In the past couple of weeks, two incidents have occurred that have brought attention to race and intelligence in America — again. One really is an incident, though, while the other is a continuing conversation about the head-scratching that goes on when someone personifies the idea of the anti-stereotype in a world full of them. Both make me cringe, even as I know that people like me can’t allow others to define us.
Over the past week, there’s been a minor firestorm blowing over comments from the soon-to-be Harvard Law School graduate, the amazing Stephanie Grace. She inserted foot-in-mouth — or, rather, fingers up her butt — regarding her wanting to keep open the option of the possibility that African Americans may be predisposed to being intellectually inferior to Whites. The fact that she sent this out to the Black Law Student Association at Harvard as an email was somewhere between foolish and obnoxiously audacious. The contents of her email, a display of the thoughts of someone about to begin a federal clerkship in the next few months is disturbing. It’s not just because Grace has spent the past three years at Harvard Law. It’s also because she spent that time there in a school with the likes of Charles Ogletree, Lani Guinier, and Randall Kennedy — all Black or Biracial — teaching there.
There will be no rationale refuting Grace’s idiotic email here, because my own very existence as a writer, professor and educator — not to mention the millions of highly educated people of color like me — should be enough. But for folks whose minds remain mesmerized by the eugenics movement and Nazi experiments in the first half of the twentieth century, no amount of evidence against their racist views would be enough.
Just ask Myron Rolle. He was the last person drafted in the sixth round of the NFL draft that occurred a little more than a week ago. All because he took a year off from playing football at the end of his college experience at Florida State University to — of all things — go to Oxford University in the UK to study medical anthropology for a year as a Rhodes Scholar! Rolle became the 207th overall pick because NFL geniuses in the front office suspected that the future neurosurgeon had a mixed set of priorities, that he couldn’t both play football and be interested in another demanding and rewarding career that would require raw intellectual talent. Teams passed on him because he accepted a Rhodes Scholarship and decided to postpone playing in the NFL for a year.
A scholarship that only former NBA players like Bill Bradley and Tom McMillen, and former NFL quarterback Pat Haden were able to obtain. Not to mention such luminaries as former POTUS Bill Clinton, Susan Rice (high-level official in the State Department under the Obama Administration), Newark mayor Cory Booker, and MSNBC commentator and host Rachel Maddow. But, I guess African American male athletes are only supposed to eat a bag full of oats and then run a 4.3-40-yard-dash, rather than explore the neurology of the human brain.
Former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick insinuated that NFL players can’t be thinkers, at least intellectual ones, because that would mean they would get clobbered playing the game. Other coaches and GMs simply questioned Rolle’s commitment. I question their faulty and bigoted logic. It’s not every day that a Black athlete at a NCAA Division I football school can flex his intellectual muscles as easily as he can bench press 400 or 500 pounds. Maybe that’s what was so scary about Rolle.
Except that it shouldn’t have been scary at all. Indianapolis Colts star Peyton Manning stayed an extra year at the University of Tennessee, and not just to use up his last year of eligibility. Having finished his bachelor’s degree in four years (he was red-shirted his freshman year), Manning spent his fifth year working on a master’s degree. Hall of Famer Steve Young worked on a law degree at Stanford while playing for the San Francisco 49ers, during a stretch that included a Super Bowl win. But Rolle isn’t any of those guys. They’re White, and quarterbacks at that. They need to be smart. Cornerbacks in the NFL, on the other hand, don’t need to use their brains to read the difference between a screen pass, an out route, a go route or a skinny post, right?
What both cases show is that there’s an alarming portion of our population who find it easier to believe that African Americans have low intellectual potential. What’s even more significant, though, is that many of these same folks become agitated, even fearful, of educated Blacks, particularly Blacks who are their intellectual superiors. It’s an agitation I’ve been all too familiar with for nearly twenty years. With White professors who’ve allowed students to speak racial stereotypes to and about me in their classrooms, who’ve accused me of plagiarism, and refused to help me find a job because they thought I would just get one because I’m Black. With White supervisors who’ve accused me of being everything but a child of God because they thought I was after their job, or used me as part of a dog-and-pony show to get money from corporate funders. It’s something that I don’t expect to go away anytime in the immediate future.
Which is why I found it astounding to read a comment on another blog about the Stephanie Grace issue last week. A recent law school graduate talking about his experience as a young African American male lawyer, in which he felt he had to constantly disprove stereotypes while proving himself at some New York law firm. He advised folks thinking about becoming lawyers to not pursue the profession, which is about as sane as saying that melanin, genetics and intelligence are inextricably linked.
Even in the absence of racism, we all have to compete, to prove ourselves, to overcome in order to be successful in this world. It’s not about others bigotry and their attempts to stifle your success or career. It’s about proving to yourself how good you are, about how successful you can be, in law or any other field. Not to mention giving yourself financial security, finding work that you can be passionate about (even when it doesn’t bring riches), taking care of your family and yourself, helping other cope and be successful in an insane world. You can’t avoid idiots. I learned that ages ago, the hard way, with my former advisor Joe Trotter at Carnegie Mellon, who, by the way, is African American. We have to keep walking our path, to get beyond the corner of Grace and Rhodes, in order to be to Colossus we hope we are.