Email Scandals, Harvard Law Review, listserv, Minority Issues, Racism

Harvard Law School 3L’s Racist Email Goes National

Every time you put something into an email, please remember that someone you send it to may hit Forward. If your email makes the case for a biological reason for racial disparities in intelligence, someone might hit Forward and send it to Black Law Student Associations across the nation.

That’s what happened to a Harvard 3L yesterday. We’ll call this 3L CRIMSON DNA. According to our sources, DNA made some controversial comments about race at a dinner held by the school’s Federalist Society.

CORRECTION: This dinner was not a Fed Soc dinner. [FN1]

After the dinner, DNA felt the need to send an email to a few friends clarifying those views. Here’s an excerpt:

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.

One of the 3Ls to receive that email, available in full after the jump, was very upset by it. We’ll call this student CRIMSON OUTRAGE. OUTRAGE arranged for the email to be sent out to the Harvard Black Law Student Association list-serv, including DNA’s name and the fact that after graduation, the author will be doing a federal clerkship.

CORRECTION: It now appears that OUTRAGE disseminated the email, several months after the email was originally sent, because she got into a fight with DNA — not because she (OUTRAGE) was offended by the email.

After that, the email went viral, apparently circulating to BLSAs across the country. There are now plans to try to go after DNA’s clerkship….

We got the email multiple times last night, from lots of first-time tipsters horrified that a person at Harvard Law School with a federal clerkship offer in hand holds such views. The person sending out the email to the Harvard BLSA wrote:

I am saddened that a current HLS student holds such antagonistic and archaic views about our people and that the potential impact of her ignorance is only strengthened by her prestigious affiliations and credentials.

Here is the full email from CRIMSON DNA:

… 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,

We’re a legal blog, not a science blog. But personally, when it comes to intelligence, I’m in the nurture rather than nature camp.

One tipster who passed it along said, “It’s unfortunate that this person appears to be on paper a highly educated individual, yet her viewpoints prove otherwise, and is likely to be put in positions of influence.”

(Is it so surprising? As the Broadway musical Avenue Q hilariously noted, everyone’s a little bit racist.)

Another tipster said there would be repercussions:

The firestorm that has resulted has been EPIC. [A member or members of] Harvard’s BLSA sent the email, along with CRIMSON DNA’s name and information, to the BLSAs at other Top 14 schools. The BLSAs are meeting to discuss what should be done about this and judging from the craziness on the listservs and at meetings, this is going to get ugly. They want to go after her clerkship offer, so this one might make the news.

UPDATE: The leaders of Harvard BLSA deny that BLSA is trying to have DNA’s clerkship offer rescinded, and they also emphasize that the email did not go out over an “official” BLSA list-serv. See here.

As troubling as DNA’s view may be, it’s troubling that OUTRAGE and the Harvard BLSA identified the person by name in the emails that went out. One tipster who knows those involved told us:

I think it’s kind of sad that OUTRAGE’s personal animus against DNA caused this whole debacle. I don’t think it’s ultimately about what DNA said, it’s about the fact that OUTRAGE’s still bitter. It’s pretty sad that a short and blunt conversation could have taught DNA about the false notion of biological race, but instead those involved decided to take off on the road of the destructive politics of personal destruction. 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. Right now I think the only thing anyone has learned is not to put anything in e-mail (which, come to think of it, is probably a useful lesson for lawyers).

Indeed. Instead of just running spell-checks, email programs need controversy-checks. Gmail should have an application that scans emails for “race,” “sex,” “gender,” and “birther” buzzwords, and then ask whether you’re sure you want to send.

We invite you to continue the conversation in the comments, but we ask that you not out any of those involved.

[FN1] Regarding whether or not this dinner was a Federalist Society dinner, a Fed Soc representative tells us:

Neither of these two individuals were present at the Harvard Federalist Society Banquet in April. It is not simply a “Federalist Society dinner” if members of the organization are present. The event has to be coordinated, planned, advertised, and funded by the organization itself.

If you know when the dinner in question took place, please email us.

UPDATE: Will Scharf, president of the Harvard Federalist Society, issued this statement to ATL:

I can categorically and unequivocally deny that the comments in question were uttered at any official Federalist Society dinner. The only dinner our chapter held this semester was our annual banquet on April 9th, at which the 3L in question was not present.

Moreover, the 3L responsible for the comments and e-mail at issue is not currently nor has ever been an active member of the Harvard Federalist Society. [This 3L] has never been eligible to vote in our elections, has never attended our national convention or student symposium, and has never applied for a board position. I do not know how our chapter ended up as part of this story, but we, to be blunt, have absolutely nothing to do with this.

Point taken. Federalist Society members, please stop emailing us. Thanks.


1. For statements from Harvard BLSA, see here and here.

2. For a statement from Dean Martha Minow, see here.

3. For more backstory on what led to the dissemination of DNA’s email, see here.

4. To vote in our reader polls about whether DNA’s email was (a) racist or (b) offensive, see here.

5. The story has evolved significantly since this post. For a more up-to-date write-up, see here.

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