A Harvard 3L (third-year law student) and future 9th Circuit clerk, and some pals were having a hearty dinner debate concerning race, genetics and intelligence. Following said mastication, our courageous 3L felt compelled to clarify her position via email. Said email was forwarded to me from my homie The Countess, a daughter of Harvard and faithful listserv user. The email is in all its glory below

.. . . 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]

Oh, Ms. Harvard 3L Whom We Shan’t Name…

Rather than throw in my two cents, I’m gonna have my girl The Countess–originally forwarder of the email, Harvard alumna and HLS Class of 2013–drop some science

Ultimately, the way the issue always gets framed is in this binary that’s white vs. black, more intelligent vs. less intelligent … which in all practicality gets processed as smart vs. stupid. Engaging with the fact that there are other racial/ethnic groups to consider would throw a monkey wrench into the entire operation.

Speaking more broadly, this issue seems to have so many offshoots and asides and complications that it’s hard to keep track of them all, so I’m just going to go through my thoughts point by point. This is extremely long, so I don’t really expect many (any?) of you to read all of it, but as a thought exercise it seemed worthwhile to try and synthesize all the elements of this discussion. Here goes:

1) In order to have this conversation at all, we have to assume there’s some universally agreed-upon definition of “intelligence,” which is hugely problematic in itself. The Slate.com article I was reading yesterday seemed to define intelligence as something like “the sum total of your ability to succeed in this society.” That seems like a reasonable enough definition, sure, but given that this society is entirely built upon a framework and history of white supremacy, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to find out that the people who designed the system would come out near the top in terms of “intelligence,” and the people they hate the most and have spent centuries subjugating would be on the bottom. Because the definition itself seems sort of circular. (I’m assuming Asian people somehow figured out how to beat white folks at their own game or something, because otherwise I can’t figure out how to reconcile their higher IQ scores with anything I just said.) So rather than relying on a circular definition of a nebulous word like “intelligence,” the only productive way to discuss this issue at all would be to identify specific traits and abilities that could conceivably be influenced by genetics, like the “ability to identify colors” gene vs. the “ability to pay attention to one task for a really long time” gene or something like that. (I’m no geneticist obviously so please forgive the over-simplified and possibly ridiculous examples.) Once more specific aspects of “intelligence” were identified, then we could theoretically move forward to my next thought, which is …

2) … If we could potentially agree on some specific traits or abilities that make up intelligence, the argument that homegirl advances in her email isn’t logically unsound. But the fact that it isn’t logically unsound in theory doesn’t mean it couldn’t have horrible consequences in practical reality. Clearly, however, the fact that something could have horrible consequences doesn’t make it true or not true. So, and Jason already addressed this, I think the wisest course of action in confronting this particular issue isn’t to discount the possibility, or rather to say that the possibility should never be discussed because of the potential negative consequences. Instead, it should be a sort of acknowledgment of the logic but then moving forward, as in, “Yes this could possibly be true, but if it is … so what?” Asking the “so what” question would get at the actual (but as-yet unexpressed) agenda of the people advancing these theories, which I think is what most of us take issue with, even more than the argument itself.

3) … That’s because people advancing this argument, logically sound or not, usually want to do something with the information (if it’s true) that black people are on average less “intelligent” (whatever that means) than white people. They’ll wanna make assumptions about the intelligence of individual black folks they meet, or they’ll want to stop funding programs that are currently in place to help close the achievement gap. But, even assuming the white > black thing is true, those are completely illogical things to do because a) leaving aside the possible “nature” aspect of achievement gaps, there’s still a HUGE “nurture” aspect that’s yet to be mitigated, and b) you can’t infer anything about individuals from information that deals in averages. Because even if black folks “on average” are dumb, you’ll still have individuals like Barack Obama, and meanwhile from the “smart” white camp you’ll have bonafide idiots like Sarah Palin. So making any type of social policy based on this information would not only be stupid, it’d be a detriment to society cause you’d stifle the potential of people who are above whatever’s “average” for their group.

4) I say all that to say, I think it’s important that we don’t try to suppress the argument the girl is making, because if you follow her argument and its implications to their logical conclusion, she still loses! But if everyone keeps putting their hands over their ears when they hear the first part, we never get to the part where it turns out that based on her agenda, she’s still a dumbass not just because of the moral implications of her idea, but because logically what she’d wanna do just doesn’t make sense. (Also, if people who believe the genetic inferiority thing really want to take it all the way, we’d be handing over the keys to the kingdom to our Asian brethren and no longer investing in little white kids either, and somehow I doubt they’d wanna go there. Discussing this in the binary black/white framework removes that risk for them though, which is probably why it gets talked about that way all the time.)

5) While I don’t think we should suppress discussion of this issue (race and genetics and intelligence), I still don’t give a shit if homegirl loses her clerkship. As I said earlier, (white) people who advance this argument usually do so because they wanna racially profile individuals about their intelligence and then go implement some racist policies. Specifically, this woman said at the end of her email that she’s “not 100% convinced” that even if 100 black and 100 white kids were raised in a perfect utopia then tested, intelligence would come out even … so she pretty much admitted to being a white supremacist right there. Since that’s the case, it seems fair to me that someone who holds such views shouldn’t be in a position to affect the lives of the minorities they believe they’re so superior to. Freedom of speech just means the government can’t arrest you for something you say, it doesn’t mean you get freedom from any and all consequences imposed by individuals and organizations who disagree with you. Their disagreement is free speech too.

6) Last point: While I think it’s “possible” that different races evolved different intellectual abilities in different areas, I don’t think it’s likely that this amounts to black folks being genetically inferior. With all the studies that have been conducted that control for income, 2-parent households, nutrition, educational preparation, whatever, and still have an “unexplained” intelligence gap between races, I wonder if the explanation is really all that hard to find. You can control for tangibles, yeah, but you can’t “control” for existing in a racist society where pretty much every message you receive daily from birth to death as a black person is that you’re intellectually (and morally, and aesthetically) deficient. That message is practically in the air, and especially in the increasingly globalized society that exists now it doesn’t matter whether you grew up in America or not. So I’d think the “unexplained” gap that’s left after all the controls is probably a result of living in a poisoned environment rather than a result of genetics.

If you still have the strength, have at it.

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