This week is Harvard's commencement for the class of 2010.
As one of the most renowned and liberal institutions in the world, it's always hurtful and harmful -- both to the campus milieu and the school's reputation -- when racist and sexist acts occur at Harvard University.
Last month, a lengthy email written by a third-year student and an editor on the Harvard Law Review, Stephanie Grace, was printed by the legal blog abovethelaw.com. In that email, Grace wrote that she thought blacks might be genetically inferior to whites: "I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent," she said. (Grace's comment came following a private dinner conversation about affirmative action and race.)
As we all know, affirmative action is a hot-button issue. At a basic level, it's an attempt to take race, gender and ethnicity (to name only a few factors) into consideration to promote a level playing field for all. But the sub-text in all affirmative action debates is the fallacious belief that blacks selected to benefit from it are hopelessly and helplessly genetically inferior -- that their DNA is chromosomally deficient, if not defective.
The myth of genetic inferiority of people of African ancestry is centuries old, tracing back to when the first slave boat arrived on our shores in 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia. The myth of genetic inferiority of people of African ancestry not only legitimatized slavery, but also biblically sanctioned it. It was aided by people like Nobel Laureate William Shockley, who in 1956 voiced his theory of a genetic basis for racial inferiority. As part of his theory on the biology of ethnicity, Shockley stated that people of African ancestry belonged to a lower species of humanity, and deserved sterilization.
The idea of sterilizing blacks -- because we supposedly belonged to a "lower species of humanity" -- was part and parcel of the American eugenics movement, which started in 1926. Even Planned Parenthood's founder, Margaret Sanger -- an iconic figure for the women's reproductive rights movement -- espoused eugenics theory, backing the 1939 "Negro Project," which was a precursor to what eugenists wanted to implement on a much larger scale.
As Sanger told the Senate in 1932, "The main objectives of the [proposed] Population Congress is to...apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring."
Debates about genetic inferiority are not new, and perhaps will continue, especially in light of ongoing debates about affirmative action. But it's surprising to find them at an institution of learning like Harvard.
Then again, Harvard is also the place where in January 2005, then-president of the University, Larry Summers, espoused his belief in the genetic inferiority of women. At a conference discussing why women are underrepresented in tenured science and engineering jobs at the best universities and research institutions, Summers stated that one explanation might be the "different availability of aptitude at the high end." Summers went on to say that his "best guess" was that "there are issues of intrinsic aptitude," meaning men tend to have a broader range of I.Q. scores than women -- what he said was a more important factor to explain the lack of women in such fields than "different socialization and patterns of discrimination."
As a woman, Grace surely realizes the absurdity of Summers' argument, an absurdity that's true of her own as well.
What do Grace's views mean for her future career? The Harvard Law Review is one of the premier journals of legal scholarship in the country. Grace is an editor of the journal, and will soon be an attorney. In her practice, will Grace be espousing racist legal theory? She graduates this week.
Many of the journal's alumni have gone on to be Supreme Court justices, cabinet secretaries and U.S. government officials. But only one went on to become president of the U.S. -- Barack Obama, a man who was admitted thanks to affirmative action.
While Grace might argue that Obama is advantaged in terms of genetic intelligence because he's biracial -- as opposed to black -- let's remember that it was his Kenyan father who graduated from Harvard with a Ph.D. in economics, not his white mother.
Not surprisingly, Harvard Law School's dean, Martha Minow, has denounced Grace's email, stating that the school is "committed to preventing degradation of any individual or group." But as long as discrimination along the lines of race, class and gender persist, girded by attitudes of white superiority like Grace's, society will miss out on the future Barack Obamas of the world.