“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 soci