ImeIme A. Umana ’14’s historic election as the first black woman president of the Harvard Law Review is one deserving of heartfelt congratulations. We are gratified to see a woman of color breaking barriers in such a high-profile position, and believe that her election shows young girls of color around the country that their futures have limitless potential. Umana is an inspiration to these girls, and this in itself is an admirable path of scholarship and public service. We hope that other girls will similarly run for leadership positions in organizations where they once were not even allowed in the door.
Amid the celebration of Umana’s achievement, however, we must not too hastily extrapolate a broader societal point. Too often, media attention focuses on the individual accomplishments of minority students, holding them up as emblematic of broader holistic progress towards equality. This narrative, however, overlooks the disparities that continue to plague our society. In the domain of law, obstacles remain for both women and racial minorities. Just 38 percent of law review editors-in-chief at the top 50 law schools are women, and in 2010 just 5 percent of practicing lawyers were black. Indeed, the mere fact that it took until 2017 for a black woman to become president of the Harvard Law Review shows just how much progress is left to be made.
In light of these sobering statistics, Harvard has an obligation to do everything in its power to ensure that students of color, and students from other marginalized communities, are consistently able to reach the same degree of success as Umana. Many elite academic organizations, including this one, have in the past been dominated by white men. The University must ensure that students from diverse backgrounds feel comfortable entering these spaces and have the resources necessary to attain leadership roles. This includes direct outreach to these students, providing diversity workshops to current members, and responding to reports of discrimination both quickly and thoughtfully.
True cultural reform will only occur when institutions of higher learning such as Harvard attain a critical mass of diverse voices. One person, no matter their position, is never enough. Indeed, it is neither fair nor logical to expect Umana to represent all women of color. A multitude of voices is required to push these organizations to continually modernize and become more inclusive.
In light of the need for more holistic change, it is heartening that the election for the Law Review’s president included eight students of color and eight women, out of an overall pool of twelve candidates. This statistic is perhaps more demonstrative of the Law School’s shifting demographics, and symbolizes broader change on the horizon. We expect that Umana will be joined in her tenure by a diverse group of talented editors, and that they will each use their voices to advocate for an open, meritocratic Law Review. And we hope that some of the young girls reading about her election will one day follow in her footsteps and assume such a role themselves.