Lit Crit

A New Caste Society

October 08, 2014

Multiple Pages
A New Caste Society

Last week I looked at the multiple ironies of the young Barack Obama’s dismissive 1994 review of The Bell Curve. Today, 20 years after the publication of Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s magnum opus, let’s score the authors’ predictions.

First, does America in 2014 still look like the America described in The Bell Curve?

Yes, America today is like the America Herrnstein and Murray described, only more so.

One scandalous assumption of The Bell Curve was that racial differences in average intelligence (and the behavioral traits that correlate with intelligence) wouldn’t change very quickly. Twenty years later, Herrnstein and Murray look prescient on that count.

Heck, very little has changed even in the 42 years I’ve been reading social scientists. As I’ve joked before, when I became interested in the quantitative literature on educational achievement in ninth grade in 1972, the racial rankings went:

1. Orientals
2. Caucasians
3. Chicanos
4. Blacks


Today, the order is:

1. Asians
2. Whites
3. Hispanics
4. African-Americans


Indeed, the biggest change since The Bell Curve has been that Asians are now pulling away from whites for undisputed control of the top spot.

“One reason for the lack of urban white underclass neighborhoods is that poor whites have negligible political representation.”

Second, let’s review Herrnstein and Murray’s more ambitious and alarming predictions from their semi-dystopian penultimate Chapter 21, “The Way We Are Headed.” (Chapter 22, “A Place for Everyone,” offers policy suggestions to bring about a more heartening future.) As the subtitle Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life explains, The Bell Curve is chiefly a book about the growth of inequality. In 1994 they saw three main tendencies:

An increasingly isolated cognitive elite.

A merging of the cognitive elite with the affluent.

A deteriorating quality of life for people at the bottom end of the cognitive ability distribution.

They warned:

Unchecked, these trends will lead the U.S. toward something resembling a caste society, with the underclass mired ever more firmly at the bottom and the cognitive elite ever more firmly anchored at the top, restructuring the rules of society so that it becomes harder and harder for them to lose.

That seems awfully timely.

They asked:

Do you think the rich in America already have too much power? Or do you think the intellectuals already have too much power? We are suggesting that a “yes” to both questions is probably right. And if you think the power of these groups is too great now, just watch what happens as their outlooks and interests converge.

By contrast:

All of the problems that these children [of low intelligence] experience will become worse rather than better as they grow older, for the labor market they will confront a few decades down the road is going to be much harder for them to cope with than the labor market is now.

It’s hard to argue with that, especially after another two decades of the establishment winking at illegal immigration, which has done poor Americans no good whatsoever.

Much of Chapter 21 of The Bell Curve is devoted to “The Coming of the Custodial State,” a country that more or less gives up on its poor and stupid other than to try to keep them from causing trouble. Herrnstein and Murray explained:

The main difference between the position of the cognitive elite that we portray here and the one that exists today is to some extent nothing more than the distinction between tacit and explicit.

Since then, of course, what was tacit knowledge in 1994 has become ever more ferociously forbidden to mention out loud (see the careers of James D. Watson and Jason Richwine). But many of the policy developments of the last 20 years reflect the reality described by The Bell Curve, just in a more ignorant fashion due to the ban on honest public discussion.

Thus, some of Herrnstein and Murray’s predictions appear to have been ripped from 21st century headlines:

One possibility is that a variety of old police practices—especially the stop-and-frisk—will quietly come back into use in new guises.

As you’ll recall, crime-fighting billionaire Michael Bloomberg, mayor of Gotham New York City from 2002-2013, instituted a massive system of stop-and-frisk, targeting younger black and Latino males (aka “the right people”). But who can remember what the NYPD did to make New York City so much safer than in 1994 when it’s more important to obsess over the Ferguson, MO police force …

Child care in the inner city will become primarily the responsibility of the state.

The new New York mayor, Bill de Blasio, has instituted “universal pre-K” to get poor children away from their mothers at any cost. We are repeatedly informed these days that blacks don’t talk enough, so their children must be taken away from them and raised by professionals.

A more mixed prediction was:

The homeless will vanish.

There appear to be fewer homeless on the streets of New York City today than a generation ago, but some other cities, such as San Francisco and Santa Monica, appear to be holding on to them as a talisman of their lost liberalism.

A bad prediction, however, was:

The underclass will become even more concentrated spatially than it is today.

Herrnstein and Murray underestimated how ruthless the cognitive elite has become at handing off the hot potato of the underclass to less privileged Americans in suburbs and small towns to deal with. Granted, they predicted in 1994:

The most likely consequence in our view is that the cognitive elite, with its commanding position, will implement an expanded welfare state for the underclass that also keeps it out from underfoot.

Herrnstein and Murray’s biggest mistake was in not taking their figure of speech “out from underfoot” literally enough. The growing geographic concentration of the cognitive elite into a handful of metropolitan areas, along with their control over the narrative within an increasingly national media, has allowed them to increasingly dump numbers of the formerly urban underclass on downscale suburbs, exurbs, and rural America.

For example, 26 years ago my wife and I were standing on Chicago’s North Avenue, a block from the notorious Cabrini Green housing project, whose residents blighted what otherwise would have been some of the most valuable acreage in the Midwest. A white real estate developer noticed us peering at the Tribune’s real estate ads, so he approached and told us that we should buy now because a secret deal was in the works to tear down Cabrini Green and convert this neighborhood into a yuppie utopia.

I asked: Which alderman would agree to take Cabrini Green’s residents? He didn’t have an answer for that, so we passed.

Today, three years after the last of the Cabrini high-rises was finally demolished, at the exact spot where in 1983 I watched hundreds of excited Cabrini Greeners mill about a burning automobile on Clybourn Avenue, there stands a fly-fishing shop for newcomers to the neighborhood who also own vacation homes in Telluride.

What I hadn’t guessed in 1988 was that the powers that be in Chicago would simply unload their unwanted public housing project residents on the rest of the Midwest via Section 8 vouchers, with the federal government ready to persecute for discrimination any two-bit burgh that tried to resist. That seemed a little too cynical for even me to imagine in 1988.

Pushing poor blacks out of elite cities has become a noteworthy trend in the years since. For example, San Francisco has fallen from 13.4% black in 1970 to only 6.1% black in 2010. Just as predicted in the African-American conspiracy theory known as “the Plan,” Washington D.C. is no longer majority black. Brooklyn has become strikingly shinier in just the seven years Google Street View has been in operation.

If you wonder why the New York and Washington-based news media periodically erupt into hysterias over purported racism in obscure fly-overvilles such as Sanford, Florida and Ferguson, Missouri, one reason is because the very idea that nobody-Americans might resist the expulsion of poor blacks from rich cities makes media elites angry. How can they fully cash in on their condos in gentrifying neighborhoods if blacks won’t go away?

Herrnstein and Murray’s predictions start to become a mixed bag when they reach “The Emerging White Underclass.”

Looked at nationally, a larger percentage of the white population today does indeed reflect underclass characteristics such as out-of-wedlock childbirth and out-of-workforce men, as Murray noted a couple of years ago in Coming Apart. He estimated eight percent of whites were underclass in the late 1960s versus 19 percent in the late 2000s.

For example, deaths from overdoses of semilegal painkillers appear to be growing among poorly educated whites. One government strategy for dealing with low IQ people not foreseen in The Bell Curve appears to have been to continue to keep energizing drugs like cocaine illegal, while making it easier to get prescriptions, authentic or bogus, for downer drugs such as synthetic opiates and the like. Rather than go out and commit crimes after getting wired on crack, the underclass today is more likely to nod off. Sometimes, though, they don’t wake up.

But what about The Bell Curve’s prediction of the emergence of urban white underclass neighborhoods? Herrnstein and Murray wrote:

Meanwhile as never-married mothers grow in numbers, the dynamics of the public housing market (where they will probably continue to be welcome) and the private housing market (where they will not) will foster increasing concentrations of whites with high unemployment, high crime, high illegitimacy, and low cognitive ability, creating communities that look very much like the inner-city neighborhoods that people now tend to associate with minorities.

I see that in 1994 I was already skeptical: I wrote in the margins of my copy of The Bell Curve:

Where in Chicago, besides the junkie district on Montrose, is there a white underclass neighborhood?

In Los Angeles, the rising cost of living has driven underclass whites far out of town.

One way to get an idea is to look for street gangs. While by one count there are 137 Asian street gangs in Los Angeles County, the only white street gang left in Los Angeles appears to be Armenian Power. In years of reading crime reports in local newspapers, the nearest exurb with a dangerous white street gang seems to be dusty Hemet, which is 101 miles inland from the Santa Monica Pier.

The few underclass whites left in Los Angeles tend to merge into the Mexican population. For example, perhaps the scariest Mexican gang lord in recent Los Angeles history has been Timothy McGhee, who looks as white as his name sounds.

One reason for the lack of urban white underclass neighborhoods is that poor whites have negligible political representation. As Herrnstein and Murray noted in 1994,

The white cognitive elite is unlikely to greet this development [of a white underclass] sympathetically … the means of dealing with their needs are likely to be brusque.

In contrast, in Chicago the chief obsession of President Obama’s spiritual advisor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, according to Dreams from My Father, was to keep blacks living in the city rather than dispersing to the suburbs far from his megachurch. Granted, Rev. Wright himself retired to a white suburb on a golf course, but you don’t make that kind of money in the preacher business without having a concentrated population to draw from.

For the white elite of Chicago to get away with pushing poor blacks out of town, they had to appoint black elites, such as Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett and Obama’s closest friend Martin Nesbitt, to nice jobs overseeing the process. But poor whites have no champions the way Rev. Wright or Rev. Sharpton fight for poor blacks, so nobody is trying to help them stay in the city.

A half dozen years before billionaire Michael Bloomberg began his three terms as mayor of New York City, Herrnstein and Murray wrote:

We fear that a new kind of conservatism is becoming the dominant ideology of the affluent—not in the social tradition of an Edmund Burke or in the economic tradition of an Adam Smith but “conservatism” along Latin American lines, where to be conservative has often meant doing whatever is necessary to preserve the mansions on the hills from the menace of the slums below.

That’s intriguing, although I haven’t noticed all that much influence flowing from the upper reaches of Latin America to intellectual life in America. I try to pay attention to Latin American trends, but most American journalists don’t. Carlos Slim’s 2008 bailout of the New York Times gave him a presumed veto power over the editorial direction of the newspaper, but he has mostly used it to promote his financial interests, such as more immigration.

Another, more likely source for the ideas behind this “new conservatism” seen in big city governance is a country much more studied by American politicians, intellectuals, and plutocrats than Mexico: Israel. There the connections between real estate and ethnicity have been the freely discussed central topics of public life for generations, giving those Americans who follow Israel closely a source of non-schmaltzy perspectives on how to deal with the inconvenient. For example, one of the most activist big-city mayors in America at trying to shoo the underclass out to the ’burbs is Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, whose father was a member of the Irgun terrorist organization that helped shoo so many Palestinians out of nascent Israel in the 1940s.

A decade ago, I was interviewing an expert psychometrician who had been head of testing for one of the major branches of the military. He proudly recounted that he had given Charles Murray access to the Pentagon’s National Longitudinal Study of Youth data that makes up the central spine of The Bell Curve. He had only one objection to Herrnstein and Murray’s interpretation of his numbers: they were too cautious, too nice.

That summarizes The Bell Curve’s predictions. While you’ve been lied to endlessly about how Herrnstein and Murray were bad people for writing The Bell Curve, the reality is that they weren’t cynical enough.

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