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Sam Harris, Charles Murray, and the allure of race science

This is not “forbidden knowledge.” It is America’s most ancient justification for bigotry and racial inequality.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

On Monday morning, I woke up to a tweet from Sam Harris, the bestselling author and popular podcast host, referencing a debate we never quite had over race and IQ.

Harris is touting a New York Times op-ed by David Reich arguing that “it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races.’” Reich is careful in his claims about what is known as of yet. He says that “if scientists can be confident of anything, it is that whatever we currently believe about the genetic nature of differences among populations is most likely wrong” — a level of humility often absent in this discussion. He goes on to slam researchers who, discussing race and intelligence, claim “they know what those differences are and that they correspond to racist stereotypes.” I do not find this column as troubling as Harris seems to think I will.

The background to Harris’s shot at me is that last year, Harris had Charles Murray on his podcast. Murray is a popular conservative intellectual best known for co-writing The Bell Curve, which posited, in a controversial section, a genetic basis for the observed difference between black and white IQs.

Harris’s invitation came in the aftermath of Murray being shouted down, and his academic chaperone assaulted, as he tried to give an invited address on an unrelated topic at Middlebury College. The aftermath of the incident had made Murray a martyr for free speech, and Harris brought him on the show in part as a statement of disgust with the illiberalism that had greeted Murray on campus.

Hundreds of Middlebury University college students protested Charles Murray’s lecture on March 12, 2017, forcing the college to move his talk to an undisclosed campus location.
Hundreds of Middlebury University students protested Charles Murray’s lecture on March 12, 2017, forcing the college to move his talk to an undisclosed campus location.
Lisa Rathke/AP

Harris’s conversation with Murray was titled, tantalizingly, “Forbidden Knowledge,” and in it, Harris sought to rehabilitate the conversation over race and IQ as well as open a larger debate about what can and cannot be said in today’s America. Here is Harris framing the discussion:

People don’t want to hear that a person's intelligence is in large measure due to his or her genes and there seems to be very little we can do environmentally to increase a person's intelligence even in childhood. It's not that the environment doesn't matter, but genes appear to be 50 to 80 percent of the story. People don't want to hear this. And they certainly don't want to hear that average IQ differs across races and ethnic groups.

Now, for better or worse, these are all facts. In fact, there is almost nothing in psychological science for which there is more evidence than these claims. About IQ, about the validity of testing for it, about its importance in the real world, about its heritability, and about its differential expression in different populations.

Again, this is what a dispassionate look at [what] decades of research suggest. Unfortunately, the controversy over The Bell Curve did not result from legitimate, good-faith criticisms of its major claims. Rather, it was the product of a politically correct moral panic that totally engulfed Murray's career and has yet to release him.

A few moments later, Harris lays out his own motivations. He admits, with some shame, that he once declined to participate in a symposium alongside Murray. And if he did that, he says, who knows how many others have quietly shunned Murray over the years?

The purpose of the podcast was to set the record straight. Because I find the dishonesty and hypocrisy and moral cowardice of Murray's critics shocking. And the fact that I was taken in by this defamation of him and effectively became part of a silent mob that was just watching what amounted to a modern witch-burning, that was intolerable to me.

Harris returns repeatedly to the idea that the controversy over Murray’s race and IQ work is driven by “dishonesty and hypocrisy and moral cowardice” — not a genuine disagreement over the underlying science or its interpretation. As he puts it, “there is virtually no scientific controversy” around Murray’s argument.

This is, to put it gently, a disservice Harris did to his audience. It is rare for a multi-decade academic debate to be a mere matter of bad faith, and it is certainly not the case here.

Subsequently, Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, and Richard E. Nisbett — three academic psychologists who specialize in studying intelligence — wrote a piece for Vox arguing that Murray was peddling pseudoscience and Harris had been irresponsible in representing it as the scientific consensus. (You can read their piece here, a criticism of their piece here, and their response to their critics here.)

Harris responded furiously to their article and publicly challenged me, as Vox’s editor-in-chief at the time, to come on his show and debate the issue. Over email, after failing to persuade Harris to have Turkheimer, Harden, or Nisbett on instead, I accepted Harris’s invitation. Unfortunately, our exchange seemed to only make him angrier. He ultimately refused to have me on his podcast on the grounds that a conversation between the two of us would be “unproductive,” pivoting to a demand that I instead publish an op-ed supporting his views (you can read that piece here) or that he publishes all our emails to each other. [Update: Harris has now published our email exchange, and I recommend reading it. I don’t know why he thinks it helps his case, but I think it shows just how resistant to actual dialogue he is on this subject.]

This was a disappointing outcome, as I think there are important conversations to have here — and that they go far beyond the conversation Harris and Murray had. So while this may not have been the intent of his tweet, I’m glad Harris reopened this discussion.

Here is my view: Research shows measurable consequences on IQ and a host of other outcomes from the kind of violence and discrimination America inflicted for centuries against African Americans. In a vicious cycle, the consequences of that violence have pushed forward the underlying attitudes that allow discriminatory policies to flourish and justify the racially unequal world we’ve built.

To put this simply: You cannot discuss this topic without discussing its toxic past and the way that shapes our present.

The conversation between Murray and Harris, one not unique to them, is particularly important right now because it shows how longstanding, deeply harmful tropes are being rehabilitated across the right as a brave stand against political correctness, and as a justification for cutting social programs and giving up on efforts to foster racial equality.

So let’s dive in.

This isn’t “forbidden knowledge.” It’s ancient prejudice.

I’m a listener of Sam Harris’s podcast, Waking Up, and so I heard his conversation with Murray when it first aired. I often disagree with Harris, but he’s a curious, penetrating interviewer, and his discussions on consciousness, artificial intelligence, and meditation are worth seeking out.

What bothered me most about Harris’s conversation with Murray was the framing. There is nothing more seductive than “forbidden knowledge.” But for two white men to spend a few hours discussing why black Americans are, as a group, less intelligent than whites isn’t a courageous stand in the context of American history; it’s a common one.

Sam Harris, author of a slew of books on religion and meditation and host of the Waking Up podcast.
Charles Ommanney/Getty Images

In his book Stamped From the Beginning, which won the 2016 National Book Award for nonfiction, Ibram X. Kendi traces the history of arguments about black inferiority to before the founding of the republic. “Even before Thomas Jefferson and the other founders declared independence, Americans were engaging in a polarizing debate over racial disparities, over why they exist and persist, and over why White Americans as a group were prospering more than Black Americans as a group,” he writes. Those explanations typically revolved around ever more baroque claims of biological difference.

To modern eyes, the arguments that fill Kendi’s pages read as ridiculous, even when they are made by historical figures we now revere. Here, for instance, is David Hume:

I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the Whites ... have still something eminent about them. ... Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. ... In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.

Or take Voltaire, an early polygenist — he believed black people were of a different species than whites, a heresy at the time because it seemed to conflict with the story of Adam and Eve:

The negro race is a species of men as different from ours as the breed of spaniels is from that of greyhound. ... If their understanding is not of a different nature from ours it is at least greatly inferior.

These were the arguments that America’s Founding Fathers were following and would ultimately echo. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and claimed to abhor slavery; he condemned interracial relationships for defiling the white race (“Amalgamation with the other color, produces degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character, can innocently consent”) while fathering children with Sally Hemings. And of African Americans, he wrote that he could “never ... find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never saw an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.”

Reflect on that. A Founding Father of the country that would produce James Baldwin and Langston Hughes believed African Americans could not produce thoughts more complex than literal narration. And yet Thomas Jefferson was an undeniably brilliant thinker. He believed his assessments were based on fact when, in reality, they were mere bigotry that both emerged from and was used to justify a racist regime.

This pattern has played out across American history, and these ideas have persisted well into the modern age. William F. Buckley, the venerated founder of National Review, wrote this in a 1957 in a column titled “Why the South Must Prevail”:

The central question that emerges … is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes — the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over negro, but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists.

That was just 60 years ago. It was within my mother’s lifetime. Are we so sure our generation’s version of this argument will look so much better 60 years from now?

Whatever the future holds, the idea that America’s racial inequalities are driven by genetic differences between the races and not by anything we did, or have to undo, is not “forbidden knowledge” — it is perhaps the most common and influential perspective in American history. It is embedded in our founding documents, voiced by men with statues in their likeness, reflected in centuries of policymaking. It is an argument that has been used since the dawn of the country to justify the condition of its most oppressed citizens. If you’re going to discuss this topic, that’s a history you need to reckon with.

Curious about race and IQ, incurious about race

Harris and Murray’s conversation stretches more than two hours. A transcript runs to more than 20,000 words. Unless I missed it, at no point in the discussion do Harris or Murray use the words “slave,” “slavery,” or “segregation.” It is curiously ahistorical.

This is not a minor point. Dealing with the reality of racism in the United States is necessary for discussing this topic. In his book Are We Getting Smarter, the famed IQ researcher James Flynn notes that IQs are rising, sharply, across populations and across time. Flynn’s theory for the observed changes — changes that are larger than the entirety of the black-white IQ gap and should not be possible if IQ is genetic or based on environmental factors that cannot be changed — is that the increasing cognitive complexity of the world around us is making us smarter, as if we’re wearing “scientific spectacles”:

Increasingly, people felt it was important to classify concrete reality (in terms the more abstract the better); and to take the hypothetical seriously (which freed logic to deal with not only imagined situations but also symbols that had no concrete referents).

Living in a more cognitively complex world creates more cognitively complex creatures. “If people switch from swimming to weight lifting, the new exercise develops different muscles and the enhanced muscles make them better at the new activity,” Flynn writes. “Everything we know about the brain suggests that it is similar to our muscles.”

Apply this to the American experience. Over hundreds of years, white Americans have oppressed black Americans — enslaved them, physically terrorized them, ripped their families apart, taken their wealth from them, denied their children decent educations, refused to let them buy homes in neighborhoods with good schools, locked them out of the most cognitively demanding and financially rewarding jobs, deprived them of the professional and social networks that power advancement.

Among the many, many awful effects this has had is to deny black Americans the full cognitive advantages of navigating the modern economy, of wearing their scientific spectacles. For this reason, Flynn argues that “the black/white IQ gap is probably environmental in origin.”

Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve.
Gage Skidmore/Flickr

In a debate with Flynn, Murray sounded a radically skeptical note, saying of efforts to bridge racial difference, “by the nineteen-seventies, you had gotten most of the juice out of the environment that you were going to get.” It is remarkable to me to that anyone believes racism’s effects on black development had mostly vanished merely a decade after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Note, too, that the black-white IQ gap appears to have closed by about a quarter since 1972.

How to think about the effects of generations of racism on black American achievement is the core of this debate, and it is not well covered in Harris’s podcast. Harris brings up Flynn’s argument in the context of some other research Murray cites, but neither he nor Murray seriously pursues the challenge:

HARRIS: I have here a quote from Flynn — I don’t know when he wrote this or said this — but he says, “An environmental explanation of the racial IQ gap need only posit this: that the average environment for blacks in 1995 matches the quality of the average environment for whites in 1945. I do not find that implausible.” So what you just said seems to close the door to that interpretation of the black-white gap.

MURRAY: Yes, it does, and this is a case where I am citing someone who has done analyses that are at a level of complexity that I am not independently competent to pronounce.

And then they just move on. The problem here isn’t that Harris and Murray want to talk about race and IQ. It’s how much they leave out of their discussion.

I will state the obvious. White people enslaved black people on this land before the United States was even a country. Our founding document counted African Americans as three-fifths of a person. If I drive a few minutes into Virginia, I will ride over a highway named for US senator and Confederate leader Jefferson Davis, who said, “We recognize the fact of the inferiority stamped upon that race of men by the Creator, and from the cradle to the grave, our Government, as a civil institution, marks that inferiority.” The current president of the United States has made defending the monuments of Davis and his compatriots a signature issue.

The Civil War was followed by the domestic terror of the South’s backlash to Reconstruction. Segregation was enforced by violence. Plunder, lynching, and humiliation were constant. And these are just the headline abuses. Less bloody and brutal forms of discrimination were, and are, ubiquitous.

This is not our past. It is our present. We have leaders of the civil rights movement who were nearly beaten to death who still serve in Congress. Today, black families that make $100,000 or more live in neighborhoods with the income composition of white families that make less than $30,000. Today, the average white family has a net worth of $171,000 and the average black family has a net worth of only $17,600, and that wealth gap carries, for whites, all the attendant advantages that family wealth gives children.

Today, white and black children do drugs at similar rates, but black children are arrested far more often. Today, our schools are more segregated than at any point in half a century, with all the attendant damage that does to black children. Today, among children born into the top fifth of the income distribution, white children have a 41 percent chance of holding their station, while black children have only an 18 percent chance.

International evidence suggests oppression, discrimination, and societal resentment lowers group IQs. As the New York University philosopher of neuroscience Ned Block has written, quoting the work of anthropologist John Ogbu, oppression has a clear effect on marginalized groups globally. “Where IQ tests have been given, ‘the children of these caste-like minorities score about 10-15 points ... lower than dominant group children,’” he writes.

Block’s point, and this is important, is not that IQ isn’t heritable, or even that it’s impossible to imagine it differing among groups. It’s that it’s impossible to look at the cruel and insane experiment America has run on its black residents and say anything useful about genetic differences in intelligence.

“Environmental differences, then, including the sort that affect Black Americans, are known to have large effects on IQ,” Block continues. “Moreover, we currently have no way to quantify these effects. So we should draw no conclusion about the probability of any Black genetic IQ advantage or disadvantage.”

This is also, notably, Reich’s conclusion in the op-ed Harris enthusiastically promotes and uses for his jab at me. “Whatever discoveries are made,” Reich says, “we truly have no idea yet what they will be.” If that had been the tenor of Harris’s conversation with Murray — if they had simply observed the existence of a racial IQ gap (that has already closed substantially over time), hypothesized that advances in genetics might one day reveal group differences, and then cautioned that no one knows anything yet — there would be no controversy.

That was not the conversation they had.

When questions about IQ become recommendations about social policy

In American history, arguments about black inferiority have typically served broader purposes. This is the main point of Kendi’s book. “Hate and ignorance have not driven the history of racist ideas in America,” he writes. “Racist policies have driven the history of racist ideas in America.” He continues:

The principal function of racist ideas in American history has been the suppression of resistance to racial discrimination and its resulting racial disparities. The beneficiaries of slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration have produced racist ideas of Black people being best suited for or deserving of the confines of slavery, segregation, or the jail cell. Consumers of these racist ideas have been led to believe there is something wrong with Black people, and not the policies that have enslaved, oppressed, and confined so many Black people.

The belief in black deficiency has been instrumental. It was used to justify slavery and to quiet moral qualms over unyielding oppression and violence. In more recent decades, it has been used to explain away the wealth and achievement gaps — if the disparities we see in American life are the result of an intrinsic inferiority on the part of black Americans, then that diminishes the responsibility white Americans have to correct those disparities.

In his interview with Harris, Murray explains that his interest in race and IQ stems from a concern over misguided social programs meant to promote racial equality, and he repeatedly emphasizes his pessimism over whether America’s racial disparities can be bridged:

There is this notion that if traits are genetically determined, that's bad, and if traits are environmentally determined, that's good, because we can do something about them if they are environmental. And if there is one lesson that we have learned from the last 70 years of social policy, it is that changing environments in ways that produce measurable results is really, really hard, and we actually don't know how to do it, no matter how much money we spend.

Elsewhere in the discussion, he is even more straightforward. It’s not just that inequality is so deeply embedded in our genes and environment that we don’t know how to make progress — it’s that it’s dangerous to even try:

HARRIS: I guess one thing that must be occurring to listeners now — and this is my misgiving about having this conversation and going into this area at all — the question is why talk about any of this? Why seek data on racial difference at all? What is the purpose of doing this?

MURRAY: Because we now have social policy embedded in employment policy, in academic policy, which is based on the premise that everybody’s equal above the neck, all groups are equal above the neck, whether it’s men and women or whether it’s ethnicities. And when you have that embedded into law, you have a variety of bad things happen.

In these conversations and others, Murray repeatedly brings up the dreaded threat of affirmative action. I am going to quote this section of his discussion with Harris at length, both because it is so peculiar and because I want to make sure I am not accused of misrepresenting Murray’s argument:

HARRIS: I’m sure we can find white supremacist organizations who absolutely love the fact that The Bell Curve was published and just admonish their members to read it at the first opportunity. Why look at this? How does this help society for us to be getting more information about racial difference?

MURRAY: If you go back to some of my earliest published stuff on affirmative action — you can go back to 1994, when I did an article for the New Republic in which I was talking about the mismatch problem — a lot of that is, how would I feel if I were a black kid my age going into college and everybody thought I was there because I was an affirmative action kid? I would hate that. I would really hate it. How would I feel if, on the job, I knew that everyone assumed that I got that job because of affirmative action? I would hate that. And I would try to do my best to prove them wrong, but I find that morally repugnant.

A lot of it was a kind of empathy with, what if I were me in the same way and personality and intellect and everything else and ambitions, but what if I were black, living in this world right now?

I’ll tell you something else I went back to. When I got to Harvard in the fall of 1961, there were way fewer black students, undergraduates, than there are now. Way fewer. This was pre-affirmative action, pre-Civil Rights Act of 1964, for that matter. The kid from Newton, Iowa, every time he saw a black face in the student union or whatever, my instinctive reaction was, “He’s probably smarter than I am,” and I made that assumption because I figured the black kids are very likely to have had a tougher road to hoe than I had to get there.

Here, Murray is arguing that his decades-long focus on the intellectual inferiority of African Americans is the product of his empathy for African Americans who may be looked down upon because of affirmative action. He speaks with affection of an era when there were fewer African-American students at Harvard but people like him looked upon them with more respect.

Even having read this argument from Murray a few times in different guises, I do not fully understand why he thinks the problem here is best solved by removing affirmative action and persuading people of group differences in IQ rather than, say, trying to change the perspective that leads people to assume their life outcomes were the product of true meritocracy and affirmative action is the uniquely artificial intervention (this is what all those kids talking about “privilege” are attempting to do, by the way).

Murray also references the “mismatch hypothesis,” which holds that affirmative action harms those it intends to help by sending them to schools for which they’re unprepared. But broader interrogations of the mismatch hypothesis have found that it is not, in fact, true. Matthew Chingos, director of the Urban Institute’s education policy program, literally wrote the book on this, and concluded:

Students were most likely to graduate by attending the most selective institution that would admit them. This finding held regardless of student characteristics — better or worse prepared, black or white, rich or poor. Most troubling was the fact that many well-prepared students “undermatch” by going to a school that is not demanding enough, and are less likely to graduate as a result. Other prior research has found that disadvantaged students benefit more from attending a higher quality college than their more advantaged peers.

Now, there’s a debate about the evidence on mismatch, and I can imagine how you might fall on the other side of it. But even if you do, it still seems to me that given America’s history, that would lead you toward more radical solutions for bridging racial divides, not toward getting rid of affirmative action and spreading the word that the problem is intrinsic differences in intellectual capability.

It is important to be clear here: I take Murray at his word when he condemns racism, when he calls for individuals to be seen as individuals. I am describing his positions, not his motivations. He is arguing that an unequal status quo flowing from centuries of oppression is effectively immutable because in the few decades since we’ve haltingly and tentatively sought something nearer to equality, the gaps have not been sufficiently bridged. And rather than endorsing more radical efforts to close the gap — and we can do much, much more as a country than we have dared try — he insists that we need to accept that the gap is partly genetic, that what environmental dimensions it has are similarly resistant to intervention, and that efforts to bridge it are unwise.

This also feeds into Murray’s proposal to devolve the entirety of the government’s social supports into a more regressive version of a universal basic income. As Murray says there, he believes that virtually all efforts to lighten inequality in America are misguided. “Imagine for a moment that the $2 trillion that the US government spends on transfer payments were left instead in the hands of the people who started with it,” he writes. “If I could wave a magic wand, that would be my solution.” This is an easier position to justify if you believe the inequities in our society reflect individual capacity and not institutional design.

Is the real victim of the race and IQ debate Charles Murray?

This brings us to Charles Murray and the strange apportionment of sympathy that underlies this whole conversation — and many conversations about “PC” culture today.

At the beginning of the podcast, Harris says that the reason he decided to spend two hours rehabilitating a controversial strain of race science before his million listeners was that a wrong had been done to Murray that had to be corrected. “I was taken in by this defamation of him and effectively became part of a silent mob that was just watching what amounted to a modern witch-burning,” Harris says.

Later, he returns to this point. “The reason why I wanted to have this conversation with you about race and IQ and The Bell Curve is I perceive a huge intellectual and moral injustice with respect to how you were treated on this topic because everything you have said about it has been as judicious and as clear-headed ethically as I would hope it would be, and you were treated — you got to attend your own witch-burning and have for the last 20 years.”

This is important. If Murray is a cautious scholar who does everything possible to avoid racial controversy and nevertheless has had his career destroyed by social justice warriors, it is understandable why his example would strike fear into the hearts of similarly oriented commentators: There but for the grace of God go I, and all that. But I do not buy this interpretation of Murray’s career.

I arrived in Washington in 2005. Throughout my time here, Murray has been a controversial, but prominent, conservative scholar. He has a plum appointment at the American Enterprise Institute. His recent books have been reviewed by the New York Times (indeed, his latest book was reviewed twice!) and have been much discussed on the nation’s op-ed pages. He wins prizes, testifies before Congress, and appears on television.

Murray isn’t even ignored by the left. My first job in journalism was at the American Prospect, a liberal policy journal, and I interviewed him for my first feature article. Later, at the same publication, I reviewed his book In Our Hands, a proposal to dissolve the safety net into a cash transfer. My wife is currently writing a book on universal basic incomes. Murray is quoted in it.

None of this is to diminish the fact that The Bell Curve was controversial, that Murray has been attacked for sections of it, that some of those attacks have been unfair, or that much of this has been painful for him.

But Murray pretends a strange innocence over why the racial arguments in his book attracted so much attention. He emphasizes the fact that much of The Bell Curve had nothing to do with race, which is true. But what was true for The Bell Curve itself was not true for the publicity campaign around The Bell Curve. Here, for instance, is the cover of the New Republic issue that excerpted Murray’s book and has stood as the true epicenter of the firestorm over its contents:

Why might people have made the mistake of thinking Murray had a lot to say on race and IQ?

I work with authors on book excerpts, and I can testify it is a known fact that the portion of a book you excerpt and put on the cover of an influential national magazine is going to get more attention than the rest of the book. Often, authors will not let you excerpt solely a particularly controversial portion because they’re concerned it will overwhelm the rest of their argument.

It’s worth noting, too, that The Bell Curve sits in a broader context within Murray’s work. His previous book, Losing Ground, argued that the Great Society’s anti-poverty programs had simply made the poor poorer. “A huge number of well-meaning whites fear that they are closet racists, and this book tells them they are not,” Murray said. “It’s going to make them feel better about things they already think but do not know how to say.”

Murray has repeatedly courted racial controversy over the years, and even so, he holds a top position at a respected think tank, gets his books reviewed by the most important outlets, is invited to write op-eds in national newspapers, and remains an important commentator on current events. His career is proof not of how little racial controversy you can provoke before being sanctioned, but of how much racial controversy you can provoke while still succeeding. He has suffered some, but he has also prospered greatly.

But he has, for some in this debate, come to represent the real danger in American life: political correctness.

Blinded by political correctness

In the introduction to the podcast, Harris says it was the “anti-free speech hysteria that is spreading on college campuses that caused me to finally pay attention” to Murray’s plight. This isn’t about race, in other words. It’s about political correctness and the dangers it poses. Harris wants to defend Murray’s arguments on race and IQ because he doesn’t want the social justice warriors to win.

There is a lesson in here for college protesters. When protests turn violent, when invited speakers are publicly denied the chance to make their arguments, they become martyrs for free speech, and the resulting reaction both makes their ideas seem sexier and gives them allies they wouldn’t otherwise have had. Harris’s podcast with Murray did exponentially more to rehabilitate and spread Murray’s ideas on race and IQ than his (unrelated) speech at Middlebury would have.

As I have argued in this piece, I don’t think Murray’s read of this issue is persuasive. But if donning his perspective becomes a form of bravery, if it becomes a way for young white men to rebel against protest culture and prominent pundits to declare independence from groupthink, it will become much more appealing. From my read of the alt-right, it already has.

One problem with the political correctness debate, however, is we’re quick to demand a sense of proportion and prudence from college protesters even as we ignore related sins of partiality and overreaction in nationally recognized commentators. I often see pundits — Harris included — who seem far more afraid of “PC culture” than the problems PC culture is trying to address. On some level, that’s understandable. If you’re a white male pundit who trades in controversial opinions, PC culture probably does pose more of a threat to you than the inequalities it means to fight.

Perspective is key here, though. The victims of the toxic idea that Americans with dark skin are biologically destined to be, on average, intellectually inferior to Americans of light skin are not the white men who have promoted it but the black Americans who have endured it. And when your explorations of these debates don’t seem to understand that, you feed the worst fears of the PC culture you’re trying to calm.

But here are the real costs of this long-running conversation. In a powerful experiment, researchers Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan sent out sets of matched résumés to 1,300 employers in Chicago and Boston. The résumés were identical in all respects save for the name of the applicant. On some applications, the name was traditionally white; on others, it was stereotypically black. The result? “White-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to elicit positive responses from employers relative to equally qualified applicants with ‘black’ names.”

Similar outcomes are found in studies testing in-person interviews. Here, researchers send in pairs of applicants “carefully matched on the basis of age, height, weight, physical attractiveness, interpersonal style, and any other employment-relevant characteristics.” In her overview of these studies, Devah Pager finds that “whites [are] anywhere from 1.5 to 5 times more likely to receive a callback or job offer relative to equally qualified black applicants.”

Black children grow up in a country that, over and over again, signals that it expects less of them, believes less in them, and fears more from them. This is, in part, the result of deep-seated racism in American life — a racism that often manifests less through hatred than through underestimation and dismissal; a racism that draws on centuries of belief in black inferiority.

Harris and Murray are clear that for all their discussion of group differences, people should be judged on their singular merits. “To have political equality, you have to treat people as individuals,” says Harris. “It’s ethically and politically prudent to do this, and here’s the crucial point, it’s actually rational to do this because the differences between groups are not so large that there isn’t a substantial overlap between them for every trait we care about.”

“I emphatically agree with everything you just said,” replies Murray.

But if “individual” is the proper unit of evaluation for intelligence, as Murray and Harris say, then I am not sure conversations like the one they had are helping, and I am certainly not sure that the fatalism Murray evinces, and the policy recommendations that flow from it, is justified.

In this country, given our history, discussions about race and IQ need more care and context than they get. As a starting point, rather than being framed around the bravery of the (white) participants for having a conversation that has done so much damage, they should grapple seriously with the costs of America’s most ancient justification for bigotry, and take seriously why so many are so skeptical that this time, finally, the racial pessimists are right when they have been so horribly wrong before.

And Sam, I’m still up for that podcast.