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PERSPECTIVE ON RACISM : We Believe What We Want : Making 'The Bell Curve' a topic of serious criticism suggests that its 'black inferiority' theme is worthy of rebuttal.

November 18, 1994|R. RICHARD BANKS | R. Richard Banks is a San Francisco-based lawyer and writer.

The debate generated by Charles Murray's and Richard Herrnstein's "The Bell Curve"--and the book's astounding commercial success--tell more about our society than any arguments Murray and Herrnstein offer.

That this book has elicited such serious discussion--even among those who steadfastly oppose its claims--demonstrates that we have yet to shake off the heaviest psychological shackle bequeathed to us: the assumption of black inferiority which, in turn, provides an explanation or, worse yet, justification for the wretched condition of so many black Americans.

However much Murray and Herrnstein dress up their contention in dense prose, complex statistical analysis, or reasoning that only indirectly points to race, the fact remains that such arguments find open ears only because of the persistence of American society's tenet of black inferiority.

Devoting any attention to the substance of Murray and Herrnstein's arguments legitimizes them. The attention lavished on their book--from the pages of the New Republic and the New York Review of Books to Newsweek and Time magazines--suggests that while Murray and Herrnstein may not have it all right, there is something to talk about, perhaps an area within which reasonable people, as the saying goes, can differ. President Clinton expressed this same attitude when, after being asked about the book at a news conference, he thoughtfully stated that he "disagreed" with their conclusions, suggesting that the matter is up for debate.

Granted, many, if not most, commentators have harshly critiqued "The Bell Curve" and rejected its racist implications. Yet even complete refutation, requiring an airing of the ideas, implicitly legitimizes the authors' assertions. If we didn't already accept the possibility of black inferiority, no one would need expend the energy or time necessary to refute the type of theories Murray and Herrnstein put forth.

While we remain resistant to viewing assertions of black inferiority as beyond the pale, similarly ridiculous arguments about other groups we acknowledge for what they are. When Leonard Jeffries talks about white, war-mongering "ice people" and loving, melanin-rich "sun people," no one unfurls the banner of unfettered discourse to consider the theory's validity. And when, as occasionally happens, some lunatic group condemns "evil Jews" as having brought the Holocaust upon themselves through their shrewd manipulations of the European economy (or, conversely, claims that the Holocaust never happened), no right-thinking person accepts that the claim is valid. The preposterous nature of these arguments places them beyond the need to be disproved.

Such contentions are discussed only as a means of examining social context. Jeffries' arguments may be used to examine the rise of Afro-centrism on college campuses, the evil-Jew theories to open a window into the mind of an anti-Semite. But neither is taken seriously as a potentially insightful observation about whites or Jews.

Of course, Murray and Herrnstein provide ample evidence in support of their conclusions. How could one dismiss "The Bell Curve" when its authors marshal such voluminous data?

Were one predisposed to see whites as mean-spirited "ice people" or Jews as money-hungry troublemakers, "evidence" could be found to support that belief as well. (After all, didn't the "ice people" start two world wars and aren't the Jewish people inordinately successful in high finance?) We believe what we are inclined to believe.

So it is with black intellectual ability. For all that earnest debate, Murray and Herrnstein haven't told us anything new. They've simply given us permission to engage an idea whose hold we have never shaken--and whose attractiveness we remain unwilling to admit.

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