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Editorials

Defending Black Commencement

Tercentenary Theater Commencement 2016
Families and soon-to-be graduates fill Tercentenary Theatre at the 365th Commencement exercises.

Last month, Nicholas Zuckerman, the Arizona man who threatened to bomb Harvard’s first-ever black Commencement in 2017, pleaded guilty to charges related to the threats, and now faces 12-18 months in prison.

While online threats sometimes go unexamined, we believe that the decisive action of law enforcement in this case constitutes a valuable expression of institutional support for students of color and reaffirms our commitment to a safe community. Zuckerman’s threat against black Commencement only underscores the need for this and other events on Harvard’s campus that are designed to celebrate communities of students from marginalized backgrounds who face challenges both on their paths to Harvard and their journeys through it.

Originally organized by black students across Harvard’s graduate schools, black Commencement brings together black students from all parts of the University to celebrate their accomplishments, acknowledge the challenges faced by students of color on a historically white-dominated campus, and foster a sense of support and belonging. To that end, we believe identity-focused academic celebrations such as Black Convocation, Lavender Graduation, and Latinx Convocation play a vital role in reinforcing our continuous striving toward making Harvard a place where people from all backgrounds feel welcomed, valued, and safe.

The threats from Zuckerman indisputably engender terror among those targeted. We must not shy away from labelling this threat for what it is: an act of terror. Threats like these can bring out others who have similar toxic beliefs, and risk normalizing racist views. Zuckerman may not have executed his threats, but the very nature of a threat gives it destructive power nevertheless.

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Zuckerman’s guilty plea offers a chance to reflect on the environment the University fosters for students from marginalized groups. We believe that while such threats take place, the University must offer greater support for cultural resources and affinity groups so that minority students feel more safe and included. Complaints that culturally-focused events constitute forms of reverse racism fuel violent ideologies like Zuckerman’s, and those who make them only discredit the specific challenges faced by marginalized communities in doing so. This mindset must not prevail. The Harvard community must be sensitive to the unique challenges faced by minority groups and work diligently to create a home for those communities within its campus.

That increased institutional support should extend to events like black Commencement as well. Black Commencement has been organized by graduate students, and Black Convocation is organized by the Black Students Association, but the University should play a more active role in these events by supporting the organizational efforts of these groups. They may possibly do this by assuming liability for risks of potential threats from the events’ student organizers. More institutional support must not mean that the University should take a paternalistic approach to the design of these events, and we hope that the administration will find ways to help facilitate these events without inhibiting the ability of student organizers to create events that they feel are authentically their own.

We also extend our gratitude to the Harvard University Police Department and federal authorities for addressing Zuckerman’s threats, so that the 2017 black Commencement proceeded as a beautiful and meaningful event for people of color in the Harvard community. We hope that this event and others like it become established as new Harvard traditions for many years to come.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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