Nine days ago, I was distracted from late night work in my University Hall office by a most unexpected sound. A chorus of students on the steps of the building was singing Civil Rights songs. Intrigued, I went outside to observe about 100 mostly-black students standing together, many holding signs that read, “I am Harvard.”
The protest was in response to an incident that occurred on May 12, when members of the Association of Black Harvard Women and the Harvard Black Men’s Forum were participating in their annual inter-organization challenge. Most would agree that the noise of cheering students is not probable cause for a call to the police or for police intervention. Nevertheless the students were approached by Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) officers who requested that they present Harvard identification. These students felt collectively “profiled” by race and asked the simple question, “if fifty or more white students were engaged in similar activities would they have been approached by the police?” That is a fair question, and it behooves us to take it seriously. (In my 37 years at Harvard, five of them living at Radcliffe, I have never seen “non-Harvard African-Americans” assembled in large numbers on the Radcliffe Quad engaged in recreational activities.)
This is not the first instance of alleged “profiling” of minorities by the HUPD and security guards. A recurrent complaint brought to our office by African-Americans students is that they are regularly stopped and asked to produce identification by HUPD and security guards while their white peers are not subjected to such scrutiny. Such complaints have even been brought by faculty members—last year a professor was stopped by HUPD in the middle of the day in Harvard Yard and forced to show his identification. Harvard is not alone in this problem. Such concerns have been expressed at other institutions, such as MIT.
In each of the above-cited cases, what seems to elude many non-minorities in the discussion of instances of racial profiling is the concept of racial humiliation. The black professor who was stopped in the Harvard Yard by HUPD was racially humiliated in a way that perhaps no white Harvard faculty member would ever be. More importantly, however, the students, who are much younger, were humiliated and angered by the actions of the police who interrogated them for confirmation of the professor’s status. HUPD has never apologized to the black professor or the students.
This incident of two weeks ago struck this raw nerve once again. The “I am Harvard” campaign was an appropriate response that sent a powerful message: despite the fact that some may see them as less than equal members of the Harvard community, they do belong here as respected and valued members of the Harvard family. Similar campaigns are frequently used effectively when minorities are made to feel alienated and estranged, and raising the issue in such a manner is a good first step towards assuaging tensions.
I do not believe that Harvard is “clearly a racist community,” as I was quoted as saying in The Crimson last week. That may be, however, the perception that some have after what happened. Instead, I believe that Harvard is a microcosm of the real world, where some of our students and staff may bring their racial and cultural beliefs and biases to our University community. However, the majority of our students, faculty and administrators have risen above racism to set the national standard for racial amity and tolerance in a culturally diverse academic community.
The Quad incident has sparked letters from a number of African-American alumni writing on the Black Alumni Network list serve under the heading, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”A number of students and their parents have stated to me that policemen demanding identification cards from African-American students is reminiscent of the South African apartheid era, when blacks were routinely forced to show their ID cards to white police when they were thought to be “out of place.” Many of our Harvard Police are well-trained and friendly professionals who are qualified to work in an academic community with students of different backgrounds. Nevertheless, some minority students and faculty feel that some HUPD officers could be more aware of cultural, racial and religious sensitivities on campus.
The students and faculty of the Harvard Foundation, who serve as a kind of racial conscience in our community, have worked assiduously to reduce the number of “racial” incidents at Harvard and to improve the racial climate through programs on ethnocultural knowledge, awareness, and tolerance. Much of our work is behind the scenes and goes unnoticed by the larger community so that students are not diverted from their College academic and social experience by the onerous distraction and burden of racial discrimination. For instance, when issues of racial profiling by HUPD were raised in the past, we discussed the matter with administrators and hosted representatives of HUPD at some of our monthly Harvard Foundation student and faculty meetings, and the incidents abated.
The Harvard Foundation’s record speaks for itself. It has enabled the Harvard community to overcome many racial and ethnic conflicts over the years, and we continue to do so. It has sponsored approximately 150 programs and projects during the 2006-2007 academic year that were intended to promote interracial, inter-religious and cultural understanding.
The Foundation’s faculty advisers and student members had been delighted that we had made it through the academic year without any publicly divisive racial conflict. We had, however, spoken too soon, as the Quad incident occurred late in the year. Furthermore, many articles and comments about what happened shifted the focus of the discussion from the deplorable nature of the Quad incident to quotes attributed to me, which in the eyes of some served to exacerbate racial and religious tensions on campus.
Both I and other faculty and administrators have recommended to the Dean of the College that we host a meeting between Harvard minority students and HUPD to discuss this incident more fully and to begin an ongoing constructive dialogue that will hopefully lead to improved police-student relations. I will also urge the faculty advisory committee of the Harvard Foundation to support the “I am Harvard” campaign as a campus-wide effort to raise the level of awareness of all members of the Harvard community about the racial, ethnic, and religious diversity of Harvard’s present demographic, and the University’s appreciation of that valued diversity.
For many years, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes and I would meet as we stroll through the Harvard Yard. On a number of occasions, we were joined by former Dean of Students, Archie C. Epps III, and Senior Admissions Officer, David L. Evans. Invariably, Gomes would joke that, “we must be very cautious now. There are four of us standing here, and to many that means a race riot is about to take place. We can expect the police to be here any moment.” To this we would always laugh uproariously, but perhaps, a little uncomfortably. I believe that we have come a long way since then, but we still have a ways to go.
S. Allen Counter is Director of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations and associate professor of neurology.