Stuart Taylor: Liberalism’s Poor Eyesight Causes Poor Insight

UPDATE 6 December

As my final point below in my comments on Stuart Taylor’s excellent article I somewhat hesitantly suggested that any thorough discussion of the racial achievement gap — especially one, like Stuart’s, that correctly emphasized how universities and the major media avert their eyes and refuse to look at unpleasant data — should consider, if only around the edges, Charles Murray’s arguments in The Bell Curve and beyond.

Stuart responded, generously as always, explaining that he avoids discussing Murray’s and related works in part by deferring to Rick Sander’s research-based conclusion in their co-authored book, Mismatch:

… the test score gap is not rooted in racial genetics. Almost no one mentions this issue because it is perhaps the most explosive of all racial questions. But scholars have been attempting to disentangle the sources of the test score gap for more than a generation, and we believe the evidence now is overwhelming on this point: Racial test score gaps arise from a wide range of environmental factors, not genetic ones. We explore these factors later in the chapter, but for now the important point is this: The racial test score gap is malleable; we can do something about it.

I’m not so sure, but that’s neither here nor there. Stuart then added that he saw “no upside” to entering “ the long-running, complicated debate over genetic theories” because, as Murray himself said, whether intelligence is primarily the result of genetics or environment has no implications for public policy.

This same point was made eloquently by Roger Clegg, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and it is worth quoting at length:

What if it turns out that there are genetic differences in cognitive abilities among different groups?

The issue whether there are racial differences in IQ is, it seems to me, of an intricacy disproportionate to its interest, at least for those of us who think that sound law and policy require judging people as individuals, without regard to race. In short, even if such genetic differences can be proven to exist, it would not provide a convincing rationale to refrain from re-instilling the sound law and policy of requiring citizens to be judged as individuals, without regard to race. Were science to somehow prove that the average white’s IQ is 12.03 higher than the average black’s, there will still be plenty of blacks smarter than plenty of whites, and plenty of mixed blacks/whites/others.

In the civil-rights context, the science here is important only to those on the far Right who would defend racial discrimination, and — especially — those on the far Left who insist that, since culture of course also cannot be blamed for racial disparities, they must all be a result of discrimination. The quota mongers have to deny unequal distributions of talent, interests, and ability, since their whole approach hinges on an assumption that proportionate representation is what a meritocratic system, sans discrimination, would produce. It is only to people who want to make racial generalizations and to people who believe that, absent discrimination, every university and workplace would “look like America” that race and IQ is of great importance.

I, on the other hand, am happy to be agnostic: Just choose the best qualified people, and don’t worry about getting your numbers right. For us colorblind conservatives, who think people should be treated as individuals regardless of race and who don’t think that racial disparity equals racial discrimination, the connection between race and IQ doesn’t matter. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, as originally written and understood, makes sense for a multiracial and multiethnic society, whether or not there are genetic differences among different groups.

Finally, it worth observing that, as Stuart noted, Charles Murray said the same thing. The following is from the conclusion of The Bell Curve, and it was repeated in Murray’s devastating Open Letter to the president of Virginia Tech in 2016:

In sum: If tomorrow you knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that all the cognitive differences between races were 100 percent genetic in origin, nothing of any significance should change. The knowledge would give you no reason to treat individuals differently than if ethnic differences were 100 percent environmental. By the same token, knowing that the differences are 100 percent environmental in origin would not suggest a single program or policy that is not already being tried. It would justify no optimism about the time it will take to narrow the existing gaps. It would not even justify confidence that genetically based differences will not be upon us within a few generations. The impulse to think that environmental sources of difference are less threatening than genetic ones is natural but illusory.

After seeing these comments, Stuart adds that he “agrees 100% with Roger’s (and Charles Murray’s) as-usual incisive analysis on the irrelevance of the nature/nurture distinction to policymaking.”




A few posts ago I was highly critical of a recent column by George Will (“Where There’s A Will There’s … No Way”), but I heartily agreed with one of his assertions, that Stuart Taylor Jr. is “a legal analyst as temperate as he is accomplished.” Taylor confirms the accuracy of that judgment in his recent, long article on Real Clear Politics, “We Must Face Persistent Racial Gaps in Academic Performance.”

“In covering the most highly publicized ‘affirmative action’ lawsuit in decades – against Harvard University,” he writes, “the news media are continuing their pattern of averting their eyes from stubborn facts that cut against their ideological preferences.” Harvard and other selective institutions insist that they cannot enroll  enough (How many exactly? Enough!) blacks and Hispanics without using racial preferences, but the news media, like universities and others in the cultural elite, shrink from asking the crucial question, Why is that?

“The news media, like the universities,” Taylor writes, “do not ask … because they cannot accept honest answers, which include the following inconvenient truths”:

The state of average black academic achievement, from kindergarten through graduate schools, is extremely discouraging — far behind that of Asian-Americans and whites, and substantially behind that of Latinos.

Worse, black academic achievement in K-12 schools has not improved noticeably relative to that of whites or Asian-Americans in about 30 years, and has in some ways deteriorated, despite the growth of the black middle class. There is little reason to believe this will change in the foreseeable future.

“These well-documented but disheartening facts,” Taylor persuasively argues, “are treated as taboo by academia, the media, and other establishment institutions.”

It is to Taylor’s credit that he faces these facts, and more, head on. Among them:

  • Even after decades of affirmative action, black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at the nation’s top colleges and universities than they were 35 years ago, according to a 2017 New York Times analysis. The share of black freshmen at elite schools is virtually unchanged since 1980.
  • Strikingly, the Times did not explicitly acknowledge or quantify the vast racial gaps in academic performance, such as the fact that the average black 12th-grader is academically at the same level as the average white eighth-grader.
  • By all available measures, despite the emergence of a black middle class, the most recent data suggest that the racial academic performance gaps among 18-year-olds applying to college are as large on average as they were about three decades ago. The black-white test score gap among high school seniors in contemporary America is comparable to the gap between 13- and 17-year-olds.
  • Part of the reason for these discouraging numbers is the lagging academic performance even of well-off black students at good schools. As Brookings scholars Richard Reeves and Dimitrios Halikias wrote in 2017: “[I]t is unlikely that the racial achievement gap can be explained away by class differences across race.”
  • “Income alone does not explain the racial scoring gap,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported in 2002. “Whites from families with incomes below $10,000 had a mean SAT test score that was 46 points higher than blacks whose families had incomes of between $80,000 and $100,000,” it noted. “Blacks from families with incomes of more than $100,000 had a mean SAT score that was 142 points below the mean score for whites from families at the same income level.”

There’s more, but even though there’s enough above to give you a good idea of what Taylor argues you should really read his entire article. It’s devastatingly persuasive about the inability or unwillingness or simply ideology-imposed blindness of our liberal cultural elites in the media and universities to face unpleasant facts about race.

Now comes the “but” that often follows my praise of Stuart Taylor’s work, here (as usual) caused by what I find to be his curiously lingering attachment to liberalism, albeit in its older, more moderate and hence appealing form. Consider the confidence, for example, in the following assertion: “Of course, black and Latino students’ academic problems are attributable not to any inherent character flaws but rather to inferior education – not only in school but, even more, at home and in after-school peer groups.”

I don’t doubt that inferior education contributes significantly to the black and Hispanic achievement gap, and I agree that character flaws are not the problem. Still, that “of course” strikes me as overly confident, and it leads to a constellation of proposed remedies that require even more confidence:

persuading young people to defer parenthood until they are ready; making long-acting contraceptives available to prevent unwanted births; fostering a culture of two-parent families; and motivating parents to stimulate their kids, read to them, and teach them to show up for school, do their homework, and avoid gangs and drugs.

A culture of good parenting must be promoted by social programs that include “experimenting [with] increasing cash transfers to disadvantaged parents with young children, improving access to quality preschool programs, pursuing paid leave policies to allow for more quality parent investment during the first years of life, teaching parents the skills they need to effectively raise their children, and so on,” in the words of [Brookings scholars Richard] Reeves and [Dimitrious] Halikias.

“All that would cost a lot of money” Taylor admits. “But unlike the money that many cities, states, and courts have thrown at failing schools and that universities have spent promoting racial grievances, this money could do a lot of good.”

Could? Maybe. But would it? I’m not so sure. And this confident call for more funds does not seem to fit easily with Taylor’s criticism of the New York Times earlier in his article for its failure even to attempt “to explain, other than blaming unequal K-12 schools, how decades of increased public school spending and of racial preferences in college admissions could have failed so utterly to bring even relatively prosperous black students — or their children – much closer to academic parity with whites and Asian-Americans by age 18.”

The biggest problem with these funds-based solutions, however, is probably not a lack of funds but simply that we lack the knowledge and hence ability to encourage two-parent families, promote good parenting, encourage deferred gratification, etc. Taylor does, however, make a compelling argument that racial preferences makes things worse, and he’s certainly right that we should stop using them.

Given how thick Taylor’s article is with evidence and argument, I hesitate to mention a dog that doesn’t bark here but probably should, especially since the gravamen of his argument is the failure to face facts and unwelcome evidence. I am referring to the argument associated with Richard J. Herrnstein’s and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, on the role of intelligence.

That debate is too large a can of worms to open here, but intelligence is so central to academic achievement that I think it easily qualifies as an area that virtually all analysts prefer to avoid. And I will avoid it here, except for noting that The Bell Curve and Murray’s subsequent analyses continue to be almost universally misrepresented. Just a few days ago, for example, Nicholas Lemann purported to describe “How Affirmative Action Really Works.” It did not, but along the way to not doing so Lemann wrote:

In the intellectual world, probably the main event regarding affirmative action in the mid-1990s was the publication of The Bell Curve, by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which argued that intelligence (for which they used the SAT as a proxy) is all-important, substantially inherited, and associated with race — and therefore that all forms of affirmative action should be abolished.

Almost nothing in that sentence is true.

  • That book was not “the main event regarding affirmative action in the mid-1990s”
  • H&M argued that intelligence was important but not “all-important”
  • To claim they argued that intelligence is “substantially inherited” suggests they exaggerated. But they did not; they summarized the scientific consensus at the time (and still) over the probable range of its inheritability
  • They did not argue “all forms of affirmative action should be abolished”

For what they did argue, see Murray’s superb 2016 open letter  to the president of Virginia Tech, which refutes in detail each of the charges Lemann makes here.

My point about Murray is not that he’s right. I don’t know enough or understand psychometrics well enough to do that (or, of course, to say that he’s wrong). But I do agree with one point made by Lemann concluding  his paragraph I just quoted: “Two generally liberal magazines, Newsweek and The New Republic, published cover stories on The Bell Curve, treating it as a serious work of science that raised uncomfortable but undeniable truths.”

Lemann’s right. They did. But he’s wrong to heap scorn on them for doing so.


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