Panelists (left to right) Ronald F. Ferguson, Evelynn M. Hammonds, Randall L. Kennedy, Lani Guinier, and David A. Thomas kick off the Harvard Black Law Students Association Spring Conference at a discussion last night.
Harvard civil rights expert Randall Kennedy urged a predominantly African American audience last night to be “radically individualistic,” while his colleague, legal scholar Lani Guinier, cautioned students against “selling out your soul” to self-interest.
The two Law School faculty members, both black, joined a historian, a business professor, and an economist at a roundtable sponsored by the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) at which the scholars debated the notion of “acting white.”
Kennedy, who is the Klein professor of law, said, “I think people need to work themselves free not only of white supremacy impediments but also from impediments that are imposed from within the black collective.”
“If you want to be a poet, do it; if you want to be accountant, do it,” he added.
But after Kennedy’s remarks, Guinier, who is the Boskey professor of law, joked that “it’s a good thing Randy is sitting right next to me; otherwise I might not be able to control myself.”
“If you don’t feel a sense of collective obligation to humanity as opposed to just yourself, then we are living in a society in which there is no society,” Guinier said, drawing applause from the three-dozen or so audience members.
A senior associate dean of the Business School, David A. Thomas, expressed concerns about the consequences that could stem from African-American elites abandoning inner-city areas.
“The urban core will be thought of like reservations,” said Thomas. And—in much the same way that Americans who don’t live on reservations sometimes discuss vague ancestral ties to indigenous tribes—blacks who have left the inner-city will be talking about how much black blood they have,” he added.
Evelynn M. Hammonds, a history of science professor who trained as a physicist and electrical engineer, said that she and her peer group of African-American science scholars “encountered far far more barriers than we ever thought existed.”
Hammonds—who is Harvard’s senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity, a post that puts her in charge of recruiting more female and minority professors—said that the number of African-Americans in hard-science Ph.D. programs had decreased in recent decades.
The panel came in the context of a weekend conference sponsored by the BLSA and centered on the theme of empowerment.
Kennedy School economist Ronald F. Ferguson said that “empowerment comes from building our human capital and using it for purposes that matter to us.”
Law student Amanda K. Edwards, one of the organizers of the event, explained that the BLSA chose empowerment as this year’s theme because “we have come to a point where there’s an opportunity to move forward and also an opportunity to be complacent.”
“We want to continually forge ahead and empowerment has been an elusive goal of the African-American community since slavery times,” she added.