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Minority Search for a Middle Ground

By John C. Yoo

After his arrest for committing a series of armed robberies, Jose Luis Razo told reporters that no one at Harvard understood him. Razo's attorney plans to defend his client by arguing that the sophomore football player robbed from the rich to prove that he was still "a homeboy." The media loves the story: a latter day Robin Hood psychologically torn between attending the bastion of northeastern elitism, Harvard, and proving to his friends that he was true to his Hispanic roots.

However, people at Harvard may be all too willing to write off Razo as an isolated case. Officials are already quick to point out that Razo's alleged crime spree began before he entered Harvard and continued while the Kirkland House resident was on vacation. What a clever way to wash our collective hands of the whole matter.

We must not dismiss Razo in such a manner, for the case presents a much-needed opportunity to take a hard look at race relations at Harvard.

After reading the initial press reports of the arrest, the image of a young minority lost in a community not generally known for racial harmony emerges. Razo laughing at his professors and peers after his arrest points to a minority who never found a close group of friends, never carved out a niche at Harvard. Whose fault is this? The student's or the school's?

Harvard's poor state of race relations stand at the center of the Razo case. It appears that Razo's alleged crime spree stemmed from an effort to prove to his friends his loyalty to his Hispanic background. Why? Because at Harvard there is little or no practical way for a minority to reconcile his background with the WASPy, preppy Harvard experience. As some do here, Razo tried to be two different people in two different worlds. When in Cambridge he tried to be one more anonymous Harvard student. When in California, he did as the Hispanic homeboys did.

Razo's dilemma mirrors the problem of all minorities at Harvard. What identity do we seek here? Do we turn within to examine our heritage, or do we look outside and try to fit in to the larger society? Unfortunately no middle ground exists. Either path leads to the exclusion of the other and the disapproval of one's peers.

A good number of minority students join ethnic organizations, such as the Black Students Association and the Asian-American Association. However, most non-minority students look down on the leaders of these groups and fail to take their activities seriously, viewing them as anti-social in purpose and practice. As a result, Harvard ethnic organizations cannot stage any meaningful events that are not directed inward toward their own particular minority community. Students who choose to make these groups an important part of their lives begin to find their friends there and spend much of their time in ethnic activities to the exclusion of the larger Harvard community.

In order to be true to their heritage, such minority students must give up the Harvard society of which their peers are a part. The diverse student body, which is supposed to educate students here as much as courses do, never materializes as the diverse elements keep to themselves. The other possible course, following mainstream society, brings only nominal diversity because those who follow this path lose their heritage on the way.

These students who aim for complete assimilation, often at odds with their upbringing, go completely overboard in their effort to become the typical Harvard student. Some even go so far as to join the final clubs which implicitly look down upon them and use them for the sake of their image. However much this course may be the easier one, it brings with it the disgust of one's fellow minorities.

I once had a conversation with a Korean girl who verbally assaulted me for "repudiating" my heritage because I had chosen to write for a newspaper, not major in math or science, and not attend Korean student meetings. In a sense she was right, because those students who choose to pursue a more mainstream four years here end up leaving much of their ethnic heritage behind. People who want to become mainstream do not want to appear different to their peers, so they don't pursue ethnic contacts or activities.

Problematic race relations at Harvard make it difficult for a minority student to pursue a normal career here and maintain ties to his ethnic heritage. Several incidents at Harvard, and around the nation's campuses, displayed the simmering tensions that exist between the minorities and the majority on the nation's campuses. A more subtle racism prevails among the more enlightened students. You catch it in a glance, in a whispered comment behind your back, in a loud joke. Such attitudes, which are even more prevalent when you walk outside the ivy-covered walls into the Square, make it difficult to pursue a mainstream life here. Additionally, these attitudes drive those cooped inside their ethnic groups even farther away from the Harvard experience which others enjoy.

Harvard supposedly has an advising system which should be instrumental in helping students adjust to their college experience. But the Razo case suggests that the system has shown itself once again to be inadequate and in-sufficient for guiding students through one of their most extraordinary and traumatic times of their lives. Not one person here seems to have had any hint that Razo had any trouble adjusting to Harvard, that he might have been stealing on his vacations, or that he might have hated his life in Cambridge. But maybe College administrators can be happy with their system's performance maintaining as they do, that counseling is available for all those (and only those) who seek out advice. They ignore the reality that often those in the most need of advice are those who wish to keep their troubles to themselves.

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