Color Blind Students Association

Institutionalized discrimination isn’t just tolerated at Harvard, it’s promoted

Every year, I’m amused to see what new clubs have sprung up. There’s Freeze Magazine and the James Bond Film Society and the Give-Red-Man-an-Oscar Club (also known as the Harvard Coalition for Drug Policy Reform). But even with the rapidly expanding list of organizations here at Harvard, there are still gaping holes in our student group roster. One club I personally would like to see is the Color Blind Students Association (CBSA).

No, it’s not a support group for those undergrads who have a hard time discerning red from green. It would instead be for those who feel that the idea of one’s skin tone playing a major role in his or her life is archaic and ridiculous.

It is extremely unfortunate that no organization with this role currently exists, especially since Harvard prides itself on its diversity. It trumpets its firm and morally appropriate backing of affirmative action and non-discrimination, going so far as to bar University students from participating in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) on campus because ROTC’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy unfairly discriminates against gays.

You can thus imagine my surprise when I arrived at Harvard four years ago to find blatant and, indeed, University-endorsed segregation and discrimination running amok. I’m not talking about anything as sinister as Students for the Klan or even the single-sex social clubs. I am referring, of course, to many of the various ethnic organizations on campus.

These groups are part of a wider trend called self-segregation. This phenomenon occurs when individuals of a certain—in this case racial or ethnic—group separate themselves from the community at large and study, hang out, and party primarily with other individuals of that group. Unlike the segregation that was forced on African-Americans in the South before the 1960s, self-segregation is instituted voluntarily by the members of the affected group. It is facilitated here at Harvard by College-endorsed student organizations which serve as central locations at which to meet other members of the group in a free-from-outsiders sort of way.

It is both the prevalence of these groups and self-segregation as a larger factor on campus that makes CBSA so necessary. Where Harvard should be showing us that our differences are only skin deep, it instead goes out of its way to emphasize and reinforce those differences. Take (please!) the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations. The Harvard Foundation is a justifiably well-respected group that has the given purpose of “improv[ing] relations among racial and ethnic groups within the University.” And it often succeeds, by funding programs and organizing events where dialogue can occur.

But it also often funds and—much worse—grants legitimacy to student groups which serve largely as social meeting places for people of like ethnicity and race but from different personal backgrounds.

This encouragement of ethnic self-segregation is counterproductive. It says that there really is something fundamentally different about people who do not look the same, which is simply not true. By concentrating on what superficially separates us—like skin color or where our ancestors came from—instead of the many more things that we have in common—like our impressive intellects, our uniquely human emotions, and the ambition and drive that got us all here—the Harvard Foundation exacerbates the already intractable problem of self-segregation.

That’s where CBSA comes in. By focusing on what unites us (i.e. wanting to enjoy ourselves in the safe social environment that Harvard lacks), CBSA would let people of all ethnic and racial groups who otherwise would have little opportunity to meet in a social setting hit it off. I have little doubt that after a few minutes of conversation, all involved would have at least realized that this person who looks so different from oneself is actually quite similar. Similarity breeds respect and friendship and maybe more.

Who knows? Perhaps CBSA would become a meat-market the likes of which would make the folks at hahvahdparties.com cheer and the administration of Bob Jones University cringe. After all, that must be the ultimate goal of any program that promotes diversity in the United States: not ticking off right-wing lunatics, as much fun as that is; but interracial and intercultural dating and marriage.

I am not so naïve as to think that simply bringing people into the same room will instantly cure all of society’s ills; bias is too evolutionarily inbred into our tribal psyches for that to happen so long as visible differences exist between us.

But what if there were no more racial differences? What if instead of being brown or pink or yellow or red, our great-grandchildren were all a beautiful gold? How could discrimination last in such circumstances?

Perhaps the James Bond Film Society has the right idea. After all, 007 did get it on with both Halle Berry and Michelle Yeoh.

Jason L. Lurie ’05 is a chemistry concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.