'Excessive Ethnocentric Behavior is Dysfunctional'

Blacks at Harvard

Are minority student groups inherently ethnocentric and separatist? Or do they provide a cultural haven that supplements other student activities?

The debate flared up this semester on two fronts:

* The Harvard Foundation for Race Relations--established four years ago in lieu of the Third World Student Center long requested by minority students--underwent its first formal evaluation.

* A long-simmering dispute between Black students and an outspoken Black professor over the isolation and "parochialism" of Black student groups erupted in February in a series of letters to the editors of The Crimson.

Letter Wars


Professor of Government Martin L. Kilson came to Harvard in 1953 as a graduate student. He worked his way up the academic ladder, from research fellow to lecturer to junior faculty, becoming one of Harvard's first Black tenured professors in 1969.

Though Kilson has long debated tactics and goals with Black students on campus--he calls the 1960s radical activists "militants [who] couldn't really organize"--he had been silent recently.

But in February, 1985, a Crimson article on the Black Student's Guide to Colleges stirred him to speak up again. He wrote a heated letter to the editors:

"For my money, I'd bet that Black students at Harvard (and other colleges, too) who have chosen cosmopolitan identities rather than ethnocentric ones will in the future perform their Black leadership requirements better than Black students who have opted for ethnocentrism. If the good Lord's willing. I'll meet Timothy Wilkins, Anthony Ball, and Audrey Mischell [three Black student leaders] down the road in 20 years to pick up my winnings."

The students took up the challenge, with the resulting public debate comprising half-a-dozen letters over several weeks.

Four members of the Black Students Association (BSA) met with Kilson in March to discuss their differences, says Wilkins, the former president of the BSA, but one letters continued.

The basis of Kilson's argument is the assertion that "excessive ethnocentric behavior is dysfunctional to the egalitarian goals of parity for American society," as he wrote in his first of three letters.

"Uninformed rabble-rousing" is useless, says an ally of Kilson, Kenneth D. Johnson '85, vice-president of the Seymour Society, a Black Christian group of which Kilson was one of the initial advisors. Instead, Blacks must work within the system: get a good education, enter the world of white elites, and then build up institutions and networks for Blacks (for instance, establishing chairs in the Afro-American Department or setting up Black scholarship funds).

Several Black student leaders contacted last week say they disagree that their organizations isolate their members from the mainstream.

Says Narri R. Cooper '85, president of the Kuumba Singers, a Black musical group: "Even in the Kuumba Singers, most members are in other organizations as well."