Welcome to #HLSUntaped

Over the last few weeks, Harvard Law School has been grappling with difficult issues concerning race on campus. Protestors from the #RoyallMustFall movement have brought up important questions surrounding everything from the meaning of racialized symbols to the format of the 1L curriculum. Meanwhile, the HLS administration has been alternately critiqued or praised for how it’s handled discussion of these issues.

In order to further such discussions, The Record’s staff has put together a special feature that we are calling #HLSUntaped. Within these pages, you will find stories written by professors and students holding a diverse range of perspectives. While not all the writers have the same opinions about how to fix our law school’s problems, or even how to frame the problems at hand, all of these pieces are a great jumping-off point for open discussion. Whether you share an opinion closer to Professor Randall Kennedy or to Professor Ronald Sullivan, to Bill Barlow ’16 or to AJ Clayborne ’16, we hope you will read all of these pieces with an open mind, and that you will contribute your own piece to editor@hlrecord.org in order to further these important discussions.

Thank you for being such a great community of readers this semester,

Michael Shammas ‘16
Editor-in-chief, The Harvard Law Record

Pete Davis ‘18
Online Editor, The Harvard Law Record

Letter to the Editor: On the HLS Crest

All peoples throughout history have held other humans as slaves.  They do so even today in many other countries and other cultures.  Species oppression, in the way the term is being used today at HLS,  predates the first Homo sapiens sapiens.  Let HLS not be myopic or narcissistic.  Purging the Royall crest of waving wheat does not eliminate slavery or hate, cannot change the rampant slavery that exists even today in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and will not purify HLS of an American past where slavery was once legal.

The line into the past, and into past slavery, the line of humans oppressing other humans, is a line that never stops.  It can never be traced to a single seminal beginning.  We all have slave forebears.  This truth of universal slavery and oppression, of the dreadful way that people can treat each other, is why keeping the crest on the HLS seal is the only right act that has any possibility of affirming good and changing the cycle of millennia. Continue reading “Letter to the Editor: On the HLS Crest”

#HLSUntaped: A Voice from the Background

I’ve been encouraged by several classmates to share a comment I left on the Royall Asses blog several days ago. Although the introvert in me would rather not seek out attention and the pessimist in me doubts my words will achieve much in the way of change, I’ve decided that neither of these concerns presents a justifiable basis for slinking quietly back into the background.

I’ve spent the better part of my life lurking contentedly in the background, often because I’ve convinced myself that either no one will care what I have to say or that nothing I say will likely have any meaningful impact. Unfortunately, I suspect there are many more like me who sit silently by feeling as though their participation will amount to little. I further suspect that our collective silence, based on a lack of individual confidence, is significantly contributing to the ongoing and problematic status quo. So, although my original comment was written for the author(s) of the Royall Asses blog posts and those similarly inclined, I repost it here, in edited form, for those who still lurk in the background. I would encourage you to resist the urge to sit comfortably and quietly in the background, leaving the heavy lifting for others. Speak up. Use whatever voice you have, big or small. Continue reading #HLSUntaped: A Voice from the Background

#HLSUntaped: The Fierce Urgency of Now

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. Continue reading #HLSUntaped: The Fierce Urgency of Now

#HLSUntaped: White Privilege: This Both Is and Is Not About You

I understand and empathize with the frustration that Bill Barlow is apparently feeling right now. It is hard, I know, to be told that you benefit from a system of racial privilege that may seem far removed from your own individual actions or life story. It is harder still to be told that your actions or words shore up white supremacy, a phrase that invokes burning crosses and white hoods. But let me make a genuine plea in the face of that frustration: listen to your colleagues of color, and try to understand what you’re being told.

When someone tells you that you are exhibiting white privilege or supporting white supremacy, you have been criticized, true, but the person who told you this has given you an opportunity to become a better ally and an active participant in struggle. They let you know that, from their perspective, your actions are incongruent with what they hope are your shared values of anti-racism. Ignore that perspective at your own peril because doing so puts you in the position of missing out on something vital to the way you live your life from that moment forward. You are on notice that you are not doing and being the best person and ally you can. Continue reading #HLSUntaped: White Privilege: This Both Is and Is Not About You

#HLSUntaped: Drowning out black voices: Professor Randall Kennedy reads history wrong and in reverse.

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.” Continue reading #HLSUntaped: Drowning out black voices: Professor Randall Kennedy reads history wrong and in reverse.

#HLSUntaped: Royall Must Fall

The response by administration to the recent defacement of the portraits of black professors and calls to remove racist symbols at the law school has frankly been nothing short of disappointing and inadequate. Students of color have been warned not to fall down the unbecoming path of self-victimization by blowing such individualized and obscure racist incidences out of proportion. Such statements truly exemplify why the self-congratulatory nature of this generation is more racially toxic than those that came before.

Allow me to explain. At least in past generations racism was palpable; it was in the streets, embodied within the segregation laws enforced in schools and in public spaces. Now, students of color must fight a more sinister and furtive evil, one that is entangled within the very institutions that shout diversity and welcome you with open arms, flattering you with shiny red folders on which an undignified symbol of torture and aggression is routinely printed and glorified without question. Continue reading #HLSUntaped: Royall Must Fall

#HLSUntaped: A Response to Randall Kennedy

In the spirit of fostering a community-wide conversation, we wanted to respond to Randall Kennedy’s provocative op-ed.

Although Randy is unperturbed by the black tape recently placed over his photograph, he is quite concerned about something else: the potentially destructive effects of taking the outrage and demands of some students at Harvard Law School – and at universities around the country – too seriously.

These students perceive racism not only on the walls of Harvard Law School but also in its history, culture, curriculum, and personnel. Having asked some of those students to explain “with as much particularity as possible” the sources of their discontent, Randy is largely unconvinced. Some of their “complaints” may have “a ring of validity,” but others “are dubious.” True, their “accusations warrant close examination and may well justify further reforms,” but his primary concern is with the intensity and unintended consequences of their grievances. On the pages of The New York Times, he cautions those youngsters to avoid “exaggerat[ing] the scope of the racism” or “minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved.” Continue reading #HLSUntaped: A Response to Randall Kennedy

#HLSUntaped: Despite the Call to Be Silent, I’ve Decided to Scream

A week ago, someone put black tape over the portraits of African-American professors at Harvard Law School. The incident, which is being investigated as a hate crime, did not surprise or anger me. But the reaction of some professors and members of the administration to the student activism that followed the act has. The message imbedded in their op-eds and community meetings have been clear: students of color, keep silent. Your voice is not valued and your activism is not warranted.

Ironically, a black professor whose portrait was defaced has responded by using his words as a tool to silence students protesting racial apathy at HLS. In his recent op-ed, Professor Randall Kennedy asked dissidents (code word students of color) to tell him “with as much particularity as possible” why we feel “burdened, alienated, disrespected, oppressed.” Professor Kennedy categorized several concerns students raised as having a “ring of validity” but disregarded most as “dubious” and “exaggerating the scope of the racism that the activists oppose and fear.” By concluding that students are displaying “excessive vulnerability” and “nurturing an inflated sense of victimization” when we say we perceive racism in the way our classes fail to contextualize our legal education or when we use permanent marker to “x” out the Royall family crest on our HLS gear in a small act of rebellion against the visual embodiment of this institution’s legacy of slavery, Professor Kennedy proclaims our view of racism invalid and our proposals for change inadequate for the long-term. He re-categorizes our advocacy as an attempt to get attention instead of a call to have a real stake in identifying and addressing the problems around race that exist at HLS. Continue reading #HLSUntaped: Despite the Call to Be Silent, I’ve Decided to Scream

#HLSUntaped: The Sound of Silence

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

Written in the aftermath of the JFK assassination, Simon and Garfunkel’s famous song, “The Sound of Silence” was rumored to describe Americans’ collective inability to communicate in the aftermath of that tragedy. Garfunkel later gave the song’s meaning as, “the inability of people to communicate with each other, not particularly internationally but especially emotionally, so what you see around you are people unable to love each other.”

We’ve heard a lot of the sound of silence on campus recently. In the aftermath of the tape incident with the portraits, one part of the campus seethes in outrage whereas another part is afraid to say, “I think that the protestors are being a bit unreasonable.” They’re afraid of being called racist, insensitive, or bigoted. Because they are afraid, they do not say anything at all. Continue reading #HLSUntaped: The Sound of Silence

#HLS Untaped: Staff are organizing to fight racism at Harvard Law School

When I first started working at Harvard Law School, I had 13 stops. That’s how long it took to get from Ashmont Station, near my childhood home in Dorchester, to Harvard Square, where I had just accepted a job as a program assistant. Thirteen stops I had to convince myself that I belonged at the law school and that I had a place among the elite. Even today, a year later, I stop outside Wasserstein every morning, take a couple of deep breaths, and prepare to leave a part of myself on Massachusetts Avenue.

It’s my job as a staff member to serve the HLS community. I serve students their food, I process affidavit letters for alums, and I book professors’ rooms for meetings. But just because I serve  does not make me a servant. Many people at HLS understand this. But in an institution that has a strong caste system, with very few people of color at the top, it is inevitable that some individuals treat staff as the “other.” Continue reading #HLS Untaped: Staff are organizing to fight racism at Harvard Law School

#HLSUntaped: White Allies: Acknowledging Racism Is Not Enough

Last week, I found out that anonymous law students created a website criticizing me, Mawuse Hor Vormawor, and AJ Clayborne because we are members of Royall Must Fall.

This website is a reminder that overt racism and homophobia continue to exist at Harvard Law School. Our classmates claim that Mawuse, AJ, and I do not know how to read or write and that we were only admitted into Harvard because we are minorities who care about minority issues (the website “calls me out” for being gay and for being from Kentucky and Texas).

The website speaks for itself in urging us to do exactly the opposite of what its creators want: to confront and dismantle systemic racism that pervades our school and society. Tellingly, the website’s creators also ignore an important criticism against me: that I am a lifelong beneficiary of white supremacy. Continue reading #HLSUntaped: White Allies: Acknowledging Racism Is Not Enough

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

#HLSUntaped: The Psychopathy of American Symbolism

On October 20th, 2014 Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black Chicago citizen was killed by Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. By now many of us have seen the disturbing video. This homicide has sparked a great deal of controversy in Chicago, but here I focus on what Van Dyke’s actions reveal about his mindset and its relationship to the racialized culture of American psychopathy. What could cause a police officer to value a life so little that he would murder a teenager who was simply walking past him? The answer lies closer to home than many of us realize.

No one disputes that advertisements can be a powerful tool to mobilize a populace. Car companies know that their advertisements are not going to convince you to go out and buy a car every single time they run an ad. The point of that ad is to induce you to remember their product when you need a car. In other words car companies rely on planting stories or images in your mind which cause you to modify your behavior in the future. Racism in this country works in a similar manner. Mythology justifying the subjugation of Blacks is a national advertising tradition in this country. Every symbol carries with it a story of how black Americans are worth less than white Americans.
Continue reading #HLSUntaped: The Psychopathy of American Symbolism