Friday, June 18, 2021

The False Rhetoric of Systemic Racism: Charles Murray on Race Differences and America's Ideal of Individual Equality of Rights

 In Facing Reality: Two Truths About Race in America (2021), Charles Murray argues that the rhetoric of "systemic racism" in America is mistaken for four reasons.  

First, it ignores the facts of race differences in cognitive ability and in violent crime.

Second, the rhetoric of systemic racism promotes a group identity politics that denies the American founding ideal that all people are created equal as individuals before the law in their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that government should treat all people impartially as individuals and not as members of a group.

Third, this rhetoric of Black identity politics insults all Whites by condemning them as racists who benefit from White privilege, and this is likely to provoke a backlash by some Whites, who could adopt their own White identity politics, which would be disastrous for the whole country and certainly for Blacks.

Fourth, this rhetoric fails to see that while America suffers from the racism of some individuals, this racism is not systemic, because it contradicts the founding ideal of the American system.  Martin Luther King recognized this in his "I have a dream" speech, in which his first dream was that "the nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"

Murray offers evidence and arguments supporting these claims, which I find largely persuasive.  But I am not persuaded by his assertion that the "American Creed" affirms a form of government that is contrary to our evolved human nature, which favors tribalism and despotism rather than individualism and liberal democracy.  This implies that the individual rights affirmed in the Declaration of Independence are not natural rights that belonged to human beings in the state of nature, prior to government, as John Locke said.  This wrongly denies the Lockean naturalism of the American founding in the appeal to the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," which can now be confirmed by an evolutionary science of human nature.


Black Americans are more likely to be arrested and convicted of violent crimes than are White Americans.  Black Americans are also less likely to have high-paying and high-status jobs than are White Americans.  Proponents of Black identity politics see this as evidence of systemic racism, because they assume that racist discrimination against Blacks is the only possible explanation for why Blacks are on average less successful socially and economically than are Whites.

Murray argues that this ignores two facts about race differences that support an alternative explanation for this situation.  On average, there are race differences in cognitive ability (the mental trait measured by IQ tests) for four racial groups: Whites (or Europeans), Blacks, Latinos, and Asians.  The estimated mean IQ for Whites is 103, for Blacks 91, for Latinos 94, and for Asians 108.  The mean of the bell-shaped distribution curve of IQ scores is skewed slightly to the right for Whites and Asians.  It is inevitable therefore that the most prestigious and highest paying jobs will go mostly to Whites and Asians, because these jobs tend to be the most cognitively challenging jobs.  And while it is common to say that IQ tests are racially biased, the fact that these tests accurately predict performance in the classroom or on the job clearly validates the tests.

The second fact is that across thirteen American cities (including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago), the Black arrest rate for violent crime (murder, rape, robbery, and physical assault) is around 9 to 11 times the rate for Whites; the Latino arrest rate for violent crime is about 2 to 3 times the White rate; and the Asian arrest rate for violent crime is extremely low.  It is unlikely that this arrest data shows the racism of the police, who might arrest Blacks and Latinos based on scant or fabricated evidence.  This is particularly clear in arrests for murder, where it is usually clear that a crime has occurred.  Moreover, when Blacks are murdered, the perpetrator is usually Black.  In New York City, the dataset of all shootings from 2006 to 2017 show that of the 1,906 Black deaths, 89% were killed by Blacks, 10% were killed by Latinos, and only 0.6% were killed by Whites.  It is hard to explain these higher arrest rates for Blacks as created by a racist criminal justice system.

And yet Murray stresses that these differences in the means (the averages) for racial groups tell us nothing about individuals.  Most of the individuals in all racial groups never commit a violent crime.  And many individuals in every racial group score high on IQ tests.  That's why Murray can say that although racial group differences are important for understanding social problems, these racial differences should not influence how we treat individuals; and even as we recognize these racial differences, we can still affirm the American principle that all individuals are equal in their rights before the law.


Murray sees the American founding principles in the Declaration of Independence as affirming that government should ideally secure the equality of individual rights, with the understanding that this equality means equality of opportunity but not equality of outcome.  People should be equal in their rights under the law.  But they are unequal in their individual traits, so that some will be more successful than others in some sectors of social life.  Even so, all should be equally free to find their places in life where they can pursue the happiness that comes from a lasting, deep, and justified satisfaction with life as a whole.

Murray laments, however, that these founding principles came under attack in 1964 (with the passage of the Civil Rights Act) and in 1965 (with Lyndon Johnson's policy of Affirmative Action).  At this point, some leaders of the civil rights movement began to shift their focus from individual rights in the pursuit of equality of opportunity to group rights in the pursuit of equality of results.  This created a conflict in American ideals between individualism and egalitarianism.

The new egalitarianism assumed that there was no natural human diversity, no differences between the races or the sexes, because all human beings were born with the same abilities and propensities that should produce equal outcomes in life as long as those abilities and propensities were properly cultivated by the social environment.  And therefore any racial or sexual differences in social life must be the product of racist or sexist bigotry favoring White males over women and racial minorities.

To overcome this social injustice from racism and sexism, the American government should promote preferential treatment for Blacks and women--particularly, when they were applying for jobs or for admission to schools.  Originally, affirmative action was a moderate policy of compensatory action to rectify past injustices against Blacks and women: if there were Black and female applicants for a job or a school who were as well qualified as the White male applicants, those Black and female applicants should be favored.  But then affirmative action became an aggressive policy of preferential treatment in which even less qualified Blacks and women would have to be chosen.  And so, for example, as Murray shows, the elite universities in America have accepted Black applicants whose admission test scores are far below those for White applicants who have been denied admission.

Murray identifies this aggressive affirmative action as "a poison leaking into the American experiment" (121).  Government is no longer an impartial judge that treats all individuals as equal under the law.  Now government gives preferential treatment to some minority racial groups over the White majority.  All Whites are said to be racists who succeed in life only because of White privilege, and therefore they need to admit their guilt for systemic racism, while the government punishes them and rewards Blacks.  Indeed, Murray observes, one might as well call affirmative action systemic racism, because it systematically discriminates in favor of racial minorities other than Asians (88).

As Whites now see the success of Black identity politics, Murray worries, what's to stop the some of the Whites from playing White identity politics?  And then it will be a battle between the White 60 percent of the population against the Black 13 percent.  The catastrophe of a civil war like the American Civil War becomes a fearful possibility.

How do we escape this?  Murray suggests two possible solutions.  The "solution that is not within our grasp," because it is not politically possible, would be to eliminate all governmental preferential treatment by race (120-22).

The "partial solution that is within our grasp" would be for American political leaders to publicly embrace as the American creed the original American ideal of individual equality under the law (122-25).  Murray recognizes that even if the leaders of the Democratic Party were to do this, beginning with President Biden, they would still want to pursue some policies of racial preferences.  But they could at least say that these were only temporary policies, and that individual equality before the law was the ultimate goal.  They would also have to reject the rhetoric of systemic racism.  It seems unlikely that Biden would do this since he has already declared his commitment to policies to attack systemic racism.


Despite my agreement with most of what Murray has said here, I disagree with his argument that group identity politics could easily destroy the American founding regime since that regime has always been fragile, and it's fragile because it is "extremely unnatural" in the sense that it is "in conflict with human nature."  

Murray's thinking that the American regime has no grounding in human nature seems to explain why he so often uses the term "American Creed." The word "creed" originally referred to the articles of belief for the Christian Church, as in the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds.  "Creed" is derived from the Latin credo, as in the beginning of the Apostle's Creed: Credo in Deum--I believe in God.

Similarly, Murray declares that "bearing witness to our true faith and allegiance in the American creed is something within our power to do" (125), as if American principles depended on some willful faith or belief in a transcendent reality beyond any natural human understanding.  Of course, the Declaration of Independence does speak of our being created equal and endowed by our Creator with rights, which suggests some religious belief.  But when the Declaration appeals to "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" (a phrase that Murray never mentions), this implies a Spinozistic conception of God as identical with Nature.  Certainly, Jefferson and the founders were clear that the rights affirmed in the Declaration were natural rights, the rights that human beings had in the state of nature as governed by the law of nature.  Here they followed John Locke, who often invoked the "principles of human nature" that should govern any just government.

Murray seems to think that Locke was wrong about this, because our human nature as shaped by evolution does not incline us to recognize or respect the equal rights of individuals.  Here is the long passage where Murray explains this:

"Treating our fellow human beings as individuals instead of treating them as members of groups is unnatural.  Our brains evolved to think of people as members of groups; to trust and care for people who are unlike us.  Those traits had great survival value for human beings throughout millions of years of evolution.  People who were trusting of outsiders were less likely to pass on their genes than people who were suspicious of them.  People who were loyal to their tribe were more likely to pass on their genes than people who stood apart."

"The invention of agriculture and the consequent rise of complex societies exposed another aspect of human nature that had enjoyed less scope for expression in hunter-gatherer bands: acquisitiveness, whether of money, status, or power. . . ."

"The combination of acquisitiveness and loyalty to the interests of one's own group (be it defined by ethnicity or class) shaped human governments for the subsequent ten thousand years.  The natural form of government was hierarchical, run by a dominant group that arranged affairs to its benefit and oppressed outsiders. . . ."

 "America proved that a durable alternative to the natural form of government was possible--a constitutional republic combined with carefully circumscribed democracy. . . . If we decide that our system for tending the garden needs to be replaced, and if the replacement should prove to be even slightly less devoted to keeping nature at bay, the garden will be reclaimed by jungle within a few decades" (110-11).

Oddly, what Murray says here contradicts what he has said in some of his other books.  For example, in In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government, Murray said that the Founders understood equality to be rooted in "the nature of man."  He quoted favorably Martin Diamond's comment that "the modern idea of human nature is democratic: no difference among us can reach so far as to alter our naturally equal humanness."  Murray also wrote that "equality meant that all men shared as their birthright the same natural rights of liberty.  All were equally immune by right from the arbitrary coercion of the state" (140-42). 

As I have said in some previous posts (herehere, and here), I agree that tribalism is part of our evolved human nature.  But that is only one side of our nature.  We also have evolved natural propensities to resist exploitation and to punish those who would dominate us and deny our individual natural rights to equality and liberty.  Locke's account of the state of nature as a state of natural equality and liberty can be confirmed by the Darwinian account of our evolution in ancient hunter-gatherer bands.

Contrary to Murray's identification of despotism as "the natural form of government," I suggest that 
Spinoza was correct when he said that liberal democracy was "the most natural state" it approaches the freedom that humans enjoyed in the state of nature.

There is lots of scientific evidence that human beings evolved a dual nature as both the nastiest and the nicest species, which can be explained by an evolutionary process of human self-domestication in which natural selection favored the friendliest individuals who could cooperate with others in ways that set us apart from other species.  I have written about this in some posts hereherehere, and here.

I will have more to say about "the human self-domestication hypothesis" in some future posts.

I have written many previous posts on how what Murray says about human biodiversity supports the natural right to equal liberty.  A few of them can be found hereherehere, and here.


Rob Schebel said...

Thank you for your review of Murray's book, which set me to reading it. Have you read Rauch's new book "The Constitution of Knowledge?" If so, it would be good to read your thoughts on the blog.

-Rob Schebel

Lyka Bossano said...

I fully agree that in order to overcome this social injustice caused by racism and sexism, the American government must promote preferential treatment of blacks and women, especially when they apply for jobs or school. Affirmative action was originally a moderate policy of compensatory action to correct past injustices against blacks and women: if blacks and women applying for work or school who were as qualified as white men were applying for a job or school, these blacks and women must be approved.

Larry Arnhart said...

The problem, however, is that affirmative action has been pushed well beyond this "moderate policy." We know, for example, that many black applicants have been admitted to elite universities although their admission test scores were far below those for Asian and white applicants who were denied admission. In a famous case, my sister-in-law--Barbara Grutter--was denied admission to the University of Michigan Law School, even though her scores were higher than those for some black applicants who were admitted.