Charles Murray’s Facing Reality

On or about May 25, 2020, American society went insane. The death of George Floyd, recorded for the world to see, marked a turning point in American culture and politics as surely as the assassination of JFK or the felling of the Twin Towers on 9/11/01. Almost overnight, major institutions, corporations and media personalities tripped over themselves to subscribe to what, 50 years ago, was a fringe ideological opinion: that the United States was a systemically racist society, sick to its very DNA, and that nothing short of a top-down purge could cure it. Mr. Floyd was given a state funeral, and buried in a gold casket; Uber, Google and a host of other major tech companies began publicly marking businesses as “black-owned,” the better to funnel commerce their way; newspapers committed to the capital-B spelling of “Black,” and magazines and online rags followed suit. Police – not any one officer, but the entire concept of police – came under attack: they were merely the oppressive arm of the white supremacist state, implemented from the beginning to keep the poor, black and brown in their place. Mayors, political hopefuls and city councils immediately reacted to this shift in public perception, defunding police departments across the country. Universities, long ago verbally and financially committed to “equity,” issued loud, self-condemning reports of their past complicity in injustice and promised further changes and more funding to address the all-too-evident inequities still harming their minority students. And the President of the United States, Joseph Biden, calling systemic racism a “stain on our nation’s soul,” has empowered his administration to pursue “an ambitious whole-of-government equity agenda.”

How many people believe all of the above? It’s difficult to say. The social pressure to conform is immense, and the intellectual laziness of the 21st century citizen boundless. For example, in the aftermath of one social media campaign to “black out” Instagram profiles in solidarity with BlackLivesMatter, high-profile accounts that didn’t play along, or made insufficiently passionate statements, were named and shamed. “Pity, wrath, heroism filled them, but the power of putting two and two together was annihilated.” Into this climate of anger and self-righteousness, Charles Murray – notorious co-author of The Bell Curve, and persona non grata everywhere social justice is ascendent – bravely, foolishly, and carefully penned a comprehensive rebuttal: Facing Reality: Two Truths About Race In America. This is a short book, under 200 pages, purposed not to explaining why but explicating what is, that much-debated “reality” of the title, and though I’m under no illusion whatsoever that it will puncture the fever dreams of the true believers, it offers a firm rebuttal to their worldview all the same. “Reality,” Murray quotes from the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” There is much about contemporary America we are stubbornly denying, desperately hoping not to look at, and our efforts are not only in vain, but likely to increase our pain and suffering in the long term.

In the opening chapter, Murray explains why he wrote this book at this time. The American creed, he tells us, is imperilled. Our imperfect historical commitment to the “truths” deemed self-evident in the Declaration of Independence has been subverted, out of our own good will, in an effort to lift up the very people we once intentionally diminished:

Identity politics turns the American creed on its head. Treating people as individuals is considered immoral because it ignores our history of racism and sexism. Remedying America’s systemic racism and omnipresent White privilege requires that people of color be treated preferentially. The power of the state not only may legitimately be used to this end, it must be so used, and sweepingly.

Or, in the words of Dr. Ibrahim X. Kendi, prophet of the “anti-racist” movement and perhaps the single greatest beneficiary of our collective psychosis around race: “The only way to remedy past discrimination is present discrimination.” Dr. Kendi’s writings are now mandatory in many corporations, government agencies, and educational establishments, but Murray is skeptical that white Americans – still some 60% of the country – will eagerly sign up for government-backed discrimination. Instagram posts and social media hashtags are one thing, but racial quotas in universities and in the job market, now and in perpetuity, are a harder sell. Thus we return to the “two truths” of the title: the very glaring disparities in how flesh-and-blood human beings, rather than their ideological avatars, actually behave. What are these truths?

The first is that American Whites, Blacks, Latinos and Asians, as groups, have different means and distributions of cognitive ability. The second is that American Whites, Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, as groups, have different rates of violent crime.

Facing Reality is not concerned with the why of the above truths – heaven help he who is – but he does wish us to leave the book recognizing that these disparities can’t merely be wished away, and that a public policy, however well-intentioned, that ignores them is likely to fail spectacularly.

Let’s begin with “cognitive ability.” Murray’s methodology is a meta-analysis of IQ tests sampling large numbers of people over decades, as well as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is not strictly an IQ test but is a congressionally-mandated program testing massive samples of students in the fourth, eight, and twelfth grades (it’s colloquially known as “the nation’s report card”) in both verbal and math skills, making it a decent proxy (IQ tests include “visuospatial manipulation” as a third metric).

To qualify for the inventory of studies I assembled, a study had to meet three criteria. First, it must have been designed to yield nationally representative results through its sample structure or through weights that could be attached to the participants’ scores. Second, the study’s cognitive tests must have included measures of both verbal and mathematical or visuospatial skills. Third, the persons in the sample of the study must have reached the onset of adolescence.

In typical Murray fashion, he includes documentation to all of his reference materials on the publisher’s website, daring his critics to examine the data and discover where he has been irresponsible, reckless or merely wrong (spoiler alert: Murray is as scrupulous and meticulous as any social scientist alive today). The results are then graphed onto the now-notorious bell curve, with the median scores of each population (Murray uses the labels European, African, Latin and Asian, in a futile bid to defuse tension) as follows: European 103, African 91, Latin 94, Asian 108. At the median, these numbers are not terribly scary (Murray: “Yes, differences exist, but it also true that millions of Africans and Latins have higher cognitive ability than millions of Europeans and Asians”), but the trouble comes at the tail end, where so many of society’s best-paying and most desirable jobs are located:

The differences in the raw numbers of individuals on the right-hand side of the bell curve become larger as IQ goes up. Among people of the four races with IQs of 100, 70 percent are European or Asian. For IQs of 115, 85 percent. For IQs of 125, 90 percent. For IQs of 140, 96 percent.

The decades-long data Murray quotes from also offers cold comfort to those that hope educational interventions are likely to remedy the problem:

The mean differences separating European teenagers from African teenagers in math and reading haven’t diminished since the last half of the 1980s. That’s more than three decades during which hundreds of billions of dollars have been poured into attempts to improve the education of disadvantaged children, including the intense effort to reduce test-score differences through No Child Left Behind. To dismiss the differences in mean test scores that I have described as a problem that we know how to fix if we try hard enough is a triumph of hope over a very great deal of experience.

Alright, let’s say you’ve read this far and you’re unpersuaded by Murray’s argument. You have a healthy skepticism about IQ, perhaps, or you’ve read the Southern Poverty Law Center’s slanderous biography of Murray and you’re disinclined to read anything he writes (you wouldn’t be alone). Recall the National Assessment of Educational Progress, mentioned above? It isn’t an IQ test. It’s merely a nation-wide scholastic test, conducted at multiple grade levels, on core math and reading skills expected of every American student. Here are the NAEP racial achievement gaps, charted from 1975 to 2015, taken from Stanford’s Educational Opportunity Monitoring Project, for 17-year-olds:



Once more, allow yourself total agnosticism as to the why of these graphs, and then ask yourself a simple question: does our public discourse reflect their reality? In other words, how many pundits and politicians, not to mention corporate and university spokespeople, when confronted with the massive disparities in representation of black and Hispanic Americans on Wall Street, at top universities or law firms, or in Silicon Valley, have the intellectual integrity to point to these glaring educational achievement disparities as an obvious explanation? And if you are someone for whom “systemic racism” is a catch-all explanation for minority disadvantage, even then, doesn’t it stand to reason that the focus of our reform efforts should be on eliminating these disparities, which emerge as early as the fourth grade and remain stable until high school graduation, rather than browbeating Google and Yale into adjusting their hiring or admissions criteria based on the race of the applicant? Next, notice something curious about the graph? The absence of Asian scores. When education bureaucrats and political operatives speak of “education gaps,” they always have in mind black-white or Hispanic-white disparities. To include the Asian scores, higher in both reading and mathematics than the white, would make a mockery of many of the explanations advanced for the disparities in the first place. Finally, the above graph almost certainly under-predicts the magnitude of the disparities, for the simple reason that high school tests don’t adequately differentiate scores at the extreme right of the curve: the most gifted math student in any given high school, the most gifted math student in a state, and the most gifted math student in the nation all receive the same A+ or 100% grade, but their actual abilities are nonetheless miles apart. Murray gives the example of basketball ability: every single starter on a Division I college team is in the 99th percentile of basketball ability in the nation, but Lebron James – the greatest player of his generation – is also in that 99th percentile.

Next, let’s look at crime figures. Here, I admit, I was startled. I have read a great deal about crime, violence and policing in the United States, and did not expect Murray to be able to convey new information to me, but here it was my turn to do the underestimating. Most of the crime data I’ve seen – and most of the crime data cited by major newspapers – operates at the national level. Murray offers more granular data, breaking down crime commission rates by city. Why does this make sense? Because as ethnically diverse as America is, its regional diversity is relatively low: most black Americans are concentrated in cities in the South and East Coast, most Hispanic Americans reside in Florida, California and the Southwest. The following data comes from the Open Data movement, “a combination of government and private initiatives” dedicated to making publicly accessible databases, sourced from the only thirteen police departments in America that post downloadable databases with arrest data broken down by race. Here is the graph for violent crime arrest rates, adjusted per population of 100,000 (forgive the low-quality photos of my copy):

The third and fourth columns show the ratio of African and Latin arrest rates to the European one, so for the first entry, New York City, the African:European ratio is 11.6:1 and the Latin:European ratio is 4.1:1. The immediate objection levelled against such data is that the numbers are themselves biased, artifacts of police racism or over-policing in minority neighborhoods. There are two reasons to doubt that. The first is that surveys of victims, conducted by third parties since the late 1970s, have tracked closely with arrest rates. In his Notes, Murray quotes from criminologist Michael Hindelang, whose landmark study of victimization reporting held that “[victimization] data for rape, robbery, and assault are generally consistent with official data on arrestees […],” as well as a study conducted using a more recent 2003 database, the National Incident-Based Reporting System, which concluded, “These findings suggest that the disproportionately high arrest rate for black citizens is most likely attributable to differential involvement in reported crime rather than to racially biased law enforcement practices.” But the second reason is more practical: when considering homicides, which are the most serious and therefore most carefully investigated crime, and least susceptible to bias (because of the need for a dead body, and therefore confirmation of the commission of a crime), the perpetration disparities increase.

These aren’t minor disparities – in cities like Washington and Charleston and Lincoln, they are in fact stratospheric. And these disparities have very important implications for policing and public safety. According to the CDC, for example, the number one preventable cause of death for black American men under 45 is homicide, whereas for white Americans it is car accidents. The suffering engendered by this crime problem beggars belief: every year in America, black mothers bury black sons by the thousands. A minor rise or fall in the murder rate corresponds to a massive gain or loss of life, and therefore how we police – what techniques we apply, how many officers we deploy, and how strictly officers prosecute their roles – is quite literally a matter of life and death.

You don’t need to be a criminologist or have devoted hours of your spare time to be acquainted with this reality; you need only have been minimally aware of the realities facing your fellow citizens in St. Louis, Baltimore, Chicago, Milwaukee and Atlanta. And yet, for the last year, I have witnessed the moral energies of progressive white America dedicated to defunding and abolishing the police, all on the basis of a single officer’s conduct during a single arrest. Black Americans, by contrast, wanted either the same police presence (61%) or greater police presence (20%). Whose desires held political influence? New York City abolished its 600-strong plainclothes unit dedicated to making illegal gun arrests and 13 American cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Portland, all made substantial funding cuts. The police, tired of being scapegoated for a problem they didn’t create and often risked their lives to mitigate, have responded by retiring in record numbers, all across the country, creating major staffing problems. What has been the result of this folly? The largest year-on-year increase in the murder rate in America’s history, the highest death toll in more than 20 years, with the vast majority of those excess deaths being young black men.

There is a lesson here, though I’m under no illusion that it will be heeded. The facts contained within Facing Reality are, to channel Philip Dick, not going away, no matter how much we may wish to look the other way. Two calamities await us if we continue to bury our heads in the sand. The first is already well under way: ineffective, ineffectual policing will result in more brazen criminal activity, more gun violence, more children dying from stray bullets. The next inevitable consequence will be the retribalizing of America along ethnic lines. Two color graphs at the center of Murray’s book make his point: they show the electoral maps of 1996 and 2016, displaying not only the growing political concentrations (Democrats on the coast and Republicans in the interior), but the increasing ethnic polarization undergirding this political divide. America has been polarized along ethnic lines before, of course, but that polarization is not an existential threat when one ethnicity holds overwhelming demographic dominance, as white America did throughout the nation’s history. But as America speeds towards “majority-minority” demographic status, these tribal tensions take on a more threatening, more totalizing character (watch Charles Murray and Glenn Loury discuss what that might look like). If we are to face the future with optimism, we will have to invite reality back in to our public discourse.