'Excessive Ethnocentric Behavior is Dysfunctional'

Blacks at Harvard

Are minority student groups inherently ethnocentric and separatist? Or do they provide a cultural haven that supplements other student activities?

The debate flared up this semester on two fronts:

* The Harvard Foundation for Race Relations--established four years ago in lieu of the Third World Student Center long requested by minority students--underwent its first formal evaluation.

* A long-simmering dispute between Black students and an outspoken Black professor over the isolation and "parochialism" of Black student groups erupted in February in a series of letters to the editors of The Crimson.

Letter Wars

Professor of Government Martin L. Kilson came to Harvard in 1953 as a graduate student. He worked his way up the academic ladder, from research fellow to lecturer to junior faculty, becoming one of Harvard's first Black tenured professors in 1969.

Though Kilson has long debated tactics and goals with Black students on campus--he calls the 1960s radical activists "militants [who] couldn't really organize"--he had been silent recently.

But in February, 1985, a Crimson article on the Black Student's Guide to Colleges stirred him to speak up again. He wrote a heated letter to the editors:

"For my money, I'd bet that Black students at Harvard (and other colleges, too) who have chosen cosmopolitan identities rather than ethnocentric ones will in the future perform their Black leadership requirements better than Black students who have opted for ethnocentrism. If the good Lord's willing. I'll meet Timothy Wilkins, Anthony Ball, and Audrey Mischell [three Black student leaders] down the road in 20 years to pick up my winnings."

The students took up the challenge, with the resulting public debate comprising half-a-dozen letters over several weeks.

Four members of the Black Students Association (BSA) met with Kilson in March to discuss their differences, says Wilkins, the former president of the BSA, but one letters continued.

The basis of Kilson's argument is the assertion that "excessive ethnocentric behavior is dysfunctional to the egalitarian goals of parity for Blacks...in American society," as he wrote in his first of three letters.

"Uninformed rabble-rousing" is useless, says an ally of Kilson, Kenneth D. Johnson '85, vice-president of the Seymour Society, a Black Christian group of which Kilson was one of the initial advisors. Instead, Blacks must work within the system: get a good education, enter the world of white elites, and then build up institutions and networks for Blacks (for instance, establishing chairs in the Afro-American Department or setting up Black scholarship funds).

Several Black student leaders contacted last week say they disagree that their organizations isolate their members from the mainstream.

Says Narri R. Cooper '85, president of the Kuumba Singers, a Black musical group: "Even in the Kuumba Singers, most members are in other organizations as well."

"Blacks are only 6 percent of the population at Harvard. They can't help but interact with the mainstream." Wilkins adds. For example, he says, BSA members serve on the board of directors of the Harvard Student Agencies, play on the tennis team, and sing in the Opportunes.

"People have more than one side to themselves," says Alan C. Shaw '85, former president of the BSA

It is on this issue that Kilson errs. Shaw adds. "Kilson believes that students would join a Third World Center and not get involved with anything else on campus."

Kilson's view is the same one held, officially, by the University.

A Third World Center would "institutionalize a sense of isolation and even alienation," says the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, chairman of the group that proposed the establishment of an alternative body--the Harvard Foundation--in 1981.

The Foundation is intended to improve race relations on campus through organizing race-related panels, hosting lecturers, and funding student projects.

Just this semester, a committee led by Diana L. Eck, professor of Religion and Indian Studies, "endorsed the principle" of the Foundation and "gave it legitimacy," Gomes adds.

"The director [of the Foundation] has made it clear that he is willing to stand his ground against the ethnocentric loudmouths," Kilson says. The Foundation is "unabashedly cosmopolitan."

The Seymour Society's Johnson, who agrees with Kilson on many issues, says he too opposes a Third World Center. "The BSA has no ideology for why it's here...It would not know how to use a center."

However, many Black students continue to call for a center.

The center would "give minority groups a focal point so they don't feel isolated on campus," says Cooper.

"It's important for Blacks to remember and celebrate their own culture," Wilkins adds.

The center would not just be social, student proponents insist. It would also serve as a central place to help organize minority events, house libraries, hold meetings, and host similar activities.

Black students in the 1960s and 1970s did tend to isolate themselves in ethnic organizations, says Shaw. But, he adds, Black students' attitudes have changed in the wake of public school desegregation.

Kilson may thus have been correct when he made his criticisms years ago, Shaw says, but today "the is out of touch with what students are like."

Many Blacks who have advocated the formation of a Third World Center, while conceding that the status of Blacks has changed, still find the Foundation ill-suited to serve their needs.

S. Allen Counter, the Foundation's director, did not return repeated phone calls last week.

Several of them agree with the findings of the Eck Committee's that student input in the Foundation needs to be increased.

In addition, they say that the Foundation does not fulfill its own goals: "I don't think it's had a big impact on race relations on campus," says Shaw. "Students do not have a better understanding of what it means to be Black if they're not Black, or Asian if they're not Asian."

But Shaw adds, "I see a lot of potential."

Others are not so optimistic.

Cooper, for instance, says she is critical of the "whole premise behind the Foundation." Because the organization only offers funding for individual events, it does not provide long-term stability for minority groups, she adds.

"Ethnocentric militants" will always be making these arguments, Kilson counters. The debate between them and the "pragmatic independents"--as he calls himself--"has always been out there in Afro-American life and it will be there until the cows come home."