You Have to Start Somewhere: Whitesplaining Harvard Law School’s Crest, Black Electrical Tape, and a Better College Campus

With increasing frequency, students on college campuses across the country are forcing their  old, proud, veritable institutions of higher education to think critically and honestly about the echoes of entrenched racism on their campuses. Results have been…varied. At Georgetown, students recently successfully lobbied to rename a building named after a university president who used the proceeds from slave sales to pay the university’s bills. At Yale, there is an ongoing debate regarding the propriety of naming one of the university’s residential colleges after noted white supremacist and vocal slavery supporter John Calhoun. (So far, nothing doing). And at Harvard Law School, students have taken issue with the school’s crest.

Why the crest? Appearing nowhere on any list of “Fun Facts” about HLS is the fact it was founded in 1817 with a bequest from the estate of one Isaac Royall, a hilariously wealthy Antiguan plantation owner who, in addition to indirectly founding the world’s most famous law school, also suppressed a mid-drought slave revolt in 1736 by hanging six, breaking five on a medieval torture wheel, and burning 77 more at the stake. Harvard still uses the Royall family coat-of-arms as its crest, a rather unsettling fact about which more than a few professors have repeatedly and frankly expressed their discomfort (for example, when now-Justice Elena Kagan and Professor Martha Minow assumed the deanship, they both declined the traditional dean’s title of “Royall Professor of Law” for this reason).

In the largest building on campus, Wasserstein Hall, a series of small black-and-white portraits of the school’s tenured professors lines the first two floors. As far as I know, once a professor receives tenure, their portrait stays there forever. It’s a nice and fairly innocuous way to connect the present to the past; mostly, the suspenders- and pleats-laden portraits are there to show you just how handsome your ancient Property professor was as a young man, and/or to serve as a cautionary tale regarding apparently-once-trendy wardrobe choices. On Wednesday, November 18th, students from all Harvard schools, undergraduates and graduate students alike, marched in support of the protests at the University of Missouri. Some law students placed black electrical tape over the HLS crest that appears in Wasserstein Hall. On Thursday, November 19th, they arrived at class to find the same tape repurposed to deface the portraits of their African-American professors instead.

I saw this posted online by my friend Jonathan Wall, who, since I am now three full years out of law school, is the only person I know there anymore. It was more than a little surreal to see a longstanding throwaway aspect of the school’s interior decorating scheme so suddenly elevated in importance for such a terrible reason. Black students, shocked and outraged and afraid, spoke out about how incidents like this make them feel unsafe and uncertain and unwelcome. About how they spend their entire academic careers (and then after that, their career careers) wondering if their professors and peers take them seriously or consider them products of affirmative action or diversity initiatives. And about how seemingly right when they start to think, no, I’ve got this, I belong here, something like this happens to bring it all tumbling town.

It is impossible to ask students of color to arrive at school, take this all in, and then to stride confidently past these portraits and into a classroom and pretend like everything is fine and take diligent notes on the Rule Against Perpetuities (note: it is always the Rule Against Perpetuities) or whatever. All students, irrespective of race, are trying to pull off the already-tough-enough task of going to lecture and taking notes and studying for tests and writing papers and making friends and falling in love and getting drunk at bar review and falling out of love and being kids and growing up, all at the same damn time. But students of color must also grapple with the daily reverberations of a legacy of racial discrimination and try and figure out how that fits into their puzzle, too. They’re at the same school, on the same campus, and in the same classrooms as white students. But on days like last Thursday, it has to feel a world away. Black students cannot have the same experience as white students when they know that any day could be interrupted by racism in a way that requires them to drop everything, consider, and respond.

This sounds…exhausting. Yale student Aaron Lewis describes how many students of color have got to feel at this point:

Students should not have to become community organizers just to receive acknowledgement and respect from their administrators. It’s disheartening to feel like so few people in power have your back. Yes, we are angry. We are tired. We are emotionally drained. We feel like we have to yell in order to make our voices heard.

Right. I can understand that this must be horrible. I can even understand how horrible it probably is (as in, “very”). I can understand that it is a frightening, disheartening burden that on some days just makes them want to disappear, except they know that that is exactly what some people want them to do, so they instead have to find ways to manage and to move on. But no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, no matter how many times I put on my Obama t-shirt and spin around in a circle in front of the mirror and shut my eyes tightly and whisper “post-racial society,” I can never actually feel the way that students of color of do. I can’t know what it is like to have my skin crawl as I walk past Slavery Hall, or how it feels to have the response to my protests be the publicly vandalized faces of the professors who look like me. Being a member of a group that is constantly subject to both overt and institutional speculation, scrutiny, and scorn is an experience I cannot know, because neither I nor anyone who looks like me has any way of doing so.

By itself, that’s not the problem, because short of pulling a Jess Row, there isn’t much I can do about it. The problem is instead that because there are more white people than black people in higher education, and those white people have grown mighty used to running things for several centuries now, black students’ license to express their discomfort and their discontent, and their ideas for addressing those feelings, is almost entirely contingent on white people’s willingness to hear them out and, hopefully, to take their word for it. Black students are authorized to voice their concerns only for so long as enough white people look at the purported problem and decide, sure, if you say that this is a problem, we will entertain proposals to do something else instead. Black students can make inroads against intolerance and demand systemic change as long as the majority finds the message acceptable, the methods nonthreatening, and the goals reasonable enough (all of which are metrics set by, again, generations of white people). And the moment that the powers that be decide that, no, this isn’t a real problem, you all need to calm down and quit complaining and find something more serious to get worked up about, all that momentum is suddenly and arbitrarily extinguished.

This dynamic is nicely encapsulated in that bastion of Old White People Who Know What’s Best: op-ed pages. Take this collection of drivel-laden paragraphs masquerading as an intelligent thought written by Colin McEnroe, that one second cousin that you dread having to talk to at Thanksgiving dinner, whose column in the Hartford (CT) Courant has some scorching Baby Boomer-era wisdom for today’s students who have the gall to object to racist things about which he has never thought (all emphasis mine).

I’ve got this to say to the Yale students engaged in bristling, expectorating confrontations with authority: You’re overindulged. You don’t know how to act right.

This just kind of feels like a paragraph from which an editor excised the word “uppity,” right?

You’ve come so completely unglued in a very low-stakes game that it’s tempting to conclude you’d be useless if the going ever got tough.

I want to crush this take up into a powder and sell it in baggies.

There’s not enough on the line. One of my favorite tweets from the week — I’ve lost track of the tweetist — was “When did students go from protesting the Vietnam War to protesting being offended?”

Ah yes. NOTHING IS AS BAD AS VIETNAM, YOU KIDS DON’T UNDERSTAND. Later:

The 2015 counter-argument — and it’s not a specious one — is that white, male, hegemonic figures like [Yale President Kingman] Brewster and me can’t even imagine how that risk is lived and felt by more vulnerable minorities.

Wait…wait, yes, that’s exactly the point that students are trying to make here! Okay, so you get it! Hey, maybe this isn’t so bad after all, and maybe there is some hope at arriving at a more nuanced cultural understa–

Point taken, kids. But call me when you’ve got a big issue. Meanwhile, understand that mom and dad aren’t there anymore with the Purell and the wipes. 

[retches]

You should read the rest of Mr. McEnroe’s column if you suffer from hypotension or insufficient rage or something, but those excerpts nicely summarize the crux of the institutional response to minority students’ pleas to a system of authority that was never built to hear them in the first place. Black students, your protests are tolerated until we decide that they are not any longer. Then, you are coddled, entitled, thin-skinned Millennial wolf-criers who cannot distinguish between a few minor slights and real, true adversity (WHICH, AGAIN, = VIETNAM WAR)

This is not a tenable state of affairs. Students of color already bear the burden of parrying not only overt discrimination but also the daily slights that slowly rob you of the will to try anymore. How many professors think they’re occupying the seat of a more qualified white student? How many students think that? How many people stop listening to them when they decide to speak in class? Did I get this bad grade on my paper because of race? Wait, did I get this good grade on my paper because of race? McEnroe and his ilk accuse black students of perceiving injustice where there is none, of playing the race card, of viewing everything through a racial prism. But this fails to acknowledge that black students have spent their whole lives being viewed through a racial prism. Why are they expected to not do the same thing?

At the same time, the university expects and demands that black students put their heads down, be thankful, and act like they’re comfortable. Well, hey, you made it here, too. You’re just like everyone else. Stop asking for special treatment. Why is it always black people talking about race? But the need for honest discussions about race in higher education is, by definition, a need that will be plain only to minority students. You never hear discussions of the pressing need for greater recognition of Western European culture in university curriculum because, um, Western European culture is just called “university curriculum.” White students don’t complain about the relationship between culture and pedagogy because that has never been a problem they have had to deal with. Black students who want to talk about race are not oversensitive or hysterical. Their desire simply reflects the reality that they are the only ones who have ever had to think about it.

The final piece of this really, really bleak puzzle is that many universities have responded not by formally examining their own practices but instead by tasking minority students with engaging in extracurricular guerrilla diversity. Students are expected to blend seamlessly into the academic environment while also serving as occasional unpaid spokespersons of The Minority Experience. My friend Andrew sent me a piece by one Alana Massey, who spoke out against the narrative that black students are responsible for teaching their peers about diversity and acceptance. Black students are there for the same reasons as anyone else, Massey argues: to get an education. Yet they find themselves conscripted as diversity ambassadors to a student body that is under no obligation to actually listen. This layer reveals the most insidious double (triple?) standard of all: black students are allowed to lobby for change, but only if the powers that be deem their requests acceptable, and then, only if they accept all responsibility for doing so. It is the job of universities, not the students of color who attend and pay tuition, to provide a holistic education. But universities have gotten very, very good at outsourcing that task.

There is no simple solution to these problems, though if you have any ideas, please tell them to me so that I can write about them and pass them off as my own. But I do think that there is a simple first step. Colin McEnroe won’t like it. Here it is anyway: listen to black students, about everything, and take their word for it, and do what they say, and then see what happens.

The powers that be need to stop analyzing every call for change to see if it is an acceptable de minimis tweak to The Way Things Ought To Be. They need to stop evaluating alternate viewpoints in light of what is easiest, or what is within the scope of preserving History or Tradition, or what they think will address the problem even when students plead for something else. Stop sneeringly wondering if “all this hubbub” about old building names is warranted. Stop dismissing suggestions for more inclusive curriculum as the naive complaints of entitled Millennials (SOMETHING SOMETHING SOMETHING VIETNAM), or as the calculated requests of lazy students unwilling to subject themselves to rigorous academic standards, or both. Stop telling people to just calm down, to relax, and to not make such a big deal out of everything. Start listening instead.

The American university is a remarkably successful institution. It is also four hundred years old and has, up until only very recently, been almost completely dominated by white people. While minorities of course now occupy some positions of power, the system in which they operate still favors the majority. So why blindly defend the integrity of an institution that only welcomes certain points of view regarding what counts as offensive, and what is okay? Why not give another way of making decisions a try, and see if a more inclusive place can work just as well?

I willingly concede that buildings named after long-dead racists and antiquated crests borrowed from long-forgetten bloodthirsty torturers are not the most significant problems that face minority students today. And renaming every single building and disposing of every offensive symbol would not be a panacea for racism on campus. But it does not follow that universities should therefore ignore things like this completely. Universities that sincerely engage with students on even seemingly minor issues build trust, and universities that balk or fight back in the name of “dealing with the Real Problems on Campus” only exacerbate the perception of imbalanced power dynamics as firmly entrenched. If administrators won’t listen to earnest requests for renaming one stupid building, how are black students supposed to envision a world in which administrators also care about ending racial profiling or unequal access or de facto segregation or any of the other Real Problems on Campus, too?

The fact that a change is simple and easy does not mean it is not worthwhile. Symbolism counts. Trivial though they may seem to some, building names and school logos are as good a place to start as any.

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