Resisting Reality
Essays Politics

Resisting Reality

Dave Atenasio

Facing Reality and The Unraveling of Charles Murray’s Hereditarian Project

Following the highly publicized police killing of George Floyd, debates about the criminal justice system entered the public sphere in a way unseen since the 1990s. At first, progressive and left-wing demands to greatly reform or defund police departments dominated the media. The Black Lives Matter movement enjoyed broad support and even some conservatives conceded that something had to be done about the treatment of African Americans by the criminal justice system. But in time that support would falter. As the summer of 2020 wore on, gun violence became a problem and many liberals who once endorsed defunding the police tempered their approval. Conservatives became emboldened and argued that the real problem with the criminal justice system was not that it was too cruel, but that it had gone soft on the bad guys.

Lending his voice to the conservative pushback, Charles Murray argues in his new Facing Reality: Two Truths about Race in America that the public discourse about crime in America has been derailed by progressive radicals who believe that any inequality in the criminal justice system must be a product of bias or systemic racism.[1] Seeing claims of widespread systemic racism as inconsistent with the ideal of a meritocratic, color-blind society, he seeks to disarm the Left by forcing them to face up to the unpleasant reality that Black populations and white populations in the United States do not commit violent crime at the same rate.

If highlighting crime differentials were Murray’s only aim, he would not achieve much. Plenty of left-leaning criminologists going back to W.E.B. DuBois have been perfectly willing to admit that some Black communities struggle with violence. But Murray intends to go further, for he cannot endorse DuBois’s contention that different rates of violent crime are the product of oppression and concentrated deprivation. Instead, Murray hopes that his readers will connect his work on crime to his broader hereditarian project. It is not just that some Black communities struggle with high levels of crime, Murray insinuates, but that elevated levels of violent crime are the product of inalterable genetic factors. Lest there be any uncertainty about whether Murray believes that crime differentials are the product of genetic inheritance, he made it clear on Twitter that he thinks violent crime will be a problem anywhere “sub-Saharan African populations” are found.

The claim that some races are biologically more violent than others is obviously controversial, which is why Murray leaves it up to his readers to draw the unpleasant conclusions. But in failing to offer any evidence regarding the source or cause of crime differentials, he also provides the few liberal readers sympathetic to his project no good reason to look to population genetics. If anything, what little he says about crime in Facing Reality supports the position he wishes to avoid at all costs: that elevated levels of violent crime really are the product of past injustices and present systems that continue to perpetuate inequalities.

The American Creed

Facing Reality finds Charles Murray fearful for the soul of America. He argues that the success of the American project rests on a neutrally applied creed: that everyone has equal human dignity, that they ought to be treated as equals, and that they ought to have the right to be judged by the content of their character. Murray acknowledges that this ideal was poorly realized at the founding of America, but he believes that thanks to the civil rights movement, all groups now have sufficient access to America’s abundant opportunities.

Despite his apparent approval of the civil rights movement, Murray suggests that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 added a “caveat” to the American creed. In Murray’s telling, President Johnson replaced the Framers’ ideals with social justice, exceptions for special treatment widened, and suddenly everything was dominated by identity politics. Treating people as individuals went from a virtue to a vice. But Murray believes the big danger is that we replaced our commitment to equality of opportunity with equality of outcome, a concept often called “equity.” Our political elite no longer believe it is sufficient to afford everyone a shot at the same quality of life; they believe that a certain level of welfare should be guaranteed to all who are not able to obtain it themselves.

As a group, Black people in America continue to have less wealth than white people, often live in poorer, more segregated neighborhoods, receive worse health care and are underrepresented in elite jobs and positions. The typical explanation on the American Left is that these inequalities are the result of bias, bigotry, and a history of maltreatment. Murray objects; he argues that this view presumes that all groups are equal in all relevant respects, a proposition he wishes to deny. He argues that two realities complicate this picture: first, that different racial populations have different means and distributions of intelligence, and second, that different racial populations commit violent crime at different rates.

While Murray does not make the link explicit in Facing Reality, he has in past works argued that lower measured intelligence correlates with or even causes criminal behavior. Murray dedicates a chapter from his 1994 book The Bell Curve to arguing that IQ test scores are a more accurate predictor of criminality than socio-economic status, going so far as to say that this fact ought to radically change the way we think about the criminal justice system. But when a number of criminologists re-analyzed Murray’s own data, they found that Murray and his co-author Herrnstein’s model only showed that IQ test scores accounted for between zero to four percent of the variation in crime measured, hardly the major factor they make it out to be.

Criminologists have in recent years made strides in pulling apart the relationship of cognitive functioning and violent behavior. It is true that many prone to violence struggle academically, but Terrie Moffitt has found that the associated cognitive deficit is more one of verbal behavior than visuospatial reasoning, and that the IQ-crime relationship applies primarily to a single subset of criminal offenders, those that persistently offend beyond adolescence. Moffitt hypothesizes that these severe verbal problems may be indications of neuropsychological deficits or injuries that originate as far back as pre- or perinatal development.

Murray does not pursue these ideas; if he did, he would perhaps see his hereditarian project begin to unravel. Once one identifies severe verbal deficits as a correlate of delinquency, one may discover that many of them are caused by environmental hazards and structural deficiencies that some populations endure at higher rates than others. Once one asks why some groups are perpetually subjected to these hazards and deficiencies at greater rates than others, one may then be forced to look at history and the policies and social norms that perpetuate those conditions, and that way systemic racism lies.

Race and Crime

Murray dedicates two chapters of Facing Reality to his discussion of race and crime. In the first of the two chapters, he sifts through a number of data sets to construct crime rate ratios between different populations. He concludes that in a number of major U.S. cities, Black Americans are arrested on average about nine times more often for violent crime than white Americans. Aware that liberals will counter that disproportionate arrest rates are a product of widespread racism in the criminal justice system, Murray triangulates. He notes that differential offending rates are confirmed when looking at African American victims who report their attacker’s race, which is typically Black, as most violent crime is intraracial.

In the second of the two chapters, Murray lays out some of the consequences of high levels of violent crime: violent crime deters development and makes it harder for businesses to function; “Economic Opportunity Zones” won’t work if street violence is an everyday reality; violent crime makes the job of policing neighborhoods safely much more difficult. He concludes with a brief glance at smaller American cities, hypothesizing that they likely also have differential offending rates between races and ethnicities, but ones much less pronounced than those in big cities.

A number of criminologists may criticize the way Murray calculates his ratios, but many will accept his general characterization nonetheless. Even in the late 1800s, W.E.B. DuBois bemoaned the “vast problem of crime” in some Black neighborhoods, and Left realists such as Elliott Currie continue to sound the alarm to this day. Murray does not cite Currie or DuBois or much of anyone else for that matter, leading one to wonder who exactly he is talking about when he complains that no one will speak openly of group differences. In the two chapters on race and crime, Murray cites a total of five academic sources, four of which come from the 1970s.

Thus concludes Murray’s discussion of race and crime. The reader at this stage may justifiably question Murray’s strategy of failing to offer any evidence that crime differentials are not the product of widespread oppression and systemic racism. At one point he writes that the causes of crime differentials are “irrelevant” to his argument, but this is obviously false. To design effective interventions, we must try to pull apart cause and effect, and one of the explicit aims of Facing Reality is to cast doubt on systemic racism as an operative principle in American life.

The clearest expression of Murray’s position comes from a comment in Facing Reality that group differences “will be with us indefinitely,” an indication that he takes them to be genetic and durable. But this is a curious thing to say about violent offending, which fluctuates from year to year and shows trends of increase and decrease. A quick glance at the Bureau of Justice Statistics reveals that in 1984, the Black homicide rate was approximately 6 times the white one. By 1991 the ratio increased to about 10 to 1 before declining again thereafter. And looking at ratios severely understates the magnitude of the recent decrease in violent crime in a number of Black communities. In 1991, the UCR measured the Black homicide rate at 51.4 murders per 100,000. In 2004, it measured the rate at 24.1 per 100,000, while the white rate dropped from 5.6 per 100,000 to 3.6 per 100,000.

Other measures show an even greater decrease. Patrick Sharkey notes in Uneasy Peace that the rate of violent assault in schools has dropped dramatically since its peak in the 80s and 90s. Black students are now less likely to report fearing an attack on the way to school than white students were in the 90s. If Murray thinks the violent crime rate in poor Black neighborhoods can’t drop any further, he owes his readers some kind of explanation why, given how sharply it did drop in the ’90s and 2000s.

Not only that, as Murray’s own data tables show, homicide rates fluctuate wildly between locations. For example, Murray calculates the ratio of Black homicides to white homicides in Baltimore to be 6.3. He calculates the ratio in nearby Washington D.C. to be 84.9. Were Murray to investigate these differences further, he would find a wealth of studies on just this topic, which have found that crime rates fluctuate reliably alongside a number of social and structural characteristics. It turns out that the same social and structural characteristics that correlate with crime in predominantly Black neighborhoods correlate with crime in predominantly white neighborhoods as well. A number of studies have managed to eliminate some of the differences in Black and white crime rates by controlling for neighborhood characteristics; some have even been able to eliminate all of them.

But again, were Murray to investigate these social and structural differences too closely, he might begin to notice the political choices and policies that caused them. He might start to wonder whether the laissez-faire policies he has defended throughout his career contributed to deindustrialization, the withdrawal of federal funding from cities, welfare cuts and union busting, all of which devastated a number of predominantly Black urban areas and made it virtually impossible for the people there to support themselves and their children with stable, dignified work.

Murray’s comparison of larger and smaller cities is another point where Facing Reality undermines its attempts to paint group differences as fixed. Murray notes that the murder rate increases drastically in denser, urban areas. He even explicitly states he thinks this difference is due to the increasing isolation of Black communities in big cities and the greater integration of minorities in smaller ones. It is once again curious that Murray makes no mention of segregation or the vast literature on its causes and effects in the United States. There are still many alive who are old enough to remember when residential segregation was strictly enforced, both through informal measures and through the law. Not surprisingly, densely segregated African American neighborhoods that have had little access to mainstream educational, economic and political institutions often struggle with elevated levels of crime.

But if, as a number of meta-studies indicate, residential segregation correlates with violent crime as strongly as any factor, Murray has few options left to avoid the specter of systemic racism. The standard story on de facto segregation is that neighborhoods are segregated because politicians and others intentionally segregated them and a number of factors have kept them that way even after civil rights legislation. Banks and real estate agents continue to discriminate against Black home buyers. To this day, white urban liberals only tolerate a small number of Black faces in their neighborhoods.

All this looks pretty bad for Murray’s attempts to chase away systemic racism. His only out is to argue that Black people are segregated primarily for reasons that have to do with themselves. And there are some indications that this is Murray’s position, although he frequently evades telling his readers what he really thinks. He argues in The Bell Curve and Coming Apart that our society is stratified into a genetic elite who award themselves money, power and status and a low-intelligence underclass stuck in poverty and social dysfunction. He spends a chapter in Human Diversity arguing that class structure is “importantly based on differences in ability that have a substantial genetic component.” Murray seems committed to a substantial genetic component to any explanation for Black misfortune.

It is true that a number of studies have found a correlation between social mobility and certain genetic markers. But in addition to being inconsistent with even a cursory reading of American history, the theory that Black people are stuck in segregation because of personal characteristics besides their race is contradicted by a number of empirical studies. Surveys reliably show that Black people broadly want to live in genuinely diverse neighborhoods, even while white people prefer to keep the percentage of Black folk nearby to a minimum. In a large longitudinal study of Chicago neighborhoods, the sociologist Robert Sampson found that personal traits such as measured intelligence and impulsivity were very weak predictors of who moved out of poor neighborhoods. The biggest predictors of upward mobility were low exposure to violence, small household size, and higher income. The biggest predictor of downward mobility by far was being Black. By looking directly at molecular genetic data not available to Murray back in 1994, Dalton Conley and Benjamin Domingue were able to empirically test Murray’s theory that social classes were becoming genetically stratified because of elite assortative mating. They found no evidence that this was the case.

Facing Reality

Since the passing of Richard Herrnstein, Murray’s research has focused primarily on intelligence, class and genetics. With criminal justice reform once again taking center stage in public discussions, Murray clearly hoped to jump in and cast doubt on the liberal case for radical reform with Facing Reality. Unfortunately, he does so without presenting much research on the topic, so he can do little more than pull numbers from official sources and marvel at them. But this leaves Murray in no position to contradict those who argue that differences in crime rates are the result of concentrated deprivation and racism.

For a book titled Facing Reality it spends a lot of time not investigating reality too closely, satisfied instead to put a coating of erudition on the kind of grumbling about “black on black crime” that fills up message boards in the less pleasant realms of the internet. If there is a hard reality we need to face, it is that structural and neighborhood-level interventions could bring violent crime down, but that many of them will be costly and the benefits may not materialize for many years. It is expensive to build the infrastructure necessary for industry to return to deindustrialized Black neighborhoods. It is expensive to create a muscular government jobs program. It is expensive to provide the necessary childcare payments so that poor mothers have the time and money to raise their children. It is expensive to expand medical care so all expecting mothers get top-of-the-line prenatal care and support. It is expensive and politically unpopular to do what is necessary to finally end residential, economic, and political segregation.

Murray is right in a sense that crime differentials have been durable. They have been durable because residential segregation and its attendant social and economic isolation have been durable; so have poverty, discrimination, negative attitudes about Black neighborhoods, poor healthcare, and poor public transportation. Many of these structural deficiencies could be addressed with no need for “identity politics.” They just require strong pro-worker policies, the expansion of a number of social welfare programs and some geographically targeted development grants and projects. The price tag will be high, but if, as Murray claims, identity politics threatens to unravel our nation, surely it won’t be too much to ask of our expansive affluent and upper-middle classes to moderate their consumption a bit and pitch in to save the very fabric of our country.

  1. This review focuses on the chapters of Facing Reality concerned with race and crime. The reader is free to consult any number of other review articles on Murray’s work on intelligence. Insofar as differences in measured intelligence are important, we will consider them only in relation to crime. ↩︎

Featured image: Charles Murray at Patrick Henry College in photo (2012) from Patrick Henry College via Flickr.

Dave Atenasio is a Lecturer at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, MD. He received his PhD from Loyola University Chicago. You can find more of his work on his website. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.