Minow’s Whale of a Mistake

The controversy at Harvard Law School over last month’s email about racial intelligence seems to have died down. The basic facts of the case are these: a Harvard law student who is an editor of the Harvard Law Review sent an email to two friends as a follow-up to an earlier conversation. In it she wrote: “I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African-Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.” The email circulated among the students after one of the friends turned against her and passed it along to damage her reputation. The message infuriated the Black Law Students Association and compelled Dean Martha Minow to issue a denunciation of the statement. The original author apologized profusely.
John Leo wrote about the affair here, among other things highlighting the background of the author. (She was a sociology major at Princeton, where she studied how the campus atmosphere affects different racial groups.) John also pointed out the disproportionate nature of the consequence: a private email to friends turns into a public humiliation of a graduate student.
There is another aspect of the story worth pondering further. It comes up in a recent summary of the affair by Peter Berkowitz at The Weekly Standard.
Berkowitz focuses on the words of Dean Minow. Yes, we all have seen how swiftly university administrators respond to racial incidents, how frantically they wish to demonstrate that they will, indeed, tolerate no hate speech and honor all peoples. But this action was somewhat different. Minow delivered a judgment of a text written by a student. The student was not brought forward on any charges, and no disciplinary procedure was in play. It was the student’s words that mattered, and Minow’s words would oppose them.
Here’s the problem, in Berkowitz’s rendering: “Dean Minow’s statement, moreover, failed to honor the scholar’s duty to restate accurately a view one is criticizing. According to Minow, the student’s email ‘suggested that black people are genetically inferior to white people.’ That’s an incendiary revision.”
In truth, the email was much more tentative and hypothetical. She wrote that she couldn’t “rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.” This is the posture of the scientist, not the racist, the latter of whom would assert inferiority without hesitation. Indeed, the fact that Minow scrambled the student’s words indicates that the words themselves weren’t enough to justify Minow’s denunciation.
That isn’t the dean’s only crime. She also neglected the rest of the email, which further belies the charge of racism. Berkowitz again:

in the very next sentence, [the student] entertained the possibility that there is no genetic variation in intelligence between the races: ‘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 student went on to speculate that ‘cultural differences’ are probably ‘the most important sources of disparate test scores.’ And the student elaborated at length an argument from Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy that in the student’s judgment deftly showed, despite the absence of ‘quantifiable data,’ that racial disparities for violent crimes were rooted in culture. In sum, the student clearly expressed the desire to set aside conclusions of the heart, and instead examine the scientific data and consider reasoned analysis concerning the genetic basis of intelligence.

This is a reasonable discussion, and while the history of social science into intelligence contains some awful episodes of racism, it is still proper to inquire into racial differences in cultural, geographical, and other terms, including genetic ones.
Not in the dean’s office. Not only did Minow violate the student’s privacy and encourage the rest of Harvard to “regard the student as a pariah,” as Berkowitz notes. Not only did Minow encourage students who feel aggrieved or offended to run to authorities and complain. She also demonstrated little understanding of the norms of scientific inquiry. And worse, perhaps, she disregarded what may be the first principle of academic discussion: to represent the words and ideas of others accurately and fairly.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

4 thoughts on “Minow’s Whale of a Mistake

  1. I agree entirely with Mark Bauerlein’s original piece, but would disagree somewhat with his response to John Wilson. There is indeed overwhelming evidence that the Holocaust did occur, but I would not deny anyone’s right to question this event in history, nor would I deny the right to question the lunar landing or the rotundity of the earth. I happen to agree with MB that the student approached the racial issue rationally. But that’s really beside the point. Whether an individual expresses truth or falsity, science or psuedoscience, she should be able to speak and write without fear of adminstrative suppression.

  2. The example John Wilson gives here is a cheap and easy one. The evidence for the Holocaust is monumental, and so no person who doubts it can be considered scientific. By contrast, the inquiry into genetic differences among different races proceeds, of course, as it should–for instance, in incidence rates of various diseases, as well as in cognitive areas. I presume Wilson knows that racial discrepancies appear among the latter, and science demands that inquiry examine their etiology without blinkers. Nothing in Wilson’s comment demonstrates any knowledge of the question, or of general principles of inquiry, hypothesis-formation, inference, etc.

  3. Bauerlein and Berkowitz have a very odd perspective here. First of all, it is hardly a “violates the student’s privacy” to comment on a widely publicized email. There is no privacy right to have your email kept secret by its recipients.
    Second, using vague language such as not being about to “rule out the possibility” of genetic inferiority of blacks does not make you a scientist, it makes you slightly less of a bigoted idiot than the individual who is certain of this fact.
    Bauerlein should reconsider his belief that “This is the posture of the scientist, not the racist, the latter of whom would assert inferiority without hesitation.”
    Let me give an example. Suppose someone said that they “couldn’t rule out the possibility that the Holocaust is a myth that never happened, but could also obviously be convinced if real evidence was presented.”
    Would this make this person a “scientist” in Bauerlein’s eyes?
    Look, there are plenty of ways to say that the response at Harvard has been overblown (although no one’s freedom has been violated). But when leading conservatives claim that belief in the genetic inferiority of certain races is a scientific viewpoint, it makes me think that perhaps we need to expose this racial pseudoscience for what it is.

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