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What Comes Next: How Harvard Must Combat Systemic Racism

By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Police brutality and its systematic targeting of black people isn’t new, nor is a lack of law enforcement interference in violence against black people by white civilians. It’s the American story, and the horror of George Floyd’s clearly documented murder stands as its most recent prolific chapter — one this University is deeply complicit in and we have not stood up against enough.

The Black Lives Matter movement, alongside like-minded groups, has refocused national attention on the crucial work that needs to be done to improve racial equity in this country. Over the course of the next month and our next four editorials, we’ll be digging into both what we haven’t said and what we’ve said wrong on these issues — challenging ourselves to use this platform to hold ourselves and our University accountable to advancing justice and combating systemic racism, where we have allowed for the continued abuse of police power and maintenance of white supremacy. Genuine introspection and improvement takes work, and we are just beginning that process.

As many of our peers join protests across the country to call for racial justice and anti-racist police reform — putting their bodies at risk of militarized, abusive, and arguably criminal police retaliation — there has been no meaningful institutional response. While many student organizations have organized donation matching efforts (open to all!) for bail funds and anti-racist nonprofits and campaigns, the University as a whole has only sent hollow messages.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s “What I believe” email missed the mark entirely. Not only did it dodge the hard work of making concrete commitments as to how the University would act on its “special responsibilities,” but it made the horrifying killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and so many others simply the pretext for Bacow’s self-indulgent musing.

Far more important than you and your beliefs, President Bacow, is how you will leverage your position as the leader of the most prominent University in the world to fight for the just society we desperately need — one in which black people not only have access to opportunity, but are able to work, study, speak out, and live without fear of violence. Your black students are experiencing this national trauma intimately. What in your email was for them?

While Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana’s subsequent email gestured more toward action and programmatic reflection, any hint of what that looks like — its leadership, structure, timeline, or concrete goals — is nowhere to be found.

And though Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay got to the heart of the matter more profoundly — looking honestly and personally into the pain felt by so many — we are still left with big questions about how her division will concretely respond and how exactly students and affiliates can “lean on this community” in processing their responses to the epidemic of militarized, racialized police violence.

Our subsequent three editorials will address actionable responses the University can take. In the first, we will call on the University to address its own complicity in racist and anti-activist policing. Harvard must abolish its private police force. The Harvard University Police Department is no different than municipal and state forces across the nation. HUPD has been deployed in the armed policing of Boston-area protests and has helped arrest protesters at least once in recent memory. It has a history of racist policing and a current culture of racism, unjustifiable violence, and unaccountability. It has no place on our campus.

In the second, we — in a long-overdue shift — will join the call for Harvard to divest from private prisons and the prison industrial complex. Our previous precedent was not only insensitive, but missed the point. We can no longer fail the black community by failing to take into account the magnitude of oppression enacted by the prison industrial complex and its investors. Harvard can’t either.

In the third, we will dive into Harvard’s continued engagement with issues of race, both internally and externally. From explicitly — and with real financial teeth — supporting mutual aid funds, nonprofit organizations, and bail funds that combat state oppression of black people, to moving beyond facile diversity and inclusion rhetoric toward a more robust engagement with racism, discrimination, and ignorance on our campus, we will call attention to a number of ways — long advocated for by the activists already committed to this fight — that Harvard can consistently make its campus and community more just.

As we criticize the administration for its poor response, we have to acknowledge and reflect on the extent to which our institution and editorial board have accommodated, contributed to, and ignored instances and structures of racism — both against black people and other historically marginalized groups. We have been morally complicit in the perpetuation of this oppression — sometimes speaking too weakly and sometimes wrongly. We have caused pain in many communities, held up racist double standards, and failed to hold ourselves or the University to sufficient account. Underwriting these poor judgments, we continue to need to reflect on what anti-racism in the editorial process looks like. The nation’s issue and the University’s issue is our issue, too.

In a fourth editorial, we will address our own shortcomings in-depth — combing through our precedents and practices as we reimagine our editorial platform and commit to working for an anti-racist future.

These editorials are only a small contribution to a much greater struggle; we’re largely just amplifying the ideas of our peers. But they cannot be left unwritten.

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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