Race and Conservatism
by John Derbyshire (Sept. 2006)
Race and conservatism? Yes, that was the title of the panel discussion I’d signed up for, at the Robert A. Taft Club in
In order to say anything, it helps to start with a simplistic view of race, a view that regards Americans as belonging to two races only: black, and nonblack. This is an over-simplification, of course—a first approximation—and I reserve the right to add more detail as I go along, should I find it helpful.
That established, I suppose the first thing one can say is that conservatives—I mean, mainstream, respectable conservatives, the type who edit magazines, or run for office, or get hired to write speeches for Congresscritters and Cabinet officers—are race-shy. That is, in fact, to put it very mildly indeed. While a certain amount of lampooning of the more egregious kinds of black race hustlers—the Sharptons and Farrakhans—is permissible in mainstream conservative circles, and the crazier manifestations of racial guilt, like affirmative action or bans on “racial profiling,” can be gently criticized, race as an abstract topic is out of court. You could break wind in a mainstream-conservative gathering and be forgiven, Elizabeth the First style*, but if you were to try to get a conversation about race going, the well-known kitchen-light-switch-and-roaches metaphor would kick in, and your invitations to such gatherings would fall off dramatically thereafter.
The reasons for this race panic on the Respectable Right are, I think, pretty well understood. When, in the late 1950s, race became a national issue, and great numbers of white Americans became aware of the injustice of racial segregation, the activist movement for reform was led by Leftists. When not (as was rather often the case) members of far-Left fringe groups, these people belonged to the northern, urban, egalitarian wing of the Democratic Party. Thus—with assistance from a sympathetic, and largely Leftist, media establishment—the equation “racial justice = Democrat” became lodged in the public mind, and generated an obvious converse: “racial injustice = Republican.”
This was all horribly unfair. As Pat Buchanan notes in his latest best-seller: “Democrats had bedded down with segregationists for a century without censure.” When Congress voted on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Republicans in both House and Senate said yea by about 80 percent to 20; among Democrats, the votes went more like 60-40.
Alas, there is no justice in politics. Republicans got stuck as the party of racial discrimination. Since racial discrimination soon came to be seen as the most unspeakable of all evils, and since, from the 1970s on, most conservatives were Republicans, it is not very surprising that conservatives don’t want to talk about race.
I think we should, though. Our current silence keeps us out of present trouble, I’ll grant; but I believe it stores up future trouble. Let me try to explain.
* * * * *
I am 61 years old. That’s old enough to have a clear memory of the Civil Rights movement. To be sure, I watched it from a distance, growing up in
I can tell you a thing that has been considerably forgotten now, flushed away down the memory hole. Here’s the thing. At that time, everyone who supported the Civil Rights Movement—everyone, absolutely everyone—assumed that the Movement would, if it succeeded, lead to a more harmonious society, a society in which the races mingled freely as equal citizens, a society in which race
What a terrible disillusioning there has been! Things did not happen in the least as we expected. True, there has been much improvement. Our nation now has a flourishing black middle class. There is now no obstacle to a capable black American, from any part of the country, rising to any level, in any sphere or profession. The casual mocking and insulting of black Americans by nonblack Americans has been shamed out of our social life.
Yet the numbers did not come out right, not at all. With black people at thirteen percent of our population, we should, if the dreams of the Civil Rights Movement had come true, find that thirteen percent of our engineers and airline pilots, thirteen percent of our storekeepers, contractors, and entrepreneurs, thirteen percent of our prisoners and unwed mothers, are black. This is not, of course, what we find; and the numerical discrepancies are not of the kind called “statistically insignificant.” Not at all. Not at all.
Worse yet, and even setting aside issues of class and status, black and nonblack Americans have drifted apart, and in many respects are further from common citizenship now than they were fifty years ago. We do not, for example, watch the same TV programs and movies. The producers of a middle-class domestic comedy movie—one with someone like Meg Ryan or Tom Hanks in it—can leave black people out of the movie altogether if they feel like it, confident in the knowledge that black Americans don’t watch that kind of movie anyway. Similarly, sitcoms like Cheers and Friends could field all-white casts with a clear conscience, knowing that the black audience was off somewhere else, watching some different sitcom with an all-black cast.
We don’t even name our kids the same way any more. Black Americans were always somewhat more adventurous than nonblacks in choosing names for their children—H.L. Mencken has an interesting section on this in The American Language. It is none the less the case that black and nonblack Americans of 100 years ago for the most part chose their children’s names from the same stock. This is no longer the case. More than forty percent of black girls born in the state of
(In this context, I note something a doctor in
Meanwhile, among nonblack Americans, a rigorous and intolerant ideology of “anti-racism” has grown up. The opinions a nonblack American has, or more precisely voices, about race are now a major in-group (I mean, among fellow nonblacks) status marker.
Let me just elaborate on that a little. Modern neuroscience perceives the human brain as a modular structure, different modules performing different functions. Since humans are quintessentially social animals, much of the brain is given over to processing social information. A big part of this information concerns in-group status. We need to be constantly evaluating, and re-evaluating, the status of ourselves and others in the various groups we belong to. A mistake in this respect can be fatal—as, for example, in the case of an undersized low-status male foolishly challenging one of the group’s alpha males. Evolution has a way of weeding these things out. Some neuroscientists have postulated an entire module of the brain given over to these highly important issues of in-group status evaluation.
Among American nonblacks in the present age, being known to have “incorrect” opinions about race results in catastrophic loss of status.
A literary example will illustrate the point very well. Here is
The presence of this Englishwoman in their apartment causes considerable psychic stress to the young couple. On the one hand, she is an employee, so of course they, who are paying her wages, ought to outrank her in status. One the other hand she is English. It is a peculiar thing—a very peculiar thing, when you consider this nation’s origins—that being English gives you extra status points in the
Then one day the husband, wife, and baby nurse are watching news footage of a race riot on TV. The English nurse passes some mildly anti-black remarks: “The colored don’t know how good they’ve got it in this country…” etc. I will let Tom Wolfe tell the rest.
Kramer and his wife looked at each other. He could tell she was thinking the same thing he was.
Thank God in heaven! What a relief! They could let their breaths out now. Miss Efficiency was a bigot. These days the thing about bigotry was, it was undignified. It was a sign of Low Rent origins, of inferior social status, of poor taste. So they were the superiors of their English baby nurse, after all. What a fucking relief.
As always with Tom Wolfe, this is absolutely spot-on social observation. Reveal yourself to be racially “incorrect,” and watch your in-group status points go swirling down the toilet. And look at the emotions on display there. In-group status evaluation is not just a
So instead of the harmonious race-unconscious society every thoughtful person hoped for fifty years ago, we have this separation, or at least disjunction; and we have this major warping of the nonblack in-group status-evaluation system. (In-group status evaluation among black Americans operates quite differently—another disjunction. Broadly speaking, a black American may express any opinion at all about nonblacks without loss of in-group status.)
We also, of course, have all the hideous, rickety, noisome, rancorous apparatus of Affirmative Action, corporate shakedowns, sensitivity training, Black History Month, “discrimination” lawsuits, “profiling” protests, speech codes, dumbed-down public service exams, and the rest of it. And then there are the atrocious double standards: Karl Rove making a friendly speech at a conference of La Raza (“The Race”), when we all know that Rove would rather be torn to pieces by wild dogs than be seen in company with even a single individual known to promote, on behalf of Rove’s race, what the activists of La Raza promote on behalf of theirs.
It’s not a pretty sight. To those dwindling few of us who can remember the hopes of the Civil Rights Movement, it is a great, a terrible, a bitter and painful disillusioning.
* * * * *
How have conservatives responded to this disillusioning? So far as mainstream conservatives are concerned, I don’t think it is unfair to reply: with silence and cowardice.
First, the silence. This is quite adequately explained by the remarks I offered above, concerning the origins of the Civil Rights movement, and the rise of “anti-racism” as a major in-group status marker among nonblacks.
(And by way of noting that this is indeed a rise, quite a recent one, let me record a remark I heard in the mid-1980s from an elderly, but perfectly clear-headed, gentleman who was at that time a senior professor in one of the humanities departments of an Ivy League university not a million miles from Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was sitting with Professor X at a table with half a dozen other professional or academic white men, all middle-aged or elderly—a generation or more above the Kramers. I had married my wife a few months before, and brought her out of
“Conservative” is a general political designation, of course; but most people who make a point of being known as conservative are in the business of trying to sell ideas to people. They are, or aspire to be, politicians, or commentators, or writers or producers of some kind. These are hard, ill-paid, competitive lines of work, and it is not easy to rise in them. The catastrophic loss of status involved in revealing oneself to have “incorrect” opinions about race is a career-killer in these spheres, and it is not very surprising that mainstream conservatives keep their mouths shut.
The cowardice is a bit harder to excuse. Silence is merely a sin of omission. When a mainstream conservative breaks his silence on race, and opens his mouth, and extrudes words, those words conform in fairly precise particulars to what a Leftist would have said on the same occasion. If, for example, you can persuade a conservative to say anything at all about the extraordinarily high levels of crime among black Americans, he will fall back on standard boilerplate Leftist cant about “root causes” … “oppression” … “discrimination” … “racism” … “poverty” … “legacy of slavery” … “opportunity”…, and so on. His conservatism has evaporated before your eyes. He has become a social engineer, a victimologist. On race, all goodthinkful people are liberals.
Perhaps that is not altogether fair. Some borderline-respectable conservatives—I am thinking here of people like Heather Mac Donald and Ward Connerly—have deviated from orthodoxy enough to give us brilliant, critical essays on topics like racial profiling or affirmative action. This is all activity at the fringes, though. No major American conservative politician—most certainly not our current “compassionately conservative” President—would touch Connerly or Mac Donald with a ten-foot pole.
I tag this mealy-mouthed approach to race among conservatives as cowardice because any given conservative could, at any time, just have kept his mouth shut. That conservatives do not always keep their mouths shut on race might just signify a lack of self-control; that, when they do open their mouths, what comes out is Leftist sociobabble, I call cowardice. Conservatives should challenge liberal orthodoxy at every turn, with a prudent respect for what Willam F. Buckley calls “the prevailing structure of taboos.” If that prevailing structure dictates silence, then keep silence. Don’t feed, don’t nourish, liberal orthodoxy. That is cowardice. In a narrow party-political sense, it is treason.
* * * * *
What, actually, is that orthodoxy? What defines the meaning of those words I have been putting in scare quotes—“correct,” “anti-racism,” and the rest?
I think a single dogma encompasses it all. For my purposes here, I shall call it the Dogma of Zero Group Differences, or DZGD.
To get to grips with the DZGD, consider the following thought experiment:
Experiment X: Take a largish group—say five thousand—of people at random from any fairly compact, but not too compact, populated region—fifty to a hundred miles across, say—anywhere in the world. Now take a second group of the same size from some other similar region elsewhere. Run both groups through batteries of physical, mental, and personality tests.
What can we say about the results of these tests, of this experiment?
The first, and unhappiest, thing to say is that the results are, by definition, statistical. This is a terrible drawback to sensible discussion in the public, the political, sphere. Statistical truth is extraordinarily difficult for untrained minds to grasp. I know what I am talking about, for I was once a teacher of statistics.
I use a different thought experiment to illustrate this sad truth. Imagine you are addressing a room full of people. We can let them be quite well-educated people, so long as they are not trained statisticians. A room full of students from some university Humanities department will do nicely. Now say the following thing to the room: “Men are, on average, taller than women.” I can almost guarantee—it is nearly a dead certainty—that someone in the room will stand up and say something like: “What about Sally? She’s taller than any of us. Taller than you, for sure—Ha ha ha ha!” The room will then consider your thesis to have been decisively exploded. Men taller than women? Nonsense! Look at Sally!
That, I am afraid, is how the untrained human mind works. For the past few years I have been writing pop-math books for a living, and let me tell you, it’s damn hard work. Mathematical and scientific thinking is deeply unnatural. Statistical thinking about our fellow human beings is doubly or trebly so. It goes against all the grain of human nature, against all the social habits programmed into our brains. Anyone can see Sally, but without special training, no-one can see a group average, let alone a standard deviation. We are all interested in other people, but very few of us are interested in multivariate distributions or correlation coefficients. People magazine has a far, far larger circulation figure than the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, and I am willing to hazard a speculation that this will always be so.
All right, all right; the results of our group tests are statistical. Let’s suppose we accept that, and train ourselves to read them. What will they tell us?
Well, it will of course depend on our groups. If one comes from
Even on physical abilities, we will get different histograms. It is possible that your “racial sensitivity” training has been so thorough you did not notice, but according to John Entine’s book Taboo, published in 2000, it was a fact that: “All of the thirty-two finalists in the last four Olympic men’s 100-meter races [were] of West African descent.” There is likewise a preponderance of East Africans in long-distance running, of Polynesians in American football and Australian rugby, of Northeast Asians in diving, of North Europeans in swimming, and so on.
These things are so obvious, and so well-known, that I think even the most doctrinaire racial egalitarian will defer to them, if you press them on him. He will insist on reframing our Experiment X as follows:
Experiment Y: Take a largish group—say five thousand—of people at random from any fairly compact, but not too compact, populated region—fifty to a hundred miles across, say—anywhere in the world. Now take a second group of the same size from some other similar region elsewhere. Run both groups through batteries of mental and personality tests.
…dropping the “physical” altogether. He will then assert the DZGD, or Dogma of Zero Group Differences, as follows:
The Dogma of Zero Group Differences (DZGD)
Experiment Y will, under all circumstances, with all possible combinations of groups, deliver identical statistical profiles on all metrics, with only statistically insignificant variations.
The DZGD is the ruling dogma of our society in the
* * * * *
There are three things to be said about the DZGD.
- First, it is empirically false.
- Second, it contradicts everything we know about the natural development of populations of living creatures.
- Third, it causes discord, disorder, and hatred when let loose in a multiracial society. I would go so far as to say that it is a dangerous, poisonous, and evil doctrine.
· Empirically false. The empirical falsehood of the DZGD has been so often demonstrated that only a willful stubbornness, joined with an ingrained terror of being thought insufficiently “anti-racist,” could lead anyone to deny the evidence, once it has been fairly presented to him.
There is a widespread public impression that this evidence is of a scattered and dubious sort, assembled by people with axes to grind, probably for nefarious purposes. The late Stephen Jay Gould, who, as well as being a committed “anti-racist,” was a Marxist (and not a psychometrician, but a paleontologist), wrote a book to this effect, still widely read and quoted.
This impression is, however, a false one. Good-quality empirical evidence on the quantification of the human personality and human mental abilities now goes back nearly a century. All conceivable objections to this evidence on grounds of methodology have been pondered, debated, and corrected for. Researchers from all over the political spectrum, from Charles Murray, who is a libertarian conservative, to James Flynn, a liberal activist so far to the Left he fled the 1960s U.S.A. on principle to live in New Zealand, are in basic agreement on the core facts of group differences. Statistical differences in scores on various tests of personality and mental ability are as well established as the orbit of the Moon. (An academic sociologist of my acquaintance refers to the famous one-standard-deviation black/white gap on IQ scores as “the fundamental constant of American sociology.” The statistically-challenged should note that among the mathematical consequences of this gap is the fact that at least six million black Americans score higher on IQ tests than the average nonblack American.) Because the DZGD holds such sway in the public and political spheres, the academics who know all this stuff perfectly well are mostly silent about it when confronting the general public; but get the man in his lab or study, and you will hear it all.
And the evidence is not, in fact, all locked away in technical literature. If you read a newspaper, even a liberal broadsheet like the New York Times, you cannot fail to have noticed the recurrent stories about how some city fire department, or county police department, or some other public agency with strict entrance requirements, is being sued because black applicants fail the written admission exam at far higher rates than nonblacks.
These stories have been appearing at regular intervals for thirty years, to my certain recollection, and you would have thought that the collective ingenuity of a mighty and populous nation would by now have figured out the cause of them, and the proper means of correction. No, nobody can; it is a perfect bafflement! An unfathomable mystery! The only response anyone can come up with is to keep dumbing down the tests. In my local police department (
(Similar remarks apply to that other hardy perennial of the broadsheet press, the story about school districts, despite heroic efforts, mysteriously failing to bring black test scores into line with nonblack ones. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, states are required by law to redouble their efforts in this regard—to advance from the merely heroic to the superhuman. States are responding in the only way they can, by cooking the books.)
· Contrary to biology. In almost any population of a living, interbreeding species, you will observe some variations between individuals. The individuals are not all identical. Some of these variations (red hair, in a human population) are heritable; some (appendec
The group of modern humans who emerged from
If human groups, long mostly isolated from each other, in severely different environments, and interbreeding mostly among themselves, had not developed distinctive group characteristics, that would be biologically astounding. And of course, we all know that such group characteristics exist. We can see them—skin color, hair texture, stature, muscle-to-fat ratio, epicanthic fold, and so on. Fortunately these visible group characteristics were excluded from the DZGD when we dropped the word “physical.” Phew!
Thus, the obvious, visible group differences we are all familiar with are the only ones. There are no others. There are no group differences other than physical ones. That is the DZGD.
It is, as I have said, biologically preposterous. Physical differences are not biologically “privileged” in any way. Since great swathes of our personalities and mental abilities are known, in good functional detail, to be products of brain activity, the physical/mental dicho
· An evil doctrine. Why do I say that the DZGD is a dangerous and evil doctrine? It is false, to be sure; but a false doctrine need not be dangerous. If the generality of Americans came to believe that Jupiter is further away from the Sun than Neptune, they would have come to believe a falsehood; but in all probability, society would go on much as before, and only pedants would feel any distress.
Suppose you are a black American. (You might, of course, actually be a black
If you cleave to the DZGD, as everyone from the President on down insists that you must in order to be accepted into polite society, there is only one possible conclusion you can come to: Some force is keeping black people down. Since, on the DZGD, the statistical profile of your group on all measurable abilities is just like the statistical profile of any other group, there must be some force keeping black people away from society’s goods. What other force can that be, but the malice of nonblack people? Oppression! Racism!
The DZGD thus generates discord and hatred. It is touted as a sine qua non of the modern civilized outlook. In fact it is a poisonous, anti-social doctrine, as well as a false one. How on earth did it come to have such a grip on our culture, against all the evidence of our own eyes, all the accumulated experience of the ages, and all the researches of our best minds?
The DZGD also lies behind our county’s current insouciance towards mass
But what would happen if we abandoned the DZGD? We shall soon find out. New understandings in population genetics, in paleoanthropology, in neuroscience, are rendering the DZGD more and more untenable. Faith in it will drain away, first among specialists (this has already largely happened), then among the general educated public, and at last among our politicians, educators, and the public at large.
* * * * *
Conservatism, to me, is the politics of the Cold Eye. It strives to see human beings as they are, not through a smeared lens of wishful thinking or abstract ideology. Conservatives have, or used to have, no patience with grand schemes of human improvement via government action. Improvements may happen, but they do so organically, through advances in understanding, or the softening of manners brought on by an easier, less arduous, less dangerous life. These things all rest, to a large degree, on scientific progress. So it will be with the great social improvement brought about by the imminent discrediting of the DZGD.
What will the
Very few of us indeed are the best in the world at anything, or even strikingly good at anything. Most of us are mediocre at most things, and dismayingly inferior at many. Somehow we live with the knowledge of our own mediocrity—quite cheerfully, in most cases. If we can cope with this knowledge at the level of an individual person, comparing himself with other individual persons, why should we not be able to cope with it at the level of a group—a rather arbitrary group, since none of us picked his ancestors?
I think we shall be surprised to find that we can, once we have got rid of the wretched, poisonous, fallacious DZGD. Some other measures will then be seen to be necessary for social harmony: the abolition of affirmative action and of laws against petty discrimination, a radical overhaul of our dependency-creating social support systems (for which, many good ideas are available for consideration—this one, for instance), different philosophies on education and immigration.
We are not in a very happy place today with race. One large group of citizens avoids, and is avoided by, the other—just look at patterns of residential segregation. The traditional American approach to dire social problems is to move away from them: hence “white flight,” the growth of gated communities, new townships in the desert, and so on. That can’t go on. The
To a patriot, in any case, all this separation is obnoxious. Can’t we all just get along? We are Americans, for heaven’s sake—citizens of the same country. Our country has enemies who hate us, and do not distinguish among us by ancestry group. Why should we distinguish?
And this is not just any country; it is the Can Do country, the problem-solving country, the nation that fixes things. Race slavery was a great wrong: we fixed it. Legal segregation was a lesser wrong, but still intolerable to us at last: we fixed it. Hung up on mid-20th-century social-engineering fantasies, we replaced it with something that, while a still lesser wrong, must none the less be odious to anyone who takes pride in our nation and its ideals, or even just to anyone who wants to be able to walk freely abroad in his own city without doing quick mental statistical analyses on the colors of the faces he sees.
Perhaps we can fix this too, if we start dismantling the edifice of lies and guilt we have built around race this past forty years. And who is going to do the fixing, if not conservatives? Surely not liberals—the party of wishful thinking and social engineering and clientage, the people who once hailed New Soviet Man, who wrecked black family life, who insist that racial guilt be taught to little children in our schools, who encourage whole classes of citizens to think of themselves as victims—victims of the imagined malignity of their fellow Americans.
I have had enough of the sowers of discord, and of that great engine of discord I have called the DZGD. I think it is time we turned aside from the path of error, lies, and folly. Lies beget lies, and nothing good was ever built on lies. We should begin by speaking the truth to each other, citizen to citizen, and by striving to learn actual facts about our human natures, and to adapt our understanding to those facts.
Only conservatives can take the lead here—we conservatives, we who unflinchingly embrace cold fact, we who are unafraid to stare the universe in the face, we who know the difference between ideals and fantasies. It’s time we started.
* John Aubrey, the diarist, tells a story about the Earl of Oxford. When the Earl made a low obeisance to the Queen, he happened to let go a fart, at which he was so ashamed that he left the country for 7 years. At his return the Queen welcomed him and said, “My lord, I had forgot the fart!”
John Derbyshire’s most recent book is Unknown Quantity, published by Joseph Henry Press.
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