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Recent protests across university campuses have exposed the dissatisfaction that has long troubled students of color in the United States.
For most of our nation’s history, collegiate environments did not tolerate black and brown people. As political scientist Ira Katznelson explained, back then “affirmative action was white.” Only in the last half-century have students of color come to expect consideration when applying to universities, largely thanks to our utility in advancing the “compelling interest” of diversity that underlays the Supreme Court decision in Grutter v. Bollinger.
University administrators champion diversity as a means to challenge students to think critically and break down stereotypes. But even this mild aim is often reduced to an expectation that students of color conform to existing structures, allowing institutions to neglect their duty to tear out their white supremacist roots. Whether born of willfulness or ignorance, one cannot suggest that these institutions have made diversity and inclusion bona fide priorities. A true interest in diversity should encourage students of color to transform campus cultures, not assimilate into them. Ideally, these students would critique the lasting legacy of institutions that excluded them for centuries—perhaps even in acts of protest.
Harvard is not insulated from this criticism. Despite Supreme Court opinions that have touted its commitment to diversity, Harvard too has failed to understand its true meaning on an institutional level. For example, retaining a handful of professors who recognize racial inequity does not alone transform the culture of the institution to one of inclusivity. Despite inviting more students of color throughout the years, Harvard has departed little from its original design to groom intellectually elite white men.
Through their demonstrations, students have called for the removal of offensive symbols, the contextualization of sanitized academic material, and the appointment of faculty and staff of color. These demands call for a structural change in American education that requires institutions teach the continuity of our nation’s history. In doing so, the identities of all students—not just the white majority—are acknowledged and respected in a way that truly drives critical thinking and interrupts stereotyping.
This is why I’ve been in Belinda Hall for the past two weeks.
Belinda Hall was named in honor of a brave woman who successfully recovered reparations for her enslavement by the Royall family, whose wealth endowed our first law professorship. In her memory, Belinda Hall was established by Reclaim Harvard Law School to create the community and educational opportunities that demands can only roughly sketch. In essence, it has embodied diversity through the students, staff, and faculty gathering here.
In Belinda Hall, I and others have engaged in political education, comparing the writings of Stokely Carmichael and Bayard Rustin. I’ve seen critical race theorists like Native American professor Gerald Torres and Latina professor Margaret Montoya expand students’ imaginations. I’ve watched films that deal with challenging topics of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation like "Brother Outsider" and "Omar." I’ve even enjoyed the comedy routine of Palestinian professor Amer Zahr. And as I write this, I see classmates preparing for a student-led discussion of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ "Between the World and Me" and James Baldwin’s "The Fire Next Time."
Belinda Hall is a busy but transparent student space, where all students are welcome and encouraged to engage. Each night, after a long day of scheduled programming, we discuss the problems of exclusion into the early morning hours. We laugh and cry about the hollowing of our histories—the academic erasure of our genocide, slavery, and colonization. We unpack the oppressive tool we’ve been told to call legal education.
Through these conversations we are finding our collective and individual voices. We are building the safe space that students of color have been seeking for years. With each moment spent in Belinda Hall, we are realizing true diversity and its power to foster an intellectually challenging but inclusive community when allowed to fully flourish. Here, I have finally found my place.
Unfortunately, not all have experienced Belinda Hall in the same way I have. In a recent email, Dean of Students Marcia Sells suggests that there are dissenting voices that would prefer to see Belinda Hall returned to its original state—a whitewashed hall devoid of the colorful personality that students have given it. In reminding us that the lounge must be available for “all,” Dean Sells misrepresented the environment in Belinda Hall as exclusive. It is not uncommon to hear passionate yet respectful, challenging yet congenial discussions between student activists and their critics. Belinda Hall is open to all. Yet, through her email, Dean Sells prioritized the voices of those who benefit from the status quo—who may be threatened by the conversation happening here—and placed the burden of inclusion on students of color, asking them to comfort dissenters who may be feeling uncomfortable for the first time.
But the call for the restoration of stability in Belinda Hall did not end with her email.
The administration’s subtle policing of our movement appeared to take a more aggressive tone the following morning. At 6 a.m., students sleeping in Belinda Hall were suddenly awakened when custodial staff—black and brown people like me—were sent to disrupt and dismantle Belinda Hall. Administration sent marginalized staff to confront marginalized students.
The staff apologized repeatedly, explaining that they were ordered to this task and that we should expect them each morning. But why were they apologizing? We are here fighting for them too.
We couldn’t be angry with them. Their livelihoods are at risk. So, we got up and started to clean with them. At one point, we asked for bottles of cleaning solution, but were denied because each bottle is individually assigned to a staff member out of the fear of theft. Harvard University made $62 million in operating surplus last year and yet still has custodial staff assigned to $3 bottles of cleaning solution. That aside, together the black and brown people of Harvard Law School cleaned Belinda Hall that morning to make it acceptable for protectors of the status quo.
Jordan Raymond is a third-year student at Harvard Law School.
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