Racism at Harvard: months after protests began, students demand concrete change

In the last year, students at Harvard Law School and 70 other schools have been successful in making symbolic changes, but institutional shifts remain elusive

For 80 years the family crest of the brutal slaveholder Isaac Royall Jr served as the official seal of the prestigious Harvard Law School.

Royall, whose endowment founded HLS in 1817, once instructed that 77 enslaved Africans be burned alive at the stake for an insurrection on his family’s Antigua sugar plantation.

In March, student protesters at Harvard notched a decisive victory in their fight to “decolonize” their campus, when administrators announced they would retire the Royall family seal, citing “the prospect that its imagery might evoke associations with slavery”.

Two months later, many of the students who pushed for the change say the decision is bittersweet. The removal of the seal sends a message, they say, but it doesn’t do enough to address the currents of racism on campus.

“In terms of our broader goals of anti-racism on campus it represents probably the easiest thing they could have done,” said Alexander Clayborne, a third-year law student and one of the organizers of the Royall Must Fall campaign to have the seal removed. “It’s the thing they can do that’s probably going to create the least amount of institutional change.”

In the last year, student groups at more than 70 universities around the country organized protests demanding the removal of Confederate names and statues and for action in response to racist incidents on campus, but several months later, there aren’t many clear victories to speak of. Even in places like Harvard Law, where students successfully orchestrated the fall of Royall, many of the less symbolic, more concrete changes proposed remain elusive.

The seal was, for third-year Harvard Law student Keaton Nichols, “just the tip of the iceberg for what is a deeply problematic systematic racism problem at Harvard Law School”. Students cited far less visible grievances, for example a lack of “serious study into the implications of racism, white supremacy, and imperialism” in the law curriculum, and the lack of a diversity & inclusion office among their complaints.

“We had a couple meetings with [school officials] but the administration did not give us anything. It was sort of: ‘we can’t do this, we’re not doing that’. They basically stonewalled us,” Clayborne said.

The school’s dean, Martha Minow, sent students an email after these meetings that vaguely pledged support for “building a truly diverse community”, but effectively suggested that the students agitating for change were a just a small portion of the law school community. “Some students and staff have presented a list of demands,” Minow wrote. “We are, however, a community of many voices and hopes, and we have an obligation to provide and protect the opportunity for all to participate, speak and be heard.”

Despite the inaction, students at Harvard Law School continue to occupy their student center, an action that has been going on since February and to host on their own, teach-ins and speakers in line with what they are demanding from the school.

“The school views us as disposable; we are only here in law school for three years so they can just wait [us] out. Therefore it’s really important to just keep screaming,” Nichols said.

Even if students like Nichols see the Harvard Law victory as incomplete, other universities have seen even less change. At Clemson, where the university’s most recognizable building is named for the arch-white supremacist Benjamin Tillman, the calls to remove the name were denied by the university board in February.

“While there’s a lot of talk about progress and working and listening, the writing on the wall and the literal writing on the pages of the Clemson board meeting minutes is that they are absolutely not considering one of the most visible and contentious things here,” said AD Carson, a third-year graduate student and student organizer.

Changing the name of the building was for Carson, the easiest way the school could at least show that it was listening. “That they could summarily dismiss the low-hanging fruit so easily shows their hypocrisy,” Carson said.

In stating its decision, the university’s board simultaneously claimed it did not have the power to change the name, and offered it a strong defense. “A building named Tillman Hall does not celebrate Tillman’s views but serves as a reminder to all that Clemson’s history is complex,” the board said.

So how do student movements force lasting, institutional change in universities? Fabio Rojas, a professor of sociology at Indiana University, has studied student movements and their outcomes extensively. He said it requires a commitment to make life “very hard on administrators”, and at the same time, a willingness to come to the bargaining table and propose ideas that school officials “can actually wrap their heads around”.

In his book From Black Power to Black Studies he chronicles how black activism and demands in the late 1960s led to the creation of new academic departments and disciplines like black studies, and later Chicano and women’s studies that exist to this day.

“Students are so into the adrenaline of protests and screaming at people but then you have to know when there’s an opening, when do we have a moment to actually get something reasonable in. You have to be prepared with something that will really work in the context of that institution,” Rojas said. “Social movements do not win by merely being expressive, they have to have a plan.” This, Rojas said, is different from simply having demands.

Rojas cited the protests at San Francisco State College in 1968 as an example of the tenacity and organization required to effect meaningful change. A coalition of students of color demanded the school open a black studies department along with more ambitions demands like free tuition for all students of color. Students forced the issue with a “guerrilla campaign”, which included mass rallies spawning hundreds of arrests, physical intimidation and even small-scale bombings. They also threatened a strike. Ultimately administrators and students arrived at a compromise.

These demands were considered radical in 1968, but compared with the standard of some of last autumn’s student protests, they are comparatively mild. Students at the University of North Carolina, for example, demanded the “elimination of tuition and fees for all students” and the defunding and disarming of campus police.

Will today’s student protesters marshal the same leverage, patience and intensity to force these kinds of concessions? “Students can make change to these institutions,” Clayborne said. “It comes from small groups of committed people coming together and building it.”


Jamiles Lartey

The GuardianTramp

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