The controversy over a Harvard Law School student's email regarding race has already generated enough commentary to fill a few Harvard Law textbooks. The key excerpt of the original email, which was apparently sent after a vigorous debate over dinner, is this:
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.
Since the several-month-old email was leaked, others have stepped in to supply bits of context. One detail is that the person who leaked the email allegedly did so after a fight with the author, Stephanie Grace. As a result, some of the blogs that leaped on the details of the incident have begun to back away from the debate. Yet the controversial excerpt continues to generate a fascinating discussion about racial stereotypes, freedom of speech, open debate, and social mores.

Condemning the Email

  • Law School Thought Processes, the Meaning of Free Speech  Jill at Feministing has a much-praised post arguing that the law school mindset may have contributed to the incident: "I would imagine part of her mentality was that if she can make a consistent, rational and logical argument for this point then it's fair game." The problem with this, she says, is that training people merely to think consistently "eliminates, or at least lowers the value of, concepts like justice and social privilege and real-life inequality." Jill also suspects it's partly "White Person Code-- the understanding that well we all kind of agree on this even if we can't say it out loud in mixed company, right guys?--that made Stephanie Grace feel totally ok sending [this email]." Finally, she makes a point about free speech:
Not only did one HLS student write an email literally saying that black people might be genetically inferior to white people, but she is being defended by other legal scholars under the pretense that any idea should be up for debate and no one should get offended and oh also maybe she's right. With no recognition of the fact that ideas of genetic inferiority underwrote slavery in this country ...
free speech is not a shield from criticism and consequence. Yes, it is a shield against government persecution for your speech, but it does not mean that other people are not permitted to speak out against you; it doesn’t mean that other people should have to accept what you say without attaching words like "racist" or "sexist" or "bigoted" to what you say.
  • Agreed  "You have the right to express yourself, not to control the reactions of others," writes political science professor Scott Lemieux. "The underlying premise," he thinks, in this debate, "is that one should be able to express bigotry while being exempt from criticism that might make the person expressing the bigotry uncomfortable. And going along with this is the even sillier assumption that people who defend existing social privileges are the real iconoclasts. Please."
  • Nor Is It a Matter of Scientific Inquiry, adds Jesse Taylor at Pandagon.
If you are going to lead a scientific inquiry about the relative intelligence of racial groups (assuming all definitional problems are solved and that "intelligence" is a single variable), then there are three potential outcomes, generally speaking:
1.) W (whites) are more intelligent than B (blacks).
2.) W and B are equally intelligent.
3.) W are less intelligent than B.
Whenever this tired old debate is brought up, the only propositions that are ever introduced are 1 and 2.  ... Nobody I've ever had this debate with has ever mentioned 3.  It's because the debate that you're having isn't about science’s ability to measure racial intelligence as a genetic factor - it's about the defense of racial stereotypes as something you can’t disprove and therefore shouldn’t be so damned sensitive about.
  • Something You Might Want to Think About  "White people really, really piss me off sometimes," writes Elie Mystal at True Slant, who isn't inclined to let Grace off the hook.
But I'm not open to the possibility that white people have a genetic predilection for oppressing others, raping the Earth, and hoarding wealth. I don't dismiss the possibility because I'm unwilling to engage in vigorous academic debate, I dismiss the possibility because I'm not a goddamn idiot ... This ridiculous universe where even questions from the slow witted and lazy are respected under the guise of academic debate doesn’t exist.


Objections

  • Context Here  "The phrase 'I absolutely do not rule out the possibility...,' implies that that during the conversation, the student was criticized by someone else for ruling out the possibility," points out law professor Ann Althouse. "What does that... suggest... about the full context of the email and the motives for leaking it?"
  • Hang On: This Isn't a Matter of Morality, says Eugene Volokh. "Whether there are genetic differences among racial and ethnic groups in intelligence is a question of scientific fact. Either there are, or there aren't." He in fact thinks the reaction "presupposes that it’s somehow wrong for people in a free country to discuss scientific questions because of the possibility that some people might learn about that and be offended. That can't be right."
  • I Don't Get This Controversy, The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates admits: "I deeply suspect that large swaths of this country believe that 'race' and 'intelligence' are connected, and not in a way that favors black people. I don't know what to do about that. I don't think banning the conversation will change the numbers." He's also not pleased about the way a personal email, forwarded out of context and without consent, blew up, and says "a cause that is so fragile that it necessitates hysteria based on a single civilian e-mail isn't much of a cause."