In trying to figure out whether in the old days the black Harvard Law School students were smarter than they are now, I didn’t have to go much beyond the website on the celebration of black alumni. By my count 98 black alumni are speaking. They’re listed here (a Word document containing links to bios for almost all of the speakers).
Because they’re speaking at this prestigious event, I figure that these 98 black alumni are probably some of the best and the brightest of the more than 1,000 total black alumni. If in the old days black students were as smart as the others — or, if not as smart to start with, they worked extra hard in law school to catch up, and graduated as smart — I figure these top 98 black alumni would pretty much all have graduated with honors. Currently 40% of all students graduate with honors (30% cum laude, and the top 10% magna cum laude). I hear that in the old days they were even more liberal with honors. But just sticking with the 40% figure to be safe, if black alumni did about as well as the others, and there are at least 1,000 of them, then the top 400 should all have honors, and most of the top 100 should have graduated magna cum laude, right?
So how did these “top 98” black Harvard Law School alumni do in law school? Well, they sure didn’t all graduate magna cum laude. In fact, none of the top 98 black alumni graduated magna cum laude. Apparently magna cum laude black Harvard Law School graduates are as rare as the White Buffalo.
Setting aside the dearth of magna cum laude graduates, it turns out that these 98 top black alumni did even worse — much worse — than you’d expect from just a random selection of alumni. If you picked 98 Harvard Law School alumni randomly, because 40% graduate with honors you should find at least 39 of them graduating with honors, and at least 9 of those graduating magna cum laude.
Looking at the bios on the webpage, which I double-checked for accuracy (the only omission is that the bio for John A. Payton ’77 omitted his cum laude honors), it turns out that only 8 of the black alumni graduated even cum laude (top 40%). So it looks like the black students here weren’t any smarter in the old days than they are now. Even these top black alumni graduated with honors at only about a fifth the rate of non-black alumni. If these 98 top black alumni are representative (presumably they’re much more able than the average black alumni who are not speaking), it looks like you’d have to eliminate at least the bottom 4/5 of black students at Harvard Law School before the black students who were left graduated with honors at the same rate as other students. Put another way, doesn’t this suggest that for every black student at Harvard Law School who’s roughly as qualified to study law as the non-black students, there are four black students who aren’t? Maybe smarter people can weigh in on this. I’m just a Harvard Law Caveman.
Here is a complete list of the speakers, and the graduation honors received, in chronological order. Unless otherwise indicated the alumni did not graduate with honors.