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National Review’s weak attack on affirmative action

The magazine is defending a professor who suggested black law students are inferior.

At Boston's Museum of Science, “Race” is the first national exhibition to tell the stories of race from the biological, cultural, and historical points of view. Combining these perspectives offers an unprecedented look at race and racism in the United States. The exhibit was developed by the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota.
David L Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

On Monday night, the conservative magazine National Review published an article coming to the spirited defense of a University of Pennsylvania law professor who proclaimed that she had “rarely, rarely” seen a black student finish in the top half of her class.

But the defense not only dramatically misrepresented what took place at Penn; it also neglected to include the author’s ties to that very same law professor, to the alt-right, and to his own racist views and past work for a website formerly run by white nationalist Richard Spencer.

The piece in question, titled “The Truth Hurts at Penn Law” and written by Jason Richwine, whom National Review describes as a public policy analyst, is focused on University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, and specifically remarks Wax made in September 2017 during a video discussion called “The Downside to Social Uplift.”

That discussion sparked an outcry from Penn students and professors, and on March 13, Penn Law dean Theodore Ruger said in a statement that Wax would no longer be teaching first-year law students.

During her remarks, Wax said, “Here’s a very inconvenient fact ... I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the class, and rarely, rarely, in the top half. I can think of one or two students who scored in the top half of my required first-year course.” In his response, Ruger said that Wax’s views about black graduation rates at Penn were not factual.

But in his article for National Review, Richwine argues that not only is Wax “almost certainly correct” in her view that black students “rarely” graduate in the top half of Penn Law’s classes, but to punish her for saying so is “almost Orwellian” — as, in Richwine’s view, it’s Penn Law’s fault that black students are (again, in Wax’s opinion) underperforming:

All of the problems listed by Dean Ruger are the direct result of Penn’s affirmative-action policies. Those policies generate a racial skills gap in Penn’s first-year law class, and Professor Wax has merely voiced what every rational observer already knows.

In Richwine’s opinion, the real villain in the story of Penn Law is affirmative action policies, which Richwine thinks are virtually forcing otherwise fair-minded observers to be racist:

If college admissions were purely merit-based, employers would have no reason to discount an impressive degree just because it is held by a black or Hispanic applicant. Under our system of racial preferences, however, it is not merely understandable but rational to suspect that minority applicants are less qualified than their paper credentials imply.

There are more than a few problems with this argument.

Richwine argues that Ruger “declared” Wax’s assertions regarding black graduation rates “false without providing any evidence,” a fact that Richwine believes to be “telling.” But Richwine also describes Wax’s views of her black students as “almost certainly correct” — without any evidence whatsoever. In fact, Penn Law keeps its grading policies a closely guarded secret and does not publicly rank its students.

And as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie pointed out on Twitter, affirmative action policies like those at Penn Law (the parameters of which can be reviewed here) would impact admissions, not grades or whether a degree is issued. Meaning that to suspect a minority job applicant would be less qualified, even with a degree from a leading institution, would not be, in fact, “rational” but would be, as Paul Ryan might say, “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”

But while Richwine doesn’t have a factual basis for his views, he does have a personal stake in the matter: He and Wax actually know one another quite well, having authored numerous op-eds together on the subject of immigration restrictionism (including for the pro-Trump Journal of American Affairs) and spoken on the same panels — a fact Richwine neglects to mention in the article.

And his belief that black students would naturally fall to the bottom of a law school class would fit with his own academic history, which cost him a job at one of the most influential conservative think tanks in the country — the Heritage Foundation — and got him published by a major white nationalist website. Richwine is a “scientific” racist who believes wholeheartedly that not only are IQ and race inherently linked but IQ is more or less unchangeable.

“I believe there is a strong case for IQ selection”

Richwine has long espoused a view that non-Europeans have lower IQs than European immigrants, making the latter more desirable immigrants.

In a 2008 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he argued that point publicly, saying, “Races differ in all sorts of ways, and probably the most important way is in IQ.”

He added, “At least in America, you have Jews with the highest average IQ, usually followed by East Asians, then you have non-Jewish whites, Hispanics, and then blacks,” and went on to argue that non-white immigrants would be less likely to assimilate, using black Americans and American Indians as an example. “We have blacks, we have American Indians, and even early Mexican Americans, who have been living in the country for a long time, and who have not assimilated into the cultural mainstream as typified by white Americans.”

His remarks and work got significant attention from white nationalists online, including from Richard Spencer, whom Richwine met at AEI.

In 2010, Richwine wrote two articles for the website, founded by Spencer that same year and considered to be the origin of the term “alt-right.” In one piece, Richwine argued that Hispanic Americans would be more likely to commit crimes than white Americans, concluding, “The reality of Hispanic crime should be one of the many factors we consider when setting immigration policy.”

But it wasn’t until Richwine was working for the conservative Heritage Foundation in 2013 on the subject of immigration — specifically, the “Gang of Eight” immigration reform bill that passed the Senate that year — that his racist views became public.

That’s when my colleague Dylan Matthews, writing for the Washington Post, discovered Richwine’s Harvard dissertation, called ”IQ and Immigration Policy.” The dissertation was completed during Richwine’s fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute (at which time he worked with fellow IQ true believer Charles Murray, whom Richwine described as his “childhood hero”), and its abstract reads:

The statistical construct known as IQ can reliably estimate general mental ability, or intelligence. The average IQ of immigrants in the United States is substantially lower than that of the white native population, and the difference is likely to persist over several generations. The consequences are a lack of socioeconomic assimilation among low-IQ immigrant groups, more underclass behavior, less social trust, and an increase in the proportion of unskilled workers in the American labor market. Selecting high-IQ immigrants would ameliorate these problems in the U.S., while at the same time benefiting smart potential immigrants who lack educational access in their home countries.

Richwine concluded, “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against,” adding, “From the perspective of Americans alive today, the low average IQ of Hispanics is effectively permanent.”

His final argument? Immigration to the United States should be determined by IQ: “I believe there is a strong case for IQ selection, since it is theoretically a win-win for the U.S. and potential immigrants.” He even argued that the terms “skills-based” or “skills” should be used instead of referring directly to IQ, to “blunt the negative reaction.”

The Heritage Foundation distanced itself from Richwine’s research, and on May 10, 2013, Richwine resigned. He told the Washington Examiner’s Byron York that he was surprised and hurt by the reaction to his work, saying, “The accusation of racism is one of the worst things that anyone can call you in public life.”

Since his resignation from the Heritage Foundation, Richwine has continued his laser focus on immigration restrictionism, writing papers with such titles as “Immigrant Literacy: Self-Assessment Vs. Reality” — and writing articles for National Review.

This is far from the first time National Review has peddled “scientific” racism

Of course, there was a time when such views and background might have gotten one summarily removed from National Review (a publication for which I have written), which has long positioned itself as a leading conservative publication and was outspoken in its criticism of the white nationalist alt-right during the 2016 election.

In fact, that time was in 2012.

That’s when longtime National Review contributor John Derbyshire (a writer with a long, long history of racism who had even openly described himself as a “mild and tolerant” racist back in 2003) wrote a piece for the far-right outlet Taki’s Magazine titled “The Talk: Non-Black Version,” which one writer described as “kind of unbelievably racist.” In it, Derbyshire argued, among other things, that intelligent black Americans are “something of a luxury good, like antique furniture or corporate jets.” That’s because, he wrote:

The mean intelligence of blacks is much lower than for whites. The least intelligent ten percent of whites have IQs below 81; forty percent of blacks have IQs that low. Only one black in six is more intelligent than the average white; five whites out of six are more intelligent than the average black. These differences show in every test of general cognitive ability that anyone, of any race or nationality, has yet been able to devise. They are reflected in countless everyday situations. “Life is an IQ test.”

After an uproar, National Review fired Derbyshire, with editor Rich Lowry writing, “Derb has long danced around the line on these issues, but this column is so outlandish it constitutes a kind of letter of resignation. It’s a free country, and Derb can write whatever he wants, wherever he wants. Just not in the pages of NR or NRO, or as someone associated with NR any longer.”

Six years later, similar views are being espoused by another National Review contributor, who has previously written for a site dedicating to promoting the views of the alt-right and whose views were too extreme for the very conservative Heritage Foundation.

I’ve reached out to Lowry, National Review’s editor-in-chief, and National Review Online editor Charles C.W. Cooke for comment and will update if I receive a response.