Nah, that would be too easy, and relatively painless compared to weighing in on the “Harvard Racist E-mail” controversy.
Haven’t heard of it? Join the other 99.999% of Americans. But in the law-related blogosphere, the controversy is all the rage the past few days.
For various versions of and opinions on the story, TaxProf Blog is collecting links.
The short version of the story is that roughly six months ago a third-year female student at Harvard Law School wrote an e-mail to a (now former) friend regarding a debate over whether there was scientific research which could justify the position that blacks were less intelligent than whites. The student had a falling out with her friend, who then circulated the e-mail to the HLS Black Law Students Association and others. The rest, as they say, is internet history.
I suggest that you read the full text of the e-mail, because context is important, particularly the fact that the student was not embracing such theories. Here are the money-lines most frequently quoted (emphasis mine):
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….
The reaction to the e-mail ranged from calls for the student to lose her federal judicial clerkship which she is to begin next fall, to making sure that the student is “outed” to every future potential employer.
A consistent theme has been that the theories raised by the student are so thoroughly discredited that there is no reason to challenge her on the merits; she simply is a racist.
In the meantime, the student has apologized.
Rather than repeating what others have said, here are some reactions worth reading:
- Volokh Conspiracy has a series of posts on the issue of intellectual taboos, judging a person based on a single personal e-mail, and the difference between embracing a theory and not ruling it out.
- Ann Althouse wonders why the Dean of HLS had to get involved, and highlights how the Dean mischaracterized the e-mail by stating that the student agreed that “black people are genetically inferior.”
- Brian Leiter attacks the merits of the “genetics” argument in the e-mail (and also takes issue with the Volokh posts), with links to various sources on race and intelligence. [added: see Tom Maguire’s retort, “Not Guilty” Does Not Equal “Innocent”, And Related Fallacies ]
I’d like to focus on something a little different.
Misperceptions and misconceptions do not go away because we forbid people to talk about them; rather, silence allows the misperceptions and misconceptions to grow unchallenged.
Would we not be better off if we fostered an academic culture in which we could debate — and debunk — abhorrent theories rather than letting them fester below the surface? Particularly when those theories are expressed by students still trying to figure things out, as opposed to people in positions of power?
That doesn’t mean that vigorous criticism is out of line.
But the potential loss of employment and a life in which this student will be pursued relentlessly is a fairly significant sanction to place on a mid-20-something who wrote a private e-mail to a friend.
While the student has given the obligatory apology, I doubt that any minds have been changed, anywhere.
Unfortunately, the lesson which will be learned is not that the theories expressed in the e-mail were wrong on the merits, but that such thoughts should not be put in writing, even to a friend.