In a recent piece published by the New York Times, Professor Randall Kennedy described the voices of students of color, who have been inviting Harvard Law School to have an open and honest conversation about systemic racism and the racist legacy of the School, as brandishing “several dubious complaints” and “nurturing an inflated sense of victimization.” Professor Kennedy further suggests that these students are engaged in an enterprise that involved “minimizing the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved.”
As one of the students who have been at the forefront of the initiative and invitation for dialogue, I was deeply troubled not only by these statements but also by how Professor Kennedy chose to slight a genuine overture for discourse and for institutional introspection. I was troubled, not least because Professor Kennedy did not take the time to listen and reflect, nor because he chose to exercise his professorial privilege to disrespect and bludgeon our lived experiences into naught. Rather, I was troubled because Professor Kennedy’s piece fit seamlessly into a historic institutionalized commitment that discredits the voices of black people and casts their self-expressions as “victim playing.”
Today, Professor Kennedy chides us for enlisting in a mission that purportedly “minimizes the victories of our forebears.” Professor Kennedy reads history wrong and in reverse. Narratives like his, which casts the voices of persons of color as playing the victim and their lived experiences of racisms as inflated reaches far long in this country’s history. In Plessy v Ferguson, when our forebears, whose victories Professor Kennedy now celebrates, elected to speak up, they too were accused of inflating their victimization and that if they perceived injustice in segregation, it was all in their heads.
Justice Brown in Plessy wrote speaking for the Court that
“We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”
Today, Professor Kennedy channels Justice Brown and invites me, as did Justice Brown in Plessy, to disappear into oblivion and to agree that racism is all in my head. I decline that invitation!
True, over the past decades much has changed. Malevolent racial animus of the kind that glorified the lynching of blacks has moved from the mainstream of our society to its margins. But the systems that they built endure. This is after all a country that not only reduced black human beings into slavery for over two hundred years but also, even after slavery ended, set itself, through the laws it drafted and the systems it built, to finding creative and ingenious ways to further entrench black disenfranchisement and to legitimize perpetual violence to the black body. Our forbearers triumphed over one form of racism. Today our society must set itself to dismantling the systems that it built to sustain that discredited racist ideology.
Professor Kennedy’s piece casts black voices in an ‘us’ against ‘them’ logic. By so doing he places students of color out of this community. He sees demands for institutional renewal and improvement as irresponsible complaints of an over indulged outsider. We disagree. To the extent that students of color are considered part and parcel of this community; these voices should be seen as voices within the community and not without.
The exercise of institutional renewal starts with a conversation of the sort we are inviting this institution to undertake. The call is no more dubious because it is black voices leading the charge. The stake of black voices in advancing our society and pushing this institution to live up to its self declared commitments of fairness and justice must not be brushed away as “negro talk.” That is disingenuous and demeaning.
As today’s generation, whether white, black or brown, we must sustain the dreams of justice our ancestors dreamed for our people and fought to preserve. We must not falter in following their weighty footsteps. History has asked much of us in our time. Much we’ve already given; much more we must be prepared to give. This is not a charge we shrink from; it’s a challenge we look forward to.
The “victory is not already achieved”; it is being achieved.
Mawuse Vormawor is an LLM student at Harvard Law School.