A review of Facing Reality: Two Truths about Race in America by Charles Murray. Encounter Books, 168 pages. (June, 2021)
I’ve known about Charles Murray since 1994, when I was a voracious and unsupervised teen reader in rural Oregon grabbing the library’s latest issue of the New Republic the instant it was shelved. It was here that I stumbled upon the shocking views Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein expressed in The Bell Curve about race, class, and inequality in America. I didn’t give those views much deep thought at the time, and so my perception of Murray and his ideas hewed more or less to the dismissive conventional wisdom. It wasn’t until I read a 1998 essay in Commentary magazine by Christopher Chabris that I began to reconsider. Chabris argued that the media furor around The Bell Curve obscured more than it illuminated, and that the consensus among psychologists on the importance of intelligence to life outcomes was indeed close to what Murray and Herrnstein had asserted. To my surprise, in the 21st century, my relationship with Murray and his ideas took a different turn, as I had the pleasure and honor of becoming his friend. And rather like Murray, I am now the sort of public figure that certain types of people feel they have to publicly denounce in order to establish their own group bona fides.
Given this personal history, you might reasonably ask why I agreed to write about Murray’s latest book, Facing Reality: Two Truths about Race in America. The answer is simply that I am one of the few people willing to write about it. The book’s thesis is that American society faces disaster if it is not prepared to confront certain politically uncomfortable facts about race—Murray has described it as a cri de coeur. But the difficulty of finding someone willing to admit to even reading one of Murray’s books, let alone someone willing to review it, may doom the project before anyone turns the first page. After all, most of those willing to listen to Murray are already familiar with the data he presents here, and those who are unaware of the uncomfortable facts he wants us to confront would never admit to touching one of his books for fear of peer condemnation. Only Murray could write a book like Facing Reality today, yet his reputation makes it hard to see how this work could possibly stimulate the free-spirited and open-minded debate he intends. Alas, that likely ensures that any discussion of its merits will be just another minor battle in the unending culture war, rather than an opportunity to advance understanding and reconciliation.
For a work attempting to tackle difficult, even intractable, subjects, Facing Reality is surprisingly spare. At a mere 168 pages, it is considerably shorter than the 500-plus pages of Murray’s previous book, Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class. That’s because there are only two big ideas being forwarded: that different races in America “have different violent crime rates and different means and distributions of cognitive ability.” That’s it. Though there is more reasoning and analysis between the covers, the whole work rests on these two pillars.
But why read a book on this topic when you can discover these facts within a few minutes? Tables on SAT scores by race are available in the Journal of Blacks In Higher Education, which pointed out in 2005 that “whites were more than seven times as likely as blacks to score 700 or above on the verbal SAT.” Wikipedia, meanwhile, has an entry entitled “Race and Crime in the United States,” which plainly states that a bit over 50 percent of victims and offenders in homicides are African American. The same website tells us that African Americans are about 13 percent of America’s population. Would you also be surprised to face the reality that the perpetrators of homicides are overwhelmingly young and male as well? These dots are there for anyone to connect if they like.
And yet very few choose to do so. Indeed, the failure—refusal, even—to connect the dots has become a vaunted feature, not a bug, of 2021’s regnant culture. Acknowledging unambiguous patterns of this kind will often result in the rebuke that some beliefs are divine mysteries, to be accepted on faith rather than analyzed more deeply. Which is precisely why Murray wants to inject these taboo realities into the intellectual bloodstream of our society. Despite being a brisk read, Murray’s short book lays out all the inferences and conclusions that remain lacunae in our public discourse. Without these facts on the table, the contemporary American debate has had to rely upon the ether of social science and nebulous theoretical explanations of “systemic racism” and “white supremacy.” Cognitive scientist Pascal Boyer has remarked that “theory is information for free,” and these are theories which purport to explain everything in American history.
For instance, to understand “white flight” in the 1960s and 1970s, all you need is to know that American culture and history has always been bathed in systematic racism and white supremacy. Never mind the massive crime wave of the late 1960s and 1970s that might have driven white residents out of dangerous neighborhoods in search of safety. Reality has been a subtext of American culture, even if it has become progressively more taboo to speak about it as openly as Murray does. Washington, DC is an overwhelmingly liberal city—92 percent of its residents voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 election. It is also starkly segregated by race. The white residents may not face reality openly, but it is obvious from where they choose to live that they make consistent judgements about patterns of violent crime.
The same applies to standardized tests and academic performance. In Chapter Three of Facing Reality, Murray reports that African Americans score a bit less than one standard deviation below European Americans on cognitive tests. With a note of hope, he reports that the gap steadily narrowed between 1970 and 1980. But he also asks us to notice that the gap has, from 1990 onwards, stubbornly refused to diminish further no matter what policy interventions have been brought to bear. Asian Americans, meanwhile, have been widening the gap over European Americans. In 2020, the Asian American advantage on math and reading tests was about 0.40 standard deviations above European Americans.
In New York City, the elite Stuyvesant public high school illustrates the discrepancy between the quality of our discussions of systemic racism and how race, class, and education actually interact in the real world. Admission to the school is based on a standardized test. The current student body is 73 percent Asian American and 19 percent white. New York City is about 15 percent Asian American and 30 percent white. In other words, white kids are under-represented in the student body (though far less so than blacks and Latinos). Forty-three percent of the students at Stuyvesant come from “poor” families. Upper-middle-class New Yorkers will not be surprised by these numbers. They know that connected white families with kids cognitively able enough to qualify for Stuyvesant send their children to private schools. They also know that these private schools lure minorities with scholarships in order to diversify their student body. The Dalton School costs $55,000 per year, and its student body is 68 percent white, 11 percent black, and eight percent Asian American. For Asian American children from poor families, on the other hand, Stuyvesant offers a golden opportunity for excellence, as they are not diverse nor affluent enough for private schools. This is their reality.
Upper-middle-class liberal whites also live the facts in Facing Reality tacitly, even if only subconsciously. Even liberal scolds like Samantha Bee ensure that their children attend de facto segregated public schools. Unsurprisingly, New York City remains heavily residentially segregated in 2021, just as it was 50 years ago. But the proportion of whites in the city stabilized in the 21st century, due to massive declines in crime. The simplest explanation for the reduction in white flight is not that whites are now far less racist, but that urban crime has declined precipitously over the past 30 years.
Comfortable and well-off white Americans live the reality of race throughout their lives when they make decisions about where to live, who to date, and who to befriend. Meanwhile, the regnant ideology of systemic racism and white supremacy convicts all, but in the process absolves all. It turns the realities of our lives into abstractions, useful only to enable positional games of status and prestige. Rather than doing something to tackle inequality and injustice, the current mood incentivizes affiliation, affirmation, and proclamation. You listen and learn, advertise your solidarity with a sign in your window, and self-flagellate conspicuously, but there are few concrete steps available to assuage the nagging conscience of a socially conscious liberal with a healthy bank account.
Inequality of outcomes along racial lines is upsetting to everyone—it runs contrary to the hopes we have for our children and our nation. But outcomes in America remain outrageously unequal, outrages of police misconduct and overreach occur every year, and people are fed up. So it’s cathartic to fume that everything is racist. The criminal justice system is racist. Employment practices are racist. The education system is racist. Standardized tests are racist. Colorblindness is racist. The melting pot is racist. Punctuality is racist. Three-year-olds are racist.
But if we really care about inequities, we need to focus on solutions that produce real change, rather than symbolism that nourishes self-righteousness. Comfortable white people—“nice white parents” in affluent neighborhoods who support efforts to “defund the police”—can refuse to look into the data or insist that those data are the product of racist systems and structures. They can “interrogate their privilege” and “confront their white supremacy,” or better yet, demand that others do so. But they won’t be any closer to understanding why poor African Americans and Latinos in inner-city neighborhoods want more police officers in their neighborhoods and not fewer, nor why poor African American parents clamor for access to strict charter schools that activists condemn for being “anti-black.” Principled ignorance might be a costless gesture for affluent progressives, but they’re heaping additional injustice onto the backs of those who can least afford the wages of social signalling. It is no surprise that the most “tough on crime” candidate in the New York City 2021 Democratic primary won the votes of the poor, African Americans, and Latinos. These voters are people who face reality every day of their lives in a 21st century of technological wonders pitted with social failures.
It is important to bear in mind that Murray’s book was written by a creature of the 20th century, a different time in which American possibilities seemed limitless. Murray grew up in comfortable upper-middle-class circumstances in small-town Iowa and admits that he was raised in a “Norman Rockwell kind of family.” One of the youngest members of the Silent Generation, he went to Harvard and made good—the talented Midwestern son of parents who never went to college. The American Dream has been good to him, and he wishes its gifts upon everyone. He discerns in the rise of identity politics and “Critical Race Theory” a corrosive challenge to the universalist American creed that all “men are created equal” and “born with inalienable rights.” This is surely correct. In Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic explain that CRT “questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.”
Murray is alarmed by the possibility that the US might actually renounce the liberal order. He imagines a world in which ethnicity becomes central to our identity and self-understanding, a possible consequence of which is rising resentment among non-elite whites, hunkered down away from the wealthier cosmopolitan parts of the country. Only by facing reality can America’s great Enlightenment experiment be salvaged. No truth, no liberalism or democracy. No liberalism or democracy, no America. Joan Didion once observed, “Of course we would all like to ‘believe’ in something, like to assuage our private guilt in public causes.” But belief alone is not sufficient. A foundation of lies and ignorance will inevitably crumble.
Facing Reality reflects Murray’s vision of the good life and the proper functioning of the social order. An artifact of the intellectual currents of the last century, its mild and somewhat thin prescriptions recall the heyday of Reaganite libertarianism. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts stated in a 2007 case that the “way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Murray agrees. To diffuse white resentment and forestall hostility, he recommends that we discontinue racial preferences. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor famously argued that the practice should be phased out by 2028, in an opinion defending the practice’s ongoing necessity as recently as 2003. According to her reasoning, we’re now down to seven years.
But the conclusions suggested by Murray’s data are not palatable to much of America’s elite. The end of affirmative action will mean that some groups will be overrepresented among prestigious professionals and in the governing elite. Though Facing Reality is focused on the traditional dichotomy between African Americans and the majority population, the Asian American admissions quota-controversy at Harvard offers a timely reminder that the problem is more knotty than competition in a racial duopoly.
A major criticism of Ibram X. Kendi’s ambitious anti-racist agenda is the mismatch between the paucity of specific mechanisms he recommends and the audacity of his goals. One of the reasons Kendi does not frankly set out the legal and policy proposals required to instantiate true equality is that they are unlikely to be welcomed, even by those who participate willingly in the present Sturm und Drang. Changing the name of an elementary school is free. And cutting the size of a police department is actually good for the demands on the property taxes of the homeowner class. In contrast, swingeing inheritance taxes that decimate intergenerational wealth, or explicit quotas on professional sinecures, would sacrifice the comfortable material interests of a privileged gentry. No wonder they’re so gung-ho about embracing a symbolic reformation of language instead. In Kendi’s framework, true justice can only be obtained through actions far beyond the nominal gestures now being performed.
But Murray’s narrative suffers from a similar failing—it identifies problems, but leaves the vexing elaboration of innovative policy solutions to others. It drops the data at our feet like a ticking time-bomb, but the prescriptions to defuse the device are like an instruction without a manual. Facing Reality was written in 2020 and early 2021, but its recommendations don’t seem to move far beyond the spirit of its author’s 1984 book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980. America has been good to my friend, and he wants to optimize its goodness for others. But his advice remains tailored to the animating spirit of a fading age—a century of American greatness now receding in the country’s rearview mirror. Murray proposes that Americans will be able to achieve a modus vivendi with racial inequality if they renew their faith in the American creed. This strikes me as quixotic. I remember that America fondly, but it was disappearing even as I grew from adolescent public-library goer into middle-aged parent. I share Murray’s yearning, but the world he wishes to resurrect is now a generation in the past. We have to face another truth: fewer and fewer Americans attend the church that adheres to the American creed nowadays. Facing Reality enjoins us to return to a faith that, alas, may already be irretrievable.
To recap a harsh truth of my own, with which I opened this essay: Those already familiar with the data on racial differences in cognitive tests and crime rates, and therefore predisposed to take Murray’s book seriously, will most likely give up on engagement due to intellectual exhaustion with today’s punitive and spiteful political climate. And those who might benefit from Murray’s book will not read it because it was written by someone who transmits ritual pollution to all those who acknowledge him. Additionally, judging by the choices of most Americans, who live broadly racially segregated lives, the solution to the problem of race as expressed in their revealed preferences is clear. Murray need not worry about the emergence of resentful white identity politics, since the empirical data suggests that places like Hyde Park, in Chicago, can maintain cheerful whitopias in the midst of diversity. All that’s needed is a wall of lies about “good schools” and “safe neighborhoods” that omit the salient and visible facts. It’s not the clusters of whiteness we need to worry about; it’s the economic desperation, marginalization, and segregation.
Facing Reality attempts to force into view data that many Americans would rather not acknowledge. These are not data that foster peace of mind, because they disrupt the delusion that there are easy answers to hard problems or scapegoats we can drive from the village to restore purity and order. But we are not a society in a state of equanimity as it is. Serenity evades us as long as we build upon a foundation of lies. Screaming about injustice, spreading the blame to others less fortunate than ourselves, or denying it outright will not bring us peace, help the less privileged, or fortify our fragile republic. We can deny reality. We can ignore the demands of the future. But we’re accelerating rapidly toward a time when we’ll have to face reality with 21st-century solutions to our problems.
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