Students Air Racism Concerns

Impassioned e-mail debate erupts over groups’ use of Quad lawn

A call to Harvard University police about a Saturday afternooon event organized by the Black Men’s Forum (BMF) and the Association of Black Harvard Women (ABHW) has prompted accusations of racism.

As members of the groups played games of dodgeball and capture-the-flag in the Quad as part of the annual “BMF-ABHW Challenge,” Cabot House residents fired off a string of impassioned e-mails questioning students’ presence on the public lawn—and whether they were students at all. Eventually, the Harvard University Police Department was called about the commotion, and officers asked the students to “keep the noise down,” according to police spokesman Steven G. Catalano.

Debate ensued over the motivation behind the HUPD call, and 60 students turned out to a dinner discussion last night sponsored by the Currier House race relations tutors. The BMF has also announced that it will stage a publicity campaign to dispel racial stereotypes.

Bryan C. Barnhill II ’08, president of the BMF, said that police officers asked the students whether they had a permit to be on the field, and left after students explained that they had gained permission.

Barnhill said that many of the participants had been wearing Harvard paraphernalia and the event had been approved by all the Quad House masters. He said the call to HUPD was “disturbing” because of the “assumption that we didn’t belong there.”

Barnhill and ABHW President Anjelica M. Kelly ’09 both said they felt racism was involved in Saturday’s events.

“We certainly feel that there was a definite component of race,” Barnhill said.

Cabot House Master Jay M. Harris wrote yesterday in a e-mail to Cabot residents that he found the call to HUPD “inappropriate.”

“I do not doubt the good intentions of whoever called; nor do I doubt that whoever called perceived no racial dimensions to his/her action. But given the pain the call to HUPD caused, I hope we can all resolve to be more thoughtful about when HUPD intervention is appropriate,” he wrote.

Some residents complained that the students were playing on roped-off sections of the Quad lawn, where the grass was being regrown for graduation ceremonies. Others were angry over the fact that the noise came in the middle of reading period, as students studied for exams and worked on papers.

Some students denied that race had anything to do with the decision to call the police.

“People call HUPD because of loud parties, too. People didn’t call HUPD because they were African American,” Cabot resident Jay S. Miller ’09 said in a phone interview.

Barnhill said that the events would have a silver lining because they brought sensitive racial issues to light.

“In this day and age, racism rears its ugly face in ways that are much more subtle,” he said.

“We just want to show that subtle forms of racism exist, such as seeing a group of black people on Harvard property and assuming they don’t belong there,” he added.

Barnhill said he has been inspired to spearhead a campaign called “I am Harvard,” aimed at “eliminating the notion that Harvard isn’t a place for minorities, women, and other sorts of people that defy your standard Harvard profile.”

—Staff writer Anna L. Tong can be reached at tong@fas.harvard.edu.