Exploring The Crimson’s Stigma Among Communities of Color
EDITORS' NOTE: The Crimson is not, and has never been, a perfect institution. We have taken a number of steps to become a more welcoming organization for editors of color. We have seen these initiatives come into fruition in recent years with increased representation in leadership and throughout the publication’s staff. Nevertheless, we recognize there is more work to do. We are publishing this piece in the interests of continuing a dialogue about how to address important questions and considerations of diversity and inclusion.
— Jessenia N. Class ’20, Editorial Chair
— Robert Miranda ’20, Editorial Chair
— Kristine E. Guillaume ’20, President
“With growing frequency, outside critics have charged that the lack of skin color diversity on The Crimson’s news board undermines our mission and our integrity,” a former Crimson executive wrote in 2001.
“That darned elite news board [was] too white” for many reasons, including “several historical incidents of questionable editorial decisions [that] have become the stuff of institutional memories for both sides.”
“Our critics believe that this leads The Crimson to make coverage decisions that blight or marginalize minorities on campus,” he wrote.
Eighteen years after this editor penned his piece, I felt myself living out his words.
As I first joined The Crimson during my freshman spring, I was pulled, back and forth, between the Latinx community that had made Harvard feel like an echo of home and the prestigious newspaper organization I sought to be a part of.
Though the feeling has transformed, shifted slightly over many months, it still lingers as I walk inside the brick walls of 14 Plympton Street or at weekly dinners with Fuerza Latina. The tension lives in the side-eyes, cautionary tales from upperclassmen, and questions from Latinx freshmen about whether they too should join the organization — questions I still can’t fully answer.
“Diversifying The Crimson requires pioneers,” the editor wrote. “Aspiring journalists of color need to test the validity of the stigma.”
Eighteen years later, I’ve navigated The Crimson like any real pioneer — facing hardship head-on, managing stress, breaking barriers, working through trauma, and fighting the temptation to turn back.
Eighteen years is a lifetime. In 2001, members of the recently admitted class of 2023 were just coming into the world. We’d yet to experience the financial crisis, a revolutionary overhaul of the College’s financial aid system, two Harvard presidencies, and two terms of the United States’ first black president. And yet in my past three years as a Crimson editor, I’ve seen The Crimson’s stigma as an organization inhospitable to many people of color persist in different forms.
The frayed relationship between the paper and communities of color is rooted in decades of coverage decisions, missteps, and omissions. Though not the fault of contemporary editors who inherit these histories, in casual conversations with my fellow editors at The Crimson, I’ve seen that it affects their experiences every day.
Before seeking solutions, we have to acknowledge, without sanitizing or softening words, that The Crimson’s coverage has negatively affected communities of color for decades.
A HISTORY OF "QUESTIONABLE EDITORIAL DECISIONS"
During the 1994-1995 school year, The Crimson Editorial Board had a contentious public reckoning in its pages with then-President of the Black Students’ Association Kristen M. Clarke ’94. After calling for her resignation, one student wrote that “The Crimson let its readers know that the editors are not interested in discovering what people actually think. Rather, they seek to stir up the campus and carry out personal vendettas.”
Leaders from ten different affinity groups, including Fuerza Quisqueyana, the Asian American Association, and the Society of Arab Students, signed a letter taking issue with The Crimson’s mis-contextualization and calls for Clarke’s resignation. “Harvard's ethnic organizations will not tolerate such irresponsible journalism and unthinking sensationalism,” the letter concluded.
“Apparently, this is how things go 'on the Harvard plantation,’” multiple leaders of black affinity groups co-wrote in a piece titled “Crimson Is No Friend Of Black People.”
The three months in which all these editorials ran are but a snapshot of a larger history in which The Crimson’s journalistic decisions have significantly hurt their relationship with communities of color, especially the black community. A few other images stand out as well.
In 2012, The Crimson published an opinion piece about affirmative action that claimed that “helping those with primarily low academic qualifications into primarily academic institutions makes as much sense as helping the visually impaired become pilots.” The piece made a number of students from underrepresented racial groups feel so unwelcome that they were still writing about it two years later.
In 2015, a 5,000-word piece on black student activism was not published because the reporter, Henry S. U. Shah ‘15 had a supposed conflict of interest for attending a thousand-person Black Lives Matter solidarity protest. “For people of color, the decision was none too surprising,” Shah wrote in The Harvard Advocate. “Many of my interviewees for the article brought up incident after incident in which they felt The Crimson had published material that excluded or hurt their communities.”
When Renegade magazine debuted in 2015, it was not a coincidence that many of the individuals who co-founded and contributed to the magazine were people of color who had formerly written for The Crimson. In a public online forum, The Crimson Editorial Board was identified as one site of identity and race based issues on campus.
In 2016, a group message composed of more than two hundred Latinx students discussed the fact that The Crimson’s Fifteen Most Interesting Seniors did not include a single Latinx or Native American senior. Multiple individuals voiced their disappointment, a feeling not alleviated by the fact that the profile of one of the white “interesting” seniors said that one of her characters was “a middle-aged Jamaican woman.”
A historical overview reveals that the tension between The Crimson and cultural affinity groups, especially those comprised primarily of underrepresented students at the College, cannot be boiled down to one or two “questionable editorial decisions.” But before we convince ourselves that these missteps and mini-crises are things of the past, it’s critical to see how these histories inform racial and ethnic tensions today. As I reflect on them, it doesn’t feel outlandish to say that these stories — and all those lost as seniors graduate and new freshmen arrive — dictate The Crimson’s present.
THE STAKES OF THE CRIMSON’S MISTAKES
When I first joined The Crimson, I was told to proceed with caution. In 2015, when I arrived on campus, upperclassmen involved in Latinx affinity groups insisted that The Crimson was too white, too rich, too problematic. Their perception was informed by The Crimson’s actions, those that they personally experienced or heard telephoned on group chats and listservs.
I have a complex relationship with The Crimson, in no small part because of the aforementioned histories explored, those both lived and inherited.
During my year as co-chair of the Editorial Board, attempts to bring issues of diversity were met with pushback, evasive platitudes, and little progress towards grappling with our past. I dealt with having to justify my use of Spanish, in the building and on paper. I found myself defending the organization’s publication decisions, even against peers whose pain and dissatisfaction was palpable. I left my position at The Crimson exhausted, and my experiences at the paper dominated my therapy sessions in the long year that followed.
In other moments, I felt supported in both my journalistic work and my attempts to make The Crimson as more welcoming place, especially to those who look like me.
At times that red brick building on 14 Plympton Street has been a home, and at others it’s been the space at Harvard I’ve felt most out of place.
This paradox exists for many editors of color who inherit The Crimson’s reputation, its historically tense relationship with communities of color, and a continual desire to better account for the stories of all the communities it claims to cover — an unmet goal for the journalism industry nationwide.
The cycle becomes self-defeating quickly. The historically fraught relationship with communities of color may discourage underrepresented editors from joining The Crimson. Without their perspective, the organization runs the risk of committing more editorial mistakes and tone-deaf decisions.
To mitigate the phenomena, the organization is constantly implementing new initiatives to substantially grapple with issues of diversity and inclusion in the building to ensure that editors from underrepresented groups remain involved.
In the past few years, there have been strides made by the building’s Diversity and Inclusivity committee with tangible effects through a task force model created in spring 2018. More and more women of color influence coverage in their leadership roles or as reporters, designers, and editorial writers. The Crimson’s leadership has also introduced building wide implicit bias trainings in the last year.
Throughout our history, there have been editors — often from marginalized groups themselves — who’ve worked to address The Crimson’s “diversity problem” and its reputation. Those efforts are continued today by those at the helm. With persistent efforts, we can continue moving toward a time where being committed to both The Crimson and communities of color does not appear as paradoxical as it historically has.
Yet maintaining a staff that is representative of the College’s student body is complicated by the weight of The Crimson’s past mistakes. A reputation is not an easy thing to shake, and a relationship built on adversary with communities of color is a tenuous one that could easily splinter. Therefore, a prolonged commitment to atoning for the paper’s past, and actively working to foster a more just and equitable organization, is crucial. How we convey that commitment, to those at The Crimson and beyond, is perhaps our most monumental task.
I write these words, urgently and with a cautious optimism, as a way of reminding us of where we’ve been and the work we’ve yet to do. If it pretends that everything is rosy, and that ignorant editorial decisions are a thing of the far, far past rather than an influential centerpiece of the present, The Crimson risks undoing all the back-breaking work that’s been done so far.
WHERE WE GO FROM HERE
In this piece, and previous pieces that dealt with internal criticisms of the organization, I’ve had to parse my words, carefully and delicately. I’ve approached these articles with the understanding that an editor could decide to not publish them at any moment. Attempts to provide this organization with much needed introspection, have been very difficult, stressful, and taxing.
I wrote the first draft of this piece last April, nearly a year ago. It’s only going to press today. The process has been long-drawn and draining, not least of all because the task at hand requires a careful handling of decades-worth of history. There have been few public interrogations of The Crimson’s relationship with communities of color, which have made writing this piece feel both necessary and impossible.
When The Crimson’s work is criticized, I’ve noticed that it’s primarily done in private, among friends, and often in whispers. Members of marginalized communities are hurt by our journalistic decisions, and it’s unfair to hope that they will take the energy to write letters to the editor or Facebook posts each time a mistake is made. Instead, The Crimson must be proactive in hosting a discussion about these issues within its pages, whether through the creation of something like The New York Times’ Reader Center or other internal initiatives that put criticisms of its work out in public.
A more sustained, public, and institutional dedication to criticism of The Crimson’s work would lessen this burden, mend its relationships with marginalized communities, and prevent internal criticisms held by Crimson editors from festering into unaddressed frustration.
I entered The Crimson ignorant of its past transgressions, yet constantly felt the ghost of editors past floating around me. At various points, I was left frustrated by individuals who insisted on hiding from them, pretending they weren’t as bad as they were, or simply ignoring their existence. Perhaps that’s what this article is about; about archiving everything I know to be real, everything I carry on my body and mind that many others refused to see.
If we call those ghosts for what they are, if we sit with them, and then work to make their presence less salient — we can move towards making The Crimson an organization where anyone, regardless of their background, can thrive. The lengths we’ll traverse to do so depend on us, and on the editors to come.
Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House.