Meritocracy, the cognitive elite, and the continuing significance of race in postindustrial America

For whom does the bell toll?: Meritocracy, the cognitive elite, and the continuing significance of race in postindustrial America

Wilson, Frank Harold

This article contextualizes and decontextualizes the intellectual construction of Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve and presents a critical appraisal of the book’s controversial analyses of social-class and racial/ethnic differences in intelligence. It refutes as cultural superstition and social science pornography The Bell Curve’s theories on the role of intelligence in the social stratification of postindustrial America. It further refutes Herrnstein and Murray’s ideas about the effects of IQ on social outcomes such as poverty, schooling, occupation, and underemployment, and counters the pessimistic public policy proposals their research engenders.


During the post-World War II years through the mid-1960s, macrosociological changes such as rapid industrialization, federal governmental expansion, and the construction of new communities in cities and suburbs of metropolitan areas were reflected in increases of Americans’ educational attainment, occupational mobility, and income. These changes symbolized the nation’s emergence as an affluent society, poised to enter new frontiers. Concomitantly, the migration and growth of the African American population in U.S. cities and their mobilization as a result of the civil rights movement focussed national attention on the historic and persisting racial caste inequities experienced in schools, employment, voting rights, and public accommodations. The importance of collective action and federal public policies to ameliorate these inequalities was readily apparent.

Though structural and organized sources of resistance coexisted with these developments, the convergence of progressive institutional changes alongside movements of social and racial equity would have important consequences for a new and ascendant conventional wisdom of humanity and society. This conventional wisdom, which was reinforced by the optimism, liberalism, and pragmatism of strengthened norms of public intervention affirmed a natural equality and democratic social contract based on progressive inclusion. However, this vision was in competition with an earlier vision of natural inequality based on more pessimistic, conservative, and elitist notions. The salience of this older world view accompanied the nation from the eras of the American Revolution, the framing of the U.S. Constitution, the signing of the Northwest Ordinance, the infamy of the “Trail of Tears,” and the Mexican War to the eve of the Civil War. Although post-Civil War-Reconstruction-era thinking would energize challenges to this concept of natural inequality, leading American intellectual movements of subsequent eras would later accommodate many of its tenets. Alongside the beliefs of historic Americanization movements such as that of the Know-nothings and advocates of Jim Crow discrimination, Native American removal, Chinese American exclusion, and restrictive immigration were Social Darwinist and racialist beliefs whose tenets were rationalized by appeals to politics, religion, pseudoscience, and common sense.

By the end of the 1960s through the 1980s, these earlier post-World War II changes were in transition. The U.S. economy was transformed from an industrially based system to an increasingly postindustrial, service-based system. The federal government was reorganized into an increasingly deregulated federalist system. The influence of organized labor in general and industrial labor unions specifically decreased. The civil rights entitlements gained by Black Americans were extended to persons of various other ethnic and cultural groups. Yet, out of this emerged a new pluralism with respect to conventional wisdoms of humanity and society. While the ascendant liberal wisdom continued to exist, it increasingly had to compete with neoliberal, neoconservative, and conservative conventional wisdoms for a moral common ground.

Today, the earlier social equality prospects of the New Deal and the War on Poverty are critiqued as un-American, unrealistic, passe, and disorganizational. Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem in Modern Democracy (1944), which admonished the United States to take seriously the universalistic democratic values of the American Creed to resolve racial discrimination, has invited cynicism and is less a part of America’s historic memory. Proposals identifying the interventionist role of the state in eroding racial discrimination are challenged by new discourses and models of society that emphasize the increasing limits and resentments of racial equality outcomes. As objective economic indicators of income and wealth are increasingly uneven across social classes and races, the subjective pulse of national public opinion with respect to these inequities is characterized by denial, ambivalence, and inertia. “Politically correct” punditry, zero-sum social economic analyses, and postmodern social discourses converge in presuming an increasingly deracialized society.

Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994a) is a social commentary that attempts to address the challenges and uncertainties of social transformation in postindustrial America. The book attempts to construct a new conventional wisdom of humanity and society and admonishes its readers to choose their side. Combining normative and empirical orientations, its authors attempt to address ageold, burning questions that cut across the social sciences, public policy, and American culture. The Bell Curve is an ambitious, complex, slick, and clearly written book that integrates: (a) a theory of the ascendent role of intelligence in social stratification and class partitioning; (b) a study of the effects of IQ on social outcomes such as schooling, occupation, poverty, unemployment, crime, welfare, parenting, and citizenship; (c) an examination of the causes of ethnic differences in IQ; and (d) a discussion and advocacy of public policy proposals that prescribe the directions American society should take with respect to education, welfare, and civil rights in the 21st century.

The book’s cornerstone is a review of the concept of intelligence in academic research inspired largely by the “classicist” tradition of psychometricians. This tradition, exemplified by scholars like Spearman (see Jensen, 1985), Wechsler (1958), Terman (1961), and Jensen (1969), represents to Herrnstein and Murray “an immense and rigorously analyzed body of knowledge” based on “scientific evidence and scientific proof” (p.19). A consensus of general rules integrating their perspectives emphasizes a general factor of intelligence (“g”), IQ tests and standardized tests as accurate measures of intelligence, the stability of IQ, the predictability and fairness of IQ, and its “substantial heritability” (pp. 22-23). This consensus is carefully distanced from what they label as the received wisdom of “revisionist” psychologists such as Piaget (1981) and Sternberg (1988), who focus more on human information processing, and the “radicals” such as Gardner (1983), who emphasize multiple intelligences influenced by culture.

Drawing from this consensus, research summaries, and secondary analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), Herrnstein and Murray make claims for showing that cognitive ability is substantially heritable, stable, reducible to a singular general factor, and not biased against social, economic, and racial groups. In 845 pages, the book combines social science, public policy discussions, cultural discourse, and superstitions in an attempt to demonstrate the limitations of earlier post-World War II approaches and the urgency of a radically new conservative strategy. Although this book has been strongly criticized in the academic community, its verdict is still not out in the public policy arena.

This article presents a critical appraisal of The Bell Curve generally and of its analyses of social class, ethnic differences, and public policy proposals specifically. It also attempts to shed light on the convergence of social science, cultural superstitions, and private and public discourses of race that are reflected in what Murray describes as “social science pornography” (DeParle, 1994). In this effort, the intellectual construction of the book will be both contextualized and decontextualized. Externalities of the institutional support, legitimation, and valorization given the book will be discussed; and the rhetorical form, validation, and evidence employed therein will be analyzed.


The intellectual productions presented in The Bell Curve are complex and not singularly appreciated or understood. In it, Herrnstein and Murray synthesize a multitude of concepts, hypotheses, arguments, analogies, and evidence to support their generalizations about intelligence, class structure, and racial/ethnic differences. Related to their overarching concerns about intelligence and social class are underlying domain assumptions about social structure, human nature, and moral beliefs.

The controversy surrounding The Bell Curve is not new to its authors. For decades, Richard Herrnstein advanced a model of the substantial heritability of intelligence and its role in education, employment, and crime. In an early article on IQ, he argued that American society was moving toward a stable hereditary meritocracy with stratification related to hereditary differences (Herrnstein, 1971). In Crime and Human Nature (1984), coauthored with James Q. Wilson, Herrnstein resurrected scientifically discredited physical, genetic, race-based, and cultural hypotheses to explain group differences in crime. Charles Murray’s Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (1984) laid the foundation for punitive-state analyses of poverty growth that were traceable to the increased federal spending on social welfare, which he claimed caused the withdrawal of young Blacks from the labor market, the rise of female-headed families, and increased criminal behavior.

Though Herrnstein’s academic success preceded his role in the IQ controversy of the 1970s, a large part of Murray’s early success was based on the timing, resonance, and convergence of his arguments with the conservative conventional wisdom of the Reagan administration’s domestic policy agenda. Moreover, the visibility of The Bell Curve, like their earlier scholarship, is in no small part related to the ascendant role of conservative foundations, think tanks, scholars, and publications whose explicit purpose is to mold public opinion and social policy. It is instructive that the conservative Manhattan Institute supported the writing, production, and promotion of Losing Ground (Katz, 1989). The Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, which has become one of the nation’s leading funders of conservative research, also supported Murray’s research at the Manhattan Institute, as did the American Enterprise Institute, contributing a $100,000 annual grant. Over eight years, the Bradley Foundation paid nearly one million dollars to underwrite Murray’s completion of The Bell Curve. In defense of Murray, the Foundation’s president, Michael Joyce, stated that “Murray’s controversial research was not based on race, but the fascinating and proper question of whether social policies fail because they do not take into account intellectual differences” (quoted in Miner, 1994, p. 18). Weeks before its publication, the American Enterprise Institute held a symposium on the book in Washington, D.C. This meeting, which was structured to market The Bell Curve as a controversial bestseller, was attended by numerous journalists and social scientists (Hauser, 1995).

National visibility of The Bell Curve controversy began with a New York Times Magazine article titled “Daring Research or Social Science Pornography?” (DeParle, 1994). This article was prefaced by Murray’s picture on the magazine’s cover and the caption, “The Most Dangerous Conservative.” The following week in the New York Times Book Review, The Bell Curve was reviewed alongside J. Phillipe Rushton’s Race, Evolution, and Behavior (1994) and Seymour Itzkoff’s The Decline of Intelligence in America (1994) (Browne, 1994). Atlantic Monthly also featured The Bell Curve in its cover article and included a rejoinder “apologia” article by Herrnstein and Murray (1994b). Soon after, other reviews appeared in journals as diverse as American Spectator (Sowell, 1995), The New Yorker (Gould, 1994), American Prospect (Gardner, 1994), and The Nation (Reed, 1994). Academic reviews and symposiums on the book have appeared in social science and educational journals. The controversy resurrected by the book has already generated anthologies such as Fraser’s (1995) The Bell Curve Wars, Jacoby and Glauberman’s (1995) The Bell Curve Debate, and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council’s (1995) Anti-Murrayiana.

Yet, The Bell Curve does not approach what Kuhn (1972) describes as “normal science”that highly cumulative, model-building enterprise by which scientists identify classes of facts for problem solving, delimit the universe of agreement for predicted findings, and do empirical research that anticipates the paradigm’s theory. In normal science, scientists seek solutions to theoretical, conceptual, methodological, and other puzzles with the goal of achieving the anticipated in new ways. Herrnstein and Murray’s consensus and theory converge more closely with the politicized “revolutionary science” Kuhn describes. In scientific revolutions, he notes, scientists choose between competing paradigms that advance incompatible solutions to puzzles and have radically different implications for society. Anomalies that are not resolved by the paradigms generated by normal science or by theoretical articulation necessitate new theories, concepts, and methods. These scientific revolutions involve not only logical and experimental considerations but also techniques of persuasive argumentation within special groups of scientific communities. In The Bell Curve, these scientific and rhetorical considerations become inverted and are ultimately validated in the political and public opinion arenas rather than in the academy.

The entree of The Bell Curve was made more possible by a climate of public opinion that is ripe with ambivalence, inertia, confusion, and denial with respect to racial matters. This continuing dilemma is partly captured in Sniderman and Hagan’s (1985) study of attitudes, which identified aspects of individualism–including individual responsibility, efforts, and entitlements–as the leading cultural belief and explanation of racial inequality. As Sniderman and Hagan contend, the contemporary individualistic ethos, which is more strongly correlated with conservatism than with fundamentalist, historicist, and progressive ideas, is the most resistant rationalization to recognizing historic and continuing discrimination. Snyderman and Rothman’s (1988) examination of scholarly opinions on the heritability of Black-White intelligence differences notes that the larger number of scholars, 45%, believed it to be a product of both environmental and genetic variation. The next largest bloc (24%) suggested that the data are insufficient to support any reasonable opinion. The percentage indicating that the difference is due entirely to environmental explanations (15%) was comparable to those offering no response (14%).


The sociological theory of stratification, which integrates Herrnstein and Murray’s arguments of social class, appeared more than 20 years ago in Herrnstein’s 1971 essay on IQ. It is repeated in Part I of The Bell Curve, titled “The Emergence of A Cognitive Elite.” In the latter work, Herrnstein and Murray assert that the 21st century will open on a world in which cognitive ability–rather than the more complex lines of distinction based on money, power, status, educational credentials, and talent–will be the decisive dividing force. However, they maintain that this cognitive stratification will take different forms at the top and bottom.

At the top of the class structure will be the brightest youth, whom modern societies such as the United States will identify with ever-increasing efficiency and then guide them into narrow educational and occupational channels. In these channels, they will be increasingly segregated and isolated from students of other social classes, including the cognitive underclass. Because cognitive partitioning is economically integrative, governmental interventions can influence these developments but not neutralize them. This increased partitioning of elites and underclass is structurally analyzed as an outcome of the following factors: (a) the democratization of higher education and the transformation of America’s elite universities; (b) the increasing concentration of high-IQ persons in prestigious executive, managerial, administrative, and professional occupations; (c) economic constraints such as increased productivity, which are directly related to IQ; and (d) assortive mating, or homogamy, which is reinforced through the geographic segregation of the workplace and neighborhood. One structural implication of this partitioning is that the cognitive elite will get richer while other groups will fall behind.

Recognizing the changing structural context of economic constraints such as the increased value of intelligence in the postindustrial, service-based marketplace, Herrnstein and Murray advance the axiom that the more a democratic society equalizes the environmental sources of differences in intelligence, the more remaining differences are determined by genetic differences. But the question remains, how much of IQ is a consequence of genes? They suggest that the scientific literature concludes “the genetic component is unlikely to be smaller than 40 percent or higher than 80 percent” (p. 105). From this range, they adopt a median estimate of 60% for the genetic contribution.

There is really little new in The Bell Curve’s theory of social class. Essentially, Herrnstein and Murray have appropriated the conventional meritocratic model of stratification and inserted their axiom of the relationships among genes, cognitive partitioning, and government intervention to explain what they believe are intractable caste differences. To their credit, they present clear, plausible, and seductive explanations for this. However, their theory is a self-serving rhetorical exercise that confuses and obscures the realities of social class as much as it clarifies them. Their explanations converge with normative theories of what should be the relationships between school, work, and society. The limitations of their explanations are exposed by historic evidence, empirical research, and logical fallacies.

Herrnstein and Murray assert that democratization has resulted in an increasingly meritocratic selection process. In this process, they claim, hereditary social-class distinctions interconnected with religion, region, and “old school ties” have been replaced by more universalistic criteria of status, educational credentials, talent, and ultimately by intelligence. This reasoning is open to scrutiny and reformulation. While most observers would agree that traditional social-class criteria have become less important, social class is still important. It remains open to debate how and why higher education opened up after World War II. Also controversial is Herrnstein and Murray’s hypothesis of increased meritocracy.

The Bell Curve’s examination of cognitive partitioning focusses on how post-World War II students attending elite universities increased their IQ scores. It also examines how these institutions came to represent more of the nation’s diversity as a consequence of consumption factors such as increased long-distance travel and the expansion of more affluent customers. After distinguishing the higher partitions of IQ scores at elite universities, they extend their analysis to other universities. What is problematic about this? First, in an attempt to minimize the interventionist role of the state in higher education while explaining away the post-World War II spurt, Herrnstein and Murray understate the impact of federal policy by ignoring one of the most important policies of educational democratization and social transformation to date: the Servicemen s Readjustment Act of 1944, or the GI Bill of Rights.

The GI Bill resulted in more than 2.2 million veterans attending colleges and universities by subsidizing the costs of tuition, books, and board. Although it was initially resisted by some presidents at elite universities who thought that standards would be lowered as a result, veterans generally outperformed other students. As Harvard University’s President Conant noted, “veterans were the most mature and promising students Harvard has ever had” (Ravitch, 1983, p. 14). The benefits offered by the initial GI Bill, which ran from 1944 through 1951, were maintained through similar GI programs through the early 1970s.

By their examination of trends after this watershed period and by using a consumptionside analysis restricted to affluent households, Herrnstein and Murray divorce their analysis from reality and ignore the fact that the federal GI Bill, not the increased consumption of wealthy households, broadened the definition of higher education. Other federal policies such as College Work Study, Student Defense Loans, Pell Grants, and affirmative action augmented these gains.

Second, though persons with higher test scores suggestive of high cognitive ability attend more selective universities, enter more prestigious occupations, and earn more money than individuals with lower cognitive ability, this is not singularly or primarily a consequence of individual merit. The leading research on status attainment usually shows that once controls for parental background and educational attainment are made, the relationship between test scores, occupational attainment, and earnings almost disappears (Jencks, 1979; Jencks et al., 1972). Related research has indicated that interpersonal and social intelligences (Gardner, 1983) and other behavioral factors relevant to successful social-class adaptation are relevant (Bowles & Gintis, 1974, 1976). Other explanations have long emphasized that as far as higher education and the workplace are concerned, behavioral outcomes such as appropriate attitudes, values, goals, and motivations have long entered the equation. Herrnstein and Murray should be aware of these; however, their analysis hides these factors of social inheritance under their axioms of substantial heritability and thus combine environmental factors with genetic factors.

Third, while long-term trends indicate that an increasingly stronger relationship exists between education and occupation (Featherman & Hauser, 1978), the relationship between IQ scores and occupation has changed little (Jencks et al., 1972). There has been increased convergence in the attainment of traditional educational credentials such as the high school diploma between the higher and lower social classes. However, the quality of schooling among classes remains divergent. It is at the level of the college degree that contemporary trends show the least convergence. The meritocratic cognitive partitioning of elites from other classes described by Herrnstein and Murray appears to reflect the increasing rather than the decreasing significance of social class.

Fourth, while long-term upgrading has occurred among those in the U.S. workforce who are employed in higher-status administrative and professional occupations, studies of intergenerational occupational mobility through the 1970s suggest more status persistence than overall trends of upward or downward mobility (Blau & Duncan, 1967; Featherman & Hauser, 1978). Since the 1980s, some economists have noted the increased asymmetry of national income received by the highest quintile of families relative to others that are stagnating and falling behind (Duncan, Smeeding, & Rodgers, 1992; Thurow, 1987). What appears to Herrnstein and Murray as an increasingly meritocratic system–as manifested in stronger relationships between IQ, higher education, and attainment of administrative/ professional occupations and higher earnings–upon closer inspection actually reflects larger contemporary macroeconomic changes in wage inequality between college-educated and noncollege-educated workers. Since the early 1980s, increasingly uneven distributions of wages have accompanied labor market trends such as skill-biased technological change, deindustrialization, industry deregulation, deunionization, free trade, transnational capital mobility, and trade deficits (Bluestone, 1994).

Herrnstein and Murray’s theory of social class and inequality is reductionist, divorced from institutional realities, and less than honest. It is a fitting prelude to their discussions of ethnic differences and racial intractability.


Herrnstein and Murray recognize that the controversy surrounding racial differences in intelligence represents a raw nerve and one that is troubled by ignorance, repression, misinformation, and polarization. They analogize that the contemporary topic of genes, intelligence, and race is like the topic of sex in Victorian England. The conflict between people’s private fascination and public taboos are problematic. On the surface, The Bell Curve’s examination of the public debate in the sciences lays out the issues and facts concerning genes. As its authors contend, it is a response to the hostile, antagonistic, and uninformed dialogues about race that are carried on privately but not publicly. Below the surface, however, the book’s underclass discourse–its dialectic of an ever-raging conflict between the cognitive elite and the urban underclass–contains coded appeals to racist ideology. Cognitively and affectively, the interest in race issues that drives this book is substantially larger than acknowledged and has conative implications that range from increased segregation to genocide.

As a disarming strategy, throughout most of the book the authors are careful to discuss intelligence and class structure without explicitly mentioning race. In one interview, Murray emphasizes that “only four chapters out of twenty-two discuss ethnic differences” and “you have to go to page 259 before you see any discussion of differences among ethnic groups” (Mitchell, 1994, p. 14). In defense, he adds that “the book managed to discuss very important issues without mentioning race at all” (p. 14). He stresses that “nowhere in the book does he or Herrnstein say African Americans are genetically inferior to White Americans” (p. 14). In further defense, Christopher DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute, maintains that “Charles Murray hasn’t a racist bone in his body” (Skiba, 1995, p. A-8).

How these authors conceptualize ethnic and racial groups is ambivalent at best and stereotypical at worst. Their concept of ethnic group appears categorical, group-specific, and barely sensitive to the diversity of socially shared and adaptable cultural relationships of nationality, language, and history. It is also decontextualized from social environments. Discussions of ethnicity are reduced to a discourse of ethnic differences that are difficult to incorporate into the scientific wisdom on social concepts of racial classification. Their use of the term “ethnic” throughout their discussion is largely focussed on racial-group differences in their research. Although some references are made to the diversity of ethnic groups, they appear more concerned with presenting the facts and meanings of the differences among Whites, Blacks, and Latinos. “Racial group” is left undefined in acknowledgment of the scientific facts underscoring the extensive interbreeding and blurred lines of distinction, common evolutionary history, and equality of the races. As Reed (1994) notes, although Herrnstein and Murray acknowledge that “genetic variations among individuals within a given race are greater than those between races, they persist in maintaining that racially defined populations must differ genetically in significant ways because they wouldn’t have different hair texture or skin color” (p. 660). The intersection between cognitive elite privilege and race in these discussions is salient with a vengeance.

Among the most controversial passages are those included in Part III of The Bell Curve, “The National Context,” which examines ethnic differences in cognitive ability and social behavior, the effects of fertility patterns on the distribution of intelligence, and the overall relationship of low cognitive ability to the underclass. This section focuses on the test scores of Asian, African, and European Americans. According to Herrnstein and Murray, the higher scores of Asian Americans on intelligence and achievement tests compared to White Americans, and the universality of the contrast in nonverbal, mathematical, and spatial reasoning skills versus verbal skills suggests genetic roots. Although Asian Americans have a small edge, when Black-White comparisons are extended, the average White person tests higher than 84% of Blacks and the average Black person tests higher than about 16% of Whites.

Herrnstein and Murray arrive at this conclusion based on dozens of studies of Black-White differences in test scores that have converged on a one standard deviation difference for several decades. At the lower end of the IQ range, Herrnstein and Murray note there are approximately equal numbers of Blacks and Whites; however, throughout the upper half, a huge disproportion exists. These differences in test results represent to Herrnstein and Murray an “authentic difference” in cognitive functioning (p. 280). The alleged authenticity of the differences is buttressed with a review of the state of knowledge regarding test bias, which they conclude is essentially unbiased.

Decreases in Black-White differences on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests are depreciated in The Bell Curve by speculative statements which maintain that (a) the overall gap reduction between 1969 and 1973 resulted because Black scores rose, not because White scores fell; and (b) from 1976 to 1993, the Black-White gap in Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores narrowed from 1.16 to .88 SD on the verbal test battery and from 1.27 to .92 SD on the mathematics battery. Herrnstein and Murray acknowledge that environmental changes such as improved economic, social, and educational conditions; rising standards of nutrition, shelter, and health care; decreased racism; and modern media coverage of these issues provide the main reasons for the convergence. These improvements disproportionately benefitted those they identify as cognitively and economically disadvantaged.

In further speculations on the future of these trends, Herrnstein and Murray express doubt regarding whether or not the convergence in Black and White test scores will continue. In a strange twist of logic, they assert that the slowdown in Black IQ score gains noted during the 1980s, unlike earlier changes, is not necessarily explained by environmental factors. One the one hand, they acknowledge that the slowed convergence reflects a slowdown in both Black and White scores. On the other hand, they suggest that the Black-White convergence of SAT scores be understood by asking, “What happens when education slows down to the speed of the slowest ship in the convoy?” (p. 294). In their zero-sum analysis, African Americans, who represent the slowest ship, are implicitly blamed for the slowed performance of White and Asian Americans, the cognitive elite. They reason that by the time the educational system completes a readjustment favoring these less capable students, this gap will have increased beyond reconciliation.

Relatedly problematic for Herrnstein and Murray are the population trends described in their chapter on “The Demography of Intelligence.” In this chapter, they mention that differential trends of relatively high minority fertility and immigration and low White fertility and immigration are resulting in a downward shift of the ability distribution that could lead to further divergence or “dysgenic pressures” (p. 341). They go to great lengths to show that these dysgenic pressures are associated with: (a) cognitive ability and the number of children (that is, they suggest that the mother’s higher education and postponement of marriage result in lowered fertility, and vice-versa) and (b) immigration, particularly the net increases of Latinos and eastern and southeastern Asians. Unlike the 1940s and 1950s, when immigrants were expected to improve their status by coming to the United States, contemporary developments show strong country-specific, fixed effects in the labor market.

In their chapter on “Social Behavior and the Prevalence of Low Cognitive Ability,” the focus shifts from the question of whether low cognitive ability causes social problems to describing the problematic behaviors of low cognitive-ability persons. Through repetition, they underscore that the mean IQ of persons below the poverty line is 88, with onethird coming from the bottom decile, and note the high correlations between belowaverage intelligence and permanent high school dropouts, long-term unemployment, chronic welfare, illegitimacy, low birth-weight babies, and developmental problems. From this sociological assessment, Herrnstein and Murray’s treatment of ethnic and racial group differences in IQ and their relationships with the changing U.S. class structure is replete with numerous sins of omission. These grow out of the ways in which The Bell Curve conceptualizes ethnicity and race, develops theoretical linkages between environment and genes, summarizes and interprets research findings, and evaluates the implications of these findings.

Because these generalizations are assumed a priori to have substantial heritability, Herrnstein and Murray become increasing participants in a rhetorical exercise of paradigmatic hegemony and confusion. When they review research findings that suggest environmental explanations of intelligence, they have difficulties integrating these implications into their presumption of a 40% to 80% genetic contribution range. Fundamentally more problematic to their discussion of racial/ethnic differences and IQ is the sociological fallacy in their reductionist treatment of the role of culture and their acceptance of IQ as the single most valid predictor of minority intelligence and achievement. They ignore strong evidence such as that of Taylor (1995), which shows the lower predictive validity of tests for minorities with respect to educational and occupational success.

Herrnstein and Murray’s exposition and conclusions concerning the substantial heritability and authenticity of racial/ethnic differences in intelligence only partially and marginally explain intelligence. In their attempt to obscure the complex relationships among environment, culture, and genetics, they unrelentingly minimize the role of “nurture” factors. Both authors would benefit from the insights of Allison Davis (1951) who, almost 50 years ago, criticized similar efforts to reduce intelligence to a single substance or mental capacity rather than view it as a complex system of behavior that includes traits of character, motivation, attention, and orientations for success.

In Herrnstein and Murray’s view, the role of institutional discrimination and racial segregation with respect to Blacks and Latinos has not only declined in significance, it is a thing of the past. Moreover, to the extent that contemporary discrimination exists in higher education and the workplace, they aver that White males appear to be the victims rather than the victimizers. The structural linkages of the economy, occupational structure, higher education, IQ, and race are consistent with The Bell Curve’s meritocratic assumptions, but it is doubtful that its discussion of affirmative action in both higher education and the workplace is influenced only by universalistic meritocratic concerns.


The theories, concepts, and research evidence presented in The Bell Curve are a social commentary that, in spirit and letter, has the appearance of state-of-the-art social science. On the surface, it aspires to objectivity, balance, rigor, and a search for the facts. It is dispassionately, reasonably, and engagingly written. At a time when most academic debates are insulated in ivory towers, Herrnstein and Murray have the courage to introduce into public debate the private discussions of the board room, locker room, and bar room. At the same time, The Bell Curve is a historically specific intellectual product that probably says more about its authors, their status group, and the manner in which they have translated their own personal dilemmas and troubles into public issues than anything else. Although the implications of the book will continue to be debated in academia, in public policy it will form rationales for changing domestic agendas in education, welfare, employment, and civil rights. The clarity and persuasiveness of its arguments resonate with the Republican Party’s “Contract with America” (Gillespie & Schellhas, 1994).

It is instructive that those reviewers who have examined The Bell Curve’s research evidence have generally located the Achilles heels of this undertaking, namely, (a) that the research is based on secondary rather than primary sources (Farrell, Johnson, & Sapp, 1995); (b) it confuses statistical conditions of correlation with causation (Gould, 1994; Sowell, 1995); and (c) it does not systematically account for rival explanations (Hauser, 1995; Kamin, 1995; Patterson, 1995). The research evidence for even their strongest claims is questionable. The larger meanings and implications behind their presentations of the facts remains open.

Controversies about the changing economy, social class, race/ethnicity, and their relationships to intelligence are systematically controlled by rhetorical exposition. The Bell Curve’s rhetorical style is frequently divisive and marked by punditry. As a conservative current affairs commentary, it is a manifesto and consensus-building instrument. The convergence between The Bell Curve and the “Contract with America” is not surprising.

This book says even more about the general cultural debate in America and the status of multiculturalism specifically. One excerpt from the book that was circulated in advance of publication was even titled “The Case for Conservative Multiculturalism.” From the level of cultural discourse, however, it says more about the underlying beliefs Herrnstein and Murray personally maintain about race and how these beliefs are reproduced in public opinion. Coexisting with their apparently rational and dispassionate search for the facts are superstitious cultural beliefs and assumptions that confound, constrain, and challenge their interpretations. These beliefs appear partly founded on irrational fears and repressed, confused feelings. However, the dilemmas posed by the conflict between scientific norms of public debate and private fascinations and opinions are not really problematic for Herrnstein and Murray. Utilizing their private superstitious beliefs and the consensus of “experts” as the hunches for their existential statements about the relationships among intelligence, heredity, and environment, they invert the logic of scientific investigation.

How is this intellectual production of cultural superstitions projected into their scientific analysis? First, in place of scientific and statistical controls to examine the different effects of heredity and environment on intelligence, Herrnstein and Murray utilize rhetorical controls. Through their use of exposition, they open the door slightly for some questions to be answered and slam the door firmly on more compelling questions and interpretations. Second, The Bell Curve is replete with circular arguments offered under the pretense of scientific reasoning. The book presents a “classicist” paradigm, which is initially legitimated by the consensus of a closed, private inner circle of psychometricians and eugenicists. When contradictory and anomalous research findings are encountered, such as those indicating the decreasing racial gap in achievement scores on longitudinal assessments, the implications for their paradigm are minimized or summarily dismissed because their issuers do not belong to that inner circle.

The third point, their fallacies of the predestination of natural inequality and intractable racial/ethnic differences in IQ, are built into their domain assumptions and presented as axioms or iron laws. For those who are seduced by these fallacies, there is really little or nothing that can or should be done. The fourth point is their appeal to a utopian society, located some distance from the complex realities of cities and minorities, through their discussions of the earlier hegemonic status of “classicist” psychometry, the situation of elite universities before affirmative action, and the increasing segregation of the contemporary cognitive elite.

Although pornography is usually associated with sexually explicit artistic materials, the term may be extended, in the case of The Bell Curve, to intellectual productions that focus on prurient racial/ethnic interests and appetites. In Herrnstein and Murray’s contribution to social science pornography, the usual taboos against public discourse of race that are repressed and expressed in private are publicly presented in an intellectual theater of the absurd. The social and psychological functions of this type of pornography are complex. First, to the extent that the issue of race in America remains a taboo subject not to be seriously examined, social science pornography permits the scholar to become intellectually voyeuristic and impersonal about race matters. Second, to the extent that social science canons emphasize the primacy of the cognitive and its control over the emotional, social science pornography is an attempt to bring repressed feelings into the canon. Third, social science pornography permits the scholar to intellectually masturbate in public, be caught for exhibitionism, and yet rationalize this action through denial.


In the final sections of their book, Herrnstein and Murray conclude that raising IQ is not easy and note that it is particularly tough to change the environment for the development of general intellectual ability. In their concluding chapters, they lay out the various connections, propositions, and hypotheses that grow out of their research and speculations on IQ. These chapters contain the authors’ public policy proposals and research agenda, which they believe should be beneficial for Americans in general and the cognitive elite in particular.

According to Herrnstein and Murray, formal schooling, including preschool programs such as Head Start, have minor and disputable long-term benefits for “at-risk” populations. They state that nutritional approaches for improving cognitive functioning, while promising, are unproven, but advocate that all children should receive good nutrition and vitamin and mineral supplements. The one proposal Herrnstein and Murray are certain will effect positive IQ change is the removal by adoption of at-risk youth “from bad to good environments” (p. 415). They applaud adoption as being the only affordable and successful approach known to improve the cognitive ability of disadvantaged children, yet they are disturbed that adoption has been ignored in congressional debates and presidential proposals.

In “The Leveling of American Education” (Chapter 18), Herrnstein and Murray hypothesize that the problem with American education is confined mainly to one group: the cognitively gifted whose SAT scores started falling in the 1960s and whose verbal scores have not recovered since. Larger problems with education are dismissed using the following arguments: (a) the typical child who failed in the past would do no better today; (b) during the past 30 years, disadvantaged students have been “in” and gifted students have been “out” of favor with regard to federal educational policies; and (c) standards in the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences have been subordinated to other considerations that are generally antagonistic to traditional standards of rigor and excellence (e.g., multicultural education, efforts to minimize racial differences in performance measures, and efforts to foster self-esteem independent of performance). In response to these problems, Herrnstein and Murray suggest that the federal government should support programs offering parents greater flexibility to send their children to schools of their choosing, whether through vouchers, tax credits, or choice within the public schools. They also maintain that federal scholarships should reward academic performance, not racial or ethnic affiliation, and that some federal funds exclusively focused on the disadvantaged should be reallocated to programs for the gifted.

Affirmative action in higher education and the workplace is especially criticized in The Bell Curve. The successes compared to the costs of affirmative action, in Herrnstein and Murray’s opinion, are small. On campus, they maintain, affirmative action is viewed as “a secretive process that cannot survive public scrutiny” (p. 447). They further assert that the edge given by affirmative action to minority candidates in college and graduate school is not a nod in their favor in the case of a close call, but an extremely large advantage that puts Black and Latino candidates in a separate admissions competition and makes Asian Americans an unprotected minority.

Herrnstein and Murray further maintain that the notion of the welfare state will be replaced by that of a custodial state, which, upon closer examination, appears simply a high-technology version of the Indian reservation. They are honest in warning about the probability of new and more virulent forms of racism and totalitarian measures to control the underclass, especially its Latino members. Their radically conservative utopian vision of America at the end of the 20th century is one that implies large-scale structural dislocation, redistribution, and challenges to democracy. Their public policy prescriptions suggest that increasingly conservative political movements will transform the civic community and the social contract of 21st-century America. These movements, they assert, will anticipate and accommodate the expanding inequalities that will emerge from the persistent conflicts between the provisions of economic growth and citizenship entitlements. Compared to the 20th century, which was marked by increased citizenship rights with respect to individual freedom, universal voting and political empowerment, and social and economic equality, 21st-century America will be identified with more limited notions of citizenship restricted to individual rights. Notions of natural inequality will challenge the conventional wisdom of natural equality.

For Herrnstein and Murray, members of the future society, in which the cognitive elites dominate and below-average cognitive ability persons coexist, must recognize these ideals of natural differences and increasingly distance themselves from the ideology of social equality. In this collective conscience, objective realities of the persistence of class and race will have little social meaning. Is this Herrnstein and Murray’s vision of a classless and colorblind society?

At the beginning of the 20th century, W. E. B. DuBois (1903/1961) warned that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” (p. 23). Through research and activism, DuBois continually raised the question of how far differences of race, which show themselves chiefly in the color of the skin and the texture of the hair, would be made the basis of denying over half the world the right to share, to their utmost ability, the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization. While he recognized that the color line or race would constitute an important base of intergroup conflicts, DuBois was aware that its resolution would, in many important respects, transcend race and that it was inalienable from social, economic, and political justice. Decades later, he observed:

I still think today as yesterday that the color line is a great problem of this century. But today I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and color lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance, and disease of the majority of their fellow men. (DuBois, 1903/ 1961, p. xiv)

At the end of the century, works such as The Bell Curve alert us once again to the continuing challenges and unfinished business that lie ahead.


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Frank Harold Wilson, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

Copyright Howard University Summer 1995

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