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ONCE AGAIN, our country has lurched into a crisis. So once again, it's time for America's blowhards to start playing the blame game.
George Bush blamed LBJ. Jerry Brown blamed George Bush. Dan Quayle found an intriguing scapegoat: Murphy Brown. (Murphy Brown?) Mickey Rourke of 9 1/2 Weeks fame took it upon himself to blame Spike Lee. (Mickey Rourke?)
Needless to say, this infantile finger-pointing is not going to improve the dismal state of race relations in America. Blame Congress, blame Reaganomics, blame the conservative Court, blame the fascistic cops, blame the unruly rioters until you're blue in the face--the fact remains that Americans of different skin colors are not getting along with each other very well.
Even at Harvard, a University community that proudly trumpets itself as the diversest of the diverse, race relations are a mess. That became painfully clear this February, after the Black Students Association (BSA) invited Leonard Jeffries to speak at Harvard. Leaders of a huge coalition of campus organizations--Hillel, Raza, the Asian-American Association, the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Students Association (BGLSA), even the Undergraduate Council and The Crimson--addressed a huge anti-Jeffries protest outside Sanders Theatre.
Inside Sanders, the seats on the floor were reserved for BSA members, most of whom cheered enthusiastically throughout Jeffries' speech. The spectators in the mezzanine and balcony seats were predominantly non Blacks, and predominantly silent.
The divisions were stark, and cut along obviously racial lines: Blacks versus non-Blacks, glaring across a gulf. No communication. No middle ground.
It was a scary evening.
WE CAN ALL AGREE that racism is bad, that all people are created equal, that sensitivity and communication and diversity are good, good. At this University, you probably couldn't find 40 genuinely racist students, people who truly believe that Blacks or whites or somebody is inferior by nature of their skin color. And even if you could find 40 racists, you wouldn't be able to find any who would admit it in public.
Yet racial antagonisms persist, even at Harvard, and occasionally they explode. Nobody actually says anything particularly racist, but accusations of racism fly freely across the chasm. Sensitivity becomes hypersensitivity, and everyone ends up pissed off.
Case in point: This April, Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations Director S. Allen Counter co-signed a long, nasty letter accusing "Crimson writers active in Hillel" of racial insensitivity and bias, of using this newspaper to promote their own "racial agenda." And then all hell broke loose.
The Crimson fired back a long, nasty editorial accusing Counter--an administrator specifically responsible for fostering racial and ethnic sensitivity on campus--of insensitivity to Jewish students. Several leaders of Hillel wrote letters to The Crimson expressing similar sentiments. One former Hillel chair filed an official complaint with President Rudenstine, calling for Counter's resignation.
The next series of letters featured attacks on the counterattacks on Counter's attack. One letter, signed by another broad coalition of Harvard's minority groups (not including Hillel, of course) repeated Counter's complaints about Crimson sensitivity, while affirming their satisfaction with Counter's efforts to improve intercultural understanding.
The Crimson, as usual, got the last word. (It's nice to own the presses.) In an editorial titled "Now, A Time to Heal," the staff called for a cessation to interracial hostilities, praising Rudenstine's call for the Harvard community to "stop blaming each other."
In the same editorial, The Crimson trashed Counter for his refusal to apologize for a 1985 article he wrote for Crisis magazine titled "Racial Slurs." The Crimson claimed that the article perpetuated anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jewish control of the media and Jewish racism.
One dissent to the editorial complained that the staff had failed to call for Counter's resignation. Another dissent complained that the staff had failed to call Counter an anti Semite.
IF THERE IS a consistent theme to the Counter affair, it is the participants' willingness--you might say eagerness--to ascribe the worst of motives to their intellectual opponents.
Counter started it by assuming that The Crimson's erratic coverage of minority issues was a result of some kind of a "racial agenda" as opposed to the well-intentioned incompetence that generally pervades our building. We may be woolly-headed, but we're not racists.
Counter's letter was ill-conceived and inaccurate, but in our typically self-righteous knee-jerk form, The Crimson overreacted, escalating the conflict. Instead of talking to Counter and trying to figure out where he was getting his misinformation (from a multitude of students who had come to his office with serious concerns about The Crimson, as it turns out), we trotted out a full page of our standard Armageddonesque anti-insensitivity rhetoric: "unbelievable," "downright scary," "ridiculous," the works.
We didn't say Counter was an anti Semite, but we came damn close. According to everyone who has worked with the man, there isn't an anti-Semitic bone in his body.
How could all of this alienation have been avoided? Basically, the members of this community need to trust each other a bit, to put ourselves in each other's shoes, to give communication a chance before downshifting into ballistic mode.
A newspaper that miscovers minority issues, an administrator who writes an ill conceived letter--these are things to talk about, but they aren't evidence of racism or anti-Semitism. Those are strong words, and people around here tend to abuse them. This isn't war. There's no need to demonize the enemy.
In all honesty, nobody on either side of the Counter debate believes that Jews are greedy or that Blacks are stupid. Was somebody offended by somebody's letter? Well, let's assume that no offense was meant until we learn otherwise.
Was somebody "insensitive"? Aw, for heaven's sakes, let the sensors apologize, let the sensors suck it up, and let's all get on with our lives. Name-calling and resignation demands and I-said-you-saids aren't going to make anyone feel any better.
SO MUCH for sensitivity. Now let me say a few equally dismissive words about diversity.
Diversity is the highest good at Harvard. It's celebrated, worshipped, whacked over the heads of the student body. We hear it again and again: Harvard is so diverse! Everybody here is so different! Different races, different religions, different activities, different home states, different home countries, even different sexual orientations! You might befriend a Black lesbian poet from Denmark! Or a Japanese-American tennis player from Iowa! Think what you might learn from such diverse people!"
I'm not arguing that diversity is bad. Clearly, few of us would want to attend a school where everyone shared the same color, creed and interest.
But here's another thing I've learned from diversity at Harvard: Different people aren't necessarily that different after all. Ms. Denmark and Mr. Iowa can probably find a lot of common ground. They're not aliens, after all. They're people.
This is not particularly earthshaking. I heard it a million times on Sesame Street long before I ever heard of Harvard. But Harvard is so obsessed with its celebration of diversity, the variety of individual life experiences that set us apart, that it forgets about what might be called university, the commonality of human existence that brings us together.
Instead, we identify ourselves with our group--BSA, BGLSA, Hillel, The Crimson--and define ourselves in opposition to other groups. So some members of the BSA insist that The Crimson send a Black reporter to cover its elections, arguing that white reporters necessarily lack the "sensitivity" and "understanding" to grasp minority issues. So The Crimson assumes that non journalists just don't understand how to run a newspaper.
It's obviously a question of perspective, which happens to bring me to Perspective, Harvard's liberal monthly. This year, Perspective began hosting discussion forums on feminism, on gay issues, on politics, and publishing the transcripts. The funniest thing about these forums--Perspective editors joke about it all the time--is the participants' near-pathological need to qualify everything they say according to their racial and sexual particularities. "Speaking as a straight white male..." "Coming at it from a Black gay angle..." As if their opinions had no relevance otherwise. As if we couldn't understand "where they were coming from" without knowing the color of their skin, the gender of their sexual partners.
So on one hand--the "university" hand--you have the banality of Depeche Mode "People are people, so why should it be; that you and I should get along so awfully?" It's not so banal when it comes from a victim of racial injustice like Rodney King, who held a press conference to jump-start the national healing process. "Can't we all get along?" he asked.
On the other hand--the "diversity" hand--you have the opportunity for discovery of self and discovery of heritage, along with the danger of insulation and tribalism; You have access to a heightened appreciation of the unique characteristics of those "unlike" yourself, at the risk of obscuring the simple, shared qualities of human beings that help us get along.
Diversity is no less important than "university," but we're getting force-fed one without the other. And as a straight, white, skinny, blue-eyed, pro-choice, Long Island raised, Clinton-supporting, commitment fearing male journalist with a gay roommate and a bad haircut, I'm worried.
MOST OF MY FOUR YEARS at Harvard have been spent along the Canaday-Sever-Lemont-Crimson-Quincy axis, so I've probably walked in and out of the Yard through Dexter Gate 1000 times. Everyone knows the Charles Eliot inscription on the way in--"Enter to Grow in Wisdom"--but I'd bet I'm one of a handful of Harvard students who have memorized the inscription above the exit--"Depart to Serve Better Thy Country And Thy Kind."
Yet another Cambridge commonplace we've heard a million times is that the Harvard students of today are the nation's leaders of tomorrow. That's kind of unsettling. Around here, whites and people of color get along fine in sections, in rooming groups, in social settings. But in the arena of public discourse, they're at each other's throats.
Hypersensitivity and hyperdiversity are part of the problem. The challenge, I suppose, is to find a satisfactory way for all of us to serve our country (presumably, diffusing racial antagonism would be a good start) while serving "our kind" (presumably, this would not preclude the diffusing of racial antagonism).
These ultraserious, touchy-feely, namby-pamby pleas for unity are not my style--I've always been abrasive, sarcastic, rhetorically overwrought and damn proud of it. But race relations will be our generation's defining issue. Somehow, the subject does not seem the slightest bit funny to me. And anyone who sat in Sanders Theatre that icy February night would agree.
Michael R. Grunwald '92 was the editorial chair of The Crimson last year. Speaking as college newspaper editors, we wish him well.
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