Reason Versus Racism

The Spring 1995 edition of the Handbook on Race Relations and the Common Pursuit, a handsome purple booklet, yesterday assumed its proud place next to Harvard Dining Services' "Weekly Menu." The handbook contains a wealth of information about College resources for students concerned about issues of racial and ethnic identity.

In the first chapter of the handbook, Professor of Sociology Mary C. Waters analyzes the state of race relations at Harvard and considers what steps the College should take in order to alleviate racial tension on campus. Her essay, appearing once again in the handbook, does an excellent job of explicating the current situation. It offers a cogent explanation of how diversity brings with it certain new challenges. But its recommendations regarding how to deal with racism on campus are problematic.

"The University has a responsibility to try to educate and change and discipline the old-fashioned bigots among the student body who are responsible for the blatant racist incidents," Waters writes. She argues that students should be required to take at least one academic course that examines "racial and ethnic dynamics."

In light of the recent incidents of racist graffiti in Mather House as well as the racially polarizing rhetoric of minority student activists, it seems that many Harvard students--white and non-white alike--could benefit from greater knowledge about race relations. Professor Waters' call for a new requirement possesses strong intuitive appeal. What better weapon for fighting racial prejudice than the light of knowledge?

For those students who have not had the opportunity to meet people with backgrounds different from their own, taking a course in race relations might be beneficial. Certainly a large amount of racism can be attributed to sheer ignorance. But the "old-fashioned bigots" that Waters writes of will not be converted by taking a required course on race relations in the United States.


Forcing students to take a course on race relations presumes that prejudice can be fought with rationality. But is racism itself rational? Are racist views based on fact and supported by evidence? Clearly they are not. Attempting to fight an irrational reaction such as racism with responses anchored in reason can have limited success at best.

Racists develop their views after years and years of being inculcated with prejudice. Racist messages are often communicated to people through their families, their communities or even society as a whole. One semester-long course, or even two or three such courses, will not succeed in erasing or even making a dent in racism.

Furthermore, the imposition of a new requirement may provoke a backlash from students--including those students who are not racist--who may see the policy as an attempt at "brainwashing." Many students at the College have reacted unfavorably to being forced to sit through the lengthy and platitudinous presentations of peer group outreaches. Being compelled to take an entire course on race relations would make these students even happier.

Some students who do not harbor racial prejudice may see the requirement as an unfounded accusation of intolerance. Students who already have a good understanding of the history of race relations in America may feel insulted by the requirement--and perhaps not without justification.

Of course the University must still try to fight prejudice and discrimination. The difficulty of combatting racism should not be an excuse for inaction. But inaction is certainly preferable to enacting a flawed proposal in order to make a symbolic statement.

If Harvard sees education on race relations as an important priority, then perhaps it should increase its offerings in this area; how important a priority this should be is another question altogether. Encumbering students with a new requirement that will only engender resentment is certainly not the answer.

David B. Lat's column appears on alternate Tuesdays.