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Randall Kennedy on race and racism at Harvard Law School (and elsewhere)

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HLS professor Randall Kennedy has an excellent piece on the current controversies at Harvard and elsewhere (A few days ago, some unknown person(s) for unknown reasons put strips of black tape, across the portraits of tenured black professors that are displayed, along with the portraits of all tenured HLS professors, in one of the school’s buildings). I don’t like to excerpt it, since it seems to me a model of balance and good sense that really should be read in its entirety, but here is part of his argument:

Substantial numbers of onlookers believe that this episode is by no means isolated, that it offers a revealing glimpse into the soul of Harvard Law School.

They believe that the defacement is but an outcropping of shrouded, denied, but pervasive bigotry abetted by an unwillingness to redress subtle vestiges of historical racial injustice. The aggrievement felt by substantial numbers of smart, knowledgeable and capable students is evident. Their accusations warrant close examination and may well justify further reforms. There are exceedingly few, if any, major institutions in America that can be presumed to be racism free.

Activists who are demanding that universities do more to advance racial justice ought to be encouraged by what has transpired in recent weeks. On account of their interventions, difficult but earnest and probing conversations have blossomed. At Harvard, the dozen or so strips of black tape that prompted the crisis have been replaced by hundreds of brightly colored stickers expressing respect and appreciation, and rejecting bigotry.

Around the country, any administrator in higher education who neglects to take seriously plausible accusations of racism proceeds at his or her peril. Activists have succeeded in shoving to the top of the higher-education policy agenda the claims, dissatisfactions and aspirations of African-American students.

Successes, however, can generate or exacerbate destructive tendencies. I worry about two in particular. One involves exaggerating the scope of the racism that the activists oppose and fear. The other involves minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved. . .

While some of [the activists’] complaints have a ring of validity, several are dubious. A decision by a professor to focus on a seemingly dry, technical issue rather than a more accessible, volatile subject involving race might well reflect a justifiable pedagogical strategy. Opposition to racial affirmative action can stem from a wide range of sources other than prejudice. Racism and its kindred pathologies are already big foes; there is no sustained payoff in exaggerating their presence, thus making them more formidable than they actually are.

Disturbing, too, is a related tendency to indulge in self-diminishment by displaying an excessive vulnerability to perceived and actual slights and insults. Some activists seem to have learned that invoking the rhetoric of trauma is an effective way of hooking into the consciences of solicitous authorities. Perhaps it is useful for purposes of eliciting certain short-term gains.

In the long run, though, reformers harm themselves by nurturing an inflated sense of victimization.

One reaction to this kind of an argument is that it plays into the hands of right-wingers, who are categorizing the various protests at Yale, Missouri, Princeton, Harvard, etc., as nothing more than the manifestations of a combination of illiberal “political correctness” and hyper-sensitive whining by over-privileged children of the helicopter parent generation. Another reaction is that the former reaction itself plays into the hands of those who want to wrongly minimize the continuing salience of race and racism in American society, by refusing to consider making distinctions between valid, less valid, and spurious complaints.

These are difficult and important questions, and Kennedy’s willingness to engage with them in a nuanced way is admirable.

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