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Friday, Dec 8, 2023

On engaging with Charles Murray

Charles Murray came to prominence in 1994 by arguing in “The Bell Curve” that black people and Latinx people are genetically less intelligent than white people. He doubled down on these arguments and, for good measure, added more about women’s “innate” genetic differences from men in articles like “Deeper Into the Brain,” and books like “Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 BC to 1950.” He staged a cross burning as a senior in high school in 1960, at the height of the Civil Rights movement. At no point has Murray recanted or revised these arguments.

Thus, when we are told by a student group led by former governor Jim Douglas to “engage diligently and respectfully” with Murray’s “controversial ideas” that are “influential in mainstream politics” in order to “develop as thinkers,” we are left with more questions than answers. First, Murray’s ideas are sadly mainstream. The argument that people of color are genetically distinct from, and inferior to white people is several hundred years old, and Murray’s pseudoscience has existed in various forms long before “The Bell Curve” was published. In the 19th century, these arguments were justified by the pseudoscientific use of calipers, and though the methods have changed, the logic has not. 

Second, we agree that Murray’s arguments, and the arguments upon which Murray has built are “influential.” But what is the influence they have had? The idea that people of color are genetically distinct and less intelligent than white people has been used to justify policies and practices that, among other things, promoted unequal medical treatment, justified slavery and kept places like Middlebury College all white at their founding. The idea that women are genetically distinct and less intelligent than men has been used to justify preventing women from gainful employment, barred women’s suffrage, and again, kept places like Middlebury College all male at their founding. If you believe Murray’s arguments, there are certain, unmistakable implications for how the world and places like Middlebury should be constructed. Jim Douglas and the College Republicans should be clear about this.

Third, as noted above, Murray’s fundamental argument is that people of color are genetically less intelligent than white people. In what way are people of color and/or women and/or their allies supposed to “engage diligently” with this? How are they supposed to “respectfully” debate the claim that they are inferior? The entire basis of this argument denies an equal footing to women and people of color. 

Fourth, how, exactly, will this help us develop as “thinkers”? Murray’s claim that race is not socially constructed is just wrong. Around the same time that Murray published The Bell Curve, Ignatiev wrote “How the Irish Became White,” in which he pointed out that similar deterministic arguments about the difference between black and white people were in the past applied to the Irish, who were at one point described as “a missing link [between] the Gorilla and the Negro.” Currently, in the US, the Irish have been incorporated in the group of people now known as white. Did Irish people miraculously develop an entirely different genetic code between the 19th and mid 20th century? Of course not. Moreover, who is “genetically” black? Modern genetic research has shown that certain genomes tend to predominate in certain parts of Africa, and others elsewhere. However, some people who are coded black, and who live in the world as black, do not have these genomes. Further, some people who are coded white, and who live in the world as white, do. If a person has half genetic ancestry from Africa and half from Europe, are they black? What if they have a quarter of their genome from Africa? Or one eighth? If one-eighth African genes and seven-eights European genes are enough to call someone black, which genes in that one eighth must be present to make that distinction? From which part of Africa? Are aboriginal people in Australia black? They certainly get coded black. Those questions have been determined in the post-slavery era not scientifically, but politically. Murray’s genetic deterministic argument is silent on this, because he is not a geneticist. Inviting Murray to speak about genetics is like inviting a Flat Earth theorist to speak about geology, with the distinction that Murray’s arguments are directly harmful to people. In neither case is it clear how we actually advance knowledge and develop as “thinkers” by re-litigating already debunked theories.

Jim Douglas and the College Republicans are, of course, free to invite whomever they wish. However, they should be clear about why they are inviting certain people, and what the implications for these invitations are. We are also left wondering where they want to draw the line on speech that is non-intellectual and harmful. Surely, we cannot justify bringing a speaker just because they happen to be “prominent.” Both David Irving and, before he died in 2018, Robert Faurisson published extensively in respected journals and presses, and both were ardent Holocaust Deniers. Are they the sort of people whom we should invite to Middlebury, to “engage diligently and respectfully” with? Because using this criteria, we could certainly get there.


The Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Kemi Fuentes-George, Political Science

Erin Eggleston, Biology

Chong-suk Han, Sociology

Laurel Jenkins, Dance

Daniel Silva, Luso-Hispanic Studies

Shawna Shapiro, Writing and Rhetoric

Trinh Tran, Sociology

Editor's Note: The above faculty members comprise the entirety of the Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Learn more here.