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Op Eds

What President Bacow Should Have Written

By Amy Gershenfeld Donnella
Amy Gershenfeld Donnella is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

Dear University President Lawrence S. Bacow,

Over the weekend, I read with mounting disappointment, and then growing anger, your letter to the Harvard community titled "What I believe." Like you, Dr. Bacow, I graduated from Harvard Law School. Like you, I am white and Jewish, roughly the same age. Like you, I remember 1968 clearly.

Unlike you, I do not remember us “moving forward.” I remember us moving on.

Unlike you, I do not believe that “our strength as a nation is due in no small measure to our tradition of welcoming those who come to our shores in search of freedom and opportunity, individuals who repay us multiple times over through their hard work, creativity, and devotion to their new home.” Let’s try to set aside the troubling implicit but undefined “we” in that statement, though it’s hard to ignore. Let’s set aside its fallacy, given the many times this nation has closed its borders to groups desperate to enter or abused them once they arrived — the oppressed from (to name a few) China, Japan, Vietnam, Ireland, Italy, El Salvador, Haiti, Mexico, Nigeria; and the Jews, like your family and mine, trying to escape the pogroms and the Holocaust. Set aside, too, whether the reference to “our nation” includes the indigenous people we’ve displaced from their lands and whose heritage we've tried to eradicate.

How about the people dragged here in chains? In a statement to the Harvard community prompted by racial tragedy, this omission leaps off the page. Four hundred years later, have they yet been welcomed to “our” shores or thanked for their hard work, creativity, and devotion they’ve maintained in the face of the unending persecution that’s been inflicted on them? This nation we share was built on the blood and sweat that have been demanded of them, only to be repaid by laws and policies that have crippled them.

I am not the head of world's best known university, but unlike you, I could not have written that “all of us, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, whatever our race or ethnicity, want a better life for our children” without calling out the countless ways nice white folks (and the beloved university) have tacitly made it easier for their children to get that better life than the children of black parents. (Despite the debates that have raged at Harvard over affirmative action, has Harvard eliminated factors it traditionally used that gave non-academically-based boosts vastly favoring white applicants: legacy, financial contributions to the school, geographic distribution, and recruitment for students to field sports like ice hockey, water polo, sailing, squash, and crew? Will Harvard eliminate use of standardized testing it currently seems to rely heavily on?)

Dr. Bacow, I have four African American children. I can picture them under the knee of a police officer, and I do, night after night. But I don’t think it requires having children who are directly in harm’s way to say that, unlike you, I could not have written the pablum you served up in your letter.

You referred in your letter to your belief in the Constitution and the rights conferred by the 14th Amendment — one that’s supposed to guarantee due process and equal protection of the laws to all Americans. What specifically does that mean to you? Despite the fact that your letter was sent in response to one in a unbroken series of outrages against the black community, it fails to talk about or identify them. Even when you wrote about the disruption and “incomprehensible loss” caused by COVID-19, you never mentioned the disparate impact the pandemic has had on communities of color and the resulting rates of unemployment.

I would have been interested in reading about ways Harvard, with its vast network of distinguished alumni in every boardroom, courtroom, classroom, hospital, and governing body in this country, must take on as a central focus the sources of, and concrete ways to fix, these tragic imbalances. I would have been interested in reading about how you will use the University’s resources to widen the conversation to include those who never had the privilege of attending Harvard. I would have been interested in reading about plans for Harvard, under your leadership, to do a deep dive into its own practices to figure out why the college admits 14 percent African American applicants but only matriculates eight to nine percent, and what that percentage really means to that sole black student (and his or her classmates) in a class of 15.

I would have been interested in reading any attempt to reflect the real pain once again visited upon the black community instead of a list of your beliefs in unrealized American myths and aspirations.

So please, President Bacow, talk to us like the thinking adults we are. Admit candidly the ways Harvard has failed during its long history to promote for everyone the American dream you believe in, and the ways you intend to use your position to fix that right now.

You have been given much. We expect more from you.

Amy Gershenfeld Donnella is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

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