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Life at Harvard-Herzegovina

By John A. Cloud

We didn't make it through a full academic year without a student group ambushing some Harvard administrator with charges of insensitivity.

Maybe it's just as well. The college wouldn't have been Harvard without a few irascible letters to The Crimson treading heavily on the ground of those "deeply offended" by perceived racial or ethnic bigotry.

Don't get me wrong: There's plenty amiss with the way Harvard handles race relations--namely that it almost doesn't. And there's enough misunderstanding and mistrust among racial and ethnic groups at Harvard-Herzegovina to make anyone complain.

The recent attack on Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III by the co-presidents the Asian American Association (AAA) reflected these problems. Every fact in their letter managed to be flat-out wrong or extremely suspect, and the next day everyone within about 25 miles called The Crimson to say what we knew all along: Epps is no racist.

The fact that the two presidents of the largest minority organization on campus could string together a lot of hearsay and blather about Epps to reach the wrong conclusion is frightening.

What's worse, however, is that Joan Cheng '95 and Haewon Hwang '95, in their zealous attempt to harsh on Epps, diverted attention from their more important (and accurate) allegation: that Harvard handles race relations poorly.

True, this year we avoided a repeat of last year's carnival of acrimony, when the Black Students Association charged that Harvard ran a "plantation" and when a coalition of minority and majority groups formed to protest a speech in Sanders by Leonard Jeffries, who talks about how great the world would be if all white people were killed.

No, this year it was back to normal: an uncomfortable coexistence, with house life gradually balkanizing (Asian American in Quincy, white on the River, Black in the Quad) and the administration issuing thick but directionless "reports" on what to do.

But the answer for students should not be to toss around unfounded charges of "insensitivity" when the deeper plight--the ineffectiveness of the way the College deals with difference--remains unaddressed.

Was the Lampoon being "insensitive" when it published an article joking about a fictional Arab assault on American soldiers? Probably, although Arab-Americans aren't particularly disenfranchised at the Lampoon.

Was Harvey Mansfield being "insensitive" when he conveniently left out a host of explanations for grade inflation--and decided instead to blame the whole thing on TFs' alleged fears of giving Black students low grades? Probably so--he's always seemed to derive some childish pleasure from pissing off groups he dislikes. Last year, for example, he called Women's Studies a "little ladies' sewing circle."

But even if the Lampoon and Mansfield have offended us, they can always claim that their offense "wasn't intended." They can talk of P.C. hegemonies and First Amendment violations. They can argue that their remarks were taken out of context and that all matter of horrifying implication was unfairly attributed to them.

The point is that debating the issue seems silly when we have more structural problems to address--like changing the way the administration thinks about diversity. This is not to say that we should never be concerned with statements that make groups of people feel unwanted. But we should realize that accusing people of insensitivity has become the community's de facto race relations policy. We use charges of insensitivity to avoid an honest discussion of difference on campus.

Really improving race relations will take much, more. In the first place, it will require the recognition that politics, as broadly conceived and executed, are dead at the College.

Any pluralist community survives by binding its diverse members to some generally agreed-upon ideals. Politics is the struggle among people who share those ideals but who disagree over how to achieve them for society. On the campus, politics is more than Students for Clinton. It's working together in campus institutions to solve our own problems.

But what the College now takes for politics has more to do with cultural identities than political ideals. Constantly the administration encourages students to find their cultural heritage and to celebrate their difference. Rarely do we hear about ideals that we share, or the notion that the things we have in common as students might be able to bridge cultural gaps.

In the United States--another pluralist community--we all make a bargain with the government: We get to keep our individuality, our sense of ethnicity, our notions of self and culture, our religious beliefs (or lack thereof) and the like.

But, in return, we all must accept some basic political ideals: individual freedom, equality of opportunity, democracy. When we disagree over precisely how to achieve these ideals, we enter the political arena.

At Harvard we need to strike the same bargain. Students can keep and celebrate their differences of cultural heritage. But we should also recognize that, as students, we're pursuing the same ideals. We're not only what our ethnic, religious and cultural differences determine. And we should be encouraged to come together, not to break apart.

The administration seems content with a Vance-Owen Harvard, where Jews, Blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos and the rest of us find geographic and extracurricular niches, and no one advances on the others' territory. Learning about each other and living together happily--not just peacefully--are given lip service, but no policy manifestation.

In the "Handbook on Race Relations," one student group, clumsily named Students at Harvard and Radcliffe Against Racism and Ethnocentrism (SHARE), says its workshops "are designed to help participants examine their own backgrounds, identify stereotypes, and understand the damaging behaviors and interactions which can result from those assumptions."

Those are laudable goals. But they are also goals that reinforce differences. And I have an inkling that most SHARE events are preaching to the converted. As one first-year put it, "In an hour, you can't really change a racist's behavior."

More broadly, Harvard has two main offices that deal with race and ethnicity--the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations and the Office of Race Relations and Minority Affairs. The Foundation focuses on "cultural recognition" by sponsoring discussion series, granting funds to minority student groups and publications and bringing minority Hollywood types to campus. The Office of Race Relations mainly deals with handling and trying to prevent racial harassment cases.

Where's the group for bringing us together? When do we hear about our commonalities? Will Harvard draw a line between cultural celebration and separatism?

You might argue that my goal--emphasizing what we have in common in order to bring students together (what President Neil L. Rudenstine has frighteningly called "intermingling")--is impossible to achieve in an institutionalized setting. That may be true. But using those institutions to amplify our differences surely cannot be the answer.

In last year's Commencement address, recently republished in the "Handbook," Rudenstine correctly argued that historical experience suggests a monocultural community is impossible: "If we look closely at our larger American society (and if we are candid with ourselves), we cannot fail to notice that vast segments of our population live, socialize and even work with people who have racial, religious or cultural characteristics very similar to our own."

Similarly, I'm not arguing for some Marxist nihilism that forces identity into a big monocultural box. Nor am I saying that Harvard was a great place when the students were white guys, the professors were white guys and all the books were written by white guys. I'd take an uneasy diversity to homogeneity any day.

But what Rudenstine fails to admit is that Harvard hasn't just allowed "boundary lines" to crop up spontaneously among students, as he said. In fact, its policies regarding race and ethnicity have encouraged those boundaries to proliferate.

The more we talk of "promoting cultural appreciation" and identifying our "symbolic and oppositional identities," as the "Handbook" does, the more we will feel that our fragmentation is natural. And the less we engage with each other in political settings, ready to compromise and work together to make Harvard better.

What about the future? When faced with complaints about Harvard's handling of race relations recently, Epps and other administrators have encouraged students to wait for the publication of the Negotiations Project study, put together by two "conflict management" firms in Cambridge.

The study, completed on May 14, proved to be the ultimate recognition of culturalism in the place of politics at Harvard. The long-awaited "solution" to problems of difference at the College turned out to be a codification of the status quo.

The report's centerpiece was its proposal to create something called a Mediation Service, which would train "a few talented and dedicated administrators, students and faculty" to provide "mediation work through conflicts concerning race." Instead of offering new directions for coming together, the Negotiations Project suggested that we make pulling apart a little easier.

We may regret this decision. Political scientists have long identified the importance of "cross-cutting cleavages" in keeping pluralist societies alive. The idea is that individuals will have more than one group affiliation they care about--so they won't end up fracturing into single autonomous groups with opposing interests. As long as a single religious group doesn't populate one economic stratum, for example, religion and class can't combine to create a single warring faction.

At Harvard, fewer places exist where diverse groups come together, threatening to destroy the cross-cutting cleavages that different students might feel. "Cultural societies" have cropped up for every group conceivable, from Irish to Caribbean. At the same time, the organizations that might unite us ideologically are in near-comas.

The Democratic and Republican groups on campus are practically nonexistent. Some groups on the right--the Conservative Club, The Harvard Salient, the Peninsula--have stayed alive on the strength of their claims to be oppressed minorities. Similar groups on the left, like the Progressive Students Association, are tiny or dying.

And what used to be a student center for liberals on campus--The Crimson--has become almost totally depoliticized. Editors are no longer left-wing ideologues--most are apolitical, moderate or even conservative. This year's editorial chair is working for the Republican Party this summer. Next year, I expect almost all of the news executives will not call themselves liberals.

What Harvard has gained with the death of politics is its own cultural war, played out weekly in accusations, responses and general back-biting that would make Patrick Buchanan proud. And the administration is slowly going about the business of institutionalizing this cultural war. Like many liberals, Harvard's administrators avoid an honest discussion of race, fearing they will be labeled "insensitive" for even mentioning cultural difference.

But if we are to move ahead, to come together, to live in this community without fear and mistrust, we must revitalize politics. We must talk honestly and openly about how we can use what we have in common to over-come what we don't. We must learn the time-honored political skills of compromise and coalition-building. We shouldn't condone and encourage separation.

Today we will hear a thing or two about being tomorrow's leaders. Let's hope that when tomorrow comes, we will have learned to live with each other more happily than we do now.

John A. Cloud '93 was editorial chair of The Crimson in 1992.

We've created a campus where even decent people like Dean Epps are called 'insensitive.'

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