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.