On October 29, 2018, I skipped class. I hopped into an Uber and headed towards South Boston to attend the trial for Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, an event that would determine the future of affirmative action policy. This was the day that eight current and former students of Harvard College bravely testified to the contributions of race-conscious admissions to the Harvard experience, a rare day when many Harvard students chose to forsake academic responsibilities to witness a piece of history and show their support for their peers on the frontlines. Clumps of bright blue shirts with bold lettering proclaiming “Defend Diversity” dotted the audience, otherwise a sea of black and gray blazers.
Almost a year later, the court has ruled in favor of Harvard’s affirmative action policies. This victory, however short-lived it might be, should be celebrated. Without an attention to race, admissions policies would neglect the social and cultural contexts that have underwritten the experiences of many students of color. While the era of slavery or the struggle for civil rights may appear to be relics of the past, their narratives and truths continue to determine everything from our subconscious biases to the distribution of wealth.
Harvard, however, must take a step further. This victory is an opportunity for the College to grapple with how it treats students of color after they arrive on campus. If it is willing to fight for a diverse student body and the richness accompanying that diversity, it must also be willing to support them past the point of admission.
W.E.B. DuBois, Class of 1890, once reflected that while at Harvard, he felt that he was “in Harvard, but not of it.” While students of color are now allowed to live in Harvard’s dorms (DuBois was not), they are often forced to exist within that same tension, grappling with an institution originally constructed to exclude those who were non-white. Harvard has certainly come a long way in the past century; however, the vestiges of those exclusionary policies live on, both through explicit neglect and implicit culture, and must be challenged rigorously.
Explicit neglect includes the absence of institutional measures that students of color have demanded for decades, such as the creation of a robust and critical academic program for ethnic studies. For over four decades, student-activists and alumni have championed this effort, one that is only now gaining the traction it has deserved for so long. In a similar vein, the silence surrounding the creation of a multicultural center (that multiple peer institutions, such as Yale and Princeton, have had for years) speaks volumes. Cultural affinity groups on campus have thrived not because of, but despite, the University.
Implicit culture reveals itself in various ways. These are the cultural standards that allow University President Lawrence S. Bacow to construct an insensitive analogy to explain that just as people cannot own slaves, Harvard cannot “own” their alumni. These standards give rise to a racially-motivated threat scribbled onto a sticky note, plastered to a professor’s door. Harvard as a whole cannot be blamed for either of these events — Bacow’s inappropriate comment was an individual choice, one for which he has received considerable backlash; and the University has mobilized quickly to unequivocally support the professor threatened with a hate crime. However, that these events have occurred only in the past couple of weeks is indicative of a broader culture here that places people of color on the fringes of the University.
This implicit culture also places a heavy burden on faculty of color, many of whom take on the invisible responsibility of helping students of color navigate the University; but this is a form of labor neither properly rewarded nor incentivized by the institution. This burden trickles into the work that cultural groups must do to support students of color. While they create peer-to-peer resource guides and informal mentorship networks out of concern and care for their communities, the burden of adequately supporting students should have been shouldered by Harvard long ago.
I don’t expect for Harvard to get everything right on the first try, nor am I naive enough to believe that it can fix these problems in an instant. But it’s been much longer than that — there are concrete things that Harvard can do (and should’ve done years ago) to help students feel like they belong on campus. The University should aspire towards creating a multicultural center, or at least some sort of physical space for belonging and inclusion — one that is not in the basement of a freshman dorm, or a pre-existing academic building. Harvard should find ways to concretely reward faculty of color for their contributions to the undergraduate community. Racial literacy trainings for students, faculty, and administrators could be a significant first step in cultivating a community that is cognizant of the role race plays at Harvard.
Harvard has chosen to fight for diversity, to invest in it. It has made this claim to the world through defending its admissions policies in court. But is Harvard willing to prove that students of color truly matter, outside of brochures and palatable statistics? Will it continue to allow us to exist on the fringes, or is it willing to bring us into the center — to make us feel as if we are not just in Harvard, but of Harvard?
Ajay V. Singh ’21 is a Social Studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.