The enduring influence of “academic” racism

Back in the early 90s I worked in a bookstore—one of the now defunct “superstore” chains. The store was located in Bethesda, on the border of Rockville, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC. That area was then mostly populated by people who had participated in the “White Flight” migration of DC proper, leaving the District as a mostly black and, in three quadrants, lower middle class to poor city. At that time, The Bell Curve was published was a ‘controversial’ bestseller, rare for an academic book. (Bestsellers at that time included a diet cookbook written by Oprah’s personal chef and the first Dr. Laura self-help book). The clientele of the store was privileged, not only in material wealth, but also in attitude. Customer service and dealing with the public can be challenging and I have my share of war stories.

One particular story involves The Bell Curve. Having read Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man in college, in addition to being aware of the media storm that surrounded the book, I knew that it was pseudoscientific claptrap. An elderly woman sidled up to the Information Desk where I had been stationed. I was the only person not helping a customer, so she deigned to engage me.
“Excuse me, young man,” she said. “Do you know where the book The Bell Curve is?”
There was a stack of the book at the front of the store. I was about to show her where the requested book was, but she interrupted me: “That’s spelled ‘B-E-L-L space C-U-R-V-E.”
Did I hear that right? Did that patrician doyenne actually spell out the title for me, as if I were an illiterate, ignoble savage?
I would love to tell you that I went all Sarcastic Darky on her, shuffled over to the book, and said “Yes ma’am. De books be here. I ‘preciate you spellin it out fuh me. I’se not too good wit de letters!’
Alas, I did not. I needed the job, so I silently pointed her to the stack of books.

The allure of that book, which has been thoroughly debunked, still reigns supreme among the fringes in the Age of Obama. I see its influence in the circles where I associate. Most recently, the gay writer Andrew Sullivan gave credence, once again to the research of differences between the races and opined that racial differences were not unlike the difference between various dog breeds. Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Association, an professional organization of genre writers (of which I am not a member) has been relentless attack by a member who subscribes to the theories laid out in the book (ostensibly to drum up interest in his mediocre fantasy fiction).

The point of my anecdote is show how such poisonous theories manifest in the real world. It isn’t about ‘censoring’ intellectual curiosity, which seems to be Sullivan’s interest in prolonging discussions about race. Rather, it is grist for the racist mill, a justification for treating people of color rudely. It isn’t a coincidence that the mediocre author is boorish and nasty in his attacks. Back in 2011, a principal who subscribed to white supremacist doctrines was unmasked, after spending years catering to a mostly minority population.

My anecdote at the bookstore is mostly humorous. Other people’s direct contact with this vile form racism is serious, and has lasting effects.

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