“Scientific racism” is on the rise on the right. But it’s been lurking there for years.

These ideas about an outside cultural threat and an internal genetic threat to white America, moreover, were in circulation well before the emergence of the alt-right or the Trump campaign.

Updated by Nicole Hemmer / VOV Columnist / Mar 28, 2017, 10:01am EDT

“[Geert] Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny,” Iowa Rep. Steve King tweeted earlier this month, referring to the far-right Dutch nationalist. “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

That’s a lot of racist theory to pack into 140 characters. The tweet evokes a fear of American decline caused both by genetics and culture, nature and nurture. Given the stark white nationalism on display in the message, it’s tempting to lump King in with his most vocal supporters — folks like alt-right leader Richard Spencer and Klansman David Duke — and dismiss his theories as part of the fringiest fringe.

But King’s theories about America’s cultural and demographic decay are not ideas carted in from Klan rallies or online alt-right message boards into a conservative political world that decisively rejects such notions. While his comments have drawn condemnation from some fellow congressional Republicans, they fit right in down the street at the White House, where top aides Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller serve as sentries against multiculturalism, shaping policies that have included the “Muslim ban” and immigration restriction.

These ideas about an outside cultural threat and an internal genetic threat to white America, moreover, were in circulation well before the emergence of the alt-right or the Trump campaign. In their modern form, they have been tolerated, even nurtured, in mainstream conservative circles for more than 20 years.

In the 1990s, conservatives popularized two sometimes competing, sometimes complementary theories on race that shared the same assumptions and goals:

  1. a belief that a nonwhite “underclass” was the central cause of American decline;

  2. a belief that problems in black and Latino communities were a result not of racism but rather shortcomings inherent to those communities; and

  3. a belief that no government program could alleviate the struggles of nonwhite Americans.

These ideas shaped two of the decade’s most influential conservative books on race, The Bell Curve and The End of Racism. Both were political works of scholarship, drawing from fields of sociology, psychometrics, and history. Both were written by conservatives opposed to multiculturalism, affirmative action, and government programs for the poor. And both took theories of cultural and scientific racism, dressed them up in the latest academic fashions, and received a warm welcome from conservative intellectuals and policymakers.

“The Bell Curve” has many new fans on the alt-right — and still inspires protests on the left

In 1990, Charles Murray was forced to change jobs. He’d spent the 1980s at the Manhattan Institute, where he wrote his influential book Losing Ground, which argued that government-directed social welfare programs increase poverty and should be cut. The book, popular within the Reagan administration, provided a social science justification for deep welfare cuts.

But then Murray clashed with the conservative think tank’s leadership over his next project: a study on race and IQ. The general tenor of the project was easy enough to guess, even in its early stages. Murray was partnering with Richard Herrnstein, a Harvard psychologist who in 1971 published a piece on IQ in the Atlantic, in which he argued that a society without a strict class structure would soon become an intellectual aristocracy, with high-IQ people clustered at top and low-IQ people at bottom. Herrnstein believed this was already happening in the United States, as high-IQ people increasingly married one another, creating a growing divergence from low-IQ Americans.

Herrnstein was focused on social status, not race, in evaluating IQ differences, but believed that it would be easy enough to devise a study that tested for a connection between IQ and race. Twenty years later, he found a social scientist eager to explore the issue: Murray.

Murray and Herrnstein’s book, The Bell Curve, was published in 1994, generating immediate controversy for its arguments that IQ was heritable, to a significant degree, and unchangeable to that extent; that it was correlated to both race and to negative social behaviors; and that social policy should take those correlations into account. Stuffed full of charts and equations, the book was, according to Murray, “social science pornography.”

With that description, he had intended to underscore that the book was teeming with data and regression tables. But given that most pornography is an expression of the fantasy life of white men, it was more on the nose than Murray knew. At any rate, he delighted in the controversy that followed publication. (Herrnstein died in September 1994, and so was not part of the post-publication debates.)

Murray engaged his critics in deliberately slippery ways (and continues to be slippery on the topic). He maintains, for instance, that The Bell Curve is not centrally about race, in large part because the chapters focused on black and Hispanic IQ scores are few in number and don’t appear until halfway through the book. But this is like saying the Harry Potter series isn’t about Voldemort because he doesn’t show up in full, corporeal form until the end of book four. Voldemort is the engine of the book series, the character that propels the plot forward. In The Bell Curve, race — that is, racial differences tied to heritable genetic traits — serves the same function.

To get a sense of this slipperiness: In a recent rebuttal of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s description of him as a “white nationalist,” he insists The Bell Curve can’t be racist because its second section, an exploration of the links between low IQ and social dysfunction, focused solely on white people. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to invoke the use of ‘racist scientists’ to discredit findings based on original analyses conducted by Herrnstein and Murray using samples of whites. No?”

No, because the third section of the book then takes those conclusions and applies them to black and Latino people, linking IQ, race, and social dysfunction to make an argument about dysgenic pressures centered in nonwhite communities.

As a quick brief on the book (which at 600-plus pages, rarely gets read to the end), Murray and Herrnstein argued:

  1. that low IQ leads to bad social outcomes, like poverty, crime, and out-of-wedlock births,

  2. that low-IQ people, who are more often found in nonwhite than white groups, are having more children than high-IQ people, and,

  3. that policy should reflect this reality.

They call for, among other things, elimination of aid to poor mothers, so they will stop having children; an end to the use of affirmative action in college admissions, which (the authors insisted) raises low-IQ people of color above their ability levels; and a shift in immigration law from family-based immigration to merit-based immigration, in order to favor higher-IQ immigrants.

Which brings us back to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s claim that Murray is a white nationalist. Is The Bell Curve a work of white nationalism? It’s an arguable question. The term is imprecise, and there are better descriptors. The Bell Curve is racist in the most literal sense: It organizes people by race, treating racial categories as real and fixed and associating particular genetic and social characteristics to those groups.

But it is also social Darwinist, arguing that genetic traits, like intelligence, lead to good or bad societies, and that the bad genes are concentrated not just in particular racial groups but in certain socioeconomic groups. In short, the black and white poor alike are poor because they are genetically disposed to be so by their low intelligence. And the book espouses a soft eugenicism, promoting policies that discourage low-IQ people from either immigrating or having children.

Oh, and its author still has a berth at the American Enterprise Institute, one of the most prominent conservative think tanks in the country.

Students at Middlebury College turn their backs on Charles Murray. They drowned out his talk with chants; later one of his hosts, a female political science professor, was assaulted.

Students at Middlebury College turn their backs on Charles Murray.  They drowned out his talk with chants; later one of his hosts, a female political science professor, was assaulted.   Lisa Rathke / AP


AEI scooped up Murray when the Manhattan Institute let him go, and stood by him throughout The Bell Curve controversy. He is still regarded in many conservative circles as a leading intellectual and social scientist. Rich Lowry recently called him“one of the most significant social scientists of our age.” While eyeing a presidential bid in 2015, Jeb Bush heaped praise on Murray (not specifying which book he had in mind), seemin