At Harvard, Intellectualism is the New Hood to Hide Behind
I don’t know exactly when it became socially unacceptable to harbor racist beliefs, but I know that — at least up north — we’ve been here for a while. Because prejudging a person based solely on the color of their skin is so out of fashion, people who have racist thoughts usually try to hide them from the public view of polite society.
People with controversial views about race don’t want to hide, of course. They think that if they could just explain their point, openly and honestly, everybody would agree with them. Hell, some of these people even think that the minorities they’re insulting would agree with them if minorities could just be honest with themselves. The hubris is astounding. But it’s why the right loves a guy like Clarence Thomas. He’s a walking, talking confirmation that anybody can harbor racist beliefs, if they just try hard enough.There are some people who believe that from behind the veil of ignorance, most black people would end up like Clayton Bixby.
But like I said, it’s impolite to openly espouse racist beliefs. And so society has provided a new, hi-tech method of expressing these thoughts, while still giving people the cover they need in order to function in society: the question.
Now you might think that only a lunatic like Glenn Beck would try to hide racism in “I’m just asking questions” rhetoric and think he’s getting away with it. But you’d be wrong. Last week, this method of racial insult made it all the way to Harvard Law School…
Last week, an email containing a manifestly racist question — intended for the private consumption of a few friends — went public. Then it went viral. We picked it up on Above the Law. The email garnered national attention because the it was sent by an educated and accomplished Harvard Law student. Here’s the pertinent part of the email:
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.
I’m not even going to begin to get into the substance of this question. You can’t academically debate a question where every single premise is flawed and poorly (or flat out incorrectly) defined. If you really think that it is “possible” that African-Americans are less intelligent on a genetic level than any other race, I sincerely urge you to help yourself to a science book. Please come up with working definitions of “intelligence,” “genetics,” and the difference between “red hair,” red herrings, and human intellectual capacity. Then tell me who the hell you’re talking about when you say African-Americans. I’ll not waste my time arguing with people who won’t even put forth the effort to understand basic evolutionary biology, yet want me to take a CAT Scan to satisfy their curiosity.
I will deal with the coverage of this story. After Above the Law ran the email, the story was picked up by Gawker, the Boston Globe, the National Review, the Huffington Post, and simply every legal blog I can think of. The debate has centered around not the substance of the email (because again, the actual suggestion proffered in it is absurd — does this person have any idea how long it takes for evolution to act upon an organ like the brain?) but on whether asking the question is itself racist.
Many commentators said that the question was “not racist” and therefore appropriate in an academic setting. Eugene Volokh, a professor at UCLA and a legal scholar that I respect (though often disagree with) said this:
One should not rule out possibilities in the absence of conclusive evidence, for the simple reason that one then has no factual basis to rule out those possibilities…
Now some claims may be so contrary to our current understanding of the world that we might say something like this: We shouldn’t rule out the possibility in principle, but in practice the probability is so vanishingly small that we should exclude it from our analysis. That, for instance, might be one’s view about claims that werewolves exist. First, it’s just hard to imagine, given current science, what possible mechanism there might be that would turn humans into wolves every full moon. Second, one would think that if werewolves existed, we’d have good evidence of them, since proving their existence would be pretty easy.
But we still know very little about which genes produce intelligence, how exactly those genes operate, and even how intelligence can be defined. We obviously have vastly more left to learn about this.
My own managing editor, David Lat, whom I’ve worked closely with for almost two years now, offered a similar opinion:
Let me play devil’s advocate for a second…. If we accept “race” as a biological concept — which I realize is questionable, becoming diluted through intermarriage, etc. — is it really so insane to suggest that some races might, ON AVERAGE, possess certain qualities to a greater or lesser degree than other races?
For example, would it be racist to say that, ON AVERAGE, African-Americans are taller than Asian-Americans? Or that Caucasians are more likely to have blond hair than Asian-Americans? Or is the issue that we don’t think intelligence is at all tied to genetics?
via Above the Law
Many people supported these viewpoints. In an Above the Law poll, 57% of respondents said that the initial email was not racist.
It’s disappointing that so many people think it’s possible that something as basic as human intellectual capacity can be influenced by something as fleeting as skin color. It’s disappointing that so many people want to believe it’s a fair question for academic inquiry. It’s disappointing that so many people are waiting for science to prove a negative, and simply won’t “rule anything out” until it does.
The fact that all men are created equal is not debatable, it is “self-evident.” To formulate the question in your mind, you have to be open to the possibility that an entire race of humans might just be intellectually inferior to an entire other race of humans. We have a word for people who think it is even possible for one race to be inferior to another.
Look at the convoluted knots the above commentators are tying themselves into to make the question sound plausible. Volokh is saying that the question is reasonable for academic debate since it’s not as improbable as the existence of werewolves. Is that the new standard for the world’s top universities? Lat’s telling us that anecdotal observation of height among different populations suggests an open academic question as to whether an entire ethnic group of humans is genetically dumber than some other ethnic group.
And yet I’m the non-intellectual in the room if I think the question is racist? I’m the one standing against serious academic inquiry because I’m saying “blacks might be genetically dumber than whites” is just as stupid as saying “Yao Ming can only be killed by a silver bullet”?
Is it not textbook racism to believe one race to have immutable characteristics that make them substantively inferior to another race?
White people really, really piss me off sometimes. 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.
Now, is it possible to debate racist beliefs in an academic environment? Sure. Why not. If I ever had Louis Farrakhan or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a class about human evolutionary biology, I’d freaking destroy them.
But don’t tell yourself that by virtue of asking a question in an academic manner and setting means you are engaged in anything approaching intellectualism. The question format isn’t a prophylactic against ugly, demeaning and racist statements. “Are gay people more likely to rape children?” Ugly. “Are women too emotional to engage in rigorous logical thought?” Demeaning. “Is it possible that Latinos need more sleep, on average, than the Japanese who appear to be able to work like robots?” Ugly, demeaning, and racist to two races at the same time.
For some reason, the people defending this student have lost faith in the power of deductive logic — but apparently only when the subject turns to race and intelligence. Science doesn’t have to prove or disprove every inane theory a person can articulate. Our shared human ability to reason far outstrips our scientific ability to explain. A common example of that ability is our Theory of Gravity. Our best scientists still can’t explain precisely what gravity is, or exactly why it’s so powerful over long distances yet so weak that living organisms with a fraction of the mass of our Earth can easily overcome it long enough to dunk a basketball. “We obviously have vastly more to learn about this.” Is it possible that people who can dunk a basketball have brains that emit a special electromagnetic pulse that allows them to repulse from the Earth more easily than people (like me) who can’t dunk?
Thanks to deductive logic, I don’t need to know everything about gravity or everything about physics or everything about how the brain works to know that the human brain cannot make me fly. I can dismiss the possibility outright. Some questions are just dumb.
It’s the height of intellectual laziness to throw out a poorly conceived, stupid question and yet hide under the apron strings of “honest debate” when somebody tells you that the premise of your question is flawed and offensive. At the Harvard I went to, intellectualism wasn’t something we were taught to hide behind. Debate was not the appropriate forum to expose ignorance. Every student that has ever gotten into Harvard has learned the value of homework. You came to class, prepared, or you kept your mouth shut when adults were talking. This ridiculous universe where even questions from the slow witted and lazy are respected under the guise of academic debate doesn’t exist.
It pains me to see so many people trying to twist the free exchange of academic ideas into something that supports not-so-thinly veiled racism. Universities are supposed to be places where people learn to overcome the nascent prejudiced beliefs that they harbor without an iota of hard evidence. Not places where people are rewarded for couching racist beliefs in the language of academia. “Are black people intellectually inferior, genetically, to white people” is not an open scientific question, it’s a competing (and wrong) theory of reality. A reality which presupposes that: A) there could be a subclass of humans living among us, B) I could be one of them, C) As long as we don’t stop people from “asking tough questions,” science may one day “prove” that I’m subhuman.
Is there anything more racist than that?
I don’t know what racial minorities have to do to “prove” that they have the same capacity for human intellect as everyone else. 200 years ago, whites thought we had smaller brains. Today, some are open to the possibility that we’re genetically inferior. 200 years from now, I’m sure there will be some other ridiculous bastardization of science people go with. Maybe they’ll find that blacks don’t have as many dark matter particles energizing the electrons in their fingernails. Who knows? I’ve given up trying to anticipate how people will insult me and my entire race next.
While the reasons change, the fundamental racist insult never does. There will always be people who look at the color of another man’s skin and assign some kind of meaning to it, beyond the simple concentration of pigment.
The silver lining is that the people who hold these beliefs still can’t actually manage to hide the racist overtones in polite society. They can dress it up as science and biology. They can cloak it in the sphere of academic debate. They can phrase their answer in the form of a question. But at the end of the day, either you believe in fundamental human equality or you don’t.
Throughout history there have been a long line of people that have resisted the theory of fundamental human equality. But history favors those who embrace equality, not those who keep trying to find an intellectual way around it.