The Bell Curve Through the Veil

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

Andrew responds:


No one is arguing that "that black people are dumber than white," just that the distribution of IQ is slightly different among different racial populations, and these differences also hold true for all broad racial groups: 

Perhaps there really is a genetic relationship between the darkness of skin and the potency of neurons. (Only for "Africans," mind you.) Maybe the sterilizers and the slave-traders were wise beyond their years. 

No, not "only for Africans". The differential between Caucasians and Asians - or between Ashkenazi and Sephardim Jews - is also striking in the data. And notice that my sole interest in this is either to counter what would be an injustice (affirmative action) or pure curiosity. I don't think any serious critic of my work could conjure up a defense of compulsory sterilization or slavery within it. And the notion that I have an "obsession" with this is bizarre.

I encourage you to read the rest. For the record, I certainly am not claiming that Andrew defends slavery or sterilization. I am arguing that the notion that black people are, genetically, intellectually inferior to white people is not a new and revolutionary strain of research subject to academic repression, but a specimen of thought as old as this country, invented mainly to justify white supremacy. To this very day one need only look around to find a familiar cast of characters lurking in the shadows. 

It was not simply science that James Watson appealed to, but to presumably frustrated white employers "who have to deal with black employees." William Saletan did not merely cite some objective numbers. He wrote a five part series for a major publication almost wholly  based on the work of a researcher whose organization funds such data-driven conclusions as "Everyone knows that blacks are dangerous" and "Unless whites shake off the teachings of racial orthodoxy they will cease to be a distinct people." 

On the broad question -- Should researchers be free to explore the nexus of race, IQ and intelligence? -- Andrew and I are in harmony. Onward, indeed. Where we differ is the following: Andrew, like most conservatives who write about race, is more concerned with a vague p.c. egalitarianism than the forces that birthed such things. (Unlike "political correctness" those forces can actually be quantified, and their impact demonstrated.) 

That his contention has long been linked to one of the ugliest strains of American thought, that it continues to be linked to actual white supremacists, is not particularly troublesome to Andrew. But that others might find it troublesome is deeply distressing. I don't charge Andrew with defending slavery or sterilization. I charge him with bumbling through the ICU, tinkering with machinery, and wondering why everyone is so uptight and stuff.  

I am not without my own baggage. I remember when Andrew published The Bell Curve excerpt in The New Republic. I was an undergraduate at Howard University -- same city, but a different world. All of the young intellectuals who'd gather under the flag-pole on the yard were hot and angry. But a professor on campus (and I wish I could remember who) handed out xeroxed copies of the excerpt and its responses and simply told us, "Arm yourselves." Don't get angry he told us. Get informed. That the in flight magazine of Air Force One would argue that all the world I'd known was brain addled set me afire. Some years later I had seen more of the world. But I was still burning.  

I didn't remember the name of the editor of that particular issue. Yet there I was regularly reading this Sullivan dude, when I was supposed to be working. Even before his split with the right Andrew wrote with an energy and tenacity that amazed me then, as sure as proud pushing of The Bell Curve amazed me later when I put the two together. There are only a handful of living writers who've had more impact on me. And yet here I am having to balance all the wisdom I've gotten from him, with moments like these.

I am not appealing to emotion to win a debate. You judge the merits as you see them. But I believe true empathy -- not squishy self-serving conflict avoidance -- is the hand-maiden, not the enemy, of reason and intellectual inquiry. Moreover I think, if only for a moment, it's worth considering what it's like to take your bread, with some regularity and some joy, from people who don't really see you. 

I mean not to be presumptuous, but I think Andrew knows a little about this. Perhaps that explains everything.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/11/the-bell-curve-through-the-veil/249150/