Harvard President Lawrence Summers had impeccable timing for his slip of the tongue. It was the beginning of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. Summers spoke at a conference titled, "Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce: Women, Underrepresented Minorities and their S. and E. careers." The conference came 44 years after King said: "If we are to implement the American dream we must get rid of the notion once and for all that there are superior and inferior races."
Four and a half decades later, Summers took to the podium to wonder why women struggle in those highly technical fields. He said perhaps one reason was because women with children were not willing or were unable to work 80-hour weeks. Then he noted, according to newspaper reports, how more boys than girls in late high school had superior test scores in science and math.
He wondered if "innate differences," "innate ability," or "natural ability" could be involved.
There was no transcript of the speech from the private, 50-person event. Summers reportedly talked from notes. He did not deny the substance of his remarks in interviews. He told the Globe, "It's possible I made some reference to innate differences. . . . I did say that you have to be careful in attributing things to socialization. . . . That's what we would prefer to believe, but these are things that need to be studied." Summers told The New York Times, "I wanted to add some provocation to what I understand to be basically a social science discussion."
Summers's timing was also impeccable because it came amid other prominent provocations from privileged white males. Two officials of the Metro newspaper, which the Times Co., owner of the Globe, is trying to purchase a part of, did not think anything of using the N-word at official functions. Prince Harry did not think anything of wearing a Nazi uniform to a party.
Now you have Summers, whose Faculty of Arts and Sciences offered only four of its last 32 tenured job spots to women. Despite offering only 12.5 percent of these plum positions to women, he felt utterly qualified to lecture women that we should open or reopen the debate as to whether females are intellectually different from men and, of course, in this context, natively inferior.
He plowed ahead despite the many studies showing how young girls become discouraged from math and consciously and unconsciously come to believe the stereotype that they cannot count. Conversely, other studies show that if you provide youth strong mentors and convince them that the brain is a muscle that gets stronger with "exercise," the math scores of girls improve.
Joshua Aronson, a New York University psychology professor and author of such studies, said, "Brain science is showing us that our conception of intelligence as this fixed thing is wrong. Difficulties are surmountable."
Summers's mind was fixed on a target as stale as a decade ago when Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein tried to revive notions of racial inferiority in their best-selling book "The Bell Curve." The authors cited IQ scores as fixed facts that should make us abandon the American dream.
Murray and Herrnstein concluded that "It is time for America once again to try living with inequality." They concluded that "an inexpensive, reliable way of raising IQ is not available." They concluded that we should settle for a "wise ethnocentrism," in which dumber black folks should be happy singing and dancing and playing sports for smarter white owners and media moguls.
Summers of course would say he meant nothing so crude. But every time a privileged white guy blurts out something verging on the Cro-Magnon (instead of, for instance, decrying 80-hour work weeks and demanding that fathers better share the parenting), it puts the discussion of what really holds back women and people of color into a holding pattern. That means further discouragement for the young and silent destruction of careers for the groups that do not share such privilege.
Summers's defenders at his speech said that after he mentioned innate differences, he immediately added, "I'd like to be proven wrong" on innate differences. He should just say he was plain wrong. Martin Luther King Jr. said people who claim black people are criminal by nature "never point out that these things are environmental and not racial; these problems are problems of urban dislocation. They fail to see that poverty and diseases and ignorance breed crime whatever the racial group may be."
King said, "It is a tortuous logic that views the tragic results of segregation and discrimination as an argument for the continuation of it." Summers will vociferously deny he is arguing for the continuation of women's disparities in science and engineering. He can prove it by ceasing to torture women with his logic.
© 2005 Boston Globe