E-mail on race sparks a furor at Harvard Law
Student regrets questioning the intelligence of blacks
By Tracy Jan
It was a private dinner conversation among three friends. The topic: affirmative action and race. The debate presumably was passionate, given the divergent opinions of the Harvard Law School students.
* Full text of the e-mails
Stephanie Grace, a third-year law student, felt she had not made her position clear, so she followed up via e-mail, according to a person with direct knowledge of events.
“I just hate leaving things where I feel I misstated my position,’’ Grace wrote. “I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African-Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.’’
The lengthy e-mail, sent to her two dinner companions six months ago, ignited an Internet firestorm this week when it was leaked and first reported Wednesday by the legal blog abovethelaw.com, followed by other websites.
Yesterday, Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law School, condemned the e-mail that suggested blacks are [actually, it suggested might be] genetically less intelligent than whites.
“Here at Harvard Law School, we are committed to preventing degradation of any individual or group, including race-based insensitivity or hostility,’’ Minow wrote in a message to Harvard’s law school community.
Minow said she had met with leaders of Harvard’s Black Law Students Association on Wednesday to discuss the hurt caused by Grace’s e-mail. She also said Internet reports alleging the association had made the e-mail public and pressed for the student’s future employer to rescind a job offer were false.
Grace did not respond to a request for an interview yesterday.
Grace, an editor of the Harvard Law Review, is headed for a federal clerkship in California with Ninth Circuit Court Judge Alex Kozinski. She graduated from Princeton University in 2007 with the highest honors and obtained a degree in sociology, according to the university’s registrar. A Princeton website said Grace conducted research on how the racial composition of one’s freshman year roommates influences behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions in subsequent college years.
In her e-mail to her friends, she wrote that while she could “be convinced that by controlling for the right variables, we would see that [black people] are, in fact, as intelligent as white people under the same circumstances. The fact is, some things are genetic. . . .
“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,’’ she continued.
She signed off on the e-mail with, “Please don’t pull a Larry Summers on me’’ — referring to the former Harvard president who was pressured to resign after faculty unrest in part because he suggested in a 2005 speech that women lacked the same “intrinsic aptitude’’ for science as men.
On Wednesday, Grace sent an apology to leaders of the Black Law Students Association, the president of the student government, Minow, and several faculty members.
“I am deeply sorry for the pain caused by my e-mail. 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,’’ Grace said in the apology, obtained by the Globe.
“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.’’
Leaders of the association declined to comment yesterday on the controversy.
In her statement yesterday, Minow called the incident “sad and unfortunate’’ but said she was heartened by the student’s apology. She added: “We seek to encourage freedom of expression, but freedom of speech should be accompanied by responsibility.’’
Okay, so, if you are a Harvard Law Student, you aren't allowed to speculate in a private email message about possibilities that the Dean doesn't like? Especially not on issues related to major legal questions, such as disparate impact, which was at the heart of last year's Ricci Supreme Court case?
Obviously, the student is correct on the facts and the Dean of the Harvard Law School is acting in the fashionable ignorant and anti-scientific manner. We can't be sure at present whether the sizable racial gaps in average intelligence that are an absolutely indisputable finding of a century of intense social science inquiry are partially genetic or not. But we sure can't rule it out.
On the other hand, my view -- not a very popular one, I'll admit -- is that the genetic debate shouldn't matter to the law. Whether or not the racial gaps in behavior might be quite different in the next generation, there is massive evidence that they won't be terribly different for individuals currently around today. And those are precisely whom disparate impact law operates upon.
I've been following social science statistics since 1972, the year of the Supreme Court's Griggs decision that invented "disparate impact." Lots of things have changed since 1972, but the racial gaps in behavior have changed less than almost anything else in our society. Is that due to nature? Nurture? A combination?
I don't know. We'll find out eventually.
What we do know is that disparate impact-based affirmative action doesn't, on the whole, make individual beneficiaries smarter. You would have heard about it if it does. The social scientist who came up with an environmental cure for the racial IQ gap would be the biggest superstar of his age. People have been working on that for half a century, but nothing, so far, has done much good.
Moreover, we've had a four decades of affirmative action, and the racial gaps are about the same. So, we can conclude that disparate impact law doesn't rectify biases in tests or the like.
Now, it could be that the one standard deviation gap in average intelligence between white Americans and African Americans could be wholly eliminated by some environmental change. Maybe if pregnant black women ate more arugula, their children would grow up to have the same average IQs as whites.
Instead, it give individuals of some races preferences over individuals of other races to make up for the lifetime lower average performance of their group. Now, it's possible that future generations of their group will have higher average performance (if the prenatal arugula diet works, say), but we don't see much evidence at all that disparate impact-based affirmative action is accomplishing that for people already old enough to benefit from affirmative action.
So, genetics don't really matter for the law. The reason, however, that everybody acts like it matters is that it serves as a proxy for the argument over whether the law giving affirmative action privileges to individuals causes those privileged individuals to stop underperforming. The burden of proof should obviously be on those who argue against the equal protection of the laws, but they have such a weak empirical case that they maintain their hegemony by demonizing heretics.
On a less august, cattier note, is it true that the forwarder of Ms. Grace's private email is a libertarian activist and that the email was six months old?