In light of the recent incident involving a Harvard faculty member’s office door being vandalised with “hateful and obscene” language, one must stop to wonder what such acts of bigotry — and to be clear, this was an act of bigotry — hope to achieve. As was reported, the note insulted the faculty member’s “ethnicity and immigrant status, challenged her right to be at Harvard, and wished her ill.”
The perpetrator of this attack, for all their resentment of the faculty member’s ethnicity and immigrant status, and her right to be at Harvard, could not have possibly hoped to impact either of those things. Rather the message was simple: You might be here, but you’re not welcome — not in this country, and not at Harvard.
As appalling as this incident was, immigrants and people of color are no strangers to such messaging. Indeed, in an environment where differences are often the basis of discrimination or exclusion, their very identities morph into an unshakeable, constant companion; an undesirable breach of homogeneity that they are painfully aware of. Being black or brown or yellow, speaking with an accent, conversing in a different language — any one of these traits might be used to target them. Incidents of police brutality or being told to “go back to Mexico” for speaking Spanish prove that such fears are not unfounded.
Rhetoric of the “go back to where you came from” variety has long been used to target religious minorities, immigrants, people of color, and refugees and asylum-seekers. Although intended to threaten and suppress, such rhetoric is often itself borne out of fear. Indeed, it betrays an insecurity in the strength of one’s own identity that makes one fear heterogeneity. Rather than engage and constructively criticize, those that one might disagree with, such taunts express an intolerance for anybody who is different. They espouse a form of hatred devoid of context and steeped in superficiality: You look different, talk different, dress different, or love different; you do not belong.
Unfortunately, this hostility towards immigrants, refugees, and minorities is far from isolated, and has only increased as of late — both in frequency and scale.
In July, President Donald Trump drew widespread condemnation for a series of tweets asking four Democratic lawmakers of color to “go back and fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Three of those representatives happened to have been born in the United States. Last month, the acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services seemingly reinterpreted the 136-year old poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, implying that the phrase “huddled masses” referred only to “people coming from Europe.” The statement came as he attempted to justify a new rule barring immigrants from utilising public assistance benefits, such as Medicaid and food stamps.
And in case anybody was under the illusion that such rhetoric is “harmless” and devoid of ramifications, it is now believed that the gunman behind the El Paso mass shooting in August posted an anti-immigrant manifesto shortly before the attack. The Federal Bureau of Investigations announced recently that it would be investigating the shooting as a possible hate crime.
Closer to home, a Harvard freshman was recently detained and denied entry to the U.S. after allegedly spending hours answering questions not only about his religious practices, but also his friends’ alleged “anti-American” social media posts. The student was later allowed to enter after the University intervened. In July, University President Lawrence S. Bacow penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing his concerns over immigration policies “driving anxiety and fear” on campus.
In such a scenario, Harvard, with all the influence and power it wields institutionally, must continue to stand up for a diverse, open, and inclusive society that offers equal opportunity to all, in the spirit of the American Dream; and must resist attempts to induce bigotry towards immigrants and minorities both on and off campus.
Equally importantly, however, as a university with the stated mission of “educating citizens and citizen-leaders for our society,” Harvard must ensure that this education encompasses an understanding of not just American society, but the world around it. Students should examine not only the circumstances that lead immigrants to migrate and refugees to flee their home-countries, but also understand and appreciate the extraordinary values — tolerance, openness, diversity — on which this nation was founded.
It is no longer enough to simply condemn bigotry. As instances of hateful rhetoric and harmful actions increase in frequency — and risk being normalised — there is an urgent need for a change in approach. Acts of bigotry must be prevented by actively addressing their root causes, reinforcing a commitment to diversity and inclusion, and creating safe spaces where concerns surrounding race, nationality, and immigration can be addressed with respect, tolerance, and understanding. Harvard owes it to its student body — and the larger global community it aims to serve — to lead the way in this effort.
Shreyvardhan Sharma ’22, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Eliot House.