The Question Charles Murray Needs to Answer and Can’t: Why Are Massachusetts’ Whites ‘Superior’ to Alabama’s?

Saturday, Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, had an op-ed in The Washington Post, plugging his new screed, Coming Apart. In the op-ed, Murray writes (boldface mine):

It’s common to assume that upper-middle-class white kids win more slots in top universities than middle-class or working-class students not because they’re smarter, but because their parents can afford to send them to the best grade schools and high schools, pay for SAT prep courses, or make hefty donations to colleges.

There are two problems with this logic. First, ever since the landmark Coleman Report on educational equality back in 1966, scholars have had a hard time demonstrating that attending fancy elementary and secondary schools raises students’ academic performance. And on average, those highly touted test-preparation courses boost students’ SAT scores by only a few dozen points — a finding consistent across rigorous studies of test-prep programs.

Second, educational attainment is correlated with intelligence. (The mean IQ of white Americans with just a high school diploma is about 99; the mean IQ of whites with a professional degree is about 125.) And children’s IQ is tied to that of their parents. How genes and environment conspire to produce these relationships is irrelevant; the relationships have been stable for decades. As a result, white parents with advanced educations — who are also generally affluent — inevitably account for a disproportionate number of the white kids with the highest SAT scores, best grades and other evidence of academic excellence.

If college admission were purely meritocratic — eliminating favoritism for the children of alumni, celebrities and big donors — upper-middle-class children would still be overrepresented. That’s because the applicants who would be accepted instead would also hail overwhelmingly from the upper middle class.

Let’s leave aside the problems with IQ scores for now, and, for argument’s sake accept their validity. If “evidence of academic excellence” is essentially stable and immovable, how does Murray explain this:

I’ve, tongue-in-check, argued that the difference between Alabama whites and Massachusetts whites, which is comparable to the difference between Massachusetts whites and blacks, also has a genetic component.

The difference between Massachusetts and Alabama in the performance of white, non-poor students with college educated parents is stark:

…in Massachusetts, white students (with college educated parents who aren’t poor) have an average score of 312, while black students have a score of 291 (p less than 10-6). Meanwhile, Alabama whites score 293, with no significance difference compared to black students in Massachusetts (p = 0.49). The gap between Massachusetts whites and Massachusetts blacks is the same as the gap between Massachusetts and Alabama whites.

To put this in context:

But the Massachusetts-Alabama gap is as large as the racial gap (and it holds across economic and educational groupings when data are available; data here…). Educating a white child in Alabama confers the same disadvantage as the historical effects of massive racial discrimination and segregation.

Murray really needs to be asked why these two states differ so much–and remember, these are not poor children, and these children also have well-educated parents. If it’s genetic, well, I hope conservatives have fun explaining how ‘real Americans’ (as opposed to coastal, subway-riding ‘elites’) are genetically inferior. “It’s not your fault you’re stupid, you were born that way…” If it’s cultural, then that would invalidate much of what Murray preaches in Coming Apart. Massachusetts has a relatively expansive state government and liberal social policies (e.g., gay marriage). And remember: you can’t cite a ‘culture of poverty’ or the supposed decline of the lower-middle class. The parents of these students are college-educated and not-poor (at least 200% of the poverty line).

Of course, if Murray were asked this he wouldn’t have an answer. Well, that’s not entirely accurate: he has ‘answers’, just not to this question.

This is why he should not be taken seriously.

An aside: Murray’s assertion that IQ scores are “stable” is bogus. Not only have NAEP math scores shown consistent, steady rises for the last four decades (so much for that ‘schools are failing’ crapola), but IQ scores have also risen when scaled to earlier generations (the Flynn Effect). But getting facts wrong is par for the course with Murray (e.g., Losing Ground)

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