Yes, the race relations situation at Harvard is far from ideal, and the race relations offices here are ineffectual. No, Archie C. Epps III is not to blame. The Dean of Students, who was appointed "race czar" last September, came under fire from leaders of the Asian American Association (AAA) during the final weeks of the school year.
A harsh parting shot, the AAA presidents' letter accused Epps of not keeping in contact with their organization, and with placing no Asian-Americans on three Junior Parents' Weekend panels on race relations. The letter went on to complain about the ineffectiveness two of Epps' actions to improve race relations, a race relations hand-book and an upcoming race relations audit from an outside consulting firm (which was preemptively declared unsuccessful.) The writers charged that Epps had offended a visiting Japanese American performer--a performer who, in an interview, said the incident in question was insignificant. They concluded with a bizarre gripe about Epps addressing Asian American students in Japanese and Chinese.
Other students jumped to Epps' defense, claiming that the letter was unfair and unfounded. From what we know about Epps, we tend to agree. There was nothing improper about his actions during Junior Parents' Weekend; Epps shouldn't be expected to unquestioningly capitulate to tokenist demands. We can only guess, and hope, that Epps' alleged penchant for speaking in foreign languages comes from an earnest, if slightly misguided, attempt to make minority students feel comfortable. But we can say that the two Epps initiatives the AAA presidents so confidently disparage, the handbook and the audit, are at least genuine attempts to address this campus's race relations problems--attempts that were much rarer before Epps took the race relations helm in September.
It's true that the race relations handbook was unimpressive: a kind of popcorn sampling of resources and officials that could do little to delve into the real roots of campus tensions. But that, perhaps, was Epps' intent. His race relations audit, conducted by the Harvard Negotiation Project, was an odd idea that also did not yield an ideal solution, but represented a sincere effort to solve the problem. So did some of Epps' other initiatives: the race retreat last fall, and the changes he instituted in Orientation Week.
The challenge race relations presents is huge; some might call it insurmountable. We can't think of a single community that has solved it--so we can't blame Epps for failing to achieve a significant improvement in the short space of a year. The dean has taken some constructive actions, themselves a refreshing break from the tired programming and constant backstabbing we've seen in the past with the college's two race relations offices, the Harvard Foundation and the Office of Race Relations.
Unfortunately, Epps has been unable to quell the backastabbing. While he persuaded Foundation Director S. Allen Counter and Asssistant Dean of Race Relations Hilda Hernandez-Gravelle to hold five events jointly (in the last five years, they had never done anything together) he was unable stop Counter from such unprofessional, backhanded tricks as encouraging the AAA letter. Counter has made anti-Semitic remarks, and has made Jewish students feel uncomfortable at The Foundation. Hernandez-Gravelle has been more constructive recently in her role as a counselor and behind the scenes advisor. Still, she has an unfortunate tendency to add to the campus's all too prevalent hypersensitivity.
Epps record so far as race relations czar is not perfect. But we have a certain amount of faith in Epps, and we agree strongly with his overarching vision that diversity is a means, not an end. Epps has talked recently about centralizing Harvard's race relations efforts under one "umbrella;" Counter and Hernandez-Gravelle do not belong under that umbrella. We hope Epps puts his own creative vision and the interests of good race relations over outmoded structures like the Foundation and the Office of Race Relations.