Harvard Law Student Email and the Specter of Race

Email from Harvard Law Student Racist? Dave thinks notDoes an average black American have a greater chance of being a sickle cell anemia carrier than an average white American?

If I were to pose to you the above question, what would you think? Would you consider it a racist question, or merely a question of scientific import? I’d argue that you’ve got some strong scientific evidence suggesting yes, black Americans do have a greater chance of being sickle cell carriers (but as I was a history major, and am basing that off of a decently thorough Google search and what I remember from high school Biology, I’ll accept someone completely disagreeing with this and calling me a ninny).

How about this one:

Are black Americans better at basketball than white Americans?

Does that question make you a bit more uncomfortable? There’s some strong anecdotal evidence that the answer to this question is also yes, considering the high percentage of black Americans in the NBA, the highest level of basketball, in respect to the low percentage of black people in American society. And we all followed Mark “Mad Dog” Madsen’s career, so we at least have anecdotal evidence of the reverse.

So then let’s take a look at this question:

“Are black Americans genetically predisposed to be less intelligent than white Americans?”

This question was more or less posed by a Harvard law student in an email to a couple of her classmates about six months ago. She was responding to a lunch meeting where she apparently got in a heated discussion with her classmates regarding certain racial topics. You can check out the full text of the email here.

In the email, she says, “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.”

In reaction to this email, the entire world is apparently in uproar. Harvard has denounced the student. There are attempts being made to strip her of her federal clerkship. And apparently it is all due to some lovers’ quarrel.

Really, people?

My first reaction to the email is that it doesn’t even sound like she’s describing her position; if anything it sounds like she’s acknowledging another one of her classmates’ position. “I feel I misstated” followed by “I absolutely do not rule out the possibility” implies that she misstated her position by saying that she did rule out the possibility that black Americans are, on average, less intelligent and is now correcting that position in light of a classmate’s disagreement.

But that’s not really the point.

Even if the question sprang entirely from the recesses of her mind, is it a racist, morally reprehensible question?

I don’t think so, and here’s why:

There are questions that are demonstrably divisive, and probably racist. “Do black people have souls?” “Do white people matter?” “Are black people better than white people?”

What these questions all have in common is that there is no way to empirically prove these things to any reasonable standard. These questions are all attempting to raise a discussion that is based not in fact, but in emotion and feeling.

But the intelligence question? Intelligence can be demonstrated, as long as you agree on a scale for which to judge it (that scale can be counting change really fast, for all I care). Is it wrong to ask a question that probably has a real, factual answer?

I won’t get too deeply into it, but there is a sensitivity not only to racial discussions, but to the very nature of intelligence. For some reason, intelligence rather than athletic ability or manners or sexual attraction has gained some added importance in society to the point where merely suggesting a group of people may have a slightly diminished quotient on average is enough to cause the villagers to light their torches.

It’s all silly. If we can raise the idea that black Americans might be more athletic than white Americans, and we can raise the idea that black Americans are more likely to have sickle cell anemia than white Americans because of regional, homeland factors, then why can we not raise the idea that black Americans might be slightly less intelligent, on average, than white Americans because of possible genetic/regional homeland factors?

I realize that a large part of what we think of as intelligence is socio-economic, and it is not my intention to deny that component. But, according to most people who are much more familiar with the subject than I, there is a large genetic factor to intelligence, and that is what we are discussing here.

The question of whether or not black American are less intelligent than white Americans is not a question that implies inferiority. It’s not a question that implies really anything. It’s a question that may be answered yes, and that may be answered no. But it’s a question that can probably be proven, empirically, and the answer shouldn’t frighten people.

It is entirely understandable that we have gotten to a point in society where raising the specter of race causes hard feelings. The Civil War ended about 150 years ago, and still we haven’t gotten entirely out from under its shadow (hell, South Carolina still celebrates Confederate Memorial Day). Black people weren’t even given ostensibly equal rights until the 1960’s, and that is probably on par with actual slavery as one of the greatest travesties in American history.

All of that said, we shouldn’t be scared of having an educated conversation about differences between people. European people are generally of a lighter hue than Indian people. Chinese people are generally shorter than African people. Australian people are generally more badass than any other people, and most wild animals.

If we can acknowledge these obvious, empirically proven differences, than why can we not raise the question that there might be more subtle differences?

That’s all that was said in this email, and this HLS student shouldn’t be raked over the coals for having the intellectual temerity to speak frankly.

21 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Blueprint LSAT Prep, M. S. Supported. M. S. Supported said: Dave tackles the question of whether the Harvard Law Student's email was racist, and then discusses race in general. http://bit.ly/dckOrD […]

  2. Trisha says:

    Congratulations. I think you hit the trifecta of: 1) alienating readers, 2) misstating facts, and 3) conflating physical characteristics that can be linked with genetics with mutable characteristics.

    As to the part about black Americans being better at basketball than white Americans, the fact that there’s more blacks in the NBA speaks to the effects of culture just as much as it does genetics. Plus, black Americans are more likely to be mixed with other races/ethnic groups (most notably, Native American/Asian and white), so how does that reconcile with your idea that whiteness has got a negative correlation with basketball ability?

    Moreover, it’s not just a matter of genetics or socioeconomics, but rather, the role that socioeconomic status plays in determining environment, nutrition, etc. which then has a negative physical effect on individuals.

    Further, if you want Ms. Grace to be lauded for her temerity in speaking up, I think that it should be expected that people would object to her conclusions (particularly when they’re based on flawed science).

    In short, I think creating this blog post was a tremendous mistake on your part.

  3. Dave says:

    Trisha,

    My apologies if you feel I’ve alienated readers, but this is exactly what I’m trying to touch on in the post.

    First, what I raise are questions. The first two I generally answer as yes (the first being more or less scientifically proven, the second being anecdotally affirmed) and the last being the one posed by Ms. Grace.

    What everyone seems to fail to understand about her email is that she simply posed a question (or not even that: a possibility). I have no problem with people objecting to her conclusions, but people are objecting to the very fact that she posed a question. She, in fact, espoused a possibility and then sketched what would be the argument for that possibility, all the while acknowledging that there is an opposing viewpoint.

    And totally agreed on cultural/socioeconomic vs. genetic. I think it’s probably difficult to prove either way why there is such a prevalence of black people in the NBA as opposed to white people. But I’d at least be willing to entertain the possibility that there is a genetic component.

    The main point of my post is this: there are obvious differences between various groups of peoples (black/white, blonde/brunette, tall/short), and discussing possibilities of more subtle differences (genetic predispositions) that maybe are able to be empirically proven shouldn’t be immediate cause for public lambasting. Especially when the email was meant for private consumption, and not public ridicule.

    I hope this helps to clarify.

    -Dave

  4. Rachel says:

    My opinion of Blueprint just took a nosedive. :(

    The HLS student’s email was racist. Articulate, but still very racist.

    Intelligence is subjective. It’s not like eye color or height.

  5. JT says:

    Rachel,
    Can you be more specific about what you thought was racist about her email?
    Dictionary.com defines racist as:
    “a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others”.

    The latter part of the definition doesn’t apply and it’s not clear to me that the first is happening, either. Questioning whether an attribute attaches to a race does not amount to possessing that belief. Can we not pose even the question?

    It strikes me that there is a different between assertion and inquiry. Our Harvard girl is guilty of inquiry, but certainly not belief (at least from what we know in the email), and I wonder how much culpability, if any, attaches to inquiry.

  6. Rachel says:

    Ok, so asking if Blacks are genetically inferior to Whites is different from believing that Blacks are inferior to Whites?

    Wouldn’t asking if Blacks are Inferior to Whites imply the possibility that Blacks could be inferior to Whites, which would be, according to your definition, a racist inquiry?

    What is race anyway? This genetic predisposition stuff is crap. In a similar vein to Stephanie’s “scientific” arguments, the medical profession has had drugs like BiDil approved for heart conditions just for blacks. Wow, this is great! There are clinical trials! There is evidence!

    One problem, “Race” isn’t so Black and White. What happens if someone is half-Black? Does that mean they should get the BiDil perscription? Ask a Doctor about it they get pretty shaky on the mixed-race card. What about a quarter black? What about if they are half black but they look white? What about if they look black but the don’t speak ebonics, oh, they not “Black enough”? Similarly, are Hispanics white? Are they only white if they look white? Leave America, live somewhere like Brazil and you will quickly find that race as we define it in the US is an anomaly.

    I do feel like this email was blown out of proportion in the sense that it was a conversation that could have been between a small group people instead of blasting this girl on all of the BLSA listserves. That’s just dirty. Still the email was racist, which is why people are so pissed off.

  7. Amy says:

    …who knows what the truth is….it doesn’t matter whether i agree or not because you can’t test it but if i did, that should not make me a racist. I find that if she wrote asians were genetically more intelligent than whites or everyone, she wouldn’t receive this kind of reaction. You can hate what she said but it didn’t warrant such a huge blast.

  8. Me says:

    My thing:if the issue was race & intelligence why did it have to be entirely possible that african americans could be genetically predisposed to be less intelligent than white people and not the other way around?

  9. Dave says:

    Rachel,

    Thanks for the comments. In response to your first question, yes, that is exactly what I’m saying. Asking a question is almost always very different from stating an opinion.

    For your second question, I’m not sure raising a possibility of genetic differences applies to JT’s definition, but I may be reading it wrong.

    You’re dead right that race is not an absolute, and it was not my point to argue such. However, to argue that there is no such thing as race is silly (and that may not be your argument; that’s just my understanding of what you’re writing). Perhaps I should have been clearer in describing regional homeland differences. For example, with sickle cell anemia, it’s my understanding that it’s associated with many people in and around the Mediterranean area- not really associated with a skin color.

    However, I’m still not getting your final point. She posed a question, the subject of which (native intelligence) is thought to be at least possibly linked to genetics. Since different groups of people have demonstrable genetic differences (hair color, eye color, height, build, etc.), then it strikes me as a question that shouldn’t receive such a vitriolic, and personal, response.

    And I’m not talking test scores when I say intelligence. When I say “intelligence” I mean raw analytical ability, problem solving, maybe even spatial reasoning. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that there are differences between people. I’d be willing to entertain the idea that white people are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent than black people, and I’d be willing to entertain the idea that the reverse is true. I’d be willing to entertain the idea that both have equal average levels of intelligence.

    There’s room in life for difficult questions.

    -Dave

  10. Dave says:

    Amy,

    It may or may not be provable, but simply posing a possibly provable question shouldn’t be considered racist.

    And agreed on the original email author. She has inherited a veritable shitstorm, and it seems almost wholly undeserved.

    Me,

    I don’t think it had to be, but I don’t know what the email author, and her friends, were discussing. I’d certainly acknowledge that the possibility that black Americans are genetically predisposed to be MORE intelligent than white Americans is just as open as the possibility that black Americans are genetically LESS intelligent than white Americans.

    -Dave

  11. Shaw Davari says:

    Dave,

    1st. I thought you handled the sensitive topic with ultra careful gloves. Wasn’t offended and I usually have a problem with whitey talking about issues they know very little about. So props to you… (btw, you were gonna piss someone off, no matter what your position on the topic.)

    2nd Click the link. Hit play. I think that all test takers should listen to the link in general. Take from it what you will, but I definitely understood that feeling comfortable is key… the less “mind chatter, the better.” (you’ll get it in once you listen to the episode)

    Depending on your definition of intelligence, and how you view biology/genetics vs nurture, there is an argument to be made that african americans are at least at a disadvantage when it comes to taking standardized tests.

    Either way the link below is a fantastic episode of a GREAT radio show that at the very least is interesting, and at the most: enlightening.

    http://blogs.wnyc.org/radiolab/2009/01/27/the-obama-effect-perhaps/

  12. A Black Person's Perspective says:

    Quite frankly, this blog post is disturbing and ignamorous. Intelligence boils down to preparation, prior preparation prevents piss poor performance. Which is somewhat Blueprint’s motto for attacking the LSAT, wouldn’t you say? Intelligence, defined by dictionary.com as, the “capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity; aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts, meanings, etc.” All people are born with the aptitude to exercise “Intelligence”, and yes, there will be some who perhaps will have a genetic advantage over others in this regard. I.E. Eidetic Memory, Absolute Pitch etc. It is a fact that those who have access to institutions to which adequately prepare for post secondary education will perform better than those without. For the most part those who are ill prepared are minorities (black and hispanic), why is that, because blacks and hispanics are in the majority in impoverished neighborhoods, and most impoverished school systems are inferior in preparation for tertiary education compared to their non impoverished counterparts, where whites are in the majority. Anyone of any race can posses these genetic advantages I spoke of earlier, whether one’s racial make up is white, black, indian, asian, spanish etc. But we’re not discussing, from what is known, which race has more edietic memory persons than others. What we’re speaking of is, could it be reasonable to ask the question are whites superior intellectually over blacks? This question is inherently unanswerable and thus, any answer would be inherently flawed. For example, if Blueprint were to breakdown the racial makeup of those taking the coarse and those who have taken the coarse multiple times, it wouldn’t be abstruse to postulate that the majority of those taking the coarse for the first time are in fact white. And the majority who have taken this coarse multiple times are in fact white. This is due to awareness, access, finance and motivation. There is a person in my class who has taken two testmaster coarses and is now taking blueprint for the second time. We’re talking roughly around 4 grand on LSAT preparation. And this individual will probably score well on the lsat if we were to base that assumption on this persons high diagnostic scores. Why will he most likely score well we ask? Some outlandish people, perhaps the writer of this absurd blog post might think its because this person is genetically superior, because this person is white. Wrong! Let me answer that for you, this person is prepared. How did this person prepare his or herself? This person had the fiscal means to do so. Additionally, this person was raised in a household with parents who support him mentally, physically and emotionally, and instilled this person with the virtue of perseverance. Perhaps most minorities do not even know blueprint or testmasters in fact exist, and thus, default to inferior coarses. It wasn’t until I spoke with my buppie friends did I find out, “you’re and idiot to even entertain the thought of taking Princeton or Kaplan for lsat preparation”. And I am black so I do speak for those who are not in the “know”. Finances, priorities, and household stability, essentially, a fruitful envirojment is what allows someone the opportunity to excersise “inteligence” to their best ability, not race.

  13. Steven says:

    Dave, I wholeheartedly agreed with every aspect of your post and I felt that you literally read my heart and mind. I truly do not believe it to be racist to question the possibility of scientific fact or truth, and as you mentioned in this post, absolutely under any circumstances should this imply inferiority in any way. In a way, I feel like people who cry racism in this whole situation is akin to a religion vs science debate, since really the only reason why people should light up torches to this issue is because they don’t seem to entertain the idea that there can be certain truths that are proven through scientific data and reason. Just because this Harvard 3L was brave enough to voice her opinion in a way that she thinks it’s possible that black people are genetically not as intelligent as white people shouldn’t mean you should just categorize it as outright racism. Offensive to some, most definitely, but this is honestly a situation that is just really blown out of proportion in my honest opinion.

    Please, the ability to ascertain the real boundaries and limits of a touchy subject such as racism will gain more respect than constantly treading over your authority.

  14. Steven says:

    A Black Person’s Perspective,

    I think you bring up a great point but respectfully, at the same time, I can’t help but notice the blurring of the lines between the issue of racial superiority/inferiority and absolute genetically determined intellect.

    If it so happens that intellect isn’t conclusively determined by genetics, then I stand corrected and your post points out great reasons as to why certain races are portrayed as being not as intelligent because it truly depends a great deal on socioeconomic status and the like. I don’t think anyone here is denying what you’re saying. I think it’s true that Asians can grow up in impoverished neighborhoods and turn out to be that Asian that makes people wonder what happened that makes him/her not ivy league bound or great at Math, or some other wholly generalized stereotype bound to the Asian race. So with that evidence, you may conclude that the basis of intellect is nurture over nature.

    I just don’t get why it has to be racist to suggest the mere possibility of genetical dispositions between races. Like Dave mentioned in this post, I don’t think not nearly as many people would find it offensive to suggest the tendency of sickle cell anemia among certain races than it is to suggest the tendency of intellect among certain races.

    It’s possible that the email could have been worded more sensitively so as to not hypothesize the 3L’s views so concretely, persay, but if you read with an open mind, she’s really only suggesting something that hasn’t been scientifically proven yet, and thus nobody truly knows what is possible.

  15. JK says:

    Ok, I think the majority of readers are missing the point. Whether you agree or disagree with what was said in the blog post or what the student at Harvard stated, they have every right to state it nevertheless.

    As alexis de tocqueville believed, and as it has been affirmed in our legal system, we have the right to free speech. We can state what we believe and in the end let it lead to a heated debate with the best possible and most rationale outcome prevailing. We are, in fact, a libratory of democracy people not a theocracy. So whatever this young women may believe, or the blogger in the post…they have every right to say it and pose that question. This leads to views being aired out and argued…taking away someone’s clerkship or denouncing them instead of engaging in discussion with them is wrong.

  16. A Black Person's Perspective says:

    Steven,

    It can be alluded to as racist because, this question is unanswerable, based upon as u said socioeconomic status etc. Informed people such as the 3L HLS should know this, and claiming ignorance will not suffice. Additionally, its not the first time inteligencia has entertained this thought, which creates a pattern. Check out this 84′ Times article regarding Dr. Shockley who by many is considered racist for his assertions. http://www.nytimes.com/1984/09/06/us/trial-may-focus-on-race-genetics.html?sec=health

  17. Steven says:

    Thank you for the informative article. I myself am not particularly sympathetic to Dr. Shockley’s eugenic beliefs and his proposals based on the implications from the results of his own research. I would also agree that this fellow would probably be classified as borderline (if not outright) racist because of what he wants to have happened to specific “inferior” races. Not knowing him or his research very well, I don’t know how comprehensive his findings were or whether we can categorize his findings as being objective but yea, I’d agree this guy took it over the line.

    Maybe I just don’t know about boundaries of scientific research, but I truly wonder whether we are unable to scientifically prove this type of issue. Whether it should be done or not is a whole different debate in itself, I guess.

  18. D Lip says:

    Two points:

    1. Taking all the circumstances into consideration, I really don’t think this Harvard 3L meant “race” when she wrote “race.” As we all (should) know, race is a social construct. It means nothing. And I’m betting she knows this. Additionally, she really could not have meant to mean “race,” given the points made above by A Black Person’s Perspective and Rachel. She likely understood all those points. As a consequence, race is really irrelevant to the conversation the HLS 3L wanted to consider.

    What is relevant? Something Dave mentioned: “regional, homeland factors,” better read as “communities.” Race really has no determination of your genetics. What does is mating patterns within communities that leads to sexual reproduction.

    I don’t think it is unreasonable to assert that reproduction tends to happen within reasonably well-defined, regional communities. What does that mean? That means that certain genes can become more common within a group if the group is likely to have been reproducing within itself for some time.

    What does that mean? That means certain groups that reproduce (1) within themselves, and (2) for a long period of time will tend to assimilate a similar set of genes over a significant stretch of time. Thus, you have what is going on with sickle cell anemia. That condition is not linked to blackness in any way, shape, or form. What it is linked to is heritage, back to Africa, where sickle cell anemia was a positive trait, beneficial in fending off malaria.

    So why the confusion? Well, black people come from Africa, so your average American thinks that the chain back to Africa for all black people is unbroken. Thus, they connect what is really a community that has reproduced within itself for some time, preserving the prominence with the trait, with “race,” which really plays no role in defining any characteristics.

    Finally, what does THAT mean? It means communities, when reproducing within itself, will tend to assimilate similar genes into future generations. Meaning that, if black communities have tended to reproduce within themselves all the way back to Africa, many in that community will bring along whatever traits were present back then.

    That’s why this Harvard girl didn’t mean “race” when she said “race.”

    2. Understand that we are discussing communities and genes that survive into future generations when communities tend to reproduce within themselves, the questions becomes, what genes are we discussing?

    This is where the conversation really becomes pointless without peer-reviewed, well-established research that can point to particular genes that have particular effects, and whether or not those genes are prominent within particular communities.

    Let’s consider an example. We all (should) know that the original man lived in Africa and spread out into the far reaches of our planet. Let’s say we understand that all men started with Gene A, which allows your synapses to fire at a particular rate without error. Let’s also say that all men are black, defined by Gene C.

    Then, several hundreds of thousands of years later, one person, who is a member of the now-established “European” group of people developed a mutation. The mutation affected Gene A, to the point where now, rather than his synapses firing at the normal rate, his synapses can fire at twice that speed. Gene A has become Gene B. At the same time, another individual mutates a gene that changes his skin color. It makes him white. Gene C has become Gene D. Other sections of the planet do not develop either of these mutations, nor any similar mutations.

    Several hundreds of thousands of years pass, and Genes A and C have continued to propagate throughout the rest of the world, while from those two men, Genes B and D have propagated throughout the “European” population, to the point where, due to reproduction within the community has been consistent and Genes B and D have been selected for by natural selection.

    At that point, aliens come to obtain a sampling of people from across the planet. They take five people – one “European,” with Genes B and D, and four others from the rest of the planet with Genes A and C. On the spaceship, the aliens administer equal tests of some sort to all the participants. The “European” performs better on the tests than the others as a result of Gene B’s effects.

    Now, at this point, is there anything controversial about asserting that genetics has played a role in defining who has more “intelligence”? No, and we really shouldn’t. We see a particular gene that defines a particular brain operation within one community that accords a greater ability to complete a given test. There is nothing controversial about that. For that particular activity, the “European” can better complete it due to genes.

    At this point, is there anything controversial about asserting that race has played a role in defining performance on the alien test? Yes because race was not a determining factor. The only determining factor was community, which all happened to be of the same skin color.

    So, why did I make up this whole example? To show that genetics can define “intelligence” by a particular manner, and that race has no bearing on that “intelligence.” But also to show that it is entirely possible that (1) there is a particular gene that exists (2) within particular communities that have reproduced within themselves over an extended time to the point where they are selected for and common within those communities (3) which allow members of that community with those particular genes to perform particular tasks better than others.

    Now, faithful reader, I know your final question: what does this all mean? It means that, in the United States, black people from black communities that have reproduced consistently within themselves since being forcibly removed from Africa may have a particular gene that makes them less able to complete tasks that whites from communities that have reproduced consistently within themselves since coming from Europe are able to complete. Unless I am misunderstanding my example or completely mischaracterizing natural selection, this is beyond dispute. It is entirely possible that, within his or her community, a particular person with particular traits can do something particular better than someone else from a different group due to a genetic distinction. This is especially true when you consider that all testing in the United States descends from European models of aptitude testing, which Europeans will likely be better able to complete satisfactorily that individuals from other groups who may be within a particular genetic mutation that makes Europeans good at those tests.

    Thus, I’d like to reinforce the larger point here: without scientific evidence of a gene such as this that can be linked to a particular trait that lends a particular ability to complete a particular task (or sort of task), and without a showing that one group carried that gene and one does not, and without a showing that the particular task at issue defines “intelligence,” we can never answer this question. Further, given the pervasive impact of culture and organizational power (in the form of government and white dominance in America), it much more likely that nurture has a far more significant impact than nature on “intelligence” among particular reproductive groups.

    The moral of the story: race is irrelevant, but community and heritage is not. But it might be of negligible significance in reference of “intelligence,” as Europeans have defined it in American culture.

  19. D Lip says:

    I suppose I win for having the last word?

  20. John says:

    There is nothing racist about asking whether black people are less intelligent than whites.

    Period.

  21. jk says:

    John: read black like me….

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