Sadly necessary preamble: please, read this post to see what it actually does and doesn’t say
Long layovers make for good blogging time.
So Jeet Heer has a response to Andrew Sullivan’s response to Ta-Nehisi Coates, in the form of one of his long Twitter considerations. The topic, this time, is on the legitimacy of publishing portions of the Bell Curve (along with rebuttals) in a national magazine. Well, I bow to no one in my distaste for TNR, and I also have a long record of opposing race science. But I find it indicative of a very common kind of liberal incoherence on this issue that, ultimately, makes it harder to combat racism.
Heer is of the opinion, as many people are, that publishing portions of The Bell Curve is ipso facto a racist enterprise and something no publication should do. He seems even to find exploring the question to be off-limits. I find all of this strange. We investigate claims to rebut them as much as we do to confirm them. I am not afraid that we will discover a scientific basis for treating black people as inferior human beings. I’m confident that black people have perfectly equal rights to political equality, to economic opportunity and material security, to human dignity and respect. I don’t think black people are inherently genetically inferior in intelligence. And I think the arguments necessary for making that case are perfectly capable of being mustered in the dispassionate manner of social science. It isn’t necessary to become so defensive about the issue that you shut out perspectives that you find offensive. Those perspectives are perfectly subject to criticism, and to my mind comprehensive rejection, precisely by examining them closely. I’ve written a lot of that kind of criticism here and at my old blog. And because race science types constantly play to the perception that their opinions are harsh truths that liberal society cannot face, this only plays to their narrative. It’s a clear strategic failure, and not a necessary one.
Typically, there are two reasons to argue that we shouldn’t look at the arguments of those who advance race science. The first is the argument that I glossed above, which is that there are some ideas that are just too dangerous to look at. I wrote about that idea at some length here. It’s like I said: I’m not afraid to look, and I think telling people we shouldn’t look out of fear of what we might find is just disastrous from a political and strategic point of view.
The second reason is that the ideas are so self-evidently weak, so obviously false, that we needn’t bother to rebut them. To the degree that Jeer articulates any reasons for his stance, this is his take, tweeting “Reasons not to give Bell Curve TNR imprinteur: it wasn’t peer reviewed and Sullivan lacked scientific training to evaluate.”
True, there was no peer review. And the claim that you can “detox” with certain diets also does not have the benefit of peer review. Nor the claim that magnets have healing properties. Nor the notion that MSG causes long-term health problems. And yet all of these ideas, and many more that have never been peer reviewed, have received a full review from serious people. Why? Because they are prevalent ideas, and because things that are believed should be examined, and if necessary, rebutted — and all of these claims have been. I suspect that this is a line of argument that Heer doesn’t apply remotely consistently. The notion that only peer reviewed arguments require rebuttal simply doesn’t pass the smell test. And while Heer might respond that race science is not widely enough believed to be worth rebutting, I find this deeply naive. Precisely because I think our society is deeply racist, but now usually tacitly and secretly racist, I think the idea that black people are inherently intellectually inferior is prevalent. I think many more people believe that than would admit to it in polite society. That is reason enough to present the arguments for the opportunity to rebut them.
And while Sullivan may not have been qualified to interpret the evidence, many of TNR’s readers were. And indeed: many powerful rebuttals of the book emerged from academics.
There’s something to this kind of argument that, I think, fundamentally misrepresents the strongest objections to race science. You occasionally get people incredulously quoting claims that black people score lower on IQ tests or standardized tests of education, as if that claim itself were what’s racist. But we know that black students score well below white students on a whole swath of educational assessments and metrics. The argument isn’t that this racial achievement gap isn’t real; if it wasn’t, then essentially the entire fields of educational testing, assessment, cognitive and developmental psychology, sociology, and psychometrics would be a massive racist conspiracy. Instead, the argument opponents make — the argument I make — is that these differing outcomes are the result of massive and entrenched disadvantages that reflect this country’s legacy of hideous racism and its ongoing, massive racial inequality in economic and sociological factors that impact quality of life. Often, race science types will say that a particular piece of research “controlled for poverty.” But such controls are typically limited to income level or parent’s wealth. Because racism is such a pervasive and all-encompassing phenomenon, these controls are never remotely adequate. In order to really assess these differences, I’d have to feel comfortable accounting for cultural biases in the nature of the questions, parent’s income, parent’s wealth, parent’s level of education, family stability, exposure to crime, exposure to drug abuse and alcoholism, the psychological and social impact of explicit and implicit racism, the Matthew Effect…. Take exposure to lead. We know that black children have significantly higher exposure to lead than white children even after controlling for poverty level. This is what I mean when I say that saying “we controlled for social class” is so inadequate.
I reject the notion of inherent black genetic inferiority because I think that we have far stronger evidence of enormous social and educational factors that serve in aggregate to depress black student performance across the board. The fact that these factors are hard to isolate only demonstrates the degree to which racism is an ambient and diffuse phenomenon in our society. (For similar reasons, I don’t think we’ll ever find a smoking gun for the source of these gaps, but that they are an aggregate of copious types of racial inequality that must be combated with mass redistribution.) All of that objection is simple assessment theory. It’s statistics and empiricism. It doesn’t require a political, emotional, or social revulsion towards asking the question. It simply requires faith in the process and confidence that, well, that black people aren’t inferior.
Ultimately, I get from Heer’s many, many tweets not a lot in terms of why he thinks publishing those excerpts was necessarily racist, but a lot of emotive righteousness, which of course is very popular with is Twitter followers. But that doesn’t help combat a quiet but pernicious attitude about black inferiority in this country. I find liberals are often not very useful allies on this question; typically, they haven’t looked very closely at the arguments they are rebutting and haven’t thought through their objections. I have. I find the principle of racial equality remains as strong as ever. I think maybe more people should try thinking through these things more carefully, exactly because we need to give our objections the necessary juice.
Update: As I’ve said many times, believing in race science is ipso facto racist; it’s the belief that one race is inherently inferior to another. But then, supporting the drug war is ipso facto racist, and I think that’s worth debating too. Fundamentally, I don’t see how these two separate thoughts can both be true: one, that the race science argument is so inherently weak that it does not need to be refuted, and two, that the race science argument is pernicious and potentially destructive. Those both can’t be true. I think the race science argument is dangerous, and so it has to be refuted.
Update II: I’m working on something larger about this phenomenon, hopefully for another publication, but this is a very good example of a broad issue with the left. My critics on this piece believe, as I do, that racism is real and that its effects are pernicious. And yet they also seem to think that the theory that black people are unintelligent is so disreputable that no one needs to rebut it– that rebutting it serves only to legitimize it. But I don’t think that people need to have that view legitimized because far too many of them already believe it. Look at this poll from the American National Election Studies, a very reputable polling project. 44% of whites surveyed said they think white people are more intelligent than black people. How can it be that an idea that’s so prevalent doesn’t need to be fought, and in fact needs to be legitimized by our willingness to fight it? I don’t understand how people who are so confident (and so correct) that our society is deeply racist can also be so confident that the notion that black people are less intelligent than white is only believed by an uninfluential fringe.