In a grand corridor of Harvard Law School, framed professors’ photographs hang on a wall. A week ago, someone put slivers of black tape over the faces of most of the African-American professors. I am one of those whose photograph was marked.Kennedy connects how people respond to possibly racist incidents to one of my themes: in a world with so many messages being broadcast, people find and focus on the ones they want to hear. There is a lot of racism in the world, so if that is your focus you will keep finding it. But why focus on it? Instead of the one person who put up black tape, why not focus on the hundreds who protested against it?
Last Thursday, on my way to teach contracts, I received an email from a student who alerted me to the defacement. I saw the taped photos, including my own, right before class. Since then I have been asked repeatedly how I feel about having been targeted by what some deem to be a racial hate crime. Questioners often seem to assume that I should feel deeply alarmed and hurt. I don’t.
The identity and motives of the person or people behind the taping have not been determined. Perhaps the defacer is part of the law school community. But maybe not. Perhaps the defacer is white. But maybe not. Perhaps the taping is meant to convey anti-black contempt or hatred for the African-American professors. But maybe it was meant to protest the perceived marginalization of black professors, or was a hoax meant to look like a racial insult in order to provoke a crisis, or was a rebuke to those who have recently been taping over the law school’s seal, which memorializes a family of slaveholders from colonial times. Some observers, bristling with certainty, insist that the message conveyed by the taping of the photographs is obvious. To me it is puzzling.
Assuming that it was a racist gesture, there is a need to calibrate carefully its significance. On a campus containing thousands of students, faculty members and staff, one should not be surprised or unglued by an instance or even a number of instances of racism. The question is whether those episodes are characteristic or outliers. Substantial numbers of onlookers believe that this episode is by no means isolated, that it offers a revealing glimpse into the soul of Harvard Law School.
They believe that the defacement is but an outcropping of shrouded, denied, but pervasive bigotry abetted by an unwillingness to redress subtle vestiges of historical racial injustice. The aggrievement felt by substantial numbers of smart, knowledgeable and capable students is evident. Their accusations warrant close examination and may well justify further reforms. There are exceedingly few, if any, major institutions in America that can be presumed to be racism free.
Activists who are demanding that universities do more to advance racial justice ought to be encouraged by what has transpired in recent weeks. On account of their interventions, difficult but earnest and probing conversations have blossomed. At Harvard, the dozen or so strips of black tape that prompted the crisis have been replaced by hundreds of brightly colored stickers expressing respect and appreciation, and rejecting bigotry.
Kennedy is concerned about the response of some students:
I worry about two in particular. One involves exaggerating the scope of the racism that the activists oppose and fear. The other involves minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved. . . . Disturbing, too, is a related tendency to indulge in self-diminishment by displaying an excessive vulnerability to perceived and actual slights and insults. Some activists seem to have learned that invoking the rhetoric of trauma is an effective way of hooking into the consciences of solicitous authorities. Perhaps it is useful for purposes of eliciting certain short-term gains.The world is not and will never be perfect. The world will hurt you. Certainly you should do what you can, when you can, to make it a better place. But the right response to any particular act of meanness is not to cry over it, but to defy the haters and keep moving on.
In the long run, though, reformers harm themselves by nurturing an inflated sense of victimization. A colleague of mine whose portrait was taped over exhibited the right spirit when he jauntily declared that it would take far more than tape to slow him down.