A week ago, someone put black tape over the portraits of African-American professors at Harvard Law School. The incident, which is being investigated as a hate crime, did not surprise or anger me. But the reaction of some professors and members of the administration to the student activism that followed the act has. The message imbedded in their op-eds and community meetings have been clear: students of color, keep silent. Your voice is not valued and your activism is not warranted.
Ironically, a black professor whose portrait was defaced has responded by using his words as a tool to silence students protesting racial apathy at HLS. In his recent op-ed, Professor Randall Kennedy asked dissidents (code word students of color) to tell him “with as much particularity as possible” why we feel “burdened, alienated, disrespected, oppressed.” Professor Kennedy categorized several concerns students raised as having a “ring of validity” but disregarded most as “dubious” and “exaggerating the scope of the racism that the activists oppose and fear.” By concluding that students are displaying “excessive vulnerability” and “nurturing an inflated sense of victimization” when we say we perceive racism in the way our classes fail to contextualize our legal education or when we use permanent marker to “x” out the Royall family crest on our HLS gear in a small act of rebellion against the visual embodiment of this institution’s legacy of slavery, Professor Kennedy proclaims our view of racism invalid and our proposals for change inadequate for the long-term. He re-categorizes our advocacy as an attempt to get attention instead of a call to have a real stake in identifying and addressing the problems around race that exist at HLS.
Professor Kennedy has not been the only one to relegate our voices to the background. At a recent community meeting, students had five minutes to comment on the administration’s efforts to make HLS more inclusive, all of which called for little or no student involvement in the design or implementation. This treatment of student input as a mere afterthought and the dismissal of students who highlighted that their voices were being shut out sent a clear message: be silent, speak only when and how we deem appropriate.
I am hopeful that Professor Kennedy and the administration actually want an inclusive law school but the problem is student voice has no place in their vision. The current reliance on pedagogical strategy to avoid engaging students in conversations on race and administrative processes that marginalize student input runs counter to the law school’s mission to “educate leaders who contribute to the advancement of justice” and to the basic tenant that true change requires including the entire community in the decision-making process and giving them equal voice. So if improving this community is really what we all seek, I call on all who ask students why we protest to take a moment to listen. Not the selective kind of listening that is currently going on, but the kind of listening that empathizes with the angst students are experiencing and recognizes that the version of racism our generation is trying to combat is very real. Listen to our ideas for change, and once you’ve listened, allow us to have voice and be co-equal leaders, not just silent followers in this movement.
“I decided it is better to scream. Silence is the real crime against humanity.” – Nadezhda Mandelstam
Danielle Pingue is a 3L at Harvard Law School.