressional testimony and floor speeches.

But the Manhattan Institute also helped Losing Ground get a wide reception--it gave away thousands of copies of the book and paid journalists to attend seminars where Murray would discuss it. "The Manhattan Institute's canny innovation is to rely as little as possible on chance--and as much as possible on marketing" to promote Murray's book, The New Republic concluded at the time.

More than a decade before Fox News existed, rich conservatives were already building up their media/academic echo chamber. Through it, Murray became an influential public intellectual, whose ideas were transformed into social policy.

This, despite the fact that no less a figure than Lester Thurow, dean of the MIT business school, charged Murray with deliberately distorting data and ignoring facts that didn't fit his thesis. In the Harvard Business Review, Thurow wrote: "The purpose of Losing Ground is to help President Reagan shoot a silver bullet into the heart of the monster called social welfare spending."

And not just President Reagan. Bill Clinton, who--unlike Reagan--actually ended welfare during his time in the White House, praised Murray in a 1993 NBC News interview: "He did the country a great service. I mean, he and I have often disagreed, but I think his analysis is essentially right...There's no question that it would work." (Note to SocialistWorker.org readers: File this quote away for when we're subjected to Clinton nostalgia in the run-up to Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign.)

MURRAY DROPPED from public view for about a decade, but reemerged in 1994 with the publication of The Bell Curve, co-authored with Richard Herrnstein, an 800-page tome full of charts, graphs and equations that claimed to prove scientifically that Blacks and Latinos were genetically predisposed to have lower IQs (intelligence quotients) than whites and Asians.

You can guess what the takeaway was for political leaders: Since Blacks and Latinos were fated to be at the bottom of the racial and class pecking order in the U.S., there was little sense in funding anti-poverty programs to help them.

Like Losing Ground, The Bell Curve hit the bookstores with exquisite timing. The Newt Gingrich-led "Republican Revolution" had swept into Congress and put the U.S. government, with the Clinton White House playing along, on the path to eliminating the main federal welfare program, Aid to Families With Dependent Children.

Like Losing Ground before it, The Bell Curve received mainstream plaudits, even from those who were a little squeamish about its eugenicist message.

Andrew Sullivan, now a mainstream commentator who criticizes Republican right, but then editor of orthodox conservative New Republic, was apparently not among the squeamish. "I had no interest in this subject until I saw the data in Murray's and Herrnstein's book," Sullivan wrote. "I was, frankly, astounded by it. As a highly educated person, I had never been exposed to this data. And yet, it turned out it was undisputed."

In a 10,000-word New Republic essay devoted to defending Murray and Herrnstein's book, Sullivan claimed, "The notion that there might be resilient ethnic differences in intelligence is not, we believe, an inherently racist belief."

It wasn't long, however, before people who weren't bamboozled by the charts, graphs and statistics that so impressed Sullivan started to dismantle The Bell Curve, point by point.

A team of social scientists at the University of California showed how Murray and Herrnstein massaged the Bureau of Labor Statistics dataset they used, and then erroneously interpreted the results. Then the Berkeley researchers used the same dataset to show that inequality, including measures of "intelligence," is a product of long-standing class and racial divides in the U.S.

A researcher, writing in The American Behavioral Scientist, summed up The Bell Curve this way: "I believe this book is a fraud, that its authors must have known it was a fraud when they were writing it, and that Charles Murray must still know it's a fraud as he goes around defending it."

While social scientists were exposing The Bell Curve's dishonest analysis, investigative journalists were exposing its funders and supporters. Far-right foundations, including the Pioneer Fund--a longtime supporter of eugenics and white supremacist ideologues--backed The Bell Curve with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In the book's acknowledgements, Murray and Herrnstein even thanked the Pioneer Fund's Richard Lynn--a man who once wrote, "What is called for here is not genocide, the killing off of the population of incompetent cultures. But we do need to think realistically in terms of the 'phasing out' of such peoples.... Evolutionary progress means the extinction of the less competent. To think otherwise is mere sentimentality."

As with Losing Ground, Murray's work was debunked and discredited. But its core message was enshrined in public policy when Clinton ended welfare in 1996.

MURRAY CLAIMS to be a libertarian, and the likes of Reason magazine have hailed him in the same terms as Nobel Prize-winning Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. But other than supporting the "liberty" of corporations to be free of taxes and regulations, it's hard to spot what's libertarian about his politics.

On just about every issue, he takes a standard-issue reactionary position. For example, he defended then-Harvard University President Larry Summers in 2005 when Summers asserted that women are genetically inferior to men when it came to math and science. Murray even one-upped Summers in asserting that no women have published "original" contributions in philosophy.

With all of this in his past, one had to feel a sense of déjà vu when Murray's latest long book, Coming Apart, hit the bookstores in 2012.

In Coming Apart, Murray extended the analysis published earlier to include the white working class. All the so-called "social pathologies" that generations of right-wingers have blamed on the Black "underclass" are now, Murray argues, a regular part of white working class life. At the same time, a rich, mostly white "cognitive elite"--he hasn't repudiated The Bell Curve--is living an increasingly insulated life in its rich liberal ZIP codes.

As Sarah Grey wrote for the International Socialist Review in her review of Coming Apart:

These divisions neatly mirror two well-worn Republican talking points: the new upper class are mostly liberal, "overeducated elitist snobs," what Rush Limbaugh likes to call "latte liberals." (He offers a quiz to determine whether the reader, whom he assumes is part of the new upper class, is living in a "bubble" of privilege.) Because the educated elite only interbreed with one another, because only the highly educated have high IQs, and because neighborhoods are now more concentrated by income than they were in 1960, Murray argues, rich neighborhoods are hogging all of the cognitive power.

The new lower class, on the other hand, embodies the "lazy welfare queen" stereotype: unemployed men who, Murray charges with barely a shred of evidence, mostly cheat on disability claims; single mothers; and people with credit-card debt and bankruptcies (whom he classifies as "dishonest"), all with lower IQs.

David Brooks and Ross Douthat, the two pundits who play the role of "reasonable conservatives" on the New York Times editorial page, nevertheless praised Coming Apart. Brooks gushed, "I'll be shocked if there's another book this year as important as Charles Murray's Coming Apart. I'll be shocked if there's another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society."

If you believe this, you'll also believe that Murray isn't really a racist--because he hates poor white people, too.

Yet how convenient that Coming Apart arrived after the Great Recession impoverished a broad section of the working class, and when Occupy-influenced popular culture was pointing a finger at the "1 Percent," I can't say that I'm a regular viewer of Fox News, but I imagine that Murray's argument is part of the conservative alternate reality that blames the long-term decline in ordinary people's living standards on "irresponsible" personal decisions, rather than on the employers' offensive or on government policies favoring the rich.

So when we hear the likes of Paul Ryan name-checking Charles Murray, we shouldn't be surprised. For 30 years, Murray has been paid to give a social science gloss to reactionary social policies. And second-rate politicians like Paul Ryan have been paid to make Murray's third-rate recommendations into law.

The main sources for this article were two dossiers on Murray published ">by the Southern Poverty Law Center and by the S.H.A.M.E. Project.

Further Reading

From the archives