Race controversy explodes, BLSA makes demands of administration

News   /   November 11, 2002  / 


BY JONAS BLANK

The problems that began with the posting of racially offensive outlines on the HL Central outline bank by a Section IV student in early March have now grown into a widespread controversy involving a series of incidents that implicate students, professors and at least one student organization. More than a month after the outlines appeared, responses have come from the highest levels of the Law School and University administrations.

Frustration at administrative responses to the incidents prompted the submission of a series of demands by the Black Law Students’ Association (BLSA) to the administration, which appear in an open letter printed in today’s RECORD. BLSA’s demands include the creation of an office of multicultural affairs with a full-time staff member, as well as a direct response from Deans Clark and Rakoff to BLSA. The group also requested a public disciplining of Professors David Rosenberg and Charles Nesson, which would include reprimands printed in the Harvard Law Bulletin and the Harvard Crimson and removal of both professors from the teaching of 1L courses. BLSA also asked that incoming students, faculty and administrators be required to attend sensitivity training sessions at the start of next year.”We’d like for this school to come up with a policy of addressing these issues quickly and substantively,” said 2L BLSA member Joshua Bloodworth. “They need to come up with a racial harassment policy that lets the whole community know that they condemn these kinds of actions and they they will condemn them when they happen.”

Beyond Section IV – The Controversy Spreads
Less than one week after outlines using the term “nig” were posted to the HL Central web site by 1L Kiwi Camara, a separate controversy erupted in Rosenberg’s Section II torts class. In a class discussion, Rosenberg said that, “Feminism, Marxism and the blacks have contributed nothing to the scientific pursuit of legal discourse.” When 1L Tel Cary-Sadler asked for a clarification, Rosenberg repeated the statement two times. Cary-Sadler met with Dean Todd Rakoff and subsequently received a personal e-mail from Rosenberg that denied that his statement intended to denigrate black scholars or their work. However, in class the next day, Rosenberg offered a “clarification” that Cary-Sadler claims did not include an apology for the use of the term “the blacks.”

“The statement conflated ideology with race,” Cary-Sadler said. “I asked Rosenberg what he meant by that, since it might be interpreted as offensive, and he repeated the statement three times.” After further complaints from Section II students to the administration, Rosenberg agreed to bring in other professors to teach additional torts perspectives. The class will also be videotaped for the remainder of the semester so that students who feel “uncomfortable” attending will not be required to.

“It was clear that Rosenberg should apologize for what he said, and he agreed to do so,” Rakoff told the RECORD. “I wasn’t there to hear what was expressed, so I can’t judge his comments.”Rosenberg declined to comment for this story.

Section IV – The Controversy Continues

Problems did not abate in Section IV, either. On April 1, 1L F. Michelle Simpson – the student who had originally complained about Camara’s outlines – received an anonymous e-mail, later discovered by students to be sectionmate 1L Matthias Scholl, in which Scholl defended Camara’s use of the word “nig” and added that, “I have actually begun using the ‘nigger’ word more often than before the incident.”

The following day, Section IV students received anonymous fliers in their Hark boxes that read, “F– Jews” at the top beside a crudely drawn swastika. The flier repeated the text of Scholl’s e-mail, and stated at the bottom that, “I bet you they will respond to this leaflet because Jews, unlike blacks, are a politically and economically favored group at this University.”

On April 3, Professor Charles Nesson accompanied Scholl into Section IV’s criminal law class and requested five minutes for Scholl to apologize. Nesson then gave a speech in which he suggested that the class hold a mock trial in which he would serve as Scholl’s attorney.

In an interview with the Harvard Crimson, Scholl defended his use of the word, saying, “I would use the word to show people I have the right to use it, but I don’t condone it…. I’m not a racist.”

Trouble At Legal Aid

The BLSA letter also describes a lesser-known incident that occurred in the Legal Aid Bureau this March, when a Bureau member mistook a black 1L for a potential client. The letter claims that although the student and BLSA received an apology, the Bureau has “failed to institute any significant internal changes,” to help to avoid such incidents.

When contacted for comment, Legal Aid President and 2L Dan Gluck described a list of changes the organization plans to implement, including ongoing sensitivity and diversity training throughout the year, sending members to a diversity conference, considering strengthening the organization’s affirmative action program and developing a diversity task force separate from the group’s executive board. The organization also held a roundtable discussion among the entire membership where members discussed race-related issues.

“We’re working very hard to implement lasting changes,” Gluck said. “There is no quick fix – these are national problems – but we are going to do everything we possibly can to be sure the Bureau is a safe place for our clients and our members.”

Two-L Jasleen Kohli, who has been working on diversity issues at the Bureau since the beginning of the year, said, “Quite honestly, a few days ago, I was completely ready to drop out of the Bureau. Right now, though, I have seen a lot of people who have come to a lot of very difficult realizations about themselves.” She added that in order to adequately represent its diverse clientele, the Bureau must be sensitive to racial issues. “What keeps me going is that I am doing good for my clients.”

News of the problems in Section IV spread far beyond the Law School, spawning coverage in major national news organs including The New York Times, Boston Globe, and CNN.

As the story spread, HLS and University administrators scrambled to respond. The student body first heard from Deans Rakoff and Clark in an e-mail Monday, which read, in part: “We emphatically condemn these acts as contrary to both the spirit and the mission of the Harvard Law School.” In the message, the Deans also promised to explore, “strategies for ensuring that the conversations so badly needed can occur within a framework of respect for every member of the community.”

That response was followed by an open letter to the Law School community by University President Lawrence Summers. Summers repeated the Deans’ condemnation, calling the incidents, “deeply inimical to the values of our academic community.”BLSA members say they are not impressed.

“Dean Clark and Dean Rakoff have not done anything,” said 2L Lacey Schwartz, a BLSA member. “There are institutional issues that need addressing.” She pointed to what she called “an institutional climate of apathy and complicity in issues of racial insensitivity and harassment.”

Schwartz and Bloodworth said that BLSA is planning a media blitz that will include press releases to local and national TV stations, radio stations and newspapers, as well as mailings to alumni, politicians, civil rights leaders, donors and affinity groups at other schools.

“We’re going to reach out and really show the administration that this isn’t just a BLSA issue,” Schwartz said. “A lot of students across races, across cultures, have made it known that they are pretty outraged by what’s going on.”

In its own missive to the HLS community, the Law School Council echoed many of BLSA’s concerns, and advanced its own list of solutions that includes creating a formal discrimination policy,
installing a full-time administrator to handle racial issues, making information available to students about the resources for reporting and responding to racial incidents and, most suprisingly, factoring a history of racial incidents into considerations of tenure for faculty.

Though he declined to offer specific solutions, Rakoff called for students and administrators alike to work to move forward. “This is an issue on which the administration must work, but calls for constructive efforts must go to the entire Law School community,” he said. Rakoff added that the problem is felt not only at HLS, but nationally. “The history of race relations is a curse that this country is still feeling – problems of how people get along are present everywhere,” he said. “But then, this country is also the first to deal with a tremendous number of different cultures and races living together. It is both one of our greatest strengths and one of our greatest weaknesses.”

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