Stupid is as Stupid Does?

April 29, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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by Carrie from Basic Black

The story burning up the blogosphere today is that a Harvard Law student made some racially charged comments at a dinner, and then sent an email to her dining companions to clarify what had been said:

“… 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,

[Name Redacted]”

The individual who forwarded this email to the Harvard Black Law Student Association list-serv included the name of the email’s author and the fact that she had been accepted for a coveted, highly competitive federal clerkship.

The Harvard BLSA is denying forwarding the email correspondence to anyone; however, the story has gone viral, and according to, it has already been shared more than 1000 times on Facebook. The dean of Harvard Law School, Martha Minow, has issued a statement declaring that the email “does not reflect the views of the school or the overwhelming majority of the members of the community” and adds that “at Harvard Law School, we are committed to preventing degradation of any individual or group, including race-based insensitivity or hostility.” And, of course, the profuse apology of the email writer herself has been widely circulated.

This incident raises a number of questions:

1. Are the opinions of the email’s author prevalent, and just left unspoken?

The fact that commenters at various blogs expressed sympathy for the email’s author would suggest that this is the case.

Danwinters, a commenter at, wrote: “if it took a harvard law student to figure this out we are in trouble”

Lee, a commenter on Wicked Local, wrote: “Wow, so being open minded and interested in seeing actual evidence for something qualifies one as being “racist”. That’s interesting that in 100 years of intelligence testing there has never been a time where Black people have shown to have the same intelligence as Asians or Whites or Jews. It’s also interesting that there has never been an African Einstein or Newton in world history. Yeah Africa sure is an intellectual hotbed! Saying anything else would be “racist”.”

A commenter called My Name at wrote: “Well … what he wrote is racist, but it’s also accurate. Whether it’s brain size, performance on IQ tests (even when using African-American names in test questions and otherwise trying to make sure the test is race-neutral, and at any age), African-Americans don’t do well on any kind of IQ test or any test for which performance is correlated with IQ (LSAT, etc.). That’s not to say there aren’t some African-Americans who aren’t quite smart … the proportion of the population within the higher distributions of IQs, though, as compared to whites and Asians (or, for that matter, Hispanics) just isn’t as high. It is racist, yet accurate, to acknowledge this. Why is it fine to say that most African-Americans have better sprint times and are quicker, due to a higher proportion of Type II muscle fibers, and have bigger junk (come on, does anyone doubt this), yet it’s not fine to acknowledge what decades of research have shown over and over again regarding African-Americans’ IQs?”

2. Does the author deserve to have her career ruined over this email? Several websites (including Gawker) have posted the author’s name and photograph, while others ( have deliberately chosen to keep her anonymous. Who is correct?

Commenter littlelegal at wrote: “This woman is on the Harvard Law Review and has secured a clerkship with Judge [Redacted]. By holding these positions, she has elected to become a member of the intellectual elite and begun the transition from private person to public one. She has obtained the kind of prestige that opens doors into positions of power thus her career is one in which the public does have a nascent interest–perhaps we should be concerned that a federal appellate judge will have someone so misinformed in his close circle of advisers. If she were a high school student, your average college student or perhaps even a 1L or a 3L off to be a firm workhorse, I would be more sympathetic. In her position, she deserves the spotlight. I think it was right of the original recipient to “out” a future federal clerk for holding invidious racial views.”

Jezebel commenter Cimorene added: “Why are the feelings of an individual with abhorrent views, who’s about to have a publicly funded job with significant influence, whose personal life was not involved, whose privacy was not intentionally invaded (she, after all, sent out the email to several people, apparently unaware that someone on her contact list doesn’t like racism), of more concern than her 18th century-esque, blatant, disgusting racism, a racism that she’ll be bringing to a federal clerkship? Why is the racist white lady more important than black people in general?”

Commenter NinaG at Jack & Jill Politics wrote: “Please use her name so this comes up when people search her name. Say it as many times. No reason to protect her.”

But Gawker commenter Perhaps Not wrote: “I dunno, man, this kind of ruins her reputation forever in a way that is probably not fair. Lord knows I’ve said some stupid shit in my time, and I’m extremely pleased that no one repeated it to millions upon millions of their closest friends.”

Gawker commenter SlickaNicka agreed: “…should she be pilloried for this? She, a mere student who said some very dumb, wrong, and offensive things in an email to a few people? Is this one act a snapshot of all that she believes and all that she is? Do we all want to be judged on the worst possible thing we have ever said? Does her life deserve to be ruined over this one email? If she were the Dean or a person of power and influence, it would be more damning. But law student? Eh, the internets will crash if we have to dispense justice for all the dumb-ass student comments out there.”

3. Does the furor over this email stifle academic discussion?

David Lat of 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… 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?”

The opposing view was expressed by an anonymous commenter who wrote: “Lat, thank you for justifying all of my racist comments. I just say them to provoke discussion.”

What are your thoughts on this?


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  1. In the caribbean slavery institutions, african slaves were considered as dumb as animals unfit for works requiring some kind of intelligence but then the plantation’s master did not hesitate to use slaves for artisanal works.

    I don’t think intelligence is the issue anyway, but innovation certainly is, and an industrial complex to back it up.

    Whose phenotype group will get THE idea that will enable its survival and domination.

  2. Re: number 3, I think the deciding factor in determining the fitness of an idea for debate has to be what Stephanie Crane talks about toward the end of her blog post here (under the heading “Why This Matters”):

    A couple of choice quotes: “Classifying people as groups instead of judging them individually is always very dangerous and should be avoided (that way lies true racism).” and “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.”

    My inclination is that the appropriate forum (if any) for this issue or debate has to be determined by weighing the validity of even posing the question (by evaluating existing research and its authors, who often, e.g., accept money from sketchy white separatist groups and the like) against the predicted harm and danger of raising the issue in the given forum.

    I’m not comfortable with ruling out topics of debate, but I think that Crane is right in not entertaining the discussion in a blog post somewhere that I don’t imagine is frequented by intelligence or genetics researchers, and I am perfectly comfortable ruling out the topic of inherent differences between “races'” intelligences in such a casual forum. (I mean, truthfully, what possible good could come of this issue being discussed on a television news show, for example?)

  3. Woops, I messed up the blogger’s name in that comment. It’s Stephanie Grace. Not sure how that got in my head.

  4. Man, I am all messed up today. The blogger’s name is Jill. Forgive me, I’m at work right now.

  5. And one further point that Jill (got the name right this time) makes: “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.”

    This is an important point, and ties into what I mentioned about researchers touting racial intelligence differences having questionable objectivity due to funding (there is a little bit about this here: If the people determining the legitimacy of a debate are those who aren’t in a position to be personally offended by often-present undertone of that debate, how objective can they really be? I’m not suggesting any white person is incapable of evaluating the legitimacy of the question or trying to answer it, just that they are rarely in a position to speak to the harm of such a debate being given credence in their everyday environment.

  6. Whether or not the topic can be discussed/debated I think depends on the context. Within academia, in a biology or sociology or anthropology course there might be some good to come of it, especially if it can be used to illustrate how science in the past has been used to justify racism. As someone mentioned, throw it out there and then take it apart.

    In the media that we currently have, where every topic has to have a pro and a con side represented and given equal credence and where we frequently just have to “agree to disagree” I think this conversation serves no purpose except to give extremist, hateful and potentially inflammatory b.s. a legit forum and audience.

    The context here, someone about to enter into a career in law that might actually have an impact on people’s lives…it makes me nauseous.

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