Return to Blog Homepage

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.