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Intentionally, And Irritatingly, Like A Martyr


Above: why, oh why, can’t racist junk science get a hearing?

Ezra has a really good piece about people who act as if making claims about the genetic inferiority of African-Americans makes them heroes whose speech is being suppressed rather than elites repeating the same self-justifying myths white elites have been repeating for time out of mind:

What bothered me most about Harris’s conversation with Murray was the framing. There is nothing more seductive than “forbidden knowledge.” But for two white men to spend a few hours discussing why black Americans are, as a group, less intelligent than whites isn’t a courageous stand in the context of American history; it’s a common one.

In his book Stamped From the Beginning, which won the 2016 National Book Award for nonfiction, Ibram X. Kendi traces the history of arguments about black inferiority to before the founding of the republic. “Even before Thomas Jefferson and the other founders declared independence, Americans were engaging in a polarizing debate over racial disparities, over why they exist and persist, and over why White Americans as a group were prospering more than Black Americans as a group,” he writes. Those explanations typically revolved around ever more baroque claims of biological difference.


Harris and Murray’s conversation stretches more than two hours. A transcript runs to more than 20,000 words. Unless I missed it, at no point in the discussion do Harris or Murray use the words “slave,” “slavery,” or “segregation.” It is curiously ahistorical.

This is not a minor point. Dealing with the reality of racism in the United States is necessary for discussing this topic. In his book Are We Getting Smarter, the famed IQ researcher James Flynn notes that IQs are rising, sharply, across populations and across time. Flynn’s theory for the observed changes — changes that are larger than the entirety of the black-white IQ gap and should not be possible if IQ is genetic or based on environmental factors that cannot be changed — is that the increasing cognitive complexity of the world around us is making us smarter, as if we’re wearing “scientific spectacles”:

Increasingly, people felt it was important to classify concrete reality (in terms the more abstract the better); and to take the hypothetical seriously (which freed logic to deal with not only imagined situations but also symbols that had no concrete referents).

Living in a more cognitively complex world creates more cognitively complex creatures. “If people switch from swimming to weight lifting, the new exercise develops different muscles and the enhanced muscles make them better at the new activity,” Flynn writes. “Everything we know about the brain suggests that it is similar to our muscles.”

Apply this to the American experience. Over hundreds of years, white Americans have oppressed black Americans — enslaved them, physically terrorized them, ripped their families apart, taken their wealth from them, denied their children decent educations, refused to let them buy homes in neighborhoods with good schools, locked them out of the most cognitively demanding and financially rewarding jobs, deprived them of the professional and social networks that power advancement.

Among the many, many awful effects this has had is to deny black Americans the full cognitive advantages of navigating the modern economy, of wearing their scientific spectacles. For this reason, Flynn argues that “the black/white IQ gap is probably environmental in origin.”

In a debate with Flynn, Murray sounded a radically skeptical note, saying of efforts to bridge racial difference, “by the nineteen-seventies, you had gotten most of the juice out of the environment that you were going to get.” It is remarkable to me to that anyone believes racism’s effects on black development had mostly vanished merely a decade after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Note, too, that the black-white IQ gap appears to have closed by about a quarter since 1972.

The whole thing is eminently worth reading.

…and also:

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