A Racial Flap at Harvard Law

Stephanie Grace, an editor at the Harvard Law Review, has been outed as the third-year student who emailed to two friends her opinion that “I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African-Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.” That triggered yet another racial flap at Harvard Law, with the school’s Black Law Students Association meeting with Dean Martha Minow, as the Boston Globe put it, “to discuss the hurt caused by Grace’s email.” Now there are efforts to head off her clerkship in California with Ninth Circuit Court Judge Alex Kosinski.
Casual comments about group inferiority are rightly denounced as repugnant, but in context, Grace’s words still look crude, but a bit less stark. She holds a sociology degree from Princeton, where, according to a campus website there, she conducted research on how the racial composition of one’s freshman year roommates influences behaviors, attitudes and perceptions during one’s college years. So she has been studying what happens to members of various racial groups in higher education. Presumably her research, and the dinner conversation with her two friends that preceded the emails, addressed affirmative action and the issue of why many African-Americans do relatively poorly in college. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education had this to say on the subject: “Nationwide, the black student college graduation rate remains at a dismally low 43 percent. But the college completion rate has improved by four percentage points over the past three years. As ever, the black-white gap in college graduation rates remains very large and little or no progress has been achieved in bridging the divide.”
Many explanations have been offered—prejudice, lack of faculty role models, stereotype threat, poor high schools, a mostly Western curriculum and so forth. From Grace’s email, it seems that at dinner the three women were sifting through these explanations, one of the women suggested a genetic interpretation that Grace rejected and then followed up with a you-might-be-right email saying that genetic differences are possible . Writing to her friends, she is certainly crude and stumbles into brief mentions of women and math, blacks and violence (no genetic connection there, she says) and the likelihood of the Irish to produce redheads. But she adds the comment that “I would just like some scientific data to disprove the genetic position.”
Is this racist? Maybe so, but different people will judge it differently. The fact is though that Grace has been publicly tarred as a racist and probably will be for the rest of her life. This is for private off-the-cuff comments to two friends, one of whom fell out with her and sent the email around in an effort to destroy her. The major lesson: Pick better friends and never count on private emails remaining private. Another lesson is that if you attend a famous law school, assume that any aggrieved fellow students will run to the dean complaining of hurt feelings instead of confronting and, if necessary, denouncing you. Law professor and blogger Ann Althouse made this point: “Why does the dean even get involved with something one student said in private email? If the answer is because the Black Law Students Association came to her and demanded a response, then maybe the question should be why did the Black Law Students Association go to the dean for help? … Why go to the nearest, biggest authority figure? Stephanie hurt me!”

John Leo

John Leo

John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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