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In an Ideal Setting, Missed Opportunities

By Imtiyaz H. Delawala

This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court will issue its decision in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases, potentially having landmark repercussions on how colleges and universities throughout the country approach racial diversity as a part of admissions policies.

In stark contrast to the once virtually all white male student body that populated the Yard each year, affirmative action has dramatically transformed the makeup of the College in the last 30 years. In that time, Harvard’s administrators have worked diligently to ensure the diversity of our student body. Over 10 percent of admitted students in the Class of 2007 were African-American, Asian-Americans comprised 16.2 percent of admitted students for the newly-incoming class, while Latinos accounted for nearly 9 percent.

Harvard argued in its amicus brief to the Court that such a racially diverse class “improves the educational process by exposing students, both in the classroom and through their informal interactions, to a broad range of experiences and viewpoints.” Certainly students who come to Harvard from more homogenous communities stand to gain greatly by experiencing firsthand the interactions between students from different racial and ethnic groups. From dorm rooms to classrooms, the interactions across racial lines fostered by the diverse student body are critical to an enriched educational and social experience, with meaningful relationships easily forming among Harvard students regardless of race. Annual shows such as Cultural Rhythms and Ghungroo provide showcases for various communities, and groups like Kuumba immerse students of varied backgrounds in celebrating minority communities expression of music and culture.

But after four years at Harvard, I question whether such interactions and sharing of experiences and viewpoints occurs at a level that is deep enough to affect real change in people’s attitudes and beliefs about race, and whether the diverse community that Harvard neatly provides will ever translate into a broader understanding of race and the obstacles that still stand in the way of racial equality in the U.S. beyond the gates of Harvard Yard.

In 2001, The Crimson’s Fifteen Minutes published “The Invasian” by Juice Fong ’03, which argued—albeit clumsily—that self-segregation between races was endemic at Harvard. The piece was justifiably attacked as making insensitive, disparaging remarks about Harvard’s Asian population, leading to the retraction of the article and an apology by The Crimson after public protest. But while the piece was undermined by its language and wildly unsupported overgeneralizations, the underlying message of the article, that self-segregation hurts the ability of students to truly learn from each other and build meaningful friendships regardless of racial and ethnic background, was a valid point worth considering.

Despite the individual interactions that occur across racial boundaries, an overarching trend towards racial self-segregation does plague our campus. Even within the bubble of diversity that Harvard has created here, many students have not fully embraced the carefully-constructed opportunity to gain real understanding from those different from themselves through friendships and close interaction. It can be seen in the dining halls, in blocking groups and, notably, in extracurricular groups—the largest sphere of group interaction at Harvard. While it is certainly not the rule, race is often a powerful factor in determining the friendships, social interactions and extracurricular pursuits of students here.

My involvement with The Harvard Crimson in the last four years has caused sobering realizations about the continued existence of racial self-segregation on campus. Despite tremendous and strenuous outreach efforts, The Crimson as a whole has remained a mostly homogenous organization, with few minorities, especially black students, ever showing interest in participating in the paper’s operations.

The forces that keep people from participating in The Crimson are numerous and varied. One is clearly self-perpetuation: a mostly-white staff attract their mostly-white friends to help in an activity that, is, even at the national level, practiced by mostly white individuals. While The Crimson does not present a hostile work environment to minorities in any way, many who do make an effort to enter its doors end up feeling uncomfortable surrounding themselves among a group of students unlike them.

In addition, many white students who come to Harvard come from comfortable, established backgrounds, and feel they have many options about ways to spend their time. Yet there are those of us, many of whom are from minority backgrounds, whose college experience does not represent a four-year diversion from the “real world,” but rather the best hope our families have for further social advancement. Even for middle and upper middle class minorities, whom the affirmative action process favors, college is viewed as a time to prepare for the future. Why then, would these students see devoting four long years as a precursor to a career in a poorly-paying profession? This perception exists despite the fact that very few students who work for The Crimson go into journalism as a career. Instead, The Crimson should be seen as a rewarding and worthwhile pursuit in and of itself, providing valuable training and education for any student.

Still others avoid The Crimson because of the perception often perpetuated in minority communities of the paper as institutionally racist. While I readily admit that The Crimson has on numerous occasions in recent years done a poor job of accurately covering and representing minority communities, these incidents—which in some respects can happen with any area of coverage—have led to direct problems with minority groups who use such instances to level charges of racism more broadly than is justified.

But the fact is that The Crimson has dramatically improved in recent years the depth and quality of its reporting on issues and events important to minority groups. This has occurred both in news coverage, editorial writing, including more space given on the editorial page for minority voices, and in more photos of minority events. There has been a conscious effort to cover important events and issues that were often ignored in the past. But yet, minority participation is still low.

Five years ago, former editorial chair Sarah J. Schaffer ’97 stated in her final op-ed piece for The Crimson, “…we are working on the severe lack of diversity in our very white staff. We do our best to be sensitive to all groups, but sometimes, unfortunate mistakes and misunderstandings slip through. These problems will continue to occur until we have a enlightened staff of all backgrounds.”

Five years later, with so few minority contributors making it to high levels of engagement, the situation remains both saddening and frustrating, with little sign of continual progression toward a staff that more fully mirrors the diverse makeup of Harvard’s student body.

But the problems at The Crimson are not unique, and will only abate as part of a long-term change in culture away from self-segregation at Harvard.

Harvard teaches us about discovery, throwing us together with thousands of people whom we would have never otherwise met. It has been our choice whether to embrace these precious and varied opportunities laid at our fingertips. I am confident that the choices I have made have enriched my life and expanded the boundaries of my awareness of others beyond the familiar. My hope is that future Harvard students, of all backgrounds, will be able to say the same on their graduation day as well.

Imtiyaz H. Delawala ’03, a government concentrator in Eliot House, was president of The Crimson in 2002.

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