The New Larry Summers: Racist Email Jeopardizes Harvard Law Student's Career


“I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.” Thus spake — or rather emailed — a Harvard Law student, angering Black Law Student Associations and general non-racists nationwide.

Above the Law’s Kashmir Hill has posted the full email, which an angry recipient forwarded to Harvard’s Black Law Student Association and subsequently to BLSAs around the nation. Attempting to explain comments made at a previous dinner, the emailer (Hill calls him/her CRIMSON DNA), wrote,

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.

CRIMSON DNA closed with the line, “Please don’t pull a Larry Summers on me” — which, ironically, is pretty much what happened. Unlike Hill, the original recipient of the e-mail included CRIMSON’s real name when forwarding it along, and apparently some of those incensed by its disturbing take on genetics are trying to torpedo CRIMSON’s upcoming federal clerkship. Hill disapproves of this tactic, writing, “As troubling as DNA’s view may be, it’s troubling that [the recipient] and the Harvard BLSA identified the person by name in the emails that went out.” An Above the Law tipster accuses the recipient of a personal vendetta against CRIMSON, and writes,

As much as HARVARD BLSAer says she’s worried about DNA’s power and credibility in the future to exercise her purportedly dangerous views, I think it’s pretty sad that those involved used that same power and credibility to conduct a character assassination, rather than to expose the troubling views through honest debate.

But was the outing of CRIMSON really so “troubling?” What would have been a more appropriate response? Perhaps the recipient should simply have replied to the initial e-mail, explaining why CRIMSON was wrong. And perhaps that really would have led to “honest debate.” On the other hand, it’s clear that CRIMSON thought his/her initial recipient list was a safe space to air racist views, and a reprimand might merely have sent those views a little farther underground, perhaps to resurface when CRIMSON was in a position of greater power.

Debunking the notion that the intelligence is a measurable quantity that it’s somehow important to compare across races (and that races themselves are even as distinct as CRIMSON suggests) is a project for another post. What I’m really asking here is, what’s the right course of action when someone like CRIMSON seems poised to take a prejudiced viewpoint into an influential career? Does this risk excuse the publication of what were intended as private communications? Would the alternative — a person-to-person discussion — have been effective? The most considerate course for CRIMSON’s recipient would have been to alert CRIMSON before making the email public, providing a chance for education and a change of viewpoint — but did CRIMSON deserve consideration? Whatever the answer, it’s clear that CRIMSON made an assumption — that an email exchange with her Harvard Law colleagues would be a safe environment for racist speculation. And it’s a relief to know CRIMSON was wrong.

Image via Pakhnyushcha/Shutterstock.

Harvard Law School 3L’s Racist Email Goes National [Above the Law]

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