About 100 University of Michigan students, faculty and staff gathered Wednesday afternoon on the Diag to protest a speech to be given on campus later that night by Charles Murray, author of “The Bell Curve,” a book widely criticized for its attribution of intelligence and other genetic traits with race. The event was sponsored by the University’s chapter of College Republicans and the American Enterprise Institute University of Michigan Executive Council, a public policy think tank where Murray serves as the W.H. Brady Scholar.
John Vandermeer, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, spoke to the protesters gathered on the Diag, explaining the errors in Murray’s work.
“I am a biologist, and I’ll just say that I know more about biology than Charles Murray does,” he said. “Biology has a long history of being involved in this sort of thing. And that history is not a very bright history –– it’s a history of trying to justify various forms of oppression. It’s illegitimate, it’s been illegitimate from the start and it will always be illegitimate as far as I’m concerned.”
The modern iteration of this pseudo-science, Vandermeer said, began in 1969 with a paper by the psychologist Arthur Jensen, published in the Harvard Educational Review, which related the “strong heritability of IQ” to race, using it to explain the marginalization of Black people. The heritability coefficient statistic he used, though, was not applicable to his conclusion, Vandermeer said.
“The Bell Curve,” Vandermeer said, was slightly more sophisticated than Jensen’s work, and cited many more references, but those references didn’t substantiate Murray’s findings.
“So, I might say, for example, the moon is made of cream cheese –– look at table one. And now table one will be a table of the tides, for example, because they’re related to the moon,” he said. “The point is, the moon is not made of cream cheese. I can cite a lot of data that are not relevant to the statement, and I can hope that you’re not going to notice that the data I’m citing have nothing to do with the claim that I’m making. That is ‘The Bell Curve.’ ‘The Bell Curve’ is filled with that.”
Michigan Mellon Fellow Austin McCoy, a campus organizer and historian of 20th-century protest movements, said while he protested Murray’s presence on campus, the controversy was how Murray generated power.
“I’m not really going to say much about what’s his name –– Charles Murray –– I don’t really care about Charles Murray, I think he’s irrelevant,” he said. “I think he’s just trying to use protests, I think he’s trying to use student anger to rebuild his career. So, think about this. He has to use students to get a come-up.”
Murray’s speech, McCoy said, was part of a political strategy to build the power of white supremacists, relating the speech to dozens of racist, “Bell Curve”-inspired posters that were hung up on campus over the past year.
Rackham student Max Alvarez, an organizer with the Ann Arbor chapter of the Campus Antifascist Network, said treating speakers like Murray as legitimate was how fascism installs itself in communities.
“We study the legacies of violent nativism and white supremacy in America, we devote our lives to understanding how this stuff works,” he said. “And we know that fascism creeps in through the back door when we accept the hateful, unfounded, bigoted logics that try to justify it into the mainstream unchallenged –– when we treat it as just one academic view among many.”
Informing students how to protest Murray’s speech, Rackham student Michael Medina, a representative of Students of Color of Rackham, told student to protest Murray’s speech by putting on headphones and doing other work.
“What we want him to know is we got better shit to do in that space than listen to him,” he said. “Get in there, spread out, and just get your work done, because whatever he’s got to say is way less important than the work you actually need to do.”
In an email interview, Tabbye Chavous, director of the University’s National Center for Institutional Diversity, said going to the speech and listening to Murray wasn’t necessarily passive or accepting of his message.
“I would encourage those choosing to attend the talk to listen to the positions and perspectives being offered, and in doing so, make choices that both respect the speaker’s freedom of expression rights and make use of their own freedom of expression rights,” Chavous wrote. “Scientists were only able to debunk the myth of biological race differences because they understood the perspectives of those supporting such differences and were able to systematically test and counter faulty logic and methodologies used, which led to new knowledge. In this way, rigorous scholarly engagement and work can also be activism.”
After the first racist flyers were put up on campus last year, NCID started a social media campaign to address the “#UnScientificRacism” of the posters.
“This phenomenon has been called ‘scientific racism,’ and we view this as anything but scientific, thus our campaign was titled #UnScientificRacism,” Chavous wrote. “With our week-long campaign, our goal was to bring awareness of rigorous science on race that debunks the idea of inherent race differences as well as scholarship that analyzes the history and contemporary context of (un)scientific racism as it has occurred in domains of education, health, economics, among other areas.”
LSA senior Ben Decatur, co-chair of the AEI Executive Council at the University, introduced Murray that evening. He went on to discuss the potential for protest and invited any protesters to engage with the speaker instead of attempting to prevent Murray from speaking.
“If the hosts of tonight’s program, in collaboration with University representatives, believe that the protesters are interfering unduly with the speaker’s freedom of expression, those protestors will be warned by a University administrator,” Decatur said. “If warnings are not heeded and interference continues, the individuals responsible may be removed from the building.”