Friday, April 30, 2010

The Stephanie Grace Email: Are You Kidding Me?

Working at a large law firm and having gone through the tortuous process of taking the LSAT and applying to law school, I have a tendency to roam teh internetz to see what those in the law community are discussing.  This week the major law-related story was about a very misguided Harvard Law 3L who thought it was a good idea to not only argue at a dinner with other HLS students that blacks are genetically inferior when it comes to intelligence, but then to memorialize said argument in an email.  There are so many things wrong with this picture, so let's break it down.

1) Stephanie Grace's premise is just wrong
To think that intelligence is genetic is ridiculous.  Do some people just "get it?"  Sure, but to say that an entire race is dumber because of their skin color is ludicrous.  I'm a nurture over nature guy to begin with and I find statements disparaging an entire race just factually unsound.  Someone is intelligent because they apply themselves and were given the tools to succeed intellectually during their development.  It has nothing to do with skin color.

2) Never, ever, memorialize something in an email if you think it will come back to haunt you
People do and say stupid things; mostly these tend to be spur of the moment statements that one wishes they could take back immediately.  But you need to show extremely poor judgment to say something stupid, as Stephanie did, and then go back to your apartment, re-write it and send it out as an email.  And before people say, "Maybe she didn't think it was a bad idea," she wrote at the end of her email (produced in full at the end of this post) "Please don't pull a Larry Summers on me," knowing full well that what she was saying was as ridiculous as former Harvard president Larry Summers' statements about women being less intellectually apt when it came to math and science.

Beyond Grace's racism, however, it might be even more disturbing that she thought sending this email to multiple people would be a good idea.  Racists permeate throughout society (the fact that Grace is a Harvard 3L with a federal clerkship lined up for next year speaks to this), but the fact that Harvard and 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski accepted a person who is racist and this clueless is scary.  There are rumors that the email was sent out as the result of a "cat fight" between Grace and another Harvard Law student and thus is unfair.  Look: if Grace had not been so daft and had not written this email, none of this happens.  I don't care how the email surfaces, it surfaced.  Don't want this to happen to you?  Read the headline of this section.

3) I don't buy Stephanie Grace's apology
This is a classic case of "I'm sorry I got caught."  She wrote in her apology email that, "I emphatically do not believe that African-Americans are genetically inferior in any way. I understand why my words expressing even a doubt in that regard were and are offensive."  Yet in her email (which was written in November of last year) she states, " 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."  What changed in those six months?  The fact that her racist email was seen by the nation and now it might be harder to get a job.  She's a Princeton grad and got into Harvard Law, so she's no dummy.  She meant what she wrote in that email (she didn't want to be characterized as having shied away from her opinion of blacks being dumber than whites) and to say that she doesn't is just insulting our intelligence.

4) Stephanie Grace will probably not lose her clerkship
As much as I'd love to see her receive her comeuppance for being a racist, I don't see her losing her clerkship.  I mean, Judge Alex Kozinski is the kind of guy who puts up porn of naked women painted in cow print on the internet while presiding over an obscenity case.  He escaped a judicial misconduct charge in part by apologizing.  He'll put out some statement that this was a "learning opportunity" and that Grace simply "made a mistake."  I would argue that by the time you're in your third year of law school the time to "make mistakes" involving writing racist emails has passed.  So I don't see Grace losing her clerkship, but I do see her having a difficult time getting a job at a large, reputable firm that has a public image to think about.

Photo - Stephanie Grace (Gawker)

The Full Email:

… 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,


  1. Nothing wrong with a little cow porn. You know J. Jergle likes to spread his love cream on a heiffer's hind side every now and again!

  2. ***To think that intelligence is genetic is ridiculous. ***

    Harvard Psychology Professor Steven Pinker would disagree with you on that. Read 'The Blank Slate' or his article in the New York Times last year 'My Genome'.

    See this twin study by UCLA neuroscientist Paul Thompson. The results reported in MIT Technology Review:

    "By comparing the brain scans of twins, scientists discovered that the quality of the fatty tissue that insulates neural wires is largely inherited. The parietal lobe, which is involved in logic and mathematics, is 85 percent genetically determined, whereas the visual cortex is about 76 percent, and the temporal lobe, which is involved in learning and memory, is only 45 percent genetically determined."

    As Professor Steve Hsu notes:

    "On the other hand, for most phenotypes (examples: height or IQ, which are both fairly heritable, except in cases of extreme environmental deprivation), there is significant overlap between different population distributions. That is, Swedes might be taller than Vietnamese on average, but the range of heights within each group is larger than the difference in the averages. Nevertheless, at the tails of the distribution one would find very large discrepancies: for example the percentage of the Swedish population that is over 2 meters tall (6"7) might be 5 or 10 times as large as the percentage of the Vietnamese population. If two groups differed by, say, 10 points in average IQ (2/3 of a standard deviation), the respective distributions would overlap quite a bit (more in-group than between-group variation), but the fraction of people with IQ above some threshold (e.g., >140) would be radically different...

    There is no strong evidence yet for specific gene variants (alleles) that lead to group differences (differences between clusters) in behavior or intelligence, but progress on the genomic side of this question will be rapid in coming years, as the price to sequence a genome is dropping at an exponential rate.

    What seems to be true (from preliminary studies) is that the gene variants that were under strong selection (reached fixation) over the last 10k years are different in different clusters. That is, the way that modern people in each cluster differ, due to natural selection, from their own ancestors 10k years ago is not the same in each cluster -- we have been, at least at the genetic level, experiencing divergent evolution.

    In fact, recent research suggests that 7% or more of all our genes are mutant versions that replaced earlier variants through natural selection over the last tens of thousands of years. There was little gene flow between continental clusters ("races") during that period, so there is circumstantial evidence for group differences beyond the already established ones (superficial appearance, disease resistance)."

  3. ***So I don't see Grace losing her clerkship, but I do see her having a difficult time getting a job at a large, reputable firm that has a public image to think about.***

    As Above the Law editor David Lat notes, what she considered was no different to Judge Richard Posner (or Princeton bio-ethicist Peter Singer, David Friedman or Francis Crick etc).

  4. Hi Ben:

    Thanks for the comments. Even if intelligence is inherited (which I still do not buy), are Stephanie Grace's comments warranted? In other words, would you agree that either a) blacks are dumber than whites or b) that a debate over the intelligence of entire races should even be had?

    And to the point that other people have said what Grace has: does this really make it OK? Francis Crick, who has also said women should have the right to abort fetuses that may have a tendency to become homosexual, received a lot of flack for his comments. Peter Singer advocates the killing of Down Syndrome infants and having sex with animals, so I'm not super surprised that he might argue what Grace has here. As far as Friedman and Posner go, I could not really find any concrete quotes from them saying blacks are dumber than whites.

  5. I guess it is upsetting when people upset the apple cart of political correctness. The truth is that there is no scientific proof for your assumption that intelligence is NOT genetic, and a mountain of evidence for the hypothesis that it is.

    From a simple ontological perspective, why in the course of making unfounded assumptions about the heritability of various traits, would you argue to exclude only one trait, intelligence?

    And yet, in the same exercise, dutifully accept the heritability of phenotypes such as height, hair color, eye color?

    And here in your myopic post, as nearly everywhere online, the term "racism" has been incorrectly applied, merely to mean something regarding race with which you do not agree.

    Remember, it is perhaps in the eye of the beholder. If someone believes in the heritability of G, then you slap them with the "racist" label. However, to do so, it is *you* who are again, making assumptions as to whether G is a hallmark of "superiority". Racist? Look in the mirror to see one.

  6. JJ:

    I simply do not believe that intelligence - a "trait" I see that is worked for and earned, not inherited - can be compared to immutable characteristics like hair, eye, or skin color. If intelligence is inherited, then why do we go to school to develop our intellect if it is simply inherited?

    If Stephanie Grace is correct in her statements that blacks are genetically dumber than whites, then why would she come out and apologize for being right? One thing we can both agree on is Stephanie Grace's wrongness - from my perspective for harboring racist ideals (saying blacks are genetically stupider than whites is racist, I don't care how you try to spin it) and from yours for being a weak-kneed apologist to politically correct racists.

  7. Kane:

    Clearly we go to school to acquire knowledge and develop intellectual capability. Take sports as an analogy; we have these star pro athletes, who have largely inherited their athletic ability and who command a great deal of physical prowess only made possible by their genetic endowment (or I suppose you're going to argue that stature and other attributes aren't heritable either?)

    Yet they train anyway, to turn their genetic "gift" into something truly spectacular.

    Show me the All American athlete who has sprung from the loins of two people both the exemplars of 98 pound weaklings, I defy you! Show me the Nobel prize winning scientists who are the progeny of two low level function retarded parents. I defy you!

    In short, intelligence and intellect might share a root, but they don't mean the same thing.

    As for your deeply held bias, the flaw of your premise is that we are all equal in every fashion despite the plethora of evidence, much of it empirical, that we are not. And worse, your ideology demands that this condition must be met.

    You scorn the idea of differences by saying "saying blacks are genetically stupider than whites is racist, I don't care how you try to spin it", belies your irrational approach to a legitimate avenue of scientific inquiry, one which you have leaped to the end of, without doing any of the work necessary to arrive there.

    And again, perhaps it is racist to you, because you apparently believe that having greater measurable intelligence makes one superior. Rather an elitist and presumptive position for a supposedly enlightened and informed chap like yourself to take, don't you think?

    Now let's talk about this other racist thing that has been bothering me, which is the dominance of professional sports like football and basketball by blacks. Surely there is some kind of grand Afro-Centric conspiracy at foot here. After all, it is just "racist" to say that blacks are better at sports than whites.

  8. JJ:

    We're just going to have to agree to disagree.

    Call it elitism or whatever you want to, but intelligence is a desirable characteristic to have in our society; there's no denying this. To say that blacks, then, automatically are below whites in this category would put them at a categorical disadvantage in society.

    In terms of equality: I believe in the equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.

    Thank you for the comments, I appreciate a good debate. I hope you continue to read the blog, even if you don't agree with everything (or anything) on it.

  9. Kane,

    It's hard to take anything you say seriously when you deny that IQ is largely determined by genes.

    The American Psychological Association states that the heritability of IQ is .75 at adulthood. (

    Even the New York Times -- yes, the New York Times -- repeated the American Psychological Association's claims that IQ is overwhelmingly determined by genes.

    I would like to continue debating with you, but I will only do so if you join the rest of the scientific community in agreeing that IQ is strongly influenced by genes.

  10. Joe:

    I'm open to the idea of IQ being partially determined by genetics. We also have to look at environmental factors (do individuals with higher-IQ parents who tend to be more financially successful have access to better foods, schools, etc. that would lead to better development which might affect IQ scores?). I do not buy the argument that intelligence as a whole is purely genetically defined. IQ is one aspect of intelligence, not the whole pie.

    My main issue is the idea that blacks are genetically stupider than whites. Most people here point out the genetic aspect of intelligence (which is a fair debate to have), but what no one has come forward to say is that race and intelligence are significantly correlated.

    So really there are two conversations: one is genetics and intelligence, the other is race and intelligence. Grace's email deals more with the latter and this is where I object to her musings.

    So let's pretend that intelligence is 100% defined genetically. Would you say that blacks are genetically dumber than whites?