This past week, I posted a Facebook status in solidarity with the protestors in Baltimore, won an award at The Harvard Foundation for furthering intercultural and race relations on campus, and wrote an essay on the racial biases embedded in the criminal justice system for African and African American Studies 10.
On the surface, I am the perfect ally.
But a few days ago, while I sat in my 300 square foot room at the most prestigious university in the world—desperately hoping for likes on my Facebook status—I realized that I represent everything I oppose about our country.
As I’ve written before, I’m white, have two married and affluent parents, possess a disco stick, identify as a male, and am into women. Clearly, I come from a place of immense privilege. But my privilege alone is not what makes me a symbol of America’s deficiencies—or, at least, it’s not the aspect of my identity I’m going to focus on in this piece.
Rather, I see myself as an emblem of America’s false-promises because I’m someone who understands what’s wrong with our nation, but hasn’t come up with ways to fix it; because I take pride in organizing rallies, writing impassioned columns, and objecting to offensive remarks, but I never sacrifice my own well-being and comfort in order to further the causes I believe in.
Here’s a case study: as soon as I heard that a grand jury let off the police officers responsible for Eric Garner’s death, I posted a Facebook status calling on members of my community to burst their bubbles of privilege and take action. One month earlier, I’d written something in reaction to Michael Brown’s death, and a couple years beforehand, I wrote about Trayvon Martin. But I never did anything.
Observing this trend, my friend Jonas responded to my Garner status with a blunt comment: “Walk the walk,” he wrote. “If you don't do something to [burst your bubble] within the next 24 hours, I’m revoking my like.”
Jonas lit a fuse in me, and I immediately started organizing—not just because I was afraid he might unlike my status, but because he had gotten it right: I had never walked the walk. Over the following few days, I started a Facebook group, helped form a couple of rallies, gave a speech on privilege, participated in die-in after die-in, and convinced myself that fighting racial inequality in America would become the issue that defined my time at Harvard.
But then, winter break happened, tensions boiled down, and I got back to my normal routine at college just as easily as I had left it. I engaged with racial issues, but they no longer consumed me; I talked about what was wrong, but I stopped actively advocating for change.
Which takes me back to the scene in my dorm room.
Thousands have taken to the streets in Baltimore. Facebook has once again become dominated by a deeply destructive (and, at times, profoundly meaningful) conversation on race. And I’m sitting there, having just found out that I was selected to receive an award, with a miserable pit in my stomach. Because, once again, I am reminded of Jonas’ words, “walk the walk,” and I realize that I am about to accept an award for, essentially, latching onto a movement when it already had momentum.
I was hardly better than the media in Ferguson and now Baltimore: I decided to help lead a movement once the country was already paying attention, made some noise, and then left. I do not deserve recognition for this.
Beyond simply advocating for better trained police officers and more ubiquitous body cameras when policemen tragically murder African Americans, we need to radically alter the framework of American society in order to even begin to equalize the playing field. We need to fight widespread economic disenfranchisement, mass incarceration, and crippling housing policies. We need to reduce the benefits of attending an institution like Harvard by making quality education accessible to all Americans.
But sadly, even a piece like this—one I wanted to come across as a condemnation of talking and a plea for action—is nothing more than empty rhetoric. Because writing any column aimed at the echo-chamber that is the Harvard community is an inherently limited exercise—one that fails to connect me with the people whose voices need to be heard.
So, view this column as an apology and a call for all Harvard students to start proactively coming up with ways to create concrete, legislative change and sustain a prolonged dialogue. When the media leaves Baltimore, we need to be there in spirit, fighting for change, even as we make sure never to forget that we’re miles away and worlds apart from their struggle.
Sam H. Koppelman ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Hollis Hall. His column runs on alternate Fridays.