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Two years ago, when the Black Students Association (BSA) invited City University of New York (CUNY) Professor Leonard Jeffries to speak at Harvard, the campus erupted in protest. In large part, students were upset because they felt Jeffries, a well-known anti-Semite, homophobe and Black supremacist, should not be given the honor of a Harvard forum to spout his bigotry. That aside, Jeffries' speech prompted discord because of the utterly fictitious nature of his assertions.
Essentially, the controversial professor claimed, Blacks, or "people of the sun," are superior to whites, or "people of the ice," because the melanin that makes their skin dark also endows them with greater physical strength and intelligence.
In a word, the theory is bunk. Even the BSA's leaders at the time, while stopping well short of denouncing Jeffries' views, refrained from endorsing them. As then-BSA President Art A. Hall '93 put it, "We endorse his Blackness, as a Black individual and a Black intellectual, but as far as his viewpoints, that's another issue."
Sadly, last week, one of Hall's successors at the BSA's helm failed to exhibit the restraint of her predecessor.
BSA President Kristen Clarke '97 wasn't here for the Jeffries lecture. But in a letter to the editors of The Crimson, Clarke made a series of assertions cerily reminiscent of the CUNY professor's racist theories. Among them, was the following: "Melanin endows Blacks with greater mental, physical and spiritual abilities--something which cannot be measured based on Eurocentric standards."
Clarke's outrageous statements came in the context of a letter attacking those who would defend The Bell Curve, a controversial new book coauthored by the late Harvard professor Richard Herrnstein that suggests (among other things) that race and intellectual ability are somehow genetically linked. Rather than attack the questionable research and logic underlying The Bell Curve, however, Clarke resorted to bigotry, pure and simple, to reach the opposite conclusion.
It's an affront that someone in an academic position should have published a work of racism, even one cloaked in scholarly research. But it's also sad that a Harvard student would think that one race is genetically superior to others. And it is almost inconceivable that this student would be an elected leader of Black students on campus. Nonetheless, this is the situation with which we are confronted.
We searched in vain for a hint of irony in Clarke's letter (which was coauthored with Victoria Kennedy '97, who does not hold any elected position in the BSA). But truth be told, such indications would be irrelevant. In such a circumstance, any irony short of unambiguous sarcasm is unacceptable coming from the pen of a student leader.
Later, in an interview with The Crimson, Clarke suggested that "The information [contained in the letter] is not necessarily something we believe, but some information that we think those persuing a true understanding of The Bell Curve theory should either address, ignore or refute."
Aside from the fact that we don't think Clarke actually meant people should ignore her views, her follow-up statement doesn't suggest any tempering of the beliefs espoused in the letter. Clarke says she doesn't "necessarily" believe her assertions. Well does she or doesn't she? So far, she has given us every indication that she does.
Student leaders are encouraged to express their views and the views of the groups they represent. But they should be accountable for those views and support them upon cross-examination. Students such as Kristen Clarke, who clearly cannot serve in their elected capacities as responsible spokespersons for their communities, have no place at the helm of student organizations like the BSA.
Indeed, what's really at stake here is the BSA's credibility. In fulfilling the very important role it plays in the Harvard community, the BSA has consistently stood up for Black members of the community who are underrepresented in the administration, the faculty and student groups, including The Crimson. Clarke's comments are particularly troubling because they could well serve to damage the BSA's hard-earned credibility.
Unless Clarke is prepared to retract her statements, and apologize publicly for making them, she should resign from the BSA's executive board. Should she refuse, the organization has no choice but to remove her if it is to maintain its credibility on campus.
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