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Race, doubts, and the 3L email

04/30/2010

Despite the handful of posts that I’ve been intending to write, I have to jump in on this latest internet firestorm.

The Background

Stephanie Grace, a 3rd year law student at Harvard Law School, felt that the views that she was trying to express at a dinner were not sufficiently explained, so she sent out an email afterwards to clarify.  Though it was only sent to a few people, the email was forwarded to the Black Law Student Association at Harvard, then the BLSA nationwide, and eventually for everyone to see.

Race, Gender, and Bad Science

Let’s pick this apart piece by piece, shall we?

… I just hate leaving things where I feel I misstated my position.

Okay, fair enough.

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.

Bingo.  I intentionally didn’t say what the email was about before, because the first line says it all.  I want to clarify an important point – I think that discourse on controversial and uncomfortable topics is imperative in our culture.  The fact that race is so rarely discussed really hampers our ability as a culture to address issues of inequality, bias, and discrimination.  (See a chapter from Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s NurtureShock, excerpted in Newsweek.)  I think it should be okay to ask questions and try to learn.  However, I think it is not okay, and in fact irresponsible to assert opinions as facts.  It’s irresponsible to act as though you are an educated authority on a subject that you are not.

The fact is, some things are genetic. African Americans tend to have darker skin. Irish people are more likely to have red hair.

We are moving into dangerous territory here.  Warning signs are going off everywhere in my mind at this point.

Stephanie is about to make the race –> genetics, genetics –> intelligence, therefore race –> intelligence connection.  But the problem is, race /= genetics.  Race is a social construction.  For great background readings, start here with PBS.  But most importantly, read Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Race.  Race is a modern idea, but most importantly, it is a changing idea.  In fact, the example in the email is a perfect example.  Currently, we consider African Americans to be of a different race than “whites,” in which an Irish American would be included.  But we in the United States used to consider the Irish to be of a different race. Nowadays, someone descending form Irish immigrants would be called “white” and someone descended from African immigrants would be called “black.”  But only one of them would have their innate intelligence questioned based on the color of their skin.

(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 is where the red sirens in my head really started flashing!  Hopefully now it’s apparent why a post largely about race appears in a women and science blog.  Stephanie conveniently made the link for me; discrimination against race or gender (or anything else) are just two sides of the same coin.  And they are often based on junk science.

But to set the record straight, just in case, from the recent AAUW report: “The rapid increase in the number of girls achieving very high scores on mathematics tests once thought to measure innate ability suggests that cultural factors are at work. Thirty years ago there were 13 boys for every girl who scored above 700 on the SAT math exam at age 13; today that ratio has shrunk to about 3:1.”

If the difference were genetic (or due to prenatal hormone levels), such a shift wouldn’t happen in 30 years.  Stephanie qualifies this statement “at least in part” in order to soften her position, but it’s a subtle strategic move – more on that below.

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.

Although it’s not explicitly stated, I can’t shake the feeling that she is somehow implying that if she were to adopt an orphan from Nigeria, the baby would not turn out smart or beautiful.  So to avoid putting words in her mouth, let’s instead analyze the absurdity of the statement.  What is “genius?”  What is “beautiful?”  Does any of that matter for millions of orphans who do not have access to basic medical care or even enough food? The assumption that your baby will be a genius is one thing; the assumption that they will somehow rise above the poverty and tragedy of millions of other orphans to even survive long enough to express that genius is another.

And re: twins raised apart, that doesn’t prove anything about the median intelligence of one race or another.

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 wonder if there were any African Americans at that 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.

Okay, in a rational argument you try to recognize the possible validity of both sides.  If that’s what she’s trying to do, why am I picking her apart?  Because there is a subtlety here.  It sounds rational to say “show me the data and I’ll believe you.”  But within this statement (and the next) is the assertion you cannot truly take perfect data, therefore I will never have to rescind my position, but I can still claim that I am just being rational and following the data.

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.

Again, exactly what I described above.  Because we cannot prove it 100%, I don’t have to believe it. If this were just a statement on how we cannot completely isolate all variables in social science experiments, fine.  That’s true.  But it’s preceded with an argument about how her poor understandings of race lead her to believe that genetics plays a role in intelligence.  The argument about social science experiments is just meant to say “you can’t prove me wrong.”

Also, you want to talk about “bad science?”  The “conclusion in your heart” is probably bad science.  It’s based on the culture in which you’ve been raised, the circumstances that you have been through.  The heart is biased.  The heart is our center of love and compassion, so it is twisted to me to use the heart to discount a group of people just because of their appearance.  And it’s certainly not science.

Please don’t pull a Larry Summers on me,

Stephanie Grace

If you have to make that request, you probably should have thought twice before hitting “send.”

End Notes

On privacy: Above the Law originally posted this without Stephanie’s name and deleted all references to her identity in the comments.  However, her name was subsequently published by other sources, and since it’s already out there, I feel no problem with using it.

On apologies: Stephanie later apologized to the BLSA, saying “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.” I haven’t yet thought too much about if I buy it.

On privilege: Jill at Feministe does an excellent job looking at this email and especially “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,” which I did not really touch but I find incredibly important.

“Everyone’s a little bit racist”

Race isn’t easy to talk about.  This email wasn’t outright in-your-face racist like some people still are.  I wanted to talk about this email to try to illustrate how even simple ideas that are commonly accepted in society, even by well-educated people, perpetuate bias and discrimination in society.  I don’t want to be the PC-police.  I don’t want to “pick on her” so much as pick on all of us a little bit to examine what the things we say and do mean.

Would you say the following things to a person?  “I’m pretty sure you’re here because you deserve to be, but there’s a teeny tiny bit of me that thinks you might just be here because of affirmative action.” “We’re all equal here, but since you kind of come from a race that possibly just might have less intelligence, you must be doing quite good for yourself.”  Not even a compliment eases the sting.  No amount of qualifiers makes it less hurtful.

It’s the doubt that gets you.  Far more women in science feel the doubt from others about their abilities and their “innate intelligence” than actual, verbal comments about women’s brains and science.  But the impact is just as strong.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Artesia permalink
    05/06/2010 6:08 pm

    Wow! I’m too shocked to be offended by this woman. Doesn’t she realize that Blacks were considered to be inferior on every level largely to justify slavery and segregation. These same beliefs of inferiority perpuate our culture today and influence what Black people and their children consider themselves capable of doing. Beliefs about ones ability will ultimately effect how someone scores on a test.

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