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The Reverend Al Sharpton urged students to protest racial profiling in a speech last night at Lowell Lecture Hall.
Unlike his visit to Harvard Law School last month, when he spoke about a criminal rehabilitation program, this time his signature cause was the focus of his visit.
Racial profiling is the term used to describe law enforcement officials' use of race or ethnicity as a factor in identifying individuals they believe may be potential criminals.
"This issue has cut across all racial lines," Sharpton said. "There is nothing more stressful than being black in America, where you are victimized by cops and robbers."
The controversial New York resident, whose speech was sponsored by the Black Men's Forum (BMF), arrived sporting pinstripes, a crimson tie and his characteristic James Brown-style hairdo for his second visit to Harvard this year. A crowd of over 100 waited through his hour-long plane delay to hear him.
Dr. S. Allen Counter, director of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, BMF President Shearwood McClelland '00 and Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West '74 offered brief introductory remarks.
McClelland said racial profiling is a problem that transcends race.
"The practice of racial profiling affects us all, black or white," he said.
West called Sharpton "the most significant, clear, lucid spokesperson of his generation."
The audience, which included many supporters of the BMF, was receptive to Sharpton's ideas. The audience debate that marked Sharpton's last appearance on campus was noticeably absent.
In his introduction, Counter reminded his audience that Harvard hosts speakers of many viewpoints, and that the evening's discussion should remain civil.
Sharpton, a controversial figure, said it does not matter to him if he is well liked.
"I'm not the kind of American public figure that's here to try and persuade you to like me," he said. "If you don't like me--if at the end of the evening you still don't like me--I promise I will sleep soundly tonight."
Sharpton talked about his early days of political activism, including his preparations for a 1981 White House visit with musician James Brown.
Brown, who Sharpton described as a father figure, wanted Sharpton to look related to him--so Brown took Sharpton to his hairdresser.
Brown and Sharpton visited the White House to lobby for a national holiday to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. At about the same time, Sharpton said, the practice of racial profiling first appeared.
The Reagan era was the beginning of "an unspoken public policy" to make blacks and Latinos "invisible," Sharpton added.
"Law enforcement people thought they really weren't doing anything wrong," Sharpton said. "They were reflecting the broader pull of American society."
"Those of us who were marching--we went from being saluted to being demonized," he added.
Sharpton described incidents of racially motivated police brutality, including the cases of Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo. He also discussed his involvement in recent roadblocks protesting racial profiling.
"I'm supposed to go to jail in January or February... I don't know," he said, to the audience's amusement.
Sharpton also urged his audience to take advantage of the new millennium to make a clean start and help society rethink old prejudices.
Afterward, there was a question-and-answer discussion in which Sharpton was asked if he endorsed any political candidates. Sharpton replied that he opposed current New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giulani, who is now running for a New York Senate seat.
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