Stephanie Grace, Ivy League Racism, and the Seeds of Institutional Bias

by Latoya Peterson and Thea Lim

We’ve received about five or so emails about Harvard Law Student Stephanie Grace, and her email “clarification” after a group dinner where she made some racist remarks that were not well received (predictably). At the time of the first email, her identity was shielded – as of today, outlets like Bossip, Jezebel, and Gawker have outed her identity and posted her photo.

Again, on its face, this is a fairly simple thing for the Racialicious audience – this woman was basically spouting the foundation to eugenics, the idea that some races are genetically inferior. This isn’t exactly new or revelatory – it’s the same logic used to justify the white man’s burden. So, after arguing that she could possibly believe that black people are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent than whites, she sent out an email clarifying her beliefs. As Above the Law excerpts from her email:

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.

Then, the email went national, leaving us with an interesting other situation that cropped up: those rising to defend Stephanie Grace.

Interestingly, the Black Law Student’s Association has yet to release a statement, but is already being vilified for “trying to rescind her clerkship.” And the nattering has begun about defending the freedom “to exchange ideas” presumably without consequence. An additional post on Above the Law, which we are not linking to, does just that, starting with the fact that the author didn’t agree with tagging the beliefs as racist, and that using any “ist” is shutting down conversation.

(We personally prefer calling shit as we see it, but that’s why this website is for militant minorities and our brainwashed white associates.*)

Jill Filipovic, over at Feministe, former law student and current lawyer brings a great perspective to the situation:

Instead, I want to discuss (a) the system that made Stephanie Grace feel that her email and her arguments were totally appropriate and within the realm of acceptable academic discourse, and that lead her to believe that her views would be accepted and welcomed; (b) the troubling reaction to the dissemination of her email, some of which has revolved around the ethics of naming her; and (c) why this matters. Because while Stephanie Grace is sending out racist emails, sites like Above the Law are falling all over themselves not only to obscure her identity, but also to say that maybe she was kind of right — and that her email wasn’t actually racist, and that the idea that black people are genetically inferior is one that we should entertain.

In other words, this isn’t just about Stephanie Grace.

Harvard Law School is no stranger to racial controversy. I am soliciting a guest-post from an HLS grad who will hopefully be able to delve more into that issue, but suffice it to say that something like this happens almost every year. And Harvard is certainly not alone among law schools in dealing with racist and sexist controversies. I’m not entirely sure what it is about law school that encourages the kind of behavior that Stephanie Grace exhibits here and I didn’t go to Harvard for law school, but I suspect it’s some combination of students with fairly sheltered upbringings and homogeneous social circles, an academic emphasis on logical consistency over actual justice, and an environment where discussions are so hyper-intellectualized that students feel they can say anything so long as they can give it a veneer of logic and rationality.

Yes, racism is everywhere. It is in law schools, and it is in law students before they ever get to law school. But it plays out in law schools in a very particular way. Law schools are environments that traffic heavily in discussions about logical consistency. In class, you read and discuss cases that all work off of each other in developing law. You start with one basic theory or set of laws, and then look at how the courts apply those theories to new sets of facts and circumstances; you look further down at how the courts use the outcomes of previous cases to draw conclusions in subsequent ones. Law school trains you to think in a particularly linear way — not “what is just here,” but “what is consistent here.” Often, consistency is the closest we can get to justice, and it offers a way to evaluate our laws in light of varying circumstances. It at least attempts objectivity. It’s a helpful way to learn how to think, and it certainly helps in the practice of law.

But it’s also a fairly narrow way of thinking, in a lot of ways. It eliminates, or at least lowers the value of, concepts like justice and social privilege and real-life inequality. In other words, while it is a helpful tool to use in order to be an effective attorney or advocate or debater or writer or thinker, it cannot be the only tool in your chest if you strive to be not only effective, but also conscientious.

For some law students — and for some lawyers — it seems to be the only tool in the chest.

I don’t know what Stephanie Grace was thinking when she wrote this email. But I would imagine part of her mentality was that if she can make a consistent, rational and logical argument for this point then it’s fair game (now, she clearly failed to make a consistent, rational and logical argument, but she wouldn’t be the first law student or lawyer to do that).

None of this is to say that law schools should no longer emphasize logic, rationality or consistency — of course not. But the lack of emphasis on concepts like social justice, and the disparate treatment of non-white people in the justice system, is not a part of the standard law school curriculum. It’s there, certainly, if you seek it out; it’s there in incredible, groundbreaking ways, and some of the best race and gender scholarship and activism in the United States is coming from the legal world. But it’s very easy to get through law school without having very much exposure to in-depth and challenging conversations about racial, gender and other inequalities.

It’s also very easy to get through law school spending time with people who mostly look and think like you, and who have life experiences that are similar to yours. It’s easy to fall into a group of white people who all understand White Person Code — the little things you imply or say that have attached racial meaning, without ever having to talk about race or risk saying something actually racist. I’m white, and believe me, White Person Code gets dropped like nobody’s business, in law school and out. And because its messages are coded, there isn’t a great way to explain what it always looks or sounds like. But, for example, it’s the way that a white student’s mistake in class or inability to answer a question correctly will be read as “they made a mistake” or “they didn’t do the reading,” whereas a black student’s mistake in class or inability to answer a question correctly will be read as “they are not very smart and only got in here because of affirmative action.” It’s the little glance, the raised eyebrow. It’s the implication of understanding — the inference that I don’t have to say that person is only here because of affirmative action, but we all know. It’s the study group of all white kids, who aren’t excluding people on purpose, but who decide they want to study with people who will challenge them. And I know more than a few law students of color who hated talking in class for that very reason — they weren’t just representing themselves, or how much studying they did the night before, or even how intelligent they personally are; they felt like they were representing all black people everywhere, and especially all black people who go to elite academic institutions. The pressure is on to prove that you belong here, and to prove that everyone who looks like you belongs here. And the second a mistake is made, it confirms what at least a few white people in the room are looking to have confirmed: That you don’t belong, that you aren’t as smart, that you aren’t as worthy of your spot as they are.

As does long time commenter MQ, on his brand new blog:

The main take-home from all this is simple: unless you’re burning crosses on my lawn, while wearing a white sheet and singing “Ship Those Niggers Back” in three-part harmony with David Duke and Zombie D.W. Griffith, your actions can’t be legitimately described as racist. Once I encounter someone given to such rationalizations, I walk the fuck away. I’m old, and I try to be a little more discriminating in how I direct my energies.

What does tickle me is when people who make these statements get depicted as victims. No, I’m not talking about GOP/Red-State anointing of idiots like Rusty DePass as folk heroes and victims of “vicious smear tactics” by that fearsome Liberal Media. I’m talking about folks with perfectly up-to-date progressive/liberal/Blue-State credentials. As far as some people are concerned, sites like Gawker are ruining this poor little girl’s life by reporting on comments she made no bones about believing in. At a dinner table. Surrounded by her peers. And then later, in an email to get them to understand just how wrong they were for not holding the same beliefs. But yeah, we’re destroying her life (include standard lynching subversion here). […]

Here’s the deal: I’m sure this Stephanie Grace chick is a nice enough person, as much as I want to smack her upside the head. I’m also sure D.W. Griffith was perfectly sweet to his friends and family. Painting these people as evil, hate-consumed ogres is the easy way out – so you never have to deal with your own racist Uncle Arthur, or your own thoughts when those black kids board the train. If the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing us he didn’t exist, the Racist Fairy’s greatest accomplishment has to be convincing us that he does.

When made up as either David Duke or Kitty Genovese, the true importance of exposing her bias gets lost. She’s a Harvard Law 3L student with a clerkship waiting for her with a Chief Judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. She’s literally got all the damn keys to the kingdom, save one or (possibly) two – she’s white, wealthy, (perhaps) heterosexual, well-connected, and presumed to be well-educated. She’s on the road to being entrusted with the destinies of thousands of people belonging to a race she believes is genetically (therefore irreversibly) inferior to hers. I don’t want to hear any outrage about how her life is being ruined by this exposure. If you hold these views, you shouldn’t be put in a position to ever decide who gets hired, gets a bank loan, or gets into a school program. I think it goes without saying, therefore, that she should never be let anywhere near the judicial system.

But the thing that sticks out to me is how much these situations become about one person’s reputation and earning power, and not about the masses of people that are damaged by racist practices and policies implemented by people who hold beliefs like Grace and see no problems with playing around with thought excercises.

Racism doesn’t exist unless someone is there to uphold the oppressive structures, but there appears to be no end of folks who want to do just that. Thea and I had a quick chat about the situation:

Thea: While much of the coverage is “OMG how could she think this?”, an overwhelming amount of the coverage is “how could you be so stupid to make these ideas public.”   So the issue is just as much about her saying these thoughts as it is about her thinking them.  To me this is very problematic; to emphasise “you shouldn’t have said this” rather than “why are you even thinking this.”

This is how the Above the Law article starts:

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.

The response sure-you-shouldn’t-think-these-things-but-if-you-do-think-twice-about-putting-them-in-an-email misses the point that racist thoughts are the true problem, not the articulation of them. This goes back to Carmen’s diversity consulting work, where she felt frustrated that so much of diversity training was not actually trying to make companies less racist, but just simply trying to make companies look less racist.

: I was going to do an open thread, because I want to talk about how systemic bias begins. The idea is that she should not have vocalized these ideas and that vocalizing them was worse than possessing them. (Anticipating the token “thought police” comment here.)

I am kind of glad she vocalised the thoughts. Not glad about the hurt or harm her comments caused, but now that they’re out in the open she has to answer to them, whereas before she would’ve just gone on her merry way.

Latoya: Well, that’s the interesting thing. A lot of people feel that she shouldn’t be responsible for what she said because, wow, we’re ruining her career here and “Everyone has to learn.”

Right – that’s what the Above the Law piece said, “What a shame that people had to ruin her rep in the process of talking about racism at Harvard Law.”  The first mention of this to ping into our inbox was from a Harvard Law student, who sent us an email in distress that blame was being levelled against the BLSA for calling Grace out on this.

I agreed with that reader.  Because first off I am sure Grace will bounce back from this – maybe she’ll lose her clerkship, but this is the internet, people have short memories.  But more than this: shouldn’t such racist beliefs at least slightly stymie a career built on a federal clerkship?  Grace worked for Espenshade, for crying out loud.

Latoya: You know, I want to be more worked up about this but I am not.

We have all seen demonstrated that it is more important to avoid the appearance of racism than racism. But I find it interesting that when it’s a young white woman the defenses are like “she’s just learning!” “They need a chance to learn!” What the hell makes people think that people learn to be less racist over time instead of just finding ways to reinforce their existing beliefs? Racism, by nature, is irrational.

Thea: Ha! Grace is old in my books – old enough that such opinions should be of concern. And anyways, age is often a scapegoat for problematic beliefs, and wrongly so.  If you’re young, people say “they’re just learning.” If you’re old, people say “well, they’re from a different time.”

Latoya: And in the meantime, these people are building their careers on a racist foundation and are entering our existing racial hierarchy. All the while, these people are gaining power. It’s was kind of like some of the responses to the entryway – people were seriously like “well, they’re just kids, they are only learning.” But they are being published in major news outlets and getting funding. We aren’t playing parlor games, these people are firmly in the real world. This chick will have a hand crafting legal policy – and people wonder how institutional bias persists. Newsflash: this is how!

Thea: Yes, I agree. I also was not steamed at all about this. I just kind of felt, well, why is this surprising? I feel like we at Racialicious deal in more complex manifestations of racism, and this is about as textbook as it gets. Incidentally, I do think a response of outrage and indignation can be in itself racist – it implies that racism isn’t everywhere.  Responses to this kind of overt racism from a white mainstream audience will often run the gamut of  CAN YOU BELIEVE THESE PEOPLE or HOW CAN WHITE PEOPLE BELIEVE THIS or I AM SO SHOCKED AND UPSET.

Well, I’m not.

Latoya: I swear, the longer I do this, the less tolerant I am of those who defend racism because this dynamic happens time and time again. I find myself less angry at the bigoted person who committed the action but at the person who is like “I know that was wrong, but we need to cut her some slack…”wtf? So you know this is wrong and you cosign it anyway? And then its normally some defense of this person’s youth/age/position/social awkwardness/lack of decision making power – without acknowledging that society proves time and time again that it is totally cool to hold racist beliefs by keeping people in power who espouse them.

Thea: Definitely. I don’t know – some people just naturally feel the need to respond to blowback and defend anyone who is under attack. Unless they are a person of colour.  Though of course there are exceptions there too.

Imagine if we spent this type of energy doing something else. Not defending racism, but saying “Damn, I guess that was racist! What do we do now and how do we fix it?”

Thea: Yes, for sure. I think this has a lot to do with the misunderstanding of the term “racist” too. For some reason “racist” is painted as an extreme term. So you can’t call someone racist unless they have been spouting nazi rhetoric, or people will say silly stuff like, well yeah, “her email was problematic, but I wouldn’t call it racist.”  What?? There is a knee jerk reaction to insist that nothing is racist since we must be careful with the word “racism,” “because it’s one of those words that people throw around.” I would really like to understand where that came from. Who came up with the belief that racism has to be a huge massive act that involves genocide? (Actually even when it involves genocide people will argue it’s not racism.)

Latoya: Or you have to be singing klan carols with a white hood on, drop some slurs, and say “by the way, I am only doing this because I hate everyone that is nonwhite” and even then, people are like “Well, it’s just one person – not like it’s a system or anything.”

*This is a reoccurring joke, that may one day make its way onto the site header. Run while you still can, readers!

About This Blog

Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at

The founders of Racialicious are Carmen Sognonvi and Jen Chau. They are no longer with the blog. Carmen now runs Urban Martial Arts with her husband and blogs about local business. Jen can still be found at Swirl or on her personal blog. Please do not send them emails here, they are no longer affiliated with this blog.

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