Few things embarrass me like the Harvard Black Law Students Association. It could be the most credible foil to systemic racism against black law students. It has instead become a convenient tool to be used by those who wish to ignore the racial tensions in our system of legal education.
Don’t believe me? Earlier this week, we learned that a sole white kid called blacks genetically dumber than whites, and Harvard BLSA backed down — stepped and fetched, if you will — in the face of one solitary white person. It’s not the first time (we’ll get to the tragically impotent reaction to Kiwi Camara later). But at a point when the entire law school world would have at least considered what Harvard BLSA had to say, the organization sought to cover their own ass in the media, instead of standing up on the behalf of maligned black law students everywhere.
I cannot and do not wish to speak for all black law students and lawyers. But when confronted with abject racism, I can find the courage to speak for myself. I believe that gives me more balls than BLSA…
There are some things so insulting that one doesn’t dignify them with a response. As my mother said: “Just because people call you something doesn’t mean you have to answer to it.”
And that’s a choice the Harvard BLSA could have made with regards to the 3L who wrote the racist email (whom we have dubbed “Crimson DNA,” even though she has been outed). Hey, if I listened to everything that came out of the mouths of racist white people — e.g., some of our commenters — I’d need to find another job.
David Lat represented what I believe to be Harvard BLSA’s current conundrum as elegantly as possible. Last night, Lat wrote:
In an academic setting, it should be possible to put any proposition on the table for debate. No position should lie beyond the pale. Some — in fact, many — such positions will be stupid or wrong. But we should be able to debate all issues rationally, vigorously and openly, without having to worry about offending anyone.
Remember where the phrase “beyond the pale” comes from. It’s an English phrase (as in the territory, not the language), derived from the English belief that its borders with Scotland (and later Ireland and France, apparently) marked the demarcation line between civilization and the uncivilized. England was the seat of civilized thought; “beyond the pale” was the homeland of uncivilized barbarians.
Since I think it is pretty uncivilized to suggest that men and women of one skin color are genetically incapable of intellectual achievement on par with another skin color, I think the academic discussion of such a possibility to be God Damn far beyond the pale.
Yet I’d agree that most arguments can be amenable to rational debate, regardless of the argument’s position inside or beyond the pale.
However, it is sheer ludicrousness to expect, nay demand, that some arguments be proffered without the expectation that someone else may well take offense. If you insult me, my mother, my family, and my entire race in the cloth of academic debate (as one does when one suggests that we are just not as smart as white people), then you best believe that offense will be taken. To use a simple analogy: if you slap a man’s wife on the ass, you better be prepared for the husband’s counterattack. He probably won’t have an academic view of the situation.
And that is where Harvard BLSA fails. When confronted with a slap in the face, the organization responds with neither outrage nor strength. Instead, it takes a poll, holds a symposium, delivers the kind of tame and measured response that non-confrontational whites love to hear. Look at what they said in response to yesterday’s story:
What Harvard BLSA did do was send a tempered, thoughtful email to its members yesterday at 8:31PM, reminding them (1) of their inability to speak on behalf of the organization and (2) cautioning them of the potential ramifications of any action taken in an individual capacity.
BE AFRAID. BE VERY AFRAID, black law students. The “ramifications” of speaking as a black law student without clearly distinguishing yourself from the Black Law Students Association could get you into serious trouble.
What a damn joke. It’s a charade that’s so obvious it’s not worth wasting time on: organizations with power want to keep their power, by any means necessary. At Harvard Law, you keep your power — your intellectual bona fides are the currency of the realm — by showcasing your ability to “Harvard-lectualize” any issue. If someone tries to stab you in the chest, you’re supposed to think about why they attempted to do so and reason with your attacker, before you block the strike. It’s liberalism at its worst.
To put it another way, I didn’t go to law school to figure out why Plessy v. Ferguson was wrongly decided. I already knew it was wrongly decided; I didn’t need a school of any stripe to explain it to me. And I didn’t go to law school to figure out how white people came to the conclusion that Plessy v. Ferguson was wrongly decided. Who cares about their incoherent system of justice that led to the idiotic decision in the first place?
I didn’t go to law school to hear white people academically debate whether or not it was okay to segregate me in my own freaking country. I went to law school to try to help me understand how good and intelligent people could be so abusive yet call it “legal.”
Sadly, I learned.
I learned that the overarching point of high-level legal analysis is to say something that somebody else has said before. I learned that “I have a great idea” is frowned upon, while “I’m sure that a dead white man had this idea already” is rewarded. I learned that engaging with a dumb question makes you look smart, while refusing to accept the premise of the same question makes you look like you have something to hide.
Harvard BLSA has learned those lessons too. I know that from experience. When Kiwi Camara prepared a study group outline which referred to certain black people by the abbreviation “nig,” lots of African-Americans were upset. Sorry, as a 3L at the time, I was upset. Enraged (as is my wont).
But when Harvard BLSA held a meeting to decide what to do, the response was a “silent protest.” I’m not kidding. I was at the damn meeting where a lot of black students expressed more … well, expressive thoughts. But the leadership and a majority of the members decided on a silent protest. So on some random rainy day, most of us stood outside the Harkness Commons, in a formation considerately designed not to impede anybody walking on the paths through the grass. We stood there, silently.
Suffice it to say: that was the last night that I called my mother on the phone to cry about something.
But what did I do about the pathetic protest attempt? Nothing. I was a 3L; I had a job. Why risk putting my exceptionally thick skin in the game, when the worst case scenario involved me screwing up my offer? Despite my best efforts, I’d learned what I was taught. You see, I’d earned what was coming to me — and I knew I had bigger battles coming up than what some Doogie Howser 1L wrote in an outline.
So when other people said, “Whatever, Kiwi Camara is no big deal, it’s just a silly academic issue,” how could I dissent? I wasn’t willing to risk anything important to me to say otherwise. Either it wasn’t a big deal, or I was a raving hypocritical coward. In that situation, reason is the better part of valor.
That’s where Harvard BLSA is today. From its email:
…. It is important that we all refrain from acting irrationally or off emotion in a way that can haunt you in the future, damage your professional reputation, or reflect poorly on our beloved organization…
However, strategic, tempered, and calculated responses tend to be better responses and ones that we likely will not have to live to regret.
Hey BLSA, lemme tell you this. I’m older than most of you, and the “strategic, tempered, and calculated response” is the one that I unfortunately have lived to regret.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot call a racist a racist. Don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot be outraged by the outrageous. Can your professional reputation be damaged? Sure. Should you care? Absolutely not. Not in this situation. Many of your parents risked far more, so that you could go to HLS, not so you could stay unobtrusively quiet while you’re there.
One doesn’t always fight fire with fire, but one should always fight it. In certain circles, CRIMSON DNA made a point worthy of debate. But it’s a debate that you’ve already won. Act like it.
E-mail sparks a furor over race at Harvard Law [Boston Globe]
Earlier: CRIMSON DNA Apologizes, But Gawker Outs Her
The Harvard Law School ‘Racist’ Email Controversy: Dean Martha Minow Weighs In
The Harvard Law School ‘Racist’ Email Controversy: Corrections and More Commentary
Harvard Law School 3L’s Racist Email Goes National