What Are They Teaching Those Kids?

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to tell you that I was once recruited by Harvard as an undergraduate. Based on my SAT scores and GPA, they promised me early admission and a full tuition waiver as long as my application materials were in order. As I was considering their offer, I received several materials from Harvard which included information about housing discrimination that encouraged me to live far away from the Harvard area and take public transit into school and campus climate information that actually made me concerned for my safety as a student and as a person moving on and off campus regularly. That material was actually the deciding factor in my decision to go to a less recognized top 10 school where the funding was less inclusive but the community was much more so.

These events occurred before many of my non-faculty college readers were born and certainly before the “formative educational years” of the student in question below. So imagine my lack of surprise when I ventured over to PostBourgie blog and saw an article about a 3rd year, white, female, Harvard Law student who argued that black people’s genetic encoding may make them less intelligent than white people and that she was then defended by members of the Harvard community.

Stephanie Grace/unattributed

While I have pasted Stephanie Grace’s controversial letter below for your perusal, for me, the more interesting aspect of this case is the opinion poll about whether or not she was in fact being racist which I discuss further down in the post.

… I just hate leaving things where I feel I misstated my position.

I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. I could also obviously be convinced that by controlling for the right variables, we would see that they are, in fact, as intelligent as white people under the same circumstances. The fact is, some things are genetic. African Americans tend to have darker skin. Irish people are more likely to have red hair. (Now on to the more controversial:) Women tend to perform less well in math due at least in part to prenatal levels of testosterone, which also account for variations in mathematics performance within genders. This suggests to me that some part of intelligence is genetic, just like identical twins raised apart tend to have very similar IQs and just like I think my babies will be geniuses and beautiful individuals whether I raise them or give them to an orphanage in Nigeria. I don’t think it is that controversial of an opinion to say I think it is at least possible that African Americans are less intelligent on a genetic level, and I didn’t mean to shy away from that opinion at dinner.

I also don’t think that there are no cultural differences or that cultural differences are not likely the most important sources of disparate test scores (statistically, the measurable ones like income do account for some raw differences). I would just like some scientific data to disprove the genetic position, and it is often hard given difficult to quantify cultural aspects. One example (courtesy of Randall Kennedy) is that some people, based on crime statistics, might think African Americans are genetically more likely to be violent, since income and other statistics cannot close the racial gap. In the slavery era, however, the stereotype was of a docile, childlike, African American, and they were, in fact, responsible for very little violence (which was why the handful of rebellions seriously shook white people up). Obviously group wide rates of violence could not fluctuate so dramatically in ten generations if the cause was genetic, and so although there are no quantifiable data currently available to “explain” away the racial discrepancy in violent crimes, it must be some nongenetic cultural shift. Of course, there are pro-genetic counterarguments, but if we assume we can control for all variables in the given time periods, the form of the argument is compelling.

In conclusion, I think it is bad science to disagree with a conclusion in your heart, and then try (unsuccessfully, so far at least) to find data that will confirm what you want to be true. Everyone wants someone to take 100 white infants and 100 African American ones and raise them in Disney utopia and prove once and for all that we are all equal on every dimension, or at least the really important ones like intelligence. I am merely not 100% convinced that this is the case.

Please don’t pull a Larry Summers on me,

Stephanie’s letter was written to clarify a discussion she had with two other female Harvard Law School students in the cafeteria, all of whom are in their last year of law school.  The conversation was about affirmative action. Both Stephanie and another student in the group opposed Affirmative Action, and at least one of the three women put forward the genetic argument about intelligence as one of the reasons they opposed what they felt was affirmative action related admission of black students into places like Harvard. In other words, one can infer that a white female student at one of the top rated institutions in this country, about to complete an advanced degree in higher ed, was arguing that black people do not deserve to go to places like Harvard because they are stupid. AND black are “stupid” because they are “genetically inferior to white people.”

Both these students’ level of education and the context of their conversation are  critical here. These are not Freshman with limited access to diverse knowledge or research skills. They are people who have completed one or more undergraduate degrees, that should have provided 12 or more credits of general education (ie a breadth of basic humanities and science knowledge and diversity credits) and basic research skills and diversity education in their major. They are also on the verge of completing an advanced degree at one of the highest rat4ed education facilities in the country. Meaning, they should have above and beyond the basic research skills, theories, and data (at least legal data) to recognize outdated and statistically unsupported research like eugenicism. (For those who do not know, among the many things eugenicism argued was that racially groups are genetically different and that people of color are genetically inferior both with regards to their intelligence and capacity for civility and civic engagement; all of which, has been proven inaccurate by social science and scientific research including the genome project. Among its many discoveries, the genome project proves beyond a reasonable scientific doubt that human being are actually more genetically similar than dissimilar.)

Science aside, social norms continue to reflect eugenicist thinking. Thus, for those of us who attended high ranking colleges and universities or fill positions at them, law firms, or businesses, Stephanie and her friends’ comments about are not new. From a white supremacist perspective, people of color “unfairly” “take spots” away from white students or employees who have “earned” those spots. In other words, Affirmative Action gives unquestioningly “unqualified” people of color jobs and education that unquestioningly “qualified” white people would otherwise occupy.

Regardless of white entrenchment believes however, the majority of black students in high ranking institutions, regardless of whether they are faculty or students, represent the top 10-15% of their class while similar white students represent the top 30%. These statistics are not racially exclusive. Meaning, black students are not at the top 10% of black students but rather the top 10% of their classes, ie all students, including white ones. In the same way that white students are not at the top 30% of white students but rather of all students in their schools, including people of color. Thus the common perception that black students in the ivy league are either ignorant in general or only smarter than other black people is inaccurate.

Contrary to popular belief, Affirmative Action is also not a “black program.” The largest group benefiting from Affirmative Action is WHITE WOMEN not black people (regardless of gender). One of the largest ironies about challenges to Affirmative Action is that white women have been at the forefront of legal challenges to these programs, particularly with regards to admissions decisions, yet, they are the largest benefactors.

The failure of white female Harvard Law students to engage readily available statistical information while claiming both a right to intellectual inquiry and evidence in order to hide a racist supposition is not only racially offensive it is also poor scholarship. Rather than engaging in intellectual inquiry then these women negated it at the most basic levels in order to re-entrench themselves in racial privilege.

Yet, not only was Stephanie’s “right to intellectual inquiry” defended at Above the Law but according to their online poll (based on a review of the stats on 5/3/2010 @ 12pm):

  • 56.8% of their readers believe that no racism was involved
  • 34.4% believe there was nothing offensive about the assertion that black people are less smart than white people (including 12% who believe the statement to be true)
  • 34.4% found it “somewhat offensive”
  • 68.8% felt the comments were somewhere between correct and only slightly offensive; meaning slightly more than 30% found the comments unacceptable

Since the poll is online, it is unclear how many of the respondents are members of the Harvard community. However, one can assume that the majority of the people reading Above the Law have some relationship or knowledge of Harvard in order to know about the publication and because many of the statements in the comment section identify people as Harvard Students or alums. (Above the Law is a legal blog that covers stories about the top law schools and legal controversies in the U.S. )

Early in the conflict, Stephanie was cast as the victim. Both she and others claimed that the controversy surrounding her “innocent” questions “based on liberal politics” jeopardized her status at the school, advancement through internships, clerkships, and mentoring, and any number of other complaints as documented on multiple academic and legal message boards, blogs, and newspaper comment sections.

Some even claimed that the Black Law Student Association at Harvard was actively trying to take her internship at the 9th Circuit Court away and stirring up a maelstrom against her. These comments were recreated online (and presumably in print) by Above the Law. Yet, the BLSA denies having done anything to impact Stephanie’s internship or otherwise sanction her, and they would not have the power to do so even if they had wanted to. Such sanctions would have to come from either Harvard Law itself or from the 9th Circuit Court not an organization representing black students on campus. But in order to understand that, you would have to be thinking rationally. If, on the other hand, you process these events through the lens of white entrenchment then the fact a white student maligned the intelligence of an entire race and student organizations have no power to sanction students with regards to their academic is erased in favor of the myth that black people have unfair power in this country and wield it regularly against the aspirations of white people.

On Thursday, April 29, The Dean of Harvard Law, Martha Minow, corroborated the BLSA’s denials in an open letter to the Law School community:

Dear members of the Harvard Law School community:

I am writing this morning to address an email message in which one of our students suggested that black people are genetically inferior to white people.

This sad and unfortunate incident prompts both reflection and reassertion of important community principles and ideals. We seek to encourage freedom of expression, but freedom of speech should be accompanied by responsibility. This is a community dedicated to intellectual pursuit and social justice. The circulation of one student’s comment does not reflect the views of the school or the overwhelming majority of the members of this community.

As news of the email emerged yesterday, I met with leaders of our Black Law Students Association to discuss how to address the hurt that this has brought to this community. For BLSA, repercussions of the email have been compounded by false reports that BLSA made the email public and pressed the student’s future employer to rescind a job offer. A troubling event and its reverberations can offer an opportunity to increase awareness, and to foster dialogue and understanding. The BLSA leadership brought this view to our meeting yesterday, and I share their wish to turn this moment into one that helps us make progress in a community dedicated to fairness and justice.

Here at Harvard Law School, we are committed to preventing degradation of any individual or group, including race-based insensitivity or hostility. The particular comment in question unfortunately resonates with old and hurtful misconceptions. As an educational institution, we are especially dedicated to exposing to the light of inquiry false views about individuals or groups.

I am heartened to see the apology written by the student who authored the email, and to see her acknowledgement of the offense and hurt that the comment engendered.

I would like to thank the faculty, administrators, and students who have already undertaken serious efforts to increase our chances for mutual understanding, confrontation of falsehoods, and deliberative engagement with difficult issues, and making this an ever better community.

Martha Minow

While her letter is seemingly non-committal enough that those who support Stephanie and her supporters’ assertion that she was simply engaging in intellectual inquiry can focus on the beginning of the letter to find support and those who find the lack of intellectual depth and basic research allowing for such an assertion offensive can find it in the last part of the letter, we cannot forget that Minow is both Dean and being considered for a Supreme Court nod. Her job is to protect the school’s reputation and ultimately to protect her own aspirations. At the same time, those of us who are used to writing or reading these kinds of letters can see that Minow held a meeting with black students, condemns racial disparity, and is trying to shift an increasingly tense situation toward a learning opportunity.

Another key aspect of Minow’s letter, is her reference to Stephanie’s apology for her comments. Very few articles addressing this issue have mentioned Stephanie’s apology. On the one hand, her apology at least represents some acknowledgment that she was putting forward a line of thinking that is both racially biased and unsupportable. On the other, it has become all too common to issue an apology when one gets caught saying something racist and experiences a minimum of public sanction for it; most recently, John Mayer offered one and was back to his usual self/twitter adoration in less than two weeks. In Stephanie’s case, her apology was sent not to the students whom she addressed her initial comments (who we can assume somewhat agree with them) nor to the Law School at large but rather to the BLSA. Stephanie’s comments have negatively impacted the entire law school as people question what is going on at Harvard nor were her comments directed at any specific member or leader of the BLSA. Thus directing her apology to the black student association represents 1) the narrow idea that racism only impacts black people and 2) continues the personalization of this incident so as to erase both the other people involved and the milieu that allowed to occur in the first place. Worse, her focus on intent (assuming erroneously that one has to be aware of being racist in order to commit a racist act) and her own pain at the situation (ie continuing to cast herself as partial victim in an act she committed against others, b/c she too is in pain) continue the “good person” narrative that permeates similar public apologies with limited real paradigm shifts. As such, her apology smacks of a John Mayer more than a learning curve in which she has learned anything about race and racism:

I am deeply sorry for the pain caused by my email. I never intended to cause any harm, and I am heartbroken and devastated by the harm that has ensued. I would give anything to take it back.

I emphatically do not believe that African Americans are genetically inferior in any way. I understand why my words expressing even a doubt in that regard were and are offensive.

I would be grateful to have an opportunity to share my thoughts and to apologize to you in person.

Even beforehand, I want to extend an apology to you and to anyone else who has been hurt by my actions.

Equally telling, is that her apology denies that she has ever supported the idea that black people’s genetics make them less smart than white people even though that is exactly what is implied by the letter she initially sent. Or to be more precise, the language of her original letter implies that someone else at the table, who has emerged from this controversy unscathed in the pursuit of erasing large context and milieu, put forward the idea that black people were ignorant b/c of genetic inferiority; Stephanie then decided that she was willing and able to agree with the idea that black people were intellectually inferior after thinking it over. The sad thing is, at some point in the conversation that predated the email in question, Stephanie likely argued against a genetic argument hence why she felt she needed to clarify she was open to the idea later. Again, as this story is fleshed out, I think it would be wrong to forget that this conversation involved other people, had a larger context of racist discourse, and that the pressure to align with whiteness at Harvard was enough to encourage Stephanie to change her mind in writing and to believe that doing so would not lead to any social sanction should that email surface. While that pressure seems to have shifted as national level concern has been raised about Stephanie’s comments, we cannot forget that the internal pressures Stephanie felt were decidedly in a different direction. Nor is the national level concern and the Dean’s own statements about inclusively supported by the poll cited in this post which shows the majority of respondents overwhelmingly unconcerned about the racism of the comments Stephanie made or the conversation as a whole. Moreover, Stephanie and her pro-genetic argument colleagues involved in this conversation are not first year undergraduates with limited access to knowledge about diversity and/or basic research skills, they are third year graduate students in a Law School with considerable knowledge about how to do research.

As far as I know, despite the victim stance of Stephanie’s supporters, Stephanie retains her lucrative admission to Harvard and all of the intellectual, social and economic capital it represents and her clerkship with the 9th Circuit Court and access to all of the doors of power such a clerkship will ultimately open for her. Her fellow students, involved in the conversation against Affirmative Action, have escaped without critique or seemingly-socially-forced apology. While no one should question their right to stay in school based on their comments, I do think we have to question their internships as well as their overall contribution to the law. After all, their thoughts about black people’s intelligence, genetics, and right to higher education certainly raise concerns about what they will contribute to an already biased legal system. Their commitment to a genetics argument about racial intelligence, certainly casts doubts about why they have been given opportunities, like interning at the 9th Circuit, over other students with a wider breadth of knowledge and a deeper capacity for basic research.

The irony in this debacle is of course that were Stephanie and her friends reading a story about a black Harvard student who engaged in a line of questioning that could easily be addressed by looking at secondary data and reading around the subject, they would likely use it as proof that Affirmative Action, and not qualification, had gotten that student admission to Harvard. Given what we know about the largest group benefiting from Affirmative Action in the U.S., it’s hard not to throw Stephanie and her friends’ thinking right back at their feet.

2 thoughts on “What Are They Teaching Those Kids?

  1. Given her apparent racism, and victim stance, I appreciate the fact that Stephanie is honest about how she feels. Got to respect her for that. What I don’t respect is the backpedaling on her part. A major FAIL.

    • While I can’t respect her, I don’t agree with all the people up in arms about her personally. She is a symptom of a very long and drawn out disease.

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