In the 1990s, academics realized that intelligence is impossible to measure. But for generations, white people have used the concept of intelligence to argue that they’re inherently superior to non-white people, and men have used the concept of intelligence to argue that they’re inherently superior to women. In response to the new findings about intelligence, two Harvard scientists wrote the book The Bell Curve, which argues that standardized testing is fair and Black people are simply less intelligent than white people. In 1994, these scientists started campaigning for Republican politicians who argued that Black people should take “personal responsibility” for inequality, rather than blaming racism or the government. Hoping to one-up the Republicans, Democrats tried and failed to get Angela Davis fired again.
Yet again, scientific evidence comes out on the side of antiracism. It’s not scientifically valid to rank people by overall intelligence. Instead, the idea that some people are smarter than others is simply a social prejudice. Like racism, its purpose is to give some people (and some ways of thinking) power over others. But The Bell Curve shows how racists try to save these kinds of prejudices from legitimate science. In fact, Kendi and Reynolds suggest that because their racism was so blatant, the authors of The Bell Curve show how racist ideas justify racist policies by explaining away their effects. The Bell Curve said that Black people’s inherent inferiority causes racial inequality, which means that this inequality is justified—and if Black people want to change it, they shouldn’t expect the government’s help. Meanwhile, the Democratic effort to fire Angela Davis shows that, even in polarized American politics, there’s a consensus around racism: at best, Kendi and Reynolds suggest, voters get to choose between assimilationism and segregationism.
1995 was a particularly racist year. The O.J. Simpson trial divided the U.S. on racial lines, and academics started talking about Black teenage “super predators.” Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan launched the largest political march in Black history, and protests stopped the execution of the Black prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. Meanwhile, Clinton was telling white religious voters to, basically, “pray God fixes Black people.” And California was passing influential anti-affirmative action legislation. When Clinton promised to lead a public conversation about race, a million Black women assembled in Philadelphia to speak about their experiences, but the white-dominated media ignored them and proposed “color blindness” as the solution instead. They paid lip service to equality but did nothing to achieve it.
In 1995, like during the early 2020s, both racists and antiracists vocally pushed their ideas in the public sphere. They used the media, certain “extraordinary” cases, and protest movements to gain attention and support. This again shows how racists and antiracists tend to evolve together, in response to each other’s tactics. In turn, this reminds readers that the common idea of constant racial progress towards equality is actually a myth. The new dominant racist idea in American culture is “color blindness,” which essentially amounts to denial. Racism continues in the U.S.—the numerous racial disparities in wealth, health, and safety clearly prove that. But by saying that racism is over, racists can continue discriminating and supporting racist policies—without facing the consequences of doing so.