Harvard has just been treated to a textbook display of how not to respond to a disturbing and controversial idea. Kristen M. Clarke '97, the president of the Black Students Association has chosen to fight fire with fire, and in so doing she has damaged her credibility and that of the organization she leads.
The new book, The Bell Curve, has stirred up as much response here as anywhere, and students have taken various positions on it--from cautious support to angry opposition.
Clarke, in responding to one student who defended the book in The Crimson, wrote a letter which called on those engaged in the issue to consider some other theories. So far so good.
She went on though, to outline several alternatives, most prominently the "melanin" theory, which accords Blacks greater intelligence, spiritual qualities, etc. due to their high levels of melanin.
It would be nice if her letter were pure irony, a simple attempt to ridicule The Bell Curve by association with other crazy ideas. But subsequent attempts to clarify what Clarke meant have been met with staunch equivocation.
In her most recent letter to The Crimson, Clarke still refuses to take a stand: "[The Melanin Theory] is not necessarily something we believe, but some information we think those pursuing a true understanding of The Bell Curve should either address, ignore or refute."
Clarke's tactics are disturbing for several reasons. First, that Clarke refuses to explicitly deny the theories she has brought up raises the possibility that she actually believes them. Enough said.
Secondly, her tactic of calling on scholars to address the melanin theory is precisely the wrong way of attacking the ideas of Murray and Herrnstein.
Serious researchers of the issue no more have to take into account the melanin theory than those searching for extraterrestrial life have to take into account every UFO nut who claims to have been abducted.
The melanin theory, most notoriously advocated by Leonard Jeffries, has no grounding in accepted fact and can defend itself only by claiming that the effects of melanin "cannot be measured with Eurocentric methods." What might those "Eurocentric methods" be? Science? That's probably one such method we might want to hold on to.
Pure and simple, the melanin theory is baloney, and trying to pose it as a counter to The Bell Curve is not going to be effective.
The Bell Curve, unlike the melanin theory, does ground itself in unassailable scientific facts (the proven difference in IQ between Blacks and whites). This does not, of course, make it correct.
In fact, it in many ways makes the theory far more dangerous than its loopy cousin.
This grounding in fact, though, and the scientific research that went into the book do make it necessary that a critic attack its propositions on the level of rational discourse, not by using some even stranger theory as a weapon.
While Kristen Clarke continues her coy dance with the melanin theory, the hard work of attacking The Bell Curve on the facts has begun. The recent New Republic gave an indication of how seriously critics are working the book over. And serious faults are emerging in its logic.
Sadly, Kristen Clarke cannot claim any credit, and she deserves much blame.
By disseminating racist theories of her own--however ambiguously--Clarke has done nothing to refute what she abhors and has done much to poison the atmosphere further.
David L. Bosco's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.