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cover of book The Bell Curve
The Bell
Curve made
blacks and
The Bell Curve sparks controversy  
These anxieties are rooted in the social tensions that beset contemporary society. They were heightened by the recent renewal of assertions -- notably in The Bell Curve, Charles Murray and the late Richard J. Herrnstein's widely discussed book of 1994 -- that racial groups differ from each other in their innate mental capacities. Murray and Herrnstein reported that the principal difference lies between whites on the one side, and Latinos and, especially, blacks on the other. Blacks on average score 15 points lower than whites on IQ tests. Herrnstein and Murray concluded that therefore blacks as a group are less intelligent than whites. They held that genes place blacks, along with whites of comparable test performance, disproportionately in poverty, in prison, on the welfare rolls, and in the statistics of illegitimate births. They insisted that the high maternity rate of low-income groups is fostering "dysgenics," the increase of inadequate genes in the population.  

immigrant family circa 1920
families were
targets of eugenics


Such claims are not new. They formed part of the core of the eugenics movement that swept through the Anglo-American world and many other countries during the first third of the 20th century. In the United States, however, the biological distinctions that mainly obsessed eugenicists were not those between whites and blacks, but those then believed to divide whites -- differences between the old-stock white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant majority and the numerous Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe.

Eugenicists, who were themselves predominantly of the old majority, considered scholastic intelligence -- the kind indicated in IQ tests -- a paramount measure of human merit, ignoring other abilities such as business acumen and artistic creativity that such tests did not capture. To them, IQ tests appeared to determine that the newer immigrants were innately endowed with low intelligence, while their high birth rates seemed to indicate that they were spreading inferior genes into the population at a rapid rate. In the interest of reducing the proportion of the "less fit" in society, eugenicists in the United States helped restrict immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. They promoted the passage of eugenic sterilization laws that disproportionately threatened lower-income groups. The laws and programs they fostered supplied a model for the Nazis, who sterilized several hundred thousand people and, brandishing their research into the genetics of individual and racial differences, claimed scientific justifications for the Holocaust.

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