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A talk with Jason Richwine: 'I do not apologize for any of my work'

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Politics,Byron York,Politics Ticker,Immigration

"It seemed like that day lasted forever," says Jason Richwine of last Wednesday, when he found himself in the middle of a media firestorm over his writings about Hispanic immigrants and intelligence. "I knew that this probably would not end well."

It didn't. On Friday morning, the 31 year-old scholar resigned from the Heritage Foundation, where he had co-authored the new report, "The Fiscal Cost of Unlawful Immigrants and Amnesty to the U.S. Taxpayer." The paper, released last Monday and written largely by Heritage scholar Robert Rector, argued that Hispanic immigrants to the United States, most of them low-skill, end up costing the government more in benefits than they pay in taxes. It was an explosive entry into the debate over the comprehensive immigration reform measure currently being considered in the Senate. By the time of its release, reform advocates on the left and right had already published a number of "prebuttals" arguing that Rector and Richwine had it all wrong, that in fact immigration would be a net benefit in years to come.

Heritage expected that debate. What it did not expect was the firestorm that broke out Wednesday morning when a liberal Washington Post blogger posted an article titled, "Heritage study co-author opposed letting in immigrants with low IQs." The blogger, Dylan Matthews, wrote that Richwine, who earned a doctorate from Harvard University in 2009, had written a dissertation, "IQ and Immigration Policy," which argued that on average immigrants to the U.S., particularly Hispanic immigrants, have lower IQ scores than "the white native population." Admitting immigrants with higher IQs, Richwine argued, would be a better immigration policy than admitting low-IQ newcomers.

"I do not apologize for any of my work. I'm proud of it. But I do regret the way it has been used."
-- Jason Richwine, former Heritage scholar

THE FIRESTORM

The reaction was immediate and harsh. "The Heritage Foundation's immigration guru wasn't just racist -- he's wrong," wrote the Atlantic. "Ugly racism and xenophobia dressed up in economic hyperbole," said the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "You have someone who is a racist, obviously, right?" asked a Univision anchor of a Heritage spokesman.

Heritage quickly tried to put some distance between itself and its scholar. "The Harvard paper is not a work product of the Heritage Foundation," communications vice president Mike Gonzalez said in a statement. "Its findings do not reflect the positions of the Heritage Foundation or the conclusions of our study on the cost of amnesty to U.S. taxpayers, as race and ethnicity are not part of Heritage immigration policy recommendations."

Richwine knew he was in trouble the minute the first story broke. "The accusation of racism is one of the worst things that anyone can call you in public life," he says. "Once that word is out there, it's very difficult to recover from it, even when it is completely untrue."

It got worse. In the 24 hours that followed the Post's initial report, other outlets noted that in 2010 Richwine published two articles on a website called AlternativeRight.com, which describes itself as "an online magazine dedicated to heretical perspectives on society and culture" but is better defined as a site with a strong white nationalist perspective. Then a web video surfaced of Richwine saying, during a 2008 panel discussion, "Decades of psychometric testing has indicated that at least in America, you have Jews with the highest average IQ, usually followed by East Asians, then you have non-Jewish whites, Hispanics, and then blacks. These are real differences, and they're not going to go away tomorrow, and for that reason we have to address them in our immigration discussions and our debates."

The four revelations -- the dissertation, a couple of articles in AlternativeRight, and the panel discussion statement -- ended Richwine's career at Heritage. As Wednesday turned into Thursday, the controversy "was spreading in a way that I just couldn't control," Richwine recalls. A Google search for "Jason Richwine" and "racist" now yields four million hits.

Richwine knew from his own observations of other such controversies that they usually resulted in someone losing his job and his reputation. When he got home Wednesday night, he told his wife, a stay-at-home mother to their two children, ages six months and two and a half years, that things didn't look good.

By Friday, he was saying his goodbyes at Heritage and wondering what had happened. "It still amazes me that it would be me who is portrayed this way," Richwine says. "I have a pretty good educational background, I have a good background in doing very good quantitative work. The idea that I am some sort of foaming-at-the-mouth extremist never even crossed my mind."

NO APOLOGY, BUT REGRETS

So, how did it happen? Richwine, the Harvard intellectual, thought he could discuss perhaps the most radioactive subject in America -- a mixture of race, ethnicity, and group intelligence -- in the context of another highly controversial topic -- immigration -- and act as if it were all a matter of scholarly inquiry. In addition, he made what was at best a careless mistake -- why post anything at AlternativeRight? - and further damaged himself by making tone-deaf remarks during a public discussion in Washington. Given the intensity of the immigration fight now raging in Washington, that was more than enough to do him in.

Richwine got in touch with me over the weekend, wanting to talk. In a long discussion Sunday, I began by asking about his interest in the topic of race and IQ. How had that started? He had read Charles Murray's "The Bell Curve" when he was a student at American University in Washington, Richwine said, and was fascinated by the author's approach to a complex topic. The son of an engineer and a bookkeeper from the suburbs of Philadelphia, Richwine was quantitatively inclined. After graduating from American in 2004 with bachelor's degrees in math and political science, he was accepted into graduate school at Harvard, where the focus of his research was the question of group intelligence.

While Richwine was at Harvard, Murray visited Cambridge and Richwine told him about his research project. The result was a two-year fellowship at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, where Murray has long been a scholar. The fellowship gave Richwine the opportunity to finish his doctoral work while also getting a start in the world of Washington think tanks. "It was wonderful," Richwine recalled. "Few grad students get that kind of support and get to work with their childhood hero." Indeed, Richwine's dissertation acknowledgements make special note of Murray. "The substance of my work was positively influenced by many people, but no one was more influential than Charles Murray, whose detailed editing and relentless constructive criticism have made the final draft vastly superior to the first," Richwine wrote. "I could not have asked for a better primary advisor."

During his stint at AEI, Richwine participated in a panel that assayed a book by Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter immigration enforcement. Discussing the book with Krikorian, fellow panelist Fred Siegel and moderator David Frum, Richwine made his "Jews, East Asians, whites, Hispanics" comment, which at best could be called incomplete, not to mention insensitive. Yes, there are IQ differences between various groups, but there is also enormous controversy about the source of those differences and over whether they mean much of anything at all. Richwine failed to acknowledge that.

"I am a much better writer than I am a speaker," he told me. "I probably would have written those things differently than I spoke them. What I emphasized was that ethnic group differences in IQ are scientifically uncontroversial. That being said, there is a nuance that goes along with that: the extent to which IQ scores actually reflect intelligence, the fact that it reflects averages and there is a lot of overlap in any population, and that IQ scores say absolutely nothing about the causes of the differences -- environmental, genetic, or some combination of those things."

"I don't apologize for any of the things that I said," Richwine continued. "But I do regret that I couldn't give more detail. And I also regret that I didn't think more about how the average lay person would perceive these things, as opposed to an academic audience."

At the time, though, there was no blowback to what Richwine had said, at least none that he knows about. "I guess it's possible that everyone at AEI saw it and had a reaction, but I never heard about it," says Richwine.

As he was about to leave AEI, in March, 2010, Richwine noticed a long piece in The American Conservative magazine in which publisher Ron Unz attacked what he called "the myth that Hispanic immigrants and their children have high crime rates." The article attracted some attention on the left -- blogger Matthew Yglesias, then writing for the Center for American Progress, called it "fantastic" -- but Richwine felt that Unz had misinterpreted some basic crime data. He wrote a long rebuttal. "Unz's article is laudable for its straightforward, dispassionate discussion of a sensitive issue," Richwine wrote. "His methodology, however, is problematic, and his conclusion is wrong. A proper analysis of the data indicates that Hispanics have a substantially higher crime rate than whites."

CONNECTION TO ALTERNATIVERIGHT

Richwine published the rebuttal in a relatively new website, AlternativeRight. Why there? For several reasons, Richwine told me. First, The American Conservative declined to publish the response on its own site, which left Richwine looking for a place to post. Second, he had met AlternativeRight's founder Richard Spencer at an AEI event. And third, Spencer asked Richwine to write for him. "There was a new website called AlternativeRight," Spencer recalled. "I thought it would be like a paleo-conservative website. I had seen that [former National Review writer] John Derbyshire had also published something there ... Later on, it took on a more extreme version."

That is true, but assessments of AlternativeRight at the time of its founding pegged it as a white nationalist site. The site's editors "hide their sexist and racist ideologies behind the gloss of sweet-sounding, pseudo-intellectual terms," wrote Tim Mak, then a reporter for David Frum's old site FrumForum. "Instead of spouting racism, Alternative Right is engaging in the much more respectable-sounding analysis of 'human biological diversity' and 'socio-biology.'" Mak's article appeared the same week Richwine published his piece for AlternativeRight.

And even if the words in the site's articles sounded respectable, a Harvard Ph.D. should have been able to figure out what was going on. Later, as Richwine said, AlternativeRight would move on to more extreme things -- among them Holocaust denial -- but there were warning signs from the very beginning.

The ironic thing is that Richwine had another place to publish his stuff: the AEI website. Why post a response to Unz in AlternativeRight when it could have been published by the American Enterprise Institute? "When you're at AEI, they want you to publish widely," Richwine explained. "That is different from Heritage, where they want you to publish everything in Heritage publications. At AEI, the ultimate thing you could do is publish in the Wall Street Journal."

One thing that is absolutely unmistakable is that AlternativeRight is not the Wall Street Journal, and it seems hard to imagine that AEI would have wanted its scholars to publish on such a website. But in the end, it turned out AEI also posted Richwine's response to Unz on its own website, with the title "Model Minority?" It was credited to AlternativeRight and is still on the AEI site today. The article, plus a brief response to a response from Unz, were the only things Richwine published on AlternativeRight.

OTHER RESEARCH

After Richwine's two-year stint at AEI, he moved to Heritage in March 2010. "I was first hired into the Center for Data Analysis," Richwine said. "I was not hired as an immigration expert. I was hired to do numbers crunching on a variety of things." During his time in the data department, Richwine did research on various issues concerning public finance, pension reform and education. After a couple of years, he was promoted to the domestic policy shop.

None of his work involved the topic of his dissertation, Richwine told me. But at the same time, Richwine wrote a number of articles touching on immigration, some of which presaged themes in the new Heritage report. For example, in June 2010 Richwine published an article in National Review titled, "A Population Portrait -- Who illegal immigrants are, and what they bring with them." In it, he wrote that legalizing currently illegal immigrants "would add to our citizenry millions of people, most of them poor and less-educated, whose prospects for advancement are decidedly low." In a conclusion that echoed a 2006 Heritage report (which was also written by Robert Rector) on the fiscal cost of immigration, Richwine wrote that "[government] benefits eventually owed to low-earning immigrants will be much greater than what they paid in."

Along with his research on other issues, Richwine began working with Rector on an updated version of the immigration report. "The methodology of that was certainly not developed by me," he said. "It goes back to a National Academy of Sciences report in 1997, which built a framework for taxes people pay and benefits people receive. There is nothing in that paper that is even remotely related to any of my dissertation work."

That is accurate. The Heritage report, target of so much criticism by proponents of comprehensive immigration reform, had nothing to do with either Richwine's dissertation or the things he said in the past few years that are now so controversial. But that didn't stop what was about to happen.

When the storm broke, Richwine's earlier comments and past associations were mixed together to create one awful picture. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow ran a long segment linking Richwine to AlternativeRight, and to Richard Spencer, and to white nationalism and Holocaust denial and all sorts of things. Richwine says he tried not to pay attention to the attacks, but found it impossible -- especially since he had a Google Alert on his computer that kept reminding him when a new piece mentioning him appeared on the web.

Richwine decided not to talk to the press, at least for a while. When he contacted me, he said he knew fully the danger of discussing an issue like IQ in a political context -- "I'm not na?ve about that," he said. But he wanted to make clear that he defends his work. "I do not apologize for any of my work," he told me. "I'm proud of it. But I do regret the way it has been used."

As the conversation went on, Richwine pointed to a piece a few years ago by Slate's William Saletan that discussed the fact that there are IQ differences between groups but that many people simply don't want to hear about them, preferring instead to believe in an ideal of intelligence equality. "Saletan called this 'liberal creationism,'" Richwine said. "For liberals, that's their creationism -- something that is obviously not true from a scientific perspective, but that they have to believe." In the article, though, Saletan included all the caveats and explanations that Richwine had left out of his remarks at AEI back in 2008. As Richwine learned, those "nuances" are absolutely critical when discussing the issue of intelligence in a political context.

Richwine and others also pointed to the fact that his ideas were expressed most completely in a dissertation done at Harvard, of all places, under the supervision of a group of distinguished scholars, and that the dissertation was accepted and Richwine was awarded a Ph.D. It seems unlikely that a Harvard dissertation, finished in 2009, would qualify as hate speech, his defenders contend. But that is how it was portrayed in the controversy.

Finally, Richwine argued that whatever he wrote or said in the past about IQ, it is not part of the Heritage immigration report. That is true, but it also didn't dampen the controversy.

A few of Richwine's friends have stuck with him. The most prominent of them is Charles Murray, who, when Richwine left Heritage, tweeted, "Jason Richwine, guilty of crimethink, 'resigns.' The bashing from the right has been as mindless as from the left." Later, Murray tweeted again: "Thank God I was working for Chris DeMuth and AEI, not Jim DeMint and Heritage, when The Bell Curve was published. Integrity. Loyalty. Balls." (DeMuth was the longtime president of the American Enterprise Institute.)

In the course of a long conversation, Richwine declined to discuss what happened inside Heritage in his last few days there. But he said nothing even remotely negative about the think tank. "Legally, I cannot discuss the circumstances of my departure, and even more broadly, I have absolutely no interest in disparaging Heritage," he told me. "I have nothing negative to say about Heritage. I have so many friends there."

Now, it will soon be time for Richwine to look for another job. He knows it will likely be tough. "What remains to be seen is how radioactive people consider me," he says. "My goal right now is that people understand that I'm not someone who has to be avoided. I've always considered myself a mainstream scholar. If people associate me with these three days for the rest of my life, it will be very difficult."

Byron York, The Washington Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner