Harvard Law Scandal Challenges Our Definitions of “Racism”

29 04 2010

Harvard Law School

It’s tabloid week here at District Ramblings, so today I’m featuring a scandal from a different kind of gossip mag– namely, Above the Law: News, Gossip and Colorful Commentary on Law Firms and the Legal Profession. In other words, Perez Hilton for dweebs (I say that lovingly, law student boyfriend).

According to the gossip site, yesterday, a 3L student at Harvard Law who is on law review and has a federal clerkship for next year (superbadass) wrote the following statement in an email to a group of people with whom he had just enjoyed a spirited debate at dinner:

“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.”

GASP! This e-mail was somehow leaked to the rest of the law community, where it obviously caused quite a stir and was eventually picked up by the juiciest of juicy legal tabloid mags (I’m increasingly amused by this whole ‘legal tabloid’ concept, in case you can’t tell).

According to the article, the Harvard Black Law Students Association (HBLSA) has refused to take a public stance on the issue, preferring to distance itself from the controversy.  Some are calling the e-mail racist and saying that HBLSA is copping out by not responding, and others are saying the e-mail wasn’t racist at all.  The article’s author writes:

Let me play devil’s advocate for a second…. If we accept “race” as a biological concept — which I realize is questionable, becoming diluted through intermarriage, etc. — is it really so insane to suggest that some races might, ON AVERAGE, possess certain qualities to a greater or lesser degree than other races?

For example, would it be racist to say that, ON AVERAGE, African-Americans are taller than Asian-Americans? Or that Caucasians are more likely to have blond hair than Asian-Americans? Or is the issue that we don’t think intelligence is at all tied to genetics?

I am just asking questions here. I’m not taking a position. I’m just, as Elie likes to say, “exploring the studio space.”

Second, in an academic environment, it’s not helpful to respond to ideas — even bad ones — by throwing around “-ist” labels: e.g., racist, sexist, Fascist. Instead of calling your opponents names, like “racist” or “sexist” or “homophobe,” you should respond to arguments you don’t like with better arguments, accompanied by evidence.

Rational debate. Isn’t that what free speech and academic discourse — and, incidentally, the practice of law — are all about?

Now, I think the author does have a point– I think we should be very careful about removing certain arguments or points of view from the entire realm of what can be up for debate.  At the same time, I do believe what the Harvard student wrote can be construed as racist in the sense that she suggests the possibility that African-Americans are biologically less intelligent than white people, when she could have said something that didn’t imply a specific inferiority, such as, “I do not rule out the possibility that one race could be genetically predisposed to be more or less intelligent than another.”  I still think that comment would be 100% wrong, but at least it would come off as far less “racist” than asserting the possibility that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites, which was one of the main justifications of slavery and the Jim Crow laws.

What I don’t understand is how this became so newsworthy.  Harvard Law Students are no more exempt from racism than anyone else, so why is the world is shocked when one of them reveals (in what was supposed to be a private e-mail) her less than politically correct thoughts about a particular subject?  Racism is rampant in the Ivy Leagues, just as it is rampant all over the country.  But if a tabloid mag got ahold of some Southern redneck’s e-mail saying the same thing, nobody would be surprised in the least.  This, to me, is just another example of Harvard students thinking their shit doesn’t stink and then being shocked when it actually does.

Personally, I am amused by the whole situation, and I am interested to see whether anything happens to that guy’s fancy federal clerkship.

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24 responses

29 04 2010
geof

1)He shouldn’t use the term race at all. It’s not productive politically because it stirs up a shit storm. It’s useless scientifically because race is such an ill-defined category. Ethnicity is a little better, but there a hundreds of these around the world, if not thousands if we map them by the language their grandparents spoke (over 6000 around the world). Not to mention our less than perfect ability to measure intelligence or even define metrics for doing so.

2) To answer your question: Because Americans like to see that the elites are just like the “rest of us”. To continue with your metaphor, Americans like to smell each others’ shit. Eww. Moreover, most people are don’t like to think for more than 3 seconds before they form an unwavering opinion. Sure, swatches galore will take up a whole weekend, or two hours of shopping online for the best deal on fly fishing supplies. But questions regarding deeply held (but shallowly considered) beliefs? In an infotainment era, I think any news items that elicits a strong reaction is deemed newsworthy.

29 04 2010
districtramblings

Yea, I think you’re completely right– race is a very troubling term, and intelligence is very difficult to measure.

At the same time, the point is whether this guy should be allowed to have this point of view in a debate if he wants without people screaming “racism,” because telling this guy he can’t have an intellectual debate about the issue at all would equate to censorship. To him, race is a definable category, and to him, certain biological categories go along with it. The fact that he’s wrong is sort of irrelevant to the fact of whether he should be allowed to bring this issue up without being crucified.

29 04 2010
bros

how convenient that the only race singled out for this hypothetical lofty chat (“I say old boy good day!) is african americans. no one would say this about asians. or arabs. (or to take geof’s point, any of the 6000 other ethicities). this is a mental musing that is only possible because of sociohistorical context and the effects of this generation after generation as racism never really dies, but shape-shifts.

His email is just dumb good old boy racist shit wrapped up in a pretty package of ‘devil’s advocate’ mental meanderings ostensibly confined to the realms of rhetoric and experimental thought processes and exercises in logic and argumentation. blech. who says this anymore. that email is straight up from 1835, and people whose thoughts are left over from 1835 shouldnt have access to email.

29 04 2010
BS

I’d like to see some studies to prove caucasians are as intelligent as african americans.

In all seriousness, if I wrote an email saying that we should study what about the caucasian race makes them more susceptible to racism, economic oppression, cultural oppression, war, mass destruction, you’d call me an idiot. And so is this guy.

The fact that this dinner party of his argued this so extensively that he left it feeling the need to expand on his thoughts in a post dinner email to the rest of his sailing team douche bag buddies says a lot. If he would have tried that shit at one of my dinner parties, he would have been put down like a dog.

29 04 2010
bros

hahha. I know. like, clearly, he had left over thoughts on this. i love that its all casual. like “just as a follow up…” …no! you don’t get to have follow up emails to your KKK dinner parties! the lack of any shame or caveats or preemptive apologia or anything-he just launches right back into whatever highminded conversation he thought they were having. the casualness and prosaic tone are possibly the most disturbing thing.

29 04 2010
geof

I think we are in agreement, DR. The published quotes were taken from what appears to have been intended as a private conversation. CRIMSON DNA is getting raked over the coals for not being blue-state PC (as opposed to PC for a red state crowd). I generally shy away from the red/blue schema, but when it comes to political correctness, it is ideally shallow. BTW, I read the original article and email which shows CRIMSON DNA to have a nuanced understanding of the issue.

29 04 2010
OKinAK

This gets back to the same old question of what anyone means by “intelligence”. I hate to keep dragging up the “real well educated but dumber than shit” thing but as I’m sure everyone on this blog recognizes, if you were to take one of these assholes out into the woods, they would freeze to death the first night. Intelligent about what?

I guess it’s true that racism will never go away unless we keep fucking until we’re all the same color. But that still won’t prevent regional prejudices. People aren’t happy unless they have someone else to be disgusted with.

30 04 2010
BS

This is an important point which is why the racist musings of the mister top 1% are not just harmless exploration. His argument goes kind of like this:

1. I agree that standardized tests and IQ scores are unfair and imbalanced, there are a lot of environmental factors that are important.
2. BUT we can’t deny that there exists a difference between these indicators between the races.
3. We should explore this more thoroughly and not be afraid to breach the subject.

He completely passes over #1, admits its faults, and then uses it for his in depth scientific analysis.

Science has such a limited understanding of the human brain and how it functions that to think that we’ve already invented written tests that can measure it is so f***ing naive it hurts my head.

Also, this is not the first time that Harvard has had these issues. Lawrence Summers, Obama’s chief economic advisor, had a similar controversy as President of Harvard. When he was receiving criticism of why 88 percent of newly tenured faculty have been men, he had his famous difference of the sexes speech where he said that the reason was because women could not reach higher aptitudes than women.

Which leads me to another somewhat related point. Don’t confuse someone that is smart with someone that is right. “Smart” is just a fast computer, and like any fast computer, it can be used to spout out bullshit much faster than average.

Like old boy Summers.

29 04 2010
leverman

It has long been my belief based upon observation and commom sense that there are differences among races (or ethnicities if that is a more correct or more politically correct way to say it).

Japanese men tend to be short. Their eyes appear slanted. Indians (the ones from Asia) have this wonderfully dark, creamy complexions. Africans can be very tall (Sudanese) or very short (pygmies). Norwegian women are very blonde (which doen not in and of itself explain their relative hotness). Mediterranean folk, typically Sicilians, are tagged swarthy for some reason (kind of like left handed pitchers get called crafty). Eskimos have kind of round faces. And so forth and so on.

These are clear genetic differences that are readibly observable. It would be stupid to pretend they do not exist. I think it is equally dumb to pretend there are not other differences among races. Indeed there is nothing wrong with being different. The problem is rather with the ego which if left unchecked equates being different with being better or more entitled, that is, the notion that because one is smarter, taller, can run faster or has blue eyes that they are better than someone else.

Take physical differences. Some announcers have lost their jobs by implying black athletes are genetically more gifted than white athletes on average. Some blacks, and not very many I do not think, think such comments are a slight and infer that the successes black athletes have do not come from hard work.

Seriously, does anyone not agree that black athletes are more naturally gifted than white athletes? I am just talking about observation and common sense. I loved playing basketball growing up. I would shoot and dribble for hours. I played on a CYO team of all white guys. The difference in atheticism when we played a black team was comical. White guys can not jump. I cant. My kids cant. Their kids probably wont be able to jump either.

There are also likely differences in intelligence among the races. This is not to say whites are on average smarter than blacks. Whites do score better on average (I assume) on standardized tests. There are, however, many environmental factors that could account for that. I do not know the answer.

I do believe that proposing such a hypothesis is not in and of itself a racist act, no more racist than saying Chinese people tend to be short on average.

Common sense and observation tells me intelligence is genetic and inherited. Friends of mine who are very smart tend to have very smart children. It does not offend me in the least, for instan, if someone were to suggest certain Asian cultures possess more natural intelligence than the average caucasion. They might. Asians sure seem to dominate in some western schools.

In my simple mind (I know little about the science of genetics) different races haveferent genetic codes that determine what color we are, what shape we are, how big we get and how much natural intelligence we have. I that really that controversial?

What is most important is that races not use differences to make people separate. That is what the ego wants, it wants us to feel superior. Being smarter or jumping higher doesnt make anyone worth more. No matter how smart you are, there is always someone smarter anyway.

The problem is that when people talk about differences among races, some clearly do so in a racist manner. If I were to mimic a Japanese man pronounce “Lucy” as “Rucy”, is that being racist or just poking friendly fun about the way Japanese struggle with L’s? Its complicated? If everyone could just lighten up and not take themselves so seriously.

29 04 2010
OKinAK

I am white, and when I was in my early 20’s I had a 34 inch vertical. I could touch 11′-4″. But every black guy my height could reach about 6 inches higher than me standing flat footed. I learned that generally speaking, black people had a longer wingspan than me but they weren’t necessarily out leaping me. But I get your point. Do asians score better on math tests because they are smarter than everyone else or because of cultural reasons? Maybe the same cultural reasons that allow them to excell at classical music but not so much as jazz improvisors?

I think intelligence depends on who is measuring what and for what reason. If you are saying that intelligence is inherited, are you discounting the fact that intelligent people are raising the kids. All of the research shows that reading to kids from the earliest age gives them better cognative skills as they get older.

Even if there was research that showed that taking a baby from parents who had poor cognative skills according to the standardized test methods and let smart people raise him, you would not have necessarily proved anything if the baby turned out to have good cognative skills. Because the question would still remain, smart according to what? I know a dumb ass when I see one, but I have never run into a dumb ass who didn’t have something he knew more about than I did. And that’s the real point. If a culture is surviving on the earth it has already passed the most rudimentary intelligence test. The survival of the fittest test.

30 04 2010
bros

the lucy/rucy thing isnt genetics. it’s linguistics. completely different and has nothing to do with biology.

the problem is that no one is questioning the possibility of whites being less intelligent or more prone to violent behavior or etc, as BS rightly pointed out. The very fact that they felt entitled to muse on the topic of the possibility of intelligence differences among races, and automatically put the african american race in the slot of “maybe being genetically stupider” is not an accident. it isnt random. it happens directly because of attitudes towards african americans. this is likely the same conversation that happens all over the world where certain groups in power who have a history of oppresing other races have conversations questioning whether their hatred or distain of other racial/ethnic groups is justified and use either fancy rhetoric or fancy science (uneducated in the field as they may be). I can see this conversation happening among a Han Chinese dinner party questioning the relative genetic intelligence of the Uighurs or the Hutus musing about the mental capacities of the Tutsis. or indeed, the Germans questioning the genetic inferiority of the jews (and they did do this and had “science” to back them up) as they sat around pondering which cans of poisonous gas would dispose of them most efficiently.

There is no such thing as this conversation being innocent or innocuous because it is confined to the realm of polite dinner conversation (albeit the conversation of garden variety racists). The minute this conversation becomes acceptible is the minute we better all start worrying, because this is nothing more than 21st century eugenics, and it has implications for everyone.

30 04 2010
BS

As Bros pointed out, these hypothesis are almost always used by the dominant majority to justify/explain/validate their oppression of minorities. This is not unique to the United States, or the last 50 years.

In the case of male/female college admission rates, as social norms were broken in the 20th century and women’s liberation movements took hold, the percentage of female college students slowly eclipsed men. However, this did not translate to the upper levels of academia as those barriers are much harder to break down. So to explain this away and not confront the realization that Summer’s world is dominated by white, caucasian, males, he pulled various studies that showed that women score higher on average than men on standardized tests, but that they exist less at the extremes , i.e. less really dumb, and really smart women. How super convenient for him. Helps justify why women make less than men as well.

50 years earlier, he would be citing different studies justifying different levels of inequality and oppression.

29 04 2010
Hagana

I agree with just about everything leverman said. But to make a different point…

I think the reason everyone finds the offending email so distasteful is the closing sentence that implies that African Americans are genetically fated to be less intelligent. But let’s do a thought experiment for a second.

Take two genetically identical groups of 1000 people and put them on the same piece of land. With Group A, give them freedom, opportunity, and the best possible education along with the opportunity to choose their own mates and nurture their own children with love and support. With Group B, enslave them to Group A to a life of manual labor, deny them the basic rights of human beings, deny them all education and persecute the ones who self-learn how to read and write, destroy family bonds and allocate them as you would chattel, and on top of that systematically kill off the most “intelligent” dangerous ones so that it’s easier to keep them under control.

How do you think those two groups are going to look when you compare them to each other?

I don’t mean to defend what Harvard 3L wrote in his email, but I do want to say that the worst thing we can do is be so overly sensitive about our ego for innate ability that we refuse to entertain an honest dialogue about how we got to be where we are. The only way to move forward is to openly admit our past mistakes, be brutally honest about our current circumstances, and start treating each other as people of equal worth regardless of our differences.

30 04 2010
BS

that’s not what’s being argued by harvard sailing team guy. He’s not saying that generations of continued oppression (yes , continued) of african americans in the US is the cause of continued inequality. He is saying that genetically speaking that african americans are less intelligent (whatever that means) than whites.

My question is, given that until about 30 years ago in the united states, there was de jure discrimination and de facto discrimination continues today, what basis does he have to objectively analyze mental capacity based on race?

But I agree about brutal honesty. But let’s make sure that we are shining the mirror back at the top of the ladder?

30 04 2010
districtramblings

FYI, it has since come out that the person who wrote that email was a woman. Her name is Stephanie.

30 04 2010
Jme

For clarification’s sake – There is a huge difference between the geneotype of an individual organism and genetic diversity in a given population. The genotype (complete genetic code of an individual organism) controls for the phenotype (the physical manifestation of the genes expressed in that genetic code) of that same organism.

Now then – the genetic diversity of a population (in biological terms, a population is a group of individuals which mate with one another – it is easy to see how populations of humans are difficult to isolate given our capability to travel around and mate with anyone, but there are certainly “populations” of humans. Gene-transfer is very uncommon in small, remote native villages, for example.) is the total number of alleles (single version of a single gene) of all of the genes in that population.

That is a little bit confusing. Forgive me for I have a head cold. My point is this: Thinking that black athletes are genetically prone to have superior abilities (or any other race possessing superior or inferior anything is the wrong way of thinking about this. This would suggest that selective pressures have forced black people to evolve in a direction in which jumping high is favored. Can anyone think of why that would ever happen to a human population? Jumping to reach really high fruit? NO. It is a ludicrous idea. Stupid. The reason that black athletes tend to have superior abilities is because of a significant difference in genetic diversity. A recent study concluded that a single Kenyan village contained more genetic diversity than all of Europe. For those of you that know anything about statistics, think about this visualized on a Bell-curve. One standard deviation from the mean in an Kenyan village could be a difference of 10 inches in vertical leap. One standard deviation for the UK may be a difference of 1 inch. The extremes are much more extreme, so to speak.

Now translate this idea to intelligence. What we think of as intelligence, just like everything else, is a product of an individual’s genotype. Things as complicated as intelligence are not controlled by a single gene, or even a single genetic pathway, but rather 100’s of pathways containing 1000s or tens of 1000s of genes. Just like with athletic ability, the total genetic diversity of a population will determine the Bell-curve. So unless selective pressures have resulted in a less intelligent population, which is completely impossible, or a more intelligent population (in the case of white people as dumbass mcsailor-douche is arguing) then it is simply a product of genetic diversity, just like everything else.

That guy blows. I would like to hit him in the balls and then ask him what he thinks about it. Maybe discuss it over cocktails and caviar while we choke ourselves with our belts while masturbating and contemplating the domination of the white-man.

30 04 2010
bros

It was a woman who said it. so you might have to think about another kind of genital slap.

what accounts for the excess in genetic diversity in some regions compared to others?

30 04 2010
BS

Muchos Gracias for that. If you were at that dinner party, ms harvard law school would have left the night quite humbled (and hopefully crying). But at least she wouldn’t have sent such a stupid and career crippling email and would have have plenty time to sail and engage in her caviar lubricated autoerotic asphyxiated racist fantasies.

30 04 2010
Jme

There are all kinds of genital slaps.

In the case of humans, artificial selection accounts for the genetic diversity of a single population. Natural selection no longer applies to humans. In order for natural selection to take place, three conditions must exist:

1) A replicaple set of information or data which comprises a code (DNA – this one we have)
2) Random mutations in that code (this, we also have)
3) More offspring must be produced in a population than that population can support, leaving only those with superior fitness – products of mutations in the code – to survive and reproduce (this no longer applies to humans as a species)

So, because natural selection, I would argue, no longer applies to human’s, the genetic diversity of a population is a product of artificial selection. I don’t really know what exactly the traits that were favored for European’s were, but it isn’t too difficult to imagine what they could be. The point is that, over time, inbreeding and only mating with those that posses some trait that has been considered favorable shrinks the total gene pool. Unfortunately, it was mostly inbreeding. Gross.

30 04 2010
EdwardDandyHands

This was quite entertaining to read. Thank you to all. Stephanie is such a nice name for an uppity B-word… shame.

22 05 2010
Science, Skepticism and Race | Infinite Injury

[…] mature objective scientists types are from the people who try and link race and ability. The recent debate over a racist sounding (without context) personal email by a Harvard law student has triggered […]

22 05 2010
The Disgusting Harvard ‘Racist’ Email Controversy | Infinite Injury

[…] is just too obvious and absurd to respond with evidence rather than outrage something is fishy. Now some of the accusations of racism are expected but even the moderate and sympathetic articles seem to […]

30 05 2011
Seashell

I’m pretty sure that’s the Biltmore and not Harvard.

13 07 2011
Ra

I stumbled across your site by accident, how it happened it doesn’t mater. My wife was a 1L at Harvard Law when this event unfolded. It is very sad that some people believe that one race is better than another, since to date there is no proof to demonstrate this or at least courses, covering the fields from biology to anthropology, that I’ve taken through Harvard College would have me believe that no data exists in science that actually proves one race’s superiority to another. What the student said is sad and the comments now that they are public have hurt the individuals chances at employment or at least from what Ive heard most of the law firms that were knocking on the door of the author have since run away.

Also the image you have is not of Harvard Law or any other Harvard school (Harvard Kennedy school or Harvard Extension school, ect) , granted Harvard has a lot of money but not enough to destroy the rest of the city of Cambridge that is around the campus and replace it with rolling hills. It’s not hard to get a picture of Havard …just google “Harvard Law” and 99% of the pictures will of Harvard Law School.

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