Dear HLS, Racism Lives Here Too

We ask everyone to donate and support local grassroots organizations working for racial justice in the greater Boston area.

In late 2017, a notable white supremacist group posted recruitment fliers around Stanford Law School (SLS). Last quarter, racist anti-immigrant hate mail was stuffed in a student’s mailbox at SLS. In response, a group of women of color at SLS hung a banner in the law school that read “Racism Lives Here Too.” Racist acts are not surprising or unique to SLS, or even to HLS. The reality is that as law students of color, we know that racism and other -isms live here, too.

As fellow students of color at Harvard Law School, we stand in solidarity with people of color in all spaces who experience marginalization because of their identities. We stand in solidarity with students, faculty, and staff of color at Stanford, Harvard, UC Hastings, and other law schools by wearing pink colored armbands this week to highlight overt and micro-aggressive acts of intersecting “-isms” of subordination on campus. Above all, this week we amplify the voices of students who anonymously submitted statements about their experiences at HLS. We also express our staunch belief that only by working together with faculty, staff, and students can we truly stamp out prejudice surrounding our campus. We acknowledge that by not doing so, we fail not only students, staff, and faculty who are affected, but also the legal profession and our communities. Inexplicably, we often avoid open discussions of racism and inequality while studying laws that perpetuate, and are sometimes explicitly rooted in, racism, white supremacy, xenophobia, ableism, and social inequality. Our legal system carries a legacy of genocide and codifying forced displacement of Native Americans, abuse and claimed ownership of black and brown bodies, and institutionalized injustice. If we do not have a conversation about “-isms” of subordination and how we all contribute to their existence, then we will never end them. It is in this context that we write to you.

The emails (and posters) we organized this week feature quotes from HLS students that illustrate the prejudices pervading our community. The statements include:

I am wearing a pink band because…[1]

“I have been mistaken for someone else of the same ethnicity/race.”

Someone said “I’m not racist. I have family members with black spouses.”

“My name is continually mispronounced despite correcting people multiple times.”

Someone said “Racism doesn’t exist at Harvard, we have you here.”

“I have heard men on this campus objectify and fetishize women of color and brag about their past & future sexual harassment/assault.”

Someone at HLS said “Conversion therapy wouldn’t be that bad.” -Said the day after Trump’s election.

“A classmate has made the same point or asked the same question in class after me but without acknowledging my contribution.”

“At 1L orientation people answered ‘build the wall’ to a question during an anonymous write-in, and staff chose to ignore it.”

“As a woman of color, when I call out professors/staff/people for their sexist comments or mannerisms, I have been told by male students that I am being too sensitive.”

“The Deans know that my rapist attends HLS and that he continued harassing me in WCC. The Deans refused to investigate the situation and completely stopped answering my emails. I had to get a restraining order just to feel safe on campus.”

“Our legal curriculum sanitizes or erases the severity of colonization/slavery/genocide.”

“I have been cut off or spoken over by an individual (including faculty and students) while I was speaking.”

“Classmates have said ‘your English is so good I didn’t know you are an international student.’”

“Professors looking less interested in having a conversation with me compared to with white students.”

Someone at HLS said “You should know origami’ because of my ethnicity.”

Someone at HLS said “If you get extra time your grades should be adjusted.”

Classmates have said to me ‘You are so fluent in English.’”

“HLS students assume I was born in another country before hearing me speak or knowing anything about me.”

Someone said “You speak so well, were you born here?”

“A Professor said ‘Short-haired and flat-chested women are easily mistakable as men, and it’s a relief that that’s not in-fashion anymore.’”

Someone at HLS said “the school should hire workers who can actually speak English.”

“Faculty, students, and our curriculum minimize or refuse to mention how people of color are affected by the law.”

Someone at HLS said “You should not be open about your disability.”

“I was stopped by campus police for walking ‘suspiciously’ with my hoodie on.”

“On February 14, 2017, I sat in a classroom listening to students monetize cancer risk. One of them suggested that people who ‘elect’ not to purchase health insurance take the risk of getting cancer someday. On February 14, 2013, I stood at my father’s funeral staring at the casket of a man who died of cancer because he was uninsured.”

“I, and other people of color have been tokenized or expected to educate our peers on race or represent all people of color.”

“The administration refuses to require cultural competency training for faculty.”

“I am tired of men interrupting or speaking over me!”

Someone at HLS said “This school is run by Jews”

Someone at HLS said “What does race have to do with studying criminal law?”

“I was sharing with a group of white individuals how oppressive the law school classroom experience has been and how I have often felt silenced and marginalized when all seven of them proceeded to 1) cut me off before I could even explain; and 2) speak over me to exclaim how that hasn’t been their experience AT all and maybe I was just being sensitive and negative. I never got another word in. This is exactly what I meant.”

“When men at HLS have too much to drink, I fear for my safety.”

Someone at HLS said “Why do they (referring to students of color) come to law school if they’re going to complain about loans?”

Someone in class asked “is it rape if she enjoys it?”

Someone said “Police should absolutely have the authority to stop you if you look suspicious, that’s not racism, that’s how it works.”

As members of these communities, we personally understand the problems that our peers shared. Most of all, we understand that while we can organize to interrogate and change the prejudiced views on campus, racial justice necessitates dismantling structural systems of oppression. This week, we seek viable means to address our school’s complicity in perpetuating interpersonal, institutional, and structural forms of marginalization.

Many of us enrolled at HLS with the hope to address these structural issues through public interest work. Our conversations this week revealed some of our peers’ disappointment with HLS institutional policies and practices impede us from doing so sustainably. Students expressed frustration that HLS’s financial aid and loan repayment policies place low-income, and first-generation students – who are disproportionately students of color – in further financial hardship. HLS requires students who receive grant aid to take on a minimum of $144,000 of debt and provides about $5,200 (1Ls) and $6,500 (2Ls) in pay to pursue summer public interest work (below its own estimated summer living allowance, $7,800). Such policies widen the wealth gap between HLS students and practically prevent low-income students, predominantly of color, from pursuing public interest careers. When HLS’s loan repayment policies ignore the fact that we have different financial needs, we are denied the social mobility, community empowerment, and freedom of career choice enjoyed by our more affluent peers[2].

Further, our peers expressed displeasure at hearing HLS’s explanations to account for the fact that only 19.6% of its graduates pursue public interest work, even after they were recently debunked. When we learn about potential strategies to relieve student debt or improve access to public interest work, like using HLS’s $1.7B endowment, we are left wondering “Why hasn’t HLS done this already?” and “What does HLS need from us to make it happen?” When all is said and done, HLS maintains a robust pipeline that sends 80% of its graduates into corporate law to maintain an economic system of concentrated wealth and legal power. This anti-democratic result perpetuates legal and economic inequality for historically marginalized people, who are predominately of color. Thus, communities most in need of legal aid, from which we come from, are left without it[3]. According to a 2017 LSC report, 86% of civil legal problems experienced by low-income Americans (of which 56% are households of color) received inadequate or no legal aid. However, “four times as many Harvard Law graduates work with organizations designed to serve the legal interests of a disproportionately white client base, compared to those who pursue work with organizations designed to serve the legal interests of a disproportionately Black client base.”[4]

Many students expressed that our first year legal curriculum lacks necessary insight into the racial historical realities of the law, which prohibits us from effectively serving in communities of color. A Harvard Law student can easily make it through three years without ever having a difficult, honest, or even generally substantive conversation about race and law. Many pointed to Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a strategy to address this problem. Founded by HLS’s very own Derrick Bell, CRT trains leaders in the movement for racial justice by teaching them to deconstruct the racial history of legal academic thought and encourages law students to consider the racial biases inherent to judicial decision-making. CRT is in high demand at HLS, as evidenced by student waitlist of over 100 students for CRT Professor Khiara Bridges’ visiting seminars. Without a commitment to CRT, or programs to eliminate racial bias (see CLE programs), HLS perpetuates racial inequalities because it does not equip graduates with the knowledge and skills necessary to properly deal with issues of race in the law.

Students also expressed their frustration at the lack of diverse faculty despite decades of student activism and demands–some of which conformed to the administration’s procedures. Moreover, students expressed frustration at HLS’s treatment of non-faculty employees, who are almost exclusively people of color and in need of increased TPS legal services. Many reminded us of how Harvard attacked dining service workers fighting for living wages and better working conditions, an affront not only to these workers but also to working-class students and students of color, some of whose parents are similarly employed. Harvard has also challenged its own students’ right to unionize, violating labor law aimed to ensure fair union elections. We are excited at the possibility of unionizing with the Harvard Graduate Students Union- UAW and bargaining collectively. This week, we affirm that an attack one of our communities is an attack on us all.

HLS’s recent policy change to accept the GRE “to eliminate barriers”, diversity of new leadership, and initiatives run by HLS’s office of Community Engagement and Equity demonstrates its knowledge of and willingness to address some of these problems. Institutional investment in the Office of Public Interest Advising, student practice organizations, and clinics are signs of progress. But, if HLS wants to claim that it is honestly achieving its mission “to educate leaders who contribute to the advancement of justice and the well-being of [all] society,” then HLS bears the burden to do more to address its institutional problems that disproportionately harm our communities of color.

HLS students, faculty, and staff have articulated for decades how HLS is complicit in marginalizing our communities. Most recently, demands were re-articulated by the Harvard Reclaim movement through occupying Belinda Hall, following the black tape “hate crime” on campus. This week, we wear pink armbands to express solidarity with groups on campus currently calling for substantive changes to financial aid policies, faculty hiring practices, student body diversity, white-and corporate-centric curricula, and limited opportunities to practice public interest sustainably. We are well aware of our place in the long history of student activism around race at HLS (and other universities) informed by traditions of radical thought. We are also aware that student activism has traditionally involved a tug-and-pull dance between students, faculty, and administration that has been resource intensive, temporary, and draining on everyone. We know that the effectiveness of our activism depends on the long tradition of building power by coalescing in small or big ways across communities, like the HLS Coalition for Civil Rights in ‘89, to bend the arc of justice. We recognize the successes achieved through years of HLS student activism: hiring the first black faculty member Derrick Bell in ‘69, founding the Latinx Law Review in ‘94, granting tenure to the first woman of color Lani Guinier in ‘98, removing a slaveholder’s crest from the HLS seal in 2016, and securing a memorial in honor of African-Americans whose enslavement enabled the foundation and wealth of HLS in 2017.

Our unapologetic love for our communities, who experience intersecting forms of subordination every day, reminds us that it’s up to us, the current student body, to continue organizing and boldly hold the HLS faculty and administration leadership accountable to its mission. This week’s action is inseverably connected to our ongoing work to address intersecting forms of subordination in all the spaces we navigate. Our conversations this week reaffirmed our bold vision for a different HLS inclusive of all people.

Our history of activism teaches us that there is strength in numbers. We call our fellow students, administrators, and faculty to break the culture of silence, repeated history, and complacency by proactively moving towards reconciliation, like other universities, and by accepting our responsibility to substantially repair the harms HLS has caused and profited from. We see and recognize the allies (students, faculty, and staff) who reached out to us and firmly stand with us to help pave the way for meaningful actions and conversations to address racial, gender, economic, sexual orientation, and ability equity and justice in law school and in our communities.

This week, we join our peers across the country in acknowledging that prejudice is still prevalent on campus, and that racism lives here, too. Above all, our goal was to center and highlight the voices of our peers who bravely shared their experiences of marginalization to the HLS community. As long as “-isms” of subordination find refuge and thrive at HLS, our activism to end it will too.


A Group of Students of Color & Allies at Harvard Law School

[1]All statements were submitted anonymously by a sample of HLS students (n=34) to the organizers via an online form that was shared to organizations and groups of students on campus via email from Sunday February 11 to Thursday February 15, 2018.

[2] 77.5% of HLS students are from families that make more than $95,000/year and have more than $175,000 in wealth holdings.

[3] 71% of low-income households experience at least one legal problem a year.

[4] Davis. P. (2017). “Our Bicentennial Crisis, A Call to Action for Harvard Law School’s Public Interest Mission.” The Harvard Law Record, 47.

Felipe Hernandez is a 1L.