Telling the Hardest Truths about Race

For many years now, Charles Murray has been a lightning rod, a hero to the right and a leading villain to the left. As I noted in my review of his 2013 book, Coming Apart, Murray’s writing often combines trenchant empirical analysis with substantial overstatements that reflect his strongly held libertarian views.

This book, though, is different. It is shorter, less polemical, and less edgy than Losing Ground, The Bell Curve, or Coming Apart, and as a result, it is more convincing. Rather than preaching to the choir, he gives “special priority” to reaching “people on the center-left who are liberals in the tradition that extended from FDR through Bill Clinton and included Senator Joe Biden.” Those seriously interested in taking practical steps to improve educational and economic opportunities for racial minorities cannot afford to ignore the “two truths” that he presents with overwhelming evidence.

Murray’s first “truth” is that when whites, blacks, and Hispanics “take tests that are related to cognitive ability, their group results have different means,” and that these tests are pretty good predictors of job performance, especially at the upper end of the pay scale. Since Murray is famous for making controversial arguments about IQ, genetics, and race, it is important to emphasize that most of his analysis is based on aptitude tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the Armed Services Qualification Test, and graduate admissions exams rather than IQ tests. The racial gap measured by these tests has narrowed significantly since 1970 and the size of the gap changes as children get older, indicating that such “cognitive ability” is hardly determined by genetics alone.

That the median and mean math and reading comprehension scores of black and Hispanic students are significantly lower than those of white and Asian students will surprise no one familiar with education policy. Addressing this problem has been a central concern of the policymakers at every level of government for over half a century.

Why is it particularly important to “face this reality” today? Because so many influential voices are dismissing it as unimportant. Current measures of cognitive ability, we are repeatedly assured, are culturally biased—symptoms of “white supremacy.” They don’t measure anything significant, but are merely a way to deny racial and ethnic minorities a proportional share of slots in prestigious schools and high paying jobs.

Murray presents extensive evidence showing that this is simply not true. The SAT and ACT are pretty good predictors of performance in college. Far from being biased against African Americans, these tests tend to overpredict how well those students will do in college. Cognitive ability as measured by standardized test is far from the only trait important for doing well in school or at work—grit, reliability, and empathy certainly matter—but it remains significant in all but the most menial jobs.

Group averages tell us nothing about the millions of individuals within these poorly defined categories. The mean NAEP score of African-American students is 0.85 standard deviations below the mean for white students. The mean for Hispanic students is 0.62 standard deviations below whites; the mean for Asian students is 0.30 standard deviations above whites. Murray reminds us that while these aggregate differences are significant, it is also true that millions of black and Hispanic students score higher than millions of white and Asian students.

How should we react to the inconvenient fact of significant differences between group averages? We can ignore it, and dismiss any deviation from racial proportionality as evidence of racism. Or we can acknowledge the problem and take steps to improve the performance of minority children. The latter is the strategy most civil rights leaders and education reformers have adopted for generations. It is important to remember that the “testing and accountability” regime that reached its apogee in No Child Left Behind received strong support from many civil rights groups: they wanted to highlight the fact that the racial achievement and opportunity gap remains large. To be sure, as Murray emphasizes, improving public education is much easier said than done. But the fact that the racial achievement gap has shrunk significantly since 1970 should give us some hope that the problem is not intractable. Sweeping the problem under the rug is the best way to ensure that we make no further progress.

Murray’s second “truth” is that African-American and Hispanic males commit violent crimes far more often than do white and Asian males. (I say “males” because they are responsible for the overwhelming majority of such crimes.) This is hardly a startling fact. But in the current debate over mass incarceration and “the new Jim Crow,” it often gets buried in the rhetoric. Murray focuses on the most serious offences, especially murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. He looks at a wide variety of measures, including arrest rates in major cities, reports by African-American and Hispanic victims of crime, and New York’s database of non-fatal shootings. The racial differences are consistent and huge.

Murray does not investigate the multiple, deep-seated causes of this difference. But he does review some of the consequences. Most obviously, the vast majority of law-abiding African-American and Hispanic residents of high crime neighborhoods are the principal victims of such violent crime. Even a casual reader of Chicago newspapers will appreciate the tragic consequences of this. Moreover, “disproportionate minority crime rates discourage developers from building office space in minority neighborhoods,” and “raise the cost of doing business for retailers of all kinds.” Middle class families of all races and ethnicities will avoid these areas. The result is that the residents of these high-crime neighborhoods will remain isolated, cut off from job and educational opportunities, and forced to pay more for almost everything they buy.

Eliminating exam schools, covertly reserving slots at selective colleges for racial minorities, and instituting de facto hiring quotas for high skill jobs will only paper over the core problems rather than address them.

Reducing crime rates is hard, but not as hard as shrinking the racial achievement gap. Until last year, crime rates in major American cities had been declining for over two decades. It is one thing to say that some of the measures we adopted to combat crime—especially harsh prison sentences—were excessive and possibly counterproductive. It is quite another to ignore the many ways in which crime reduction is a tremendous boon to those residing in poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Today we are bombarded with arguments about “systemic racism.” Those on the left insist that most the American institutions are inherently racist. Those on the right claim we have purged racism from our public institutions. Seldom does one hear a cogent explanation of what “systemic racism” means. In his final chapter Murray offers this useful distinction: “Many of the problems are systemic, but they will not be solved by going after racism. They will be solved, or ameliorated, by going after systemic educational problems, systemic law enforcement problems, systemic employment problems.” Murray makes a convincing case that we cannot begin to address these educational, economic, and law-enforcement problems without facing the two “truths” that he describes.

Another way of saying this is that half a century after the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, we continue to grapple with the long-term consequences of centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial discrimination. As Lyndon Johnson put it in his 1965 address at Howard University:

You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.

As a result of this long history, African Americans have far less financial capital than whites. Just as important (but harder to quantify), they have less social capital. They have less educational capital. They have fewer family resources of almost all sorts.

One could trace all these problems back to slavery, segregation, and discrimination. But that will not make them disappear. Eliminating exam schools, covertly reserving slots at selective colleges for racial minorities, and instituting de facto hiring quotas for high skill jobs will only paper over the core problems rather than address them. Denying that crime is a problem in many poor neighborhoods leaves many decent people at the mercy of a violent few. The hard reality is that ignoring the “two truths” that Murray highlights will leave the most vulnerable people in our society worse off. Even those who dislike and distrust this particular messenger should heed his message.