#HLSUntaped: Professor Kennedy: It’s About More Than Black Tape

On Friday, only two days after the Boston Globe released my op-ed to share one student’s perspective on racism at Harvard Law School, Professor Randall Kennedy used the power of his professorial platform to excuse it.

Despite admitting that he was so removed from campus that he was unaware of what minority students were facing (as further demonstrated by his need to poll students on their grievances), he nevertheless released his opinion to the New York Times. And, in doing so, he gave the country what it wanted to hear: today’s racism shouldn’t faze us.
Professor Kennedy began by slyly referring to the almost two-inch wide black tape used to deface black faculty portraits as mere “slivers,” immediately looking to diminish their much more important implication. He then continued by questioning the motives behind the action, feeding into the palms of all those who want to doubt racism exists at Harvard Law School. And I begin my analysis of his opinion here.

If Professor Kennedy considered the circumstances under which the black tape was applied to the portraits, he might not find the motives so “puzzling.” The tape found its way onto those portraits through the repurposing of the tape used in the protestagainst our shield’s homage to the institution of slavery. The act required an understanding of these specific affairs and, importantly, substituted rather than complimented their effects. Pairing together the effort to disrupt that protest with the connected defacement of our black faculty portraits, the most rational conclusion is that it was meant to advance hate against the black race.

But perhaps Professor Kennedy’s focus on this motive and the perpetrator is misguided. In the end, the act was interpreted by many as another slight or, worse yet, a threat against our black community and that’s what needs to be addressed. In explaining that one should not be surprised by acts of racism in our institutions of higher education, he nearly asks his readers to accept it and move on.

I appreciate the praise he throws students in stating that activism efforts have led to necessary conversations. And that he acknowledges that university administrators should take a deeper look at race relations on their campuses. But he then undermines his own compliments, stating that “[s]uccesses, however, can generate or exacerbate destructive tendencies.” He explains that these efforts may exaggerate the scope of racism and minimize the strength that minorities have in fixing it.

We need only to watch the daily news to see the pervasive racism in our society. And when you wonder what that has to do with Harvard Law School, ask yourself this–who drafted the legislation, regulations, and policies in America that have and continue to entrench the racial disparities in incarceration, educational achievement, and economic opportunity? Among others, many of our graduates. So, as long as racism persists in our nation, it’s our ethical duty as one of its leading academic institutions to not be dismissive, but rather vigilant in addressing its reality.

On the other hand, Professor Kennedy is right to say that we have strength, but overestimating that strength may be his next mistake. We are not denouncing the incredible work of those who came before us and got us to where we are today, but we are also not going to sit back and assume the fight is over. We do not have the power that our majority counterparts do. Folding now would only disappoint the men and women who gave their lives fighting for equality.

In providing ammunition in the form of contra arguments to those who seek to maintain the status quo, Professor Kennedy further undercuts the strength of his ownstudents. Would his time not be better spent actually engaging with them to understand their perspectives and instruct them on what he considers to be better reform approaches?

With that said, the opposing arguments he presents are hardly novel. We aren’t oblivious to them. For example, we know that professors must make individual decisions about their pedagogical strategies, but is it not pertinent to address why those decisions on the whole continue to steer in favor of the majority? We’ve heard it all before and there are answers to each argument that nevertheless support the reform students are calling for.

But all that aside, I struggle with a more ideological question: Why do we continue to burden minorities with fixing the injustices created by the majority?

Nonetheless, after encouraging minority students to embrace their own strength, Professor Kennedy refers to those who contest administration’s failures in addressing institutional racism as “dissidents” and describes their grievances as “complaints,” some of which have only a “ring of validity” and others that are just outright “dubious.” Who did Professor Kennedy survey? Was his default to trust or question them? And, what research tools did he use to prove or invalidate their accounts? As a revered scholar, surely he can share his methodology.

Professor Kennedy then closes with his most insidious argument–that his students are merely abusing the “rhetoric of trauma” and portraying an “inflated sense of victimization.” I invite Professor Kennedy to read this article in which second-year student Derecka Purnell explains that it is not us, the affected community crying, instead it’s white guilt that saturates the sound waves. Our stories are not meant to make the majority uncomfortable for the sake of “hooking into [their] consciences,” they’re simply indicative of the fact that we are tired of going out of our way to make them comfortable.

However, the real irony comes in the fact that we are condemned for not having valid and concrete examples of racism and, yet, when we attempt to present any, we are accused of overplaying the victim card. Which is it–do you want to hear about our strife or want us to ignore it?

Now, I know there’s the argument that our struggles are minor and rooted in the privilege of attending a prestigious institution like Harvard. And I agree. Being asked everyday by faculty, staff, and other students whether I’m a student causes me little harm and is in no way comparable to the pain inflicted on the families of unarmed black men gunned down in our nation’s streets. But if this leading institution cannot embrace enough humility to address even mundane demonstrations of racism, how can it expect the rest of the nation to address greater ones?

In closing, I’ll agree with Professor Kennedy on one thing: I’m not hurt.

I’ve received a number of calls, emails, and text messages from administration, faculty, staff, alumni, and students in the past few days. Most expressing support, but many also opening their arms with good intentions because they sensed that behind my words there was a “great deal of pain” or “deep hurt.” No, I’m fine. This is my norm. It’s your hearts pounding and blood rushing.

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