Racism at HLS: Seeing both sides

BY H.L. ROGERS

Recent events have left many at the Law School wondering why intolerance seems to have found a home at Harvard. However, such sentiments are not unanimously held. Recent events have created a division among students. Some feel that 1L Kiwi Camara’s outline was a naive blunder not motivated by racism — or at least not motivated by hate. These people feel that the overwhelming reaction to the outline has been out of proportion and has stifled thought at the Law School and threatened academic freedom. While I felt that such sentiments were absurdities, I have come to realize that everyone involved in the debate has some legitimate points.

In my view, Camara’s outline was racist by the mere fact of the use of derogatory terms, no matter his actual intent. Such racism has no place in the law school public discourse. Further, the accompanying e-mails and flyers were a shocking revelation as to the deep-rooted mistrust that appears now to exist between certain elements at HLS. These actions create a learning environment of fear and are the actions that have historically led to violence. I also believe Dean Clark’s response last week was belated and insufficient.

However, as I discussed my views with others on campus, I was surprised to find that many open-minded individuals disagreed with me. Many felt that the outline was naive, and though wholly inappropriate, was not motivated by hate. Rather, it was a mistake that has been blown out of proportion and has created an environment where race cannot be discussed in any terms except those labeled politically correct. They would argue that such an environment stifles legal discussion.

Shouldn’t we be able to posit certain scenarios in the legal classroom that we couldn’t state on a nationally televised debriefing? Isn’t that one of the points of academia — that such discussion in the safety of a classroom allows problems to be solved and ideas to be advanced and critiqued in a way that an entire society cannot do without academia? These students reason that the reactions to the outline may have created the type of environment that others argue the outline was creating.

In my 1L section, we had a professor who made racially insensitive comments. Some students rallied, writing letters and talking to faculty. In the end, they made real progress, gaining some meaningful reforms for our section. However, our section could not even agree as to whether the comments were racist, or whether they were simply a little rough. The point is not what the professor said but how the class reacted. Pehaps most disparaging was that most of the white students in the class did not think it was racist.

How do we react to such dilemmas? Are these cases analogous to racist actions in the ’60s that racists thought were fine but everyone else did not? In effect, are those who are not outraged by the events of the past weeks here racist because they do not think that Camara’s outlines were blatantly racist? Or on the other extreme, is there a McCarthyist regime being created at HLS, where anyone who disagrees with those currently taking action can be labeled racists and so discredited by the derogatory power of the simple claim?

Or, is it far more probable that a rift exists at HLS, where open-minded students disagree as to what rises to the level of racism? I may find the outline outrageous, but others may respectfully disagree. That is what makes the law school a strong institution: honest disagreement.

As the events unfolded, I felt that the outline was outrageous, that the e-mail and flyers rose to the level of criminal and that anyone who disagreed must themselves be a racist. However, after long discussions, I find it plausible and probable that many well-informed, unbiased students could feel the exact opposite regarding the outline — that it has been used as a blank check for intolerance against non-minorities, or in this case non-black students.

Perhaps most likely is that neither extreme is true, per se. Honest, unbiased students can disagree and maybe more than anything else we want them to disagree. After all, it is through the discourse that we achieve new solutions to old problems.

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