The views of black people expressed by third year Harvard Law Student Stephanie Grace in a widely circulated email are undeniably racist. In her words: “I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African-Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent…”
Honestly, I’m not sure what’s worse about Grace’s email: the resurrection of 19th century arguments about the genetic inferiority about blacks as a race, or the fact that nobody has focused on the equally crude yet sexist comment later in her screed about women supposedly performing worse in math “due at least in part to prenatal levels of testosterone, which also account for variations in mathematics performance within genders.” But while the blogosphere is working itself up in a tizzy over this latest racial incident at Harvard, and regardless of how offensive I might find her ideas about race and gender, I think it’s important to keep our eyes on the prize regarding the larger issue at stake: challenging institutional racism and structural inequality in a so-called post-racial society.
I’ll leave it to the Dean of the law school, Martha Minow, to deal with the repercussions and climate at Harvard. Instead, I’d like to put this incident in context. Supposedly ushering in a new era of a “post-racial” America, we are now in are second year of the first African-American president of the United States, who coincidentally was Grace’s predecessor at Harvard Law School and on the Harvard Law Review (she is an editor there). The Tea Party movement has sprung up in response to Obama’s election as a white identity movement undeniably about race. And it is probably the case that Tea Partiers happen to share the student’s views.
Yet just a week ago, the Arizona Governor signed into law a bill the legislature passed that will amount to egregious racial profiling of anyone who “looks” like an immigrant. This policy, encoding the racist assumption that all Latinos are criminally suspect into law, is just the most recent example of institutional racism. If anything, this law in addition to the student’s email, are the nails in the coffin of the myth that we’re living in a post-racial society.
Identifying racist thoughts and acts by individuals is important work, but at this moment, the easier thing to do. Let me be clear: all of us must continue challenging racist individuals, especially in a climate of more open and explicit expressions of racial bigotry. But the hardest work yet to be done is to identify and tackle the much tougher institutional and structural forms of racism, which are sometimes unintentional and much more damaging than personal prejudice. We should identity and take on “racism without racists” that affects marginalized groups and communities as quickly and easily as we do objectionable racist expression by individuals. And we have the tools and strategies to do this.
Let’s take a long moment to remember the legacy of Dr. Dorothy Height, who would have certainly called out both the racist and sexist statements in this email. But she would have also prodded us, with elegant forcefulness, to keep our eyes on the prize of challenging institutional and structural racism, and creating not a post-racial, but a post-inequality America.