This is disgusting. Stephanie Grace, a 3L at Harvard Law School, apparently had a conversation about race during a dinner with other law students. Her comments, she believed, were perceived wrongly, and so she sent out an email to a few students in an effort to correct the record. That email was forwarded around, and eventually made its way to several Black Law Students Associations (BLSAs). Here’s what Stephanie Grace wrote to some of her fellow HLS students:
… 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,
You know you’re an extra-special racist when you send out an email clarifying that your views are actually more racist than those that pissed people off at dinner.
I’m not going to get into why Grace’s arguments are wrong; that should hopefully be self-evident, and I don’t think we need to waste time entertaining completely ignorant ideas about the genetics of intelligence, or whether certain racial or ethnic groups are “naturally” more or less intelligent than others. There are certain ideas that just do not belong in the realm of serious intellectual conversation, and this is one of them. (UPDATE: At the bottom of the post, I explain this position a little bit more).
Instead, I want to discuss (a) the system that made Stephanie Grace feel that her email and her arguments were totally appropriate and within the realm of acceptable academic discourse, and that lead her to believe that her views would be accepted and welcomed; (b) the troubling reaction to the dissemination of her email, some of which has revolved around the ethics of naming her; and (c) why this matters. Because while Stephanie Grace is sending out racist emails, sites like Above the Law are falling all over themselves not only to obscure her identity, but also to say that maybe she was kind of right — and that her email wasn’t actually racist, and that the idea that black people are genetically inferior is one that we should entertain.
In other words, this isn’t just about Stephanie Grace.
The Law School Problem
Harvard Law School is no stranger to racial controversy. I am soliciting a guest-post from an HLS grad who will hopefully be able to delve more into that issue, but suffice it to say that something like this happens almost every year. And Harvard is certainly not alone among law schools in dealing with racist and sexist controversies. I’m not entirely sure what it is about law school that encourages the kind of behavior that Stephanie Grace exhibits here and I didn’t go to Harvard for law school, but I suspect it’s some combination of students with fairly sheltered upbringings and homogeneous social circles, an academic emphasis on logical consistency over actual justice, and an environment where discussions are so hyper-intellectualized that students feel they can say anything so long as they can give it a veneer of logic and rationality.
Yes, racism is everywhere. It is in law schools, and it is in law students before they ever get to law school. But it plays out in law schools in a very particular way. Law schools are environments that traffic heavily in discussions about logical consistency. In class, you read and discuss cases that all work off of each other in developing law. You start with one basic theory or set of laws, and then look at how the courts apply those theories to new sets of facts and circumstances; you look further down at how the courts use the outcomes of previous cases to draw conclusions in subsequent ones. Law school trains you to think in a particularly linear way — not “what is just here,” but “what is consistent here.” Often, consistency is the closest we can get to justice, and it offers a way to evaluate our laws in light of varying circumstances. It at least attempts objectivity. It’s a helpful way to learn how to think, and it certainly helps in the practice of law.
But it’s also a fairly narrow way of thinking, in a lot of ways. It eliminates, or at least lowers the value of, concepts like justice and social privilege and real-life inequality. In other words, while it is a helpful tool to use in order to be an effective attorney or advocate or debater or writer or thinker, it cannot be the only tool in your chest if you strive to be not only effective, but also conscientious.
For some law students — and for some lawyers — it seems to be the only tool in the chest.
I don’t know what Stephanie Grace was thinking when she wrote this email. But I would imagine part of her mentality was that if she can make a consistent, rational and logical argument for this point then it’s fair game (now, she clearly failed to make a consistent, rational and logical argument, but she wouldn’t be the first law student or lawyer to do that).
None of this is to say that law schools should no longer emphasize logic, rationality or consistency — of course not. But the lack of emphasis on concepts like social justice, and the disparate treatment of non-white people in the justice system, is not a part of the standard law school curriculum. It’s there, certainly, if you seek it out; it’s there in incredible, groundbreaking ways, and some of the best race and gender scholarship and activism in the United States is coming from the legal world. But it’s very easy to get through law school without having very much exposure to in-depth and challenging conversations about racial, gender and other inequalities.
It’s also very easy to get through law school spending time with people who mostly look and think like you, and who have life experiences that are similar to yours. It’s easy to fall into a group of white people who all understand White Person Code — the little things you imply or say that have attached racial meaning, without ever having to talk about race or risk saying something actually racist. I’m white, and believe me, White Person Code gets dropped like nobody’s business, in law school and out. And because its messages are coded, there isn’t a great way to explain what it always looks or sounds like. But, for example, it’s the way that a white student’s mistake in class or inability to answer a question correctly will be read as “they made a mistake” or “they didn’t do the reading,” whereas a black student’s mistake in class or inability to answer a question correctly will be read as “they are not very smart and only got in here because of affirmative action.” It’s the little glance, the raised eyebrow. It’s the implication of understanding — the inference that I don’t have to say that person is only here because of affirmative action, but we all know. It’s the study group of all white kids, who aren’t excluding people on purpose, but who decide they want to study with people who will challenge them. And I know more than a few law students of color who hated talking in class for that very reason — they weren’t just representing themselves, or how much studying they did the night before, or even how intelligent they personally are; they felt like they were representing all black people everywhere, and especially all black people who go to elite academic institutions. The pressure is on to prove that you belong here, and to prove that everyone who looks like you belongs here. And the second a mistake is made, it confirms what at least a few white people in the room are looking to have confirmed: That you don’t belong, that you aren’t as smart, that you aren’t as worthy of your spot as they are.
My guess is that it’s part of the nature of law school discourse that informed how Stephanie Grace wrote her email. And it’s that White Person Code — the understanding that well we all kind of agree on this even if we can’t say it out loud in mixed company, right guys? — that made Stephanie Grace feel totally ok sending it out.
Naming Stephanie Grace
Above the Law refers to Stephanie Grace as “CRIMSON DNA” rather than naming her. I got her name from Jezebel, and from a variety of non-blogger contacts. Above the Law seems primarily concerned with the repercussions for Stephanie — that she could lose her prestigious clerkship in the Ninth Circuit, or that, I don’t know, it might make her sad that her racist remarks are coming back to bite her. They refer to the use of her real name as “troubling.” They say that what set this all off wasn’t a racist email but a “catfight.”
I do not share their concerns. I thought about whether to use her name, but after Gawker and Jezebel made it public it was less of an issue — they do have several times the traffic that we have, after all, and it just seems pointless to maintain her anonymity when her name is already on those sites and others, including, now, Above the Law.
But also, law clerks, lawyers, and judges all have real power. As a clerk, Stephanie Grace is going to be interpreting the law and helping to craft decisions that impact not only the individuals involved in the case, but wide swaths of the population. She will, most likely, at some point have to write about civil rights and race issues. Her judge absolutely should know that she believes black people may be genetically inferior before he relies on her to interpret and apply the law.
After her clerkship, she may practice as an attorney. As she moves up the ranks in her firm or place of practice, she will have the ability to choose who to work with, who to mentor, who to support and whose work to promote; she will have the ability to review the people she works with, and to potentially influence who keeps their jobs and who doesn’t (or who gets a job in the first place and who doesn’t). It is absolutely not out of line to say that a person with these kinds of views should be outed before they go forward and do serious damage.
Harvard Law School grads are partners at law firms. They hold political offices. They are judges. They are in positions of real power. At some point, Stephanie Grace is going to be in a position of real power. Before those positions are offered, the people who are elevating her deserve to know how she will wield that power — and the fact that she believes that segments of the population may simply not be as intellectually adept based on their skin color.
Why This Matters
This isn’t just about Harvard or Stephanie Grace. ATL’s follow-up post on the issue demonstrates as much. This is about how we are and are not allowed to talk about race, and whose definition of rationality and objectivity controls. For example, Davit Lat at ATL writes:
In an academic setting, it should be possible to put any proposition on the table for debate. No position should lie beyond the pale. Some — in fact, many — such positions will be stupid or wrong. But we should be able to debate all issues rationally, vigorously and openly, without having to worry about offending anyone.
Putting aside the fact that an email isn’t an academic setting, why? Why should you be able not only to have the freedom to raise whatever issue you want, but also have the privilege to do so without offending anyone? That simply is not how the world works — ideas, as they say, have consequences, and part of the consequences of raising controversial (or idiotic) arguments is that people will become annoyed, angry or offended. I don’t think that people have a right to not be offended, but you also definitely do not have a right to demand that other people accept without emotion whatever ridiculous or hateful argument you make.
But let’s allow this to sink in for a minute: Not only did one HLS student write an email literally saying that black people might be genetically inferior to white people, but she is being defended by other legal scholars under the pretense that any idea should be up for debate and no one should get offended and oh also maybe she’s right. With no recognition of the fact that ideas of genetic inferiority underwrote slavery in this country. That they underwrote genocide.
Let’s look back on Kash’s original post, which was entitled Harvard Law School 3L’s Racist Email Goes National. I wanted to put the word “racist” in the headline in quotation marks — but since it was Kash’s post, I deferred to her. (In the post you’re now reading, which has my byline, you’ll notice that I’ve placed “racist” in quotes.)
Why did I want to put “racist” in scare-quotes? First, I wasn’t sure the email was actually “racist.” As I stated in the comments:
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.”
Hey, guys, I’m just throwing out ideas!
If Grace had taken her argument one step further and said that the genetic inferiority of black people is reason to seriously consider blocking them from all institutions of higher learning, is that an argument that should be rationally considered or debated without taking offense? What if she said that black people are genetically both stronger and dumber, and so maybe it makes more sense to put them to work in the fields? What if she suggested that, say, Jews are genetically inferior to non-Jews, and that they are sneaky and greedy and hog too many spots in law school, and they destroyed our economy by controlling all the banks, and so maybe we should round them up in one place? What if she said that women’s uteruses make us incapable of rational thought, and therefore we shouldn’t be allowed to attend college or vote or even really argue with men because we just can’t do it, you know, biologically?
You guys, I’m just throwing out ideas.
Back to Lat:
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?
Rational debate, though, demands rationality. It’s very easy to make a totally irrational and factually incorrect argument in an even tone to give it a gloss of rationality, which is what Grace did here. But her argument was, to begin with, an absolute absurdity — and an absurdity that has had profound, damaging and deadly historical consequences for lots of different kinds of people.
And Lat isn’t suggesting a truly open and rational debate, here — he’s asking that we only debate on certain terms, as defined by people who are in an historically more powerful position. We can’t call something racist or sexist or homophobic, because that is not a good enough argument — he says it’s name-calling. “Racist,” “sexist” and “homophobic,” though, aren’t epithets so much as identifiers and descriptors — they allow us to put a word on a certain type of behavior or statement. Words like “logical” and “rational” operate in the same way. I agree that saying “Stephanie Grace is a racist” is not a good argument; but saying “The content of this email is racist, and is therefore inappropriate and suggests that Stephanie Grace hold some very troubling viewpoints” is, in fact, an argument as to why the emails are inappropriate and indicative that Stephanie Grace holds some very troubling viewpoints.
Stephanie Grace sent out an email suggesting that black people are genetically intellectually inferior to white people. That is not a new point; it is not a point that should have to be rationally debated anymore, any more than we would rationally debate whether or not the Earth is flat. If a PhD candidate in a science program suggested that the sun revolved around the Earth, I can just about guarantee that there would be no calls for rational debate on the issue — whoever she said it to would roll their eyes and label her a complete jackass. If she sent out an email screed about it, it would probably be forwarded for laughs and for shared outrage at how a person this ridiculous could have gotten into this academic program and institution. It would not be defended under the pretense of free speech or academic freedom or “Isn’t this program all about rational scientific discourse, you guys?”
But I want to go back to this line: “Rational debate. Isn’t that what free speech and academic discourse — and, incidentally, the practice of law — are all about?” Well, yes and no — free speech is, unfortunately, not all about rational debate, not hardly. But that aside, free speech is not a shield from criticism and consequence. Yes, it is a shield against government persecution for your speech, but it does not mean that other people are not permitted to speak out against you; it doesn’t mean that other people should have to accept what you say without attaching words like “racist” or “sexist” or “bigoted” to what you say. The right to speak and to control how other people feel and respond to your speech is not a right that any of us hold. And it is not a sign of irrationality to point out that some arguments are, yes, racist, any more than it’s a sign of irrationality to point out that some arguments are ad hominem or illogical or red herrings or anecdotal.
I’m obviously troubled and disgusted by Stephanie Grace’s email and her arguments. But I’m even more disgusted by many of the responses — the ones that say the email wasn’t really racist, that it’s somehow irrational to use terms like “racist” or “sexist,” and that any idea, no matter how horrific, should not only be introduced but also should not be met with any level of offense. I wonder if the people making those arguments — and David Lat is only one of them — have for even a minute put themselves in the shoes of individuals whose family members were enslaved or gassed or rounded up for their perceived genetic inferiorities. I wonder if they’ve put themselves in the shoes of people who hear all the time that they don’t deserve to be where they are; that they’re lazier, stupider, just not as naturally intelligent or adept.
Some comments and beliefs do not merit a rational response. The fact that we are not only debating the merits of Stephanie Grace’s argument that black people may be genetically inferior, but also suggesting that the people who are offended are the ones with the problem, is more demonstrative of a profession-wide and society-wide race problem than any single email or racist tome.
UPDATE: A lot of commenters have said that not addressing the substance of Stephanie’s email — the contention that it’s possible that black people are genetically inferior to white people — is a mistake, and weakens my point. So, why am I not addressing the idea that maybe black people are intellectually inferior, even if just to quickly debunk Stephanie’s argument? Because if I did that, the comments to this post would turn into a referendum on the genetics of intelligence, and there are always going to be a few very vocal people who have a lot invested in the falsity that black people are genetically inferior, and those people are not going to be convinced by any amount of evidence. It’s also impossible to prove, beyond any scientific doubt at all, that there is no genetic differentiation between racial and ethnic groups. That is, basically, how science works — it’s the reason that people who have some political or religious or personal investment in the idea that evolution is a crock will fall back on the “well evolution is only a theory!” line. Yes, it is “only” a theory, but it’s a theory that has a whole mountain of evidence behind it; and it’s called a theory because scientists are awfully hedgy, for good reason, about calling anything The Absolute Proven Truth. I’ll quote commenter MJ, who makes this point well:
One hears this kind of statement often from advocates of quasi-racist positions. “Oh, of course I could be convinced of perfect equality, if only someone could show me a study the proves that no differences exist!” It’s an extremely disingenuous argument and reflects a fundamental (deliberate?) misunderstanding about statistics.
No study can ever “prove” that no difference between two groups exists—a study can only fail to detect a difference of a certain size with a certain confidence level. Any experiment with enough statistical power will be able to find differences between any two groups, even two flasks of genetically identical bacteria, if you try hard enough.
My point is that asking for a study that demonstrates equality may sound reasonable, but is in fact just a rhetorical technique that can never be satisfied and serves as a shield for racist ideas.
Intelligence, too, is impossible to separate from environment and socialization, again making it impossible for anyone to say with absolute certainty that there is absolutely no biological or genetic difference at all ever between racial and ethnic groups. Intelligence is also incredibly difficult to accurately measure. But for all intents and purposes, the evidence is pretty clear that there aren’t discernible genetic differences when it comes to intelligence. But it’s always possible to make the argument that “We haven’t proven that there are no differences.” That argument tells you a lot more about the person making it than it does about any scientific fact.
I take people who argue that maybe there are race-based genetic differences that determine intelligence about as seriously as I take people who argue that maybe God did create the earth in 7 days with all humans and animals in the exact same form as we find them today. And you know, opening up a free-for-all discussion about race-based genetic difference will be about as fruitful as opening up a discussion about Creationism vs. Evolution. Discussing why Creationists are wrong and trying to convince anyone to switch “sides” in that debate (if you can even call it that) is pointless; if you really feel the need to repeat, “But evolution is just a theory and it doesn’t explain everything, so Creationism can’t be totally ruled out”, then you have some personal or religious or political or cultural investment in that idea, which won’t be toppled by evidence or rationality. Similarly, if you feel the need to repeat, “But it can’t be totally ruled out that there may be genetic differences between the races which make black people intellectually inferior,” you have some personal or political or cultural investment in that idea, which probably won’t be toppled by evidence or rationality. There is no “winning” in this debate.
And the greater danger of even opening up the debate is that, unlike creationism vs. evolution, the question of “are some people genetically inferior to others?” has been used in the service of injustice great and small. Even if we put aside the point that the genetics question has been used to justify slavery, mass sterilization, genocide, incarceration and violence — not a small point to put aside, certainly — the fact remains that the continued asking such an absurd, disproven question does harm. I can understand, for people who are not in the group that has been deemed potentially genetically inferior, that just raising the issue may not feel harmful. But for the people who are in that group? Who know the history? Who are routinely treated to questions like this under the guise of “I’m only asking the question!” but who know quite well that “only asking the question” is, itself, a way of suggesting that the answer to the question just might be yes? Who, by having to respond to the question over and over are basically being told, “You may just not be as intelligent as white people, genetically; you, as you were born, are just less”? It is harmful. It is part of a generations-long continuum of harm. It is a kind of psychological warfare that white people have waged on people of color and other less “fit” populations for centuries, which has augmented, supported and justified physical warfare, slavery, colonialism and genocide.
So no, I am not going to open up a discussion as to why Stephanie Grace’s suggestion that black people may be genetically intellectually inferior to white people is wrong. The asking of the question, and taking the question seriously, suggests that the answer just might be yes, no matter how many times the evidence points in the opposite direction. That does real harm to members of our community; it has done real harm historically to huge numbers of people, and will continue to do real harm in the future. There are many, many places on the internet where you all can talk about this to your heart’s content. I feel no obligation to provide a forum for such a pointless, hateful and harmful debate.
- The Racist Breeding Grounds of Harvard Law School by Jill April 30, 2010
- So what exactly counts as “racist” these days? by Jill August 12, 2010
- Good Ideas Gone Bad by Jill January 31, 2010
- Reproductive Justice and the Law by Jill December 13, 2010
- In Trying To Show How Silly Anti-Racist Liberals Are, Racists Assholes Again Prove Themselves To Be Racist Assholes by Jill April 27, 2008