This article appeared on the Web on May 21, 2007 and in the print edition on May 23, 2007.
On May 12, two Harvard student groups held a noisy picnic on the Quad lawn, and someone called the police.
What ensued was a distinctly American bout of soul-searching, heated debate, and pointed accusations of racism across the entire campus. The reason? The Quad revellers were black.
The furor over the incident is a case of hypersensitivity on all sides: Quad residents were unnecessarily territorial and were too quick filing a noise complaint—though during reading period it's tough to blame them—and the organizations hosting the event, the Association of Black Harvard Women and the Black Men’s Forum, were too hasty to use the R-word to describe the police's being called.
None of this is to say that racism isn't a problem at Harvard. But if there is something positive to emerge from the Quad lawn incident, it is the “I Am Harvard” campaign. Launched at Primal Scream last Wednesday night, the campaign, lead primarily by black students, intends to address issues of race and belonging on this campus.
The campaign could change Harvard for the better. Black students must be frank in sharing their experiences with discrimination at Harvard, and the rest of us must take the time to listen carefully. But if the "I Am Harvard" campaign is to be as inclusive as it needs to be to succeed, then the comments made last week by Dr. S. Allen Counter, the Director of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, will prove profoundly damaging.
“This is an important step to take in what is clearly a racist community, in which police are allowed to use South African apartheid techniques to harass our students,” Counter told The Crimson. “If there had been 60 white students on the lawn, would police ride up on motorcycles with dark shades to make them show their IDs?”
Dark glasses and motorcycles do not an apartheid make.
In fact, one does injustice to the South African nightmare when one compares the Quad incident to a time when “white ambulances” refused to aid injured black South Africans and when blacks were prohibited from attending “white churches.” A noise complaint in the middle of Reading Period is absolutely not commensurate to policies under which blacks and whites were not allowed to marry one another, not even have interracial sexual relations. Even if, as Counter asserts, Harvard is a “racist community,” it is not apartheid South Africa. The good doctor is grasping, indeed, and not for the first time.
In an April 14, 1992 letter to The Crimson, Counter posited that criticisms of the Harvard Foundation in an investigative series on race relations reflected “The Crimson’s racial agenda.” This newspaper’s complaints that the Foundation had actively fuelled tension between Blacks and Jews at Harvard were written, Counter fumed, by “Crimson writers active in Hillel.”
After a very public spat, which included a rare formal rebuttal by The Crimson and calls for his resignation, Counter apologized for what he claimed was a “misunderstanding.”
In 1985, Counter penned a lengthy article in The Crisis, a magazine published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In it, he suggested that certain “para-white ethnic groups” influence the media to denigrate blacks and “to convince themselves and others of their imagined white identity.” One can only guess of whom he might have been thinking.
As an individual, Counter is entitled to his views. But as Director of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, he should be more than just a tactless curiosity. The Foundation is supposed to solve problems, not create them. Based on his history of ignorant and insensitive remarks, it is far from clear that Counter is the right man for such a job.
Counter occupies a post of tremendous prominence and power at this University. His office is on the first floor of University Hall, next to the Dean of Harvard College’s. The Harvard Foundation provoked a student organization diaspora last year with the expansion of its offices in the basement of Thayer Hall. Counter ostensibly speaks for diversity on a campus where more than half of the students are not white. His inflammatory language constitutes a failure to live up to the expectations incumbent in his position.
In 1992, Counter wrote on this page that, “most racial conflicts are based on ignorance, arrogance and victimization. We must all seek to rise above these failings to bring about tolerance, understanding and racial sensitivity among our fellow men and women in the Harvard community and the world at large.”
When Counter offended the Jewish community at Harvard with his appallingly insensitive comments, he apologized. After his outburst on the front page of The Crimson last week, he must do the same. At least.
Adam Goldenberg ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. Sahil K. Mahtani ’08, a former Crimson associate editorial chair, is a history concentrator in Winthrop House.