Debating the Alt-Right 101: Race Realism and The Bell Curve

The Alt-Right has a very insidious habit of re-naming things to make them seem less threatening. For instance, a group going out and shouting Nazi slogans and doing Hitler salutes calls itself the ‘alt-right’, even though we already had a far more accurate name for these types of groups. And unfortunately, this strategy has proven to be frighteningly effective when we look at today's discourse, wherein the alt-right is all but accepted as a regular political movement.

It is to no surprise, then, that the alt-right has traveled back in time to revisit some old ‘scientific’ theories, and brought them back into the spotlight under a different name. And that name is ‘race realism’.

Scientific racism is built on the belief that there are clear physiological differences between different races and, most importantly, that these differences justify racism and discrimination. Basically, it’s arguing that there is empirical evidence for racism. It should be noted that this was most certainly not a US only thing; Europeans used the since debunked ‘science’ of phrenology to justify their superiority over ‘lesser’ men.
Scientific racism was at one point considered a legitimate strain of science. Even widely respected professors at Harvard supported the notion.

After World War 1, the field of scientific racism slowly began to lose support. One of the most important moments was when UNESCO released their essay The Race Question, which directly tackled this issue. After holding a large congress with scientist across the globe, UNESCO released an official statement on the matter of race and science. UNESCO notes that the term ‘race’ has become muddied over time, and the scientists gathered thus classify three specific divisions of the human race to have a firm basis to move forward from (pp. 6):

  • The Negroid division
  • The Mongoloid division
  • The Caucasian division

However, these groups have within them a large set of sub-groups, so it’s near impossible to make sweeping statements regarding, for example, Caucasians as a ‘race’. Additionally, these are the three currently defined races. UNESCO emphasizes that this distinction is anything but static, and could easily change in the future (pp. 6).

One thing to note is that mental capacity is never included in these distinctions. One ‘fact’ that followers of alt-right ideologies love to espouse is that there is a clear difference in IQ levels between the various races (more on that later). But, as UNESCO states, it is impossible to know how much this can be attributed to environmental influences or actual mental capacity (pp. 7). Indeed, when tests have taken social environments and other factors into the equation, the results are for the most part equal across all races.

Race-mixing is another thorn in the side of the alt-right, which they believe muddies the superior genes of the white race. The essay is quick to dispense with that: interracial procreation has been a part of human history since its inception, and indeed has been vital in the survival and proliferation of various societies throughout time (pp. 8). On top of that, there is flat out no biological basis to argue against race-mixing. Any claims that this can cause mental or physical problems can thus be dismissed outright.

Perhaps most importantly of all, UNESCO reminds us to race is really not the biological absolute racists pretend it to be. Instead, it is a social construct (pp. 8). This may sound strange to some, as just a few pages back they (somewhat reluctantly, it seems) classified three distinct races. So, what gives?
The point these scientists are trying to get across is that while there are certainly definable distinctions in race to be found, mankind has used the term ‘race’ to fit whatever ideological cause it wanted to propagate. Thus, we got such ‘biological facts’ like the Negroid race being inferior to the Caucasian race.
In the same way that gender is a social construct in that it is highly malleable, the supposed ‘biological’ concept of race has seen its definition change throughout the years. What was yesterdays ‘fact’ about Negroids or Mongolians is dismissed as racist nonsense tomorrow. Societal views and ideologies influence definitions of race as much as they do gender.
Mind you, there are definitely biological differences between various races as we define them today. But these in no way argue for the superiority of one race over the other. As the essay says:

The biological differences between ethnic groups should be disregarded from the standpoint of social acceptance and social action. The unity of mankind from both the biological and social viewpoints is the main thing. To recognize this and to act accordingly is the first requirement of modern man (pp. 8).

So, a whole bunch of highly respected scientists have basically said that any racist ideology is complete hogwash. Yet despite such a clear statement from a globally respected organisation like UNESCO, we still have a surprisingly large amount of people who still believe one race is superior to the rest.
And one book which has been extremely influential in propagating these views, and which (white) racists absolutely love to quote, is Hernstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.

In their book, Hernstein and Murray argue that properly administered IQ tests are the most valid way to measure intelligence across various races in American society. More controversially, they claim that intelligence is in significant part hereditary. In short, they occupy the exact opposite position of the UNESCO scientists; intelligence has more to do with race and genetics than environment.

Perhaps the claim that has led to the most discussion is in the latter part of the book wherein the pair rank races in order of intelligence, as ‘proven’ by IQ: Asians have the highest average IQ, with blacks having the lowest. Now to be perfectly clear, neither Hernstein nor Murray seem to have any racist intentions. They utilized what they perceived as the scientific method to come to these conclusions, and they actually warn readers against using these results to support any racist ideological views.

The pair end their books with some recommendations to the US government, such as amending certain aspects of welfare that they claim allows poor women to have more children. These can mean reducing things like child support, or making female contraception easier to come by. To put it bluntly, poor people should have less children.

Even though The Bell Curve presents itself as a scientific work, it was not peer reviewed in any way, something considered highly questionable in the scientific world. The result of this was twofold: firstly, scientists and book critics weren’t prepared to offer rebuttals to the claims made in the book, thus giving it unwarranted validity. Secondly, due to it hitting an unprepared public, the surface claims made by the book led to indignation among readers who did not have the opportunity to delve further into the subject. This led to en explosion in the popularity of the book. Eventually, scientists began criticizing some of the claims in the book, but this received far less attention than the initial furor of its release.

As for the contents of the book, a closer reading shows that some of the sources used by Heinstein and Murray are questionable to say the least. In an excellent article, Charles Lane finds disconcerting connections between a large number of scientists quoted by The Bell Curve, and the Pioneer Fund, the organisation that took over the academic journal Mankind Quartery from Robert Gayre, a well known white supremacist. Lane goes on to discuss individual scientists quoted by Heinstein and Murray and some of their previous works, showing that it’s not just their financial connections which are dubious, but their content as well.

For instance, The Bell Curve cites Richard Lynn as an important source for its claims that there is a clear hierarchy between different races. Lynn himself had a previous publications wherein he classified races based on intelligence. However, a deeper look at his ‘research’ shows clear flaws. He cites a 1989 study by Dr. Ken Owen as the single best source for establishing the ‘Negroid intelligence’. Owen’s work used the South African Junior Aptitude test, and Lynn uses this to establish that the mean Negroid IQ level hovers around 70 (pp. 7–8). And that’s the limit of his research. He doesn’t delve into how or why the number is that low. Any sensible person can think of very obvious environmental factors such as the little known rule of Apartheid, which limited black people from receiving the same education as white people. But Lynn doesn’t take this tiny extra step. He is limited to establishing this number as a ‘fact’, and that’s it. And this is the sort of person and source that The Bell Curve loves to cite.

Likewise, the statistics used to determine Asian intelligence is also very dubious. Heinstein and Murray use three primary researches to support their claims. The source of two of these researches goes unnamed in the text itself, and is only revealed in the footnotes to be none other than our old friend Richard Lynn. In the same study where Lynn arrived at his 70 IQ average for the Negroid race, he also arrives at a mean IQ of around 105 for ‘Mongoloids’, or East-Asians (pp. 5–7). A very similar number is found in The Bell Curve. Some might view this as an argument that both studies yielded empirical evidence. Others who actually read this article up until now would instead raise their eyebrows as much as their faces would allow them to. The Negroid result was already criminally void of any context. Why would the Mongoloid one be any different?

But Korin, you might say, The Bell Curve states that Asians have a higher average IQ than whites. Why would the racist alt-right ever use it as a source to support their views of white supremacy? That’s a great question, and the answer isn’t immediately obvious. Even though in the past immigrating Asian populations were often the victim of extreme racism and equated to invading pests, today Asian minorities in Western countries are also utilized as ‘model minorities’. Racists love to use this tactic, because they can use it as a sledgehammer to strike at other, more negatively viewed minorities such as blacks or Latinos. Their views aren’t racist, because look at the Asians; they’re minorities and (generally) successful, why cant other minorities be the same? As with every tactic of the alt-right, it of course ignores any sense of context and the like. Similarly, the alt-right has a strange obsession with Asia and Japan in particular, which might also be part of the reason they champion a book like The Bell Curve. By noting the very fact that book elevates a minority group over whites, they can act like the book is wholly objective and neutral.

The problem with The Bell Curve isn’t the fact that it establishes differences in IQ levels between different races in the US. In fact, these results are likely true. And this is a trap where many, often leftist, critics fall into. They argue against the numbers themselves, when not only is that an unwinnable battle, it is also not the problem at hand.
Where Heinstein and Murray take a dive off the deep end is when they proclaim that these differences are mostly hereditary rather than strongly influenced by social and economic factors. Apart from their methodology, which itself has received criticism as shown in the example above, their conclusions are what’s problematic. They never make concrete statements like claiming black people are inferior to white people, but they toy with it, just like they toy with the idea of eugenicist policies to reverse the IQ ‘problem’ in the US. They dismiss ‘liberal’ researchers who argue for better access to proper education for minorities by claiming that its hopeless, as this issue is mostly due to genetics. That’s why The Bell Curve should be heavily criticized. Just calling it racist outright only shows that that person has not read the book, and makes him or her an easy target for any alt-right debater worth half their salt.

The scientific community dismissed ‘race realism’ almost a century ago, yet it has continued to exist in fringe circles. And with the rise of the alt-right, it has started to gain more mainstream attention. The alt-right and other racist groups like to act like all they are doing is presenting facts. But as always, their intentional obfuscation of context shows their true intentions: to demean minorities. One cannot be fooled by their mask of innocence. Never take something a racist says at face value, because the chance is extremely high that they are leaving out crucial context.

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