Thursday, May 6, 2010

Race, Genetics, and Harvard Law School

Is it reasonable to simply ponder the "possibility," ever so idly and hypothetically, that bad genes might explain African American underachievement? It is a an old and many-told tale, I know, but it just got a fresh re-telling at Harvard Law School this month.

A Harvard Law student recently apologized for comments she emailed to friends and colleagues following what sounds like an intriguing and heated dinner-time discussion about Affirmative Action. After first expressing concern that some of her earlier comments during that aforementioned dinner were misconstrued as politically correct, the student attempted to clarify her take on the matter.

"I absolutely do not rule out the possibility," she wrote, "that African-Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent."

Claiming that sound research could convince her otherwise, she seemed intent on dispelling any lingering sense among her friends that she might be too timid about the notion of considering potential linkages between race and intelligence.

She went on: "I don't think it is that controversial of an opinion to say that 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 position at dinner."

The student then ended her email with a joke. "Please don't pull a Larry Summers on me," citing the firestorm that Harvard's former president caused by broaching the idea that the under-representation of women in math and science might be predicated on their genetic endowment. Summers was eventually forced to resign his post.

After a public reprimand from the law school's dean, Martha Minow, the student apologized for her email and took back her claim about being open to considering possible genetic links between race and intelligence.

"I emphatically do not believe that African-Americans are inferior in any way," she said. "I understand why my words expressing even a doubt in that regard were and are offensive."

But what is she apologizing for? The very thought? Is this an example of "politics" trumping science by deeming certain research questions impossible to ask?

Ironically, the law student appears to have been reprimanded (during that earlier dinner conversation) for a form of political correctness, for not clearly accepting the premise that genetics might explain race-based differences in intelligence (and, by extension, social achievement), a premise that her friends appear to have chastised her for "shy[ing] away from."

This Harvard student's email has been overshadowed by Harvard Professor Skip Gates's recent New York Times op-ed, which is equally controversial in terms of contemporary racial politics. The Gates essay emphasizes African complicities in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade as a way to problematize calls for reparations here in the United States. He asks, somewhat rhetorically, if African nations should by asked to fork over some cash, too.

One reading of the Gates essay (and its critics abound) castigates him for "blaming the victim" and letting Europe and America off the hook, for pretending that every link in chattel slavery's horrible chain carried equal weight.

Of course, it is easy enough to read genetic explanations for racial achievement gaps as another way of blaming victims (and, in that case, their biological makeup), of letting real (social and political) culprits off the hook. If racial thinking is "bad biology" (as social constructionists and many physical anthropologists currently proclaim), we should be suspicious of any too-easy and essentialist invocation of racial groups as "natural" hooks on which to hang causal claims about inequality.

Gates isn't going to apologize for his (post-racial?) reading of history, and some people won't accept this law student's attempt at an apology. But, again, why is this student apologizing at all? That's one of the most important questions we can ask. Is it simply for offending African-Americans? For invoking race as nature rather than nurture? For racial insensitivity? For fear of being labelled a racist? And why do we often invoke genetics as some kind of holy grail that can reduce the messy machinations of everyday life to ostensible irrelevance? What kind of irrationality might that represent?