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About that Harvard Law "email on race"

Posted by Christopher Shea  April 30, 2010 01:43 PM

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An "email on race" is the Globe's professionally nonjudgmental description of a private email sent out by the third-year Harvard Law student Stephanie Grace, in which Grace tentatively* defended the thesis that African Americans are, on balance, "less intelligent on a genetic level" than whites. Not hedging at all, the Harvard Crimson goes with "racist email."

So where does the email fall on the racist spectrum? In part, it depends on which section you focus on. At one point, Grace says a genetically based race-IQ gap is "at least possible"; elsewhere she suggests that she believes one exists pending evidence to the contrary. Still elsewhere, in what now reads as dramatic irony, she writes, "I don't think it is that controversial of an opinion."

(It has gone largely unnoticed that Grace's arguments about math and gender are far less tentative: "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." Pretty cocksure, for a nonspecialist.)

Grace's comments have drawn attention partly because she's a Harvard Law Review editor and headed for an elite appeals-court clerkship, with the conservative Alex Kozinski, of the ninth circuit. Dean Martha Minow has made it clear that official Harvard Law will not tolerate such remarks, stating that they contribute to the "degradation" of black students.

The comity of the Harvard Law community aside, I suspect that the uproar about the email has to do, in some measure, with uneasiness about the legal fast-track: We don't really know much about these super-achievers who win clerkships and, later, appointments to the bench, do we? (If nothing else, Grace is unlikely to be a future stealth appointee.)

I think it's possible, however, to agree with Dean Minow on the substance of Grace's argument while also being vaguely creeped out by the official reaction. Grace was persuaded not only to apologize but also to state that she never held the views that she expressed by email. (And the email was itself written to clarify earlier remarks!) That smacks of ritualized theater.

I wouldn't want to err on the side of sympathy, however. Grace is near graduation and likely headed to a more congenial environment, the appellate bench. None other than Judge Richard Posner, it turns out, of the seventh circuit, has written with similar open-mindedness about the possibility of a racial IQ gap. In "Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline," Posner defended Charles Murray and Harvard's Richard Herrstein, authors of "The Bell Curve," writing that their discussion of race and IQ was, at worst, a "rhetorical mistake." There ought to be nothing controversial, Posner continued, about the propositions that 1) a black-white IQ gap exists and 2) it has genetic as well as sociological roots.

When "unwise" social policies "are corrected," Posner wrote, "it will be time enough to decide whether some residual racial difference in the heritable component of IQ would place a limit on the fraction of particular jobs occupied by members of particular races in an economy of wholly meritocratic hiring and promotion." A bit periphrastic, but you get the point.

Posner is a frequent honored guest at Harvard Law, and an alumnus, and Harvard University Press publishes his books. For the sake of consistency, Minow ought to challenge him on his next visit. Will she?

*Added in response to comments.
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