The status quo is a powerful force. It aligns with institutions to such a degree that it becomes normative. Things are the way they are because they are. Full stop.
Young adults are particularly adept change agents. They view the status quo with suspicion and, often, well-earned contempt. The status quo has no self-generating authority; rather, it often assumes a set of priors that are antagonistic to many young people’s lived experience.
As students of history, it is not lost on us that young people catalyze nearly all significant change. They make change happen, even when predecessor generations level critiques usually along two primary registers. First, older generations routinely critique younger generations’ methods as too radical. Thurgood Marshall criticized Martin Luther King Jr.’s methods as incongruous with the legal strategy. Even as King preached about the “fierce urgency of now,” he criticized the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee’s brand of direct action as too provocative. But, we are reminded that student protestors in the 1950s and 1960s changed America, even as their elders told them their methods were unhelpful. Indeed, without those students causing disruption, discomfort, and breaking the law, we would not have been able to attend this law school, or teach here, or enjoy the very many freedoms and privileges in America that we do.
Second, young people are criticized for exaggerating the conditions they protest. It’s not that bad, the argument runs. Progress, indeed, is undeniable. Harvard Law School (HLS) is far better now than it was 20 years ago when we were students. Likewise, those black graduates 20 years our senior believed our experience to have been much improved as compared to theirs. So what. Jim Crow was better than slavery. Should those brave souls not have protested de jure segregation because their condition was better than the prior era?
We view the current protests at HLS in this broader context. To say that an institution is better is not to say that it is beyond reproach. Current minority students have a right to experience HLS in the way that majority communities do. It rings hollow to ask them to be satisfied because things are better, or to diminish the degree of pain they experience presently. Significantly, the form of racial intolerance current students experience, to our thinking, is far more sinister than in generations past. Modern students are challenging the way the law school dispenses privilege. They challenge the way race, class, and gender norms are embedded into the very fabric of the law school and disproportionately burden minority students. They are doing the hard work of rooting out racism that exists in structure, the form of racism that exists notwithstanding the good intentions of the stewards of any given institution.
Just like generations past, we hope that the disruption and discomfort we have experienced will force us to critically engage the students’ complaints.
Ronald Sullivan ‘94 is Director of the Harvard Criminal Justice Institute.
Stephanie Robinson ‘94 is a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School.