Essays: Black men can't jump |
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Black men can't jump

by Francis Wheen

IS JACK STRAW UNDEREMPLOYED? It seems unlikely: persecuting asylum seekers, curtailing trial by jury and drooling over MI5 ought to be a full-time job. And yet he somehow found the time yesterday to share a platform at Church House in London with the American author Charles Murray, at a debate sponsored by The Sunday Times on ‘The Growing Threat of the Underclass’. Straw is unapologetic. ‘I deplore many of the views Mr Murray has espoused,’ he told anti-racists who had asked him not to attend, ‘but I also believe in argument.’

Murray’s best known book, The Bell Curve (1994), runs to more than 800 pages, but can be summarized in a few sentences. Black people are more stupid than white people: always have been, always will be. This why they have less economic and social success. Since the fault lies in their genes, they are doomed to be at the bottom of the heap now and for ever.

If Jack Straw were invited to discuss the innate intellectual inferiority of black people with, say, a member of the Ku Klux Klan or the British National Party, would he wish to dignify the event with his presence? What sort of ‘debate’ can one have about such manifest and malign claptrap? The appearance of a senior minister from the British government at yesterday’s colloquy pays Murray a wholly undeserved compliment. One might say the same about The Sunday Times’ involvement – except that this is what we have come to expect of that absurd and half-witted newspaper, which has for some years been promoting Murray as the most brilliant soothsayer of our time.

Murray does not belong to the Klan or the BNP, of course, though both organizations have derived much comfort and pleasure from his work. His insidious achievement has been to make racism respectable by dressing it up in the alluring garb of science and dispassionate scholarship. More than 400,000 Americans bought The Bell Curve, delighted to find their prejudices confirmed by apparently irrefutable statistical research. Very few of them, I guess, subsequently read the obscure academic journals in which Murray’s methodology was systematically discredited. To the American public – as well as The Sunday Times and Jack Straw – he remains a figure to be reckoned with.

Murray’s work depends on crude definitions of two indefinable concepts, intelligence and race. He thinks that our place in the social pecking order depends on our IQ, which is genetically and racially predetermined and cannot be much affected by schooling, environment and class. (We must assume, therefore, that Prince Andrew and Prince Edward have very high IQs indeed.) The measure of intelligence used in The Bell Curve is the Armed Forces Qualifying Test; and, if you accept his premise that IQ is ‘innate’, then the figures do indeed seem to show that black people are fated to be less intelligent. If, however,  you take the trouble to seek out the test paper, you will find sample questions such as this: ‘Solitary most nearly means a) sunny; b) being alone; c) playing games; d) soulful.’ Or this: ‘If a cubic foot of water weighs 55lb, how much weight will a 75½ cubic-foot tank trailer be carrying when fully loaded with water?’ If young African-Americans find it hard to answer these questions, might this have something to do with the quality of their education? Not according to Murray, who attributes it entirely to the curse of their ancient and immutable genetic inheritance.

As for race, his belief that ‘Africans’ are genetically homogeneous is even more ludicrous – the exact opposite of the truth, in fact. After exhaustive study of DNA samples, Professor Kenneth Kidd of Yale University has discovered that ‘in almost any single African population – a tribe or whatever you want to call it – there is more genetic variation than in all the rest of the world put together.’ The explanation is simple: Africa is where early humans evolved, and where they stayed for the first 100,000 years of their history - time enough for wide genetic variations to develop.

Though often described as a social scientist, Murray took his Ph.D. in politics. Behind the scientific camouflage he is essentially a right-wing polemicist peddling a familiar myth: that nothing can or should be done to ameliorate racial and economic inequality. He gave the game away three years ago in a brief personal manifesto, What it Means to Be a Libertarian, which proposed the abolition of all social security and welfare and the repeal of all legislation protecting civil rights or outlawing racial discrimination. ‘In a free society, freedom of association cannot be abridged,’ he argued. ‘Implicit in this freedom is also the freedom not to associate. Individuals and private groups may accept, reject, embrace, ignore, hire for, fire from, lease to, evict from, anyone for any reason. In other words, free people must be free to make judgements about their fellows and to act upon them.’ Which is merely a cumbersome and highfalutin way of saying that banks, restaurants, doctors and bus companies should be free to stick up their old Jim Crow signs, announcing ‘No blacks will be served.’

It’s hard to believe that this is a man whose views are taken seriously by many American politicians and our own Sunday Times. To disprove Murray’s theories about the superior intelligence of white people, one need look no further than his own lamentably inadequate brain. As George Orwell wrote, ‘There are certain things one has to be an intellectual to believe, since no ordinary man could be so stupid.’

Alas, Murray’s success in dictating the terms of debate has emboldened other polemicists to launch their own racial theories under a guise of pseudo-scholarship. A new book by the American writer Jon Entine, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, claims the preponderance of black boxers and basketball players in the United States must be all down to DNA – and nothing to do with the fact that professional sport is one of the few available routes out of poverty for some African-Americans. Although Entine may appear to be praising black people rather than denigrating them, his assumptions are no less racist (in the strict sense of the word) than those of The Bell Curve. Reviewing the book in the New York Times, the biological anthropologist Jonathan Marks asked: ‘How can we accept a genetic basis for athletic ability and reject it for intelligence? The answer: we can’t. Both conclusions are based on the same standard of evidence. If we accept that blacks are genetically endowed jumpers because “they” jump so well, we are obliged to accept that they are genetically unendowed at schoolwork because “they” do so poorly.’ Marks added that if professional excellence or over-representation were to be regarded as evidence for genetic superiority, ‘there would be strong implications for Jewish comedy genes and Irish policeman genes’.

A gentler but no less damning critique appears in the latest Scientific American, which points out that Entine’s pretence at ‘scientific method’ is disingenuous, since his book ‘does not even attempt to evaluate a robust data set’ but uses a few individual cases – Mike Tyson, Michael Jordan – as justification for extravagant racial generalizations. The journal’s same issue carries a most salutary piece about the dangers of half-baked extrapolation from dodgy data. It examines the overcrowding-causes-crime scare, which has been fanned for many years by conservative underclass-pundits who maintain that ‘behavioural deviancy’ in inner cities is the fault of the feckless parents producing too many children. The theory, based on experiments with rats in a confined space, turns out to be wholly unsupported by statistical evidence when applied to humans. What actually causes crime and social disorder, the authors find, is not population density but ‘scarcity of resources’ – or, if you prefer, gross inequalities in the distribution of wealth.

For obvious reasons, such a conclusion in unpalatable to right-wing doom mongers. So they blame the victims instead. And who better to blame than… well, we all know who lives in those overcrowded inner-city ghettoes, don’t we?

Guardian, 10 May 2000