Friday, April 30, 2010

When Smart People Say Stupid Things: Stephanie Grace, Harvard Law School, and Why Black People are Genetically Inferior

I will leave this one for you all to discuss.

Apparently, insert gasp and shock, some relatively smart folk (Question: Is being book smart the same as being intelligent?) think that black people are genetically inferior to white people. And guess what? Said person--Miss Stephanie Grace--is at Harvard Law and they communicate said message via a mass email. Like a rock in a pond there are now so many ripples. The Dean gets involved, apologies are issued for hurt feelings, and an obligatory "conversation" about race must ensue.

Maybe I just have tough skin, but when I see these types of stories I do have to shake my head and leave my racism chasing shoes in the closet. Why? Primarily because I am always astounded by how Americans believe themselves to be experts on race by virtue of it being our national obsession. Second, I love it when ostensibly smart people say stupid things and operate outside of their area of expertise. Miss Grace may have conducted some preliminary research on racial attitudes among college students, but that does not make her an expert on biology, genetics, or the science of race--to the degree it is science--more generally. Likewise, I may know a whole lot about one little slice of Black cultural politics, but that does not make me an expert on 18th century slave systems in the Chesapeake Bay area.

First question: When did black folk get so weak and thin skinned? Why doesn't the Harvard Black Law Students Association (assuming they have not) offer up a proper response? One grounded in the decades of research that refutes Miss Grace's assertion? Moreover, that IQ tests themselves do not measure "intelligence" per se, and that Miss Grace was operating from a set of fallacy laden assumptions. To paraphrase one of my favorite bloggers, by pursuing the hurt feelings angle "this is how we lost to the White people."

Second question: What of freedom of speech? Being provocative, isn't the freedom to say what one will, also a license to be stupid? Finally, I am not a fan of apologies. Sometimes folks should stand their ground and own the consequences of their words. Am I unreasonable in that I would have found it refreshing if Stephanie Grace said, "yes, I believe that Black people are genetically prone to be less intelligent than white people. I will own that statement...and the consequences professionally and personally." Am I doubly more unreasonable to have hoped that someone would have then proceeded to open a can of intellectual, empirically driven whoop ass on her metaphorical behind?

Full text of Stephanie Grace's e-mail

An e-mail sent by a Harvard Law student that questioned the intelligence of blacks caused outrage when it was leaked and spread on the Internet this week. Here is the full text of the original e-mail message written by Harvard Law student Stephanie Grace to her two friends, followed by a letter from Harvard Law dean Martha Minow, and Grace's apology.

".. . .. 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.''

"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"

The text of the apology that Stephanie Grace sent to the leadership of Harvard's Black Law Students Association:

"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."


Unknown said...

in her 'apology' she says would give anything to take back what she said....
and being a very literal person, my question to her would be... anything?? what??

someone really ought to call her on it..
the conversation would be entertaining..

Devona said...

These public "apologies" have always seem trite to me.

OhCrapIHaveACrushOnSarahPalin said...

Feh. Well, we didn't call it The Crimson Plantation for nothin'.

MotherlandBrotherman said...

When I read her written apology, I was thinking the exact same thing- Why is she even bothering to apologize? I think the apology makes it worse. One because it is obviously not sincere; you are not going to live your whole life with racial and cultural prejudices and then after your e-mail gets read all over the internet, have an epiphany that all people are equal and change your mindset accordingly. She is sorry she got caught and fears the repercussions of her e-mail.

I think that there are bigger issues that black people have to worry about such as income disparity and high unemployment rates, disproportionate incarceration rates. An increase chanced of high blood pressure and all the other issues that we have to worry about. In the grand scheme of things some jackass twenty somethings hosting blackface parties and sending e-mails about black people's inferiority are not really on my radar.

M said...

Chinese on average are probably better at maths than other groups. People evolved in different areas and under different pressures. It doesn't mean much about individuals.

Shady_Grady said...

Obviously I disagree with the substance of what she had to say.

As I get older though I think that at least I'd rather know upfront when and where I'm dealing with a racist. It would save me a lot of time. People that smile in your face, stab you in the back and then say "But I'm not racist. Why would you think that?" are much more common in my corporate environment than folks who tell you/show you straight out that they don't like or think much of black people.

Stupid Git said...


Great point. I've only recently become aware of this (I'm white - significant other is black) and it's odd how some people at her work treat her with more respect after meeting me. It's as if they need another white person's stamp of approval in order to accept her as an equal.

Anonymous said...

At a conference years after the Vietnam war, a former US military officer was debating with a former North Vietnamese leader. The American pointed out that the US had never lost any individual battle during the war. The NVA officer said, "That is true. But it is also irrelevant."

1. If we could take every Black person, and every White person, and every Mexican, and so on, and give them all the same test, do you think every group would produce the same average scores?

Stephanie contends that either (a) the differences are statistically insignificant, or (b) there is a measurable difference. She doesn't know which.

You seem to be saying that (a) is correct. But you don't know, and neither do I, and neither does Stephanie.

But it doesn't matter.

2. From my own experience (and doubtless in yours), there are large variations between individuals, that in all likelihood dwarf any differences observed between the averages of each "race".

BTW: I'm a white guy, who went to a somewhat elite high school. The head of the math department was a black man. The top three graduates in my class were a white guy, a black guy, and a Mexican-American woman. All three went on to graduate from Harvard.

3. The clip from "Good Times" scratches the surface about different kinds of intelligence. The writers of that scene concentrated on rote memory, retention of facts. Another is mathematical ability, another is verbal and linguistic, another is creativity. No single test can possibly capture what each person can do.

4. When we make decisions that affect other people – who to hire, who to admit into school, who to send to prison, who to vote for – we should rely solely on the qualifications and our evaluation of the individual to make those judgments. It's stupid and unfair, if not immoral, to use any measurement or classification of the group as one of those criteria.

But that doesn't mean we're all alike or that our ethnic groups are all "equal" in every measurable way: physiologically or psychologically.

chaunceydevega said...

@Marci--It would be entertaining. Funny though how she will be made a victim and hero to the Fox crowd by next week.

@Devona--Don't they?

@OhCrap--be nice now. funny how life takes twists and turns I was so close to being offered a big money job there where I would have been dealing with these types of issues. I miss the money--oh I so do--but I don't know if I would have liked dealing with these issues.

@MandB--I clearly hear you. But, this is all part of the problem for why we are dropping dead, having to deal w. these types of inequalities, and the like. She is one of the "smart" ones who will be making policy all the while blind to her own biases.

@M--Interesting. This is more of luck, resources, and cultural expectations in my book.

@Shady--I like em honest myself too.

@Stupid--You are now privileged to see that we are not making this stuff up. Quoting Morpheus and Baudrillard welcome to the desert of the real.

@Anon--Good points, but be careful: "But that doesn't mean we're all alike or that our ethnic groups are all "equal" in every measurable way: physiologically or psychologically."

Ethnic groups are themselves just in breeding that reinforces certain traits over and over again. But, once more they are social constructions and arbitrary categories as well. Consider for race that you have more in common genetically with someone of a different "race" than you do with someone of your own "race." What does this do to these intelligence/IQ arguments? Also, when you control for income most if not all of these variances in educational outcomes disappear.

Ultimately this "race science" mess that tries to leverage genetics is as reliable as phrenology was in the late 19th early 20th centuries.

Unknown said...

A large part of a person's education consists of real-life experience. Young people who are raised without the benefit of significant interaction with people of diverse nationalities or ethnic backgrounds can only speculate, hypothesize, or recite what they've been told about "them". I suspect that Ms. Grace's ignorance is simply a reflection of her lack of meaningful contact.

As a young twenty-something, I also had a lot of fixed ideas and false notions about various groups of people, but over time I was compelled to abandon the old attitudes in the face of actual experience. The more people I got to know, the more it became evident that the charicatures did not match reality.

The only "theory" I could devise which seemed to fit my observations was that people are a lot more alike than they are different. I would be willing to bet that any sub-group of humans would have approximately the same percentage of geniuses and idiots, heroes and villains, etc., as any other sub-group.

However, there is no doubt that there will be fewer black mathematicians and doctors if those career paths are closed to them. Over the course of my life, I have seen black people excel in every field of endeavor to which they were eventually given access. The same is true of women. And gay people. And any other group I could name.

Equality of access to opportunity is the key. Unequal opportunity creates the illusion of unequal capabilities.

Adam said...

Some days it feels like we go on and on, but we never learn anything. Either as a species, or as individuals. People peddling this old racist crap, stuff that is so discredited that it should be radioactive right now. Meanwhile, actually believing that global warming is happening is perilously close to being radioactive in and of itself, and we go on pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into the gulf.

Some days I don't want to live in this world any more.

Oh Crap said...

@chauncey I miss the money--oh I so do--but I don't know if I would have liked dealing with these issues.


Well one thing is certain: one deals with it there....and everywhere. So might as well take the prestige & $, along with the crap, no? Maybe the oppty will come up again.

chaunceydevega said...

@Michael--Equality of access to opportunity is the key. Unequal opportunity creates the illusion of unequal capabilities.--well said. Now we have to spread the word.

@Adam--We can't give up the fight. It is frustrating as we are moving forward in some ways, but are remaining so many fissures and rot unrepaired and little reflected upon, critically engaged.

@Oh Crap--One day, in another way. But when the pockets are light the thoughts of those many thousands comes up more and more.