A Small Step Forward

Improving Race Relations at Harvard

One of the most important issues facing the College today is race relations among its students and within the general University community. In my experience, problems ir race relations at Harvard occur for two reasons: 1) because of a lack of knowledge by both parties, especially the majority, about other ethnic groups' experiences in America and 2) an absence of meaningful interaction between people of different races. But the critical tendency among Americans and, to our benefit, a critical mass in the College is to pursue interaction with more confidence and good will than in the past. In student affairs there has been a marked improvement in race relations measured, for example, by the number of minority students who have become leaders and active members in a wide range of undergraduate organizations. Nevertheless, black and white student interaction shows signs of the long unsuccessful struggle in society for integration. Serious misperceptions persist that result when people still look past each other and see only images of another era.

I have often stood in the Yard at the beginning of the academic year and watched students arrive from all the different towns and cities in America and elsewhere. In large measure, the beginning of the year is the most exciting because it is clear then perhaps how different a place this is from any other in society. The students who enter are strangers in an ancient place. To be sure, the new student and old will continue the quest for Harvard, the place--a concrete entity that you may lay your hand upon. It is not only a place to me, but a free association of minds which each generation must create anew. This generation has the special responsibility, because so much has been accomplished to remove the color line, to seek new and improved race relationships.


In response to allegations made by the Harvard-Radcliffe Black Student Association that the Harvard Lampoon printed racially offensive humor, discussions were held with representatives of the two groups during the last month. These discussions benefitted from the ability and commitment of both parties and their concern for the general welfare of the College. The relief sought by the HRBSA is an increase in sensitivity on the part of the Lampoon to the importance of fruitful race relations in the College and how the use of stereotypes might hamper such an improved condition.

It is important, at the outset, to be clear about the area of adjudication appropriate in this matter. The College has long stood for freedom of expression and must in this case. The University depends for its life blood on the free flow of ideas. Clearly, therefore, it is impossible to protect students from dangerous or unpopular ideas. Their only protection lies in the ability to make fair and clear distinctions and to choose wisely between ideas. The values behind the First Amendment which guarantee the right to a free press must be affirmed in this case. Those values are indivisible: you cannot save them for yourself and deny them to others. Indeed, in discussion, the HRBSA has recognized the importance of these values, and by raising the use of stereotypes for debate, seeks to engage in a critical evaluation of a set of ideas and images. Certainly the allegations put forward are serious and deserve careful and thoughtful consideration. In evaluating these allegations, the representatives who met had vigorous and frank discussions about the material in question. It is then the purpose of this report to present a brief account of the issues in debate, an opinion of the arguments and material put forward and suggestions for the future.


Specifically, the HRBSA cited several examples of alleged derogatory humor that appeared in the Lampoon. They included a black child shining the shoes of John Harvard, a disease termed "Negrosis," and a Tar Baby Award. The Tar Baby Award read as follows:

In recognition of Hollywood's Second Reconstruction program of employing and exploiting former athletes and would-be welfare recipients; this year a nice shiny-new Cadillac-El Dorado convertible goes, on a bloodied pitchfork, to the producers of Mandigo.

Below the award, is to be found a watermelon with a scene from the motion picture, Cooley High.

The Lampoon argued in rebuttal that it stereotyped everyone and everything and gave as an example an advertisement about a Nazi concentration camp, Camp Buchenwald.

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The Lampoon argued that if the material was examined in context readers would find humor directed at the stereotype rather than the ethnic group itself. The Lampoon saw itself a "humor magazine (which) attempted to amuse readers by ridiculing stereotypes rather than merely by repeating or perpetuating them." For their part HRBSA saw ridicule as missing the mark in these cases and serving instead to keep both the stereotypes alive and to reinforce the prejudice of those already so inclined. Furthermore, the argument continued, such humor was clearly perceived as offensive by other students and this served only to worsen rather than improve race relations in the College. "One black Harvard undergraduate," to quote the HRBSA, "reports his younger sister became deeply disturbed upon viewing the Lampoon issue that pictured a black shining the shoes of John Harvard. Another young man states that at his prep school, black students were given a negative image of Harvard by that same issue." The HRBSA was prepared to concede that stereotypes could be ridiculed successfully especially when the characaturist was a buffon, such as Archie Bunker. When the stereotype came from a supposedly intelligent and literate magazine, however, it was suggested the humor was more properly perceived as a form of verbal aggression directed towards ethnic groups.