Harvard Takes Steps to Offset Bigotry
Racial Tensions on College Campuses
The list of colleges that have seen racial brawls this year is long. At Columbia University, long considered a bastion of student liberalism, a small-scale race riot broke out in March, when a Black and a white student hurled insults at each other and initiated a fight that involved at least a dozen students.
At the University of Michigan, a student slipped a pamphlet proclaiming "open-season" on "porch monkees and jigaboos" under the door of a Black students meeting. In addition, a campus disc jockey on a school radio station caused an uproar after he broadcast racist jokes.
Closer to Harvard, a large racial brawl broke out at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst after the October conclusion of the World Series.
Despite increased racial tension on campus nationwide, the University has experienced few incidences of racism. While minority students say that racism exists and is pervasive, it has not appeared at Harvard in the violent forms it has at other universities.
The sole reported racial incident occurred in January, when someone threw an orange through the door to Currier House, where a Black student was manning the bells desk. The Black student also received a call from someone who said, "Negro hit squad strikes again."
But minorities say that racism should not be measured in terms of violent incidents, but that it is an attitudinal problem that is damaging even when it is not blatant. Though many say that this attitude is not necessarily increasing on the Harvard campus, it definitely exists.
"There haven't been any really violent acts, but there is most definitely a racist attitude on campus," says David G. Latimore '88, director of Harvard's Afro-American Cultural Center.
"The tension is not as great [at Harvard]. There haven't been the incidents like at the University of Massachusetts or at Dartmouth," says Kenneth W. Johnson '87. But "there is still quite a bit of racism," he adds.
Minority students speak of less obvious racial incidents. Some say they frequently experience racial slurs or jokes, and others say police ask for their ID cards more often than they ask white students. Others complain of "subtle racism," such as a white student's questioning a minority student's qualifications to be at the University.
"A lot of [non-minority students] think that Black students are here just because they're Black. That's not true," says Leah R. Johnson '87.
Minority students attribute the recent increase in racial violence nationwide to the Reagan Administration's attitude and policies toward minorities and to Americans' growing apathy toward race relations. "The Reagan Administration sends signals to America that it's cool to be racist," says Latimore.
But the Harvard administration this year took several significant steps to deal with racial issues, and states that race relations at the University are better now than ever before. "I think we have some problems, but they're not getting worse, and the problems we have, we're dealing with reasonably well," says William H. Bossert '59, chairman of the faculty committee on the Harvard Foundation, which was created in 1981 to deal with minority concerns.
This year the administration created a student-faculty Racial Harassment Committee to determine precedent and procedure for dealing with racial harassment, and a student-faculty Academic Affairs Committee to deal with increasing racial awareness by means of the curriculum. The Academic Affairs Committee is currently investigating ways to increase the number of courses on American ethnic minorities and the number of minority faculty members.
Since its inception in February, the Racial Harassment has reviewed procedures for filing complaints, and plans to announce specific policies next year. "The committee is a fitting way to combat the subtle racism which has been allowed to fester and ferment" at Harvard, says Shannah B. Braxton '88, former co-president of the Black Student's Association, earlier this year.
But despite the administration's steps, some question the University's sincerity and effectiveness in addressing minority concerns. Many minority students feel that the Harvard Foundation, the principle body to deal with racial issues, can not deal effectively with the problem of racism.
"The Harvard Foundation is in a Catch-22 situation. I guess people expect it to do everything, but it can't," says Sydney W. DeJongh '87. Students have raised complaints about the Foundation this year, saying it does not have the power or facilities necessary to accomplish what minority groups would like it to. These students fault the foundation for having only a part-time director, no practical facilities for group meetings, and restricted funding.
But with the creation of the new committees this year, the Foundation has responded to earlier criticisms that it lacked student representation and the ability to deal with racial harassment issues. Dr. S. Allen Counter, director of the Foundation, credits the body for keeping racial tension much lower at Harvard than at other campuses. Other universities have not "taken our approach to dealing with racial problems--they've taken other approaches that are not as successful," he says.
"I think that students often underestimate the role that the Harvard Foundation plays in keeping racial harmony among the high-quality people we have here," Counter adds.
But some students remain disillusioned. "I have little enthusiasm for the Harvard Foundation. If it was meant to be a substitute for a Third World Center, then I think it's a poor substitute," Leah Johnson says.
Others criticize the administration for taking too long to address racial issues and form organizations such as the Racial Harassment Committee. "Minority groups have been encouraging the university for years to take measures so subtle racism won't become explosive," Braxton says. "It's unfortunate that it takes a Currier House 'nigger strike force' to bring it to the attention of the University administration."
Administrators also point to the record high numbers of minority students admitted to the college for next year as proof that Harvard is committed to dealing with racial issues, and say this awareness also helps to keep racial tension lower on campus. This year's figures are a sign that will help "minorities realize that they do have a place at Harvard, a place in America," says Leah Johnson.
But despite the problem of racism on the Harvard campus, many students and administrators say they are glad that the University has managed to avoid serious racial tension. "We're not perfect, but I am so happy that we are where we are instead of where other university campuses are," Bossert says.