Email Scandals, Minority Issues, Racism

Harvard BLSA Responds to Email Controversy
Plus a statement from the HLS dean of students.

Yesterday, I asked why the Harvard Black Law Students Association had been silent on the controversial email from a third-year Harvard Law School student raising the “possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.” Today, the organization released a statement on its website:

Harvard BLSA denounces racially inflammatory language – The Harvard Black Law Students Association (HBLSA) strongly condemns the racially inflammatory email that was circulated among the entire Harvard Law School community. Like many individuals who read its content, we find the message to be deplorable and offensive. We are open to thoughtful discourse on even the most controversial of views, and yet we categorically reject the archaic notion that African-Americans are genetically inferior to white people. We recognize, however, that this issue is much larger than any single email or any particular student.

Was that so hard? The foregoing paragraph is a pitch-perfect assessment of the situation and an effective response.

The BLSA letter goes on to say that HBLSA should not (and apparently does not) want to be the focus of attention here…

Harvard BLSA might need to head down to Bunker Hill College and get a hug from Robin Williams:

Harvard BLSA is not at fault – HBLSA did not cause, create, or instigate these events. HBLSA was not the initial recipient of the student’s controversial email. HBLSA did not forward the email to Above the Law or any other media outlet. HBLSA did not contact or meet with any other BLSA chapter regarding this email. HBLSA had no contact whatsoever with the author’s clerkship judge or future employer. Any information to the contrary is unfounded and patently false.

We hope that the correction we made days ago, underscoring BLSA’s lack of involvement, is now clear.

Harvard BLSA should not be the focus – It is unfortunate that HBLSA has become the center of this ordeal. We are disheartened that the reckless coverage of this controversy has shifted the nation’s attention away from the injustice and onto an unrelated third party. The real conversation—and all of the media coverage—should be about the unspoken assumptions and enduring racial prejudices that continually resurface throughout our nation. Simply put, the focus on HBLSA is misplaced.

Harvard BLSA has some support for the notion that the Harvard Black Law Students Association shouldn’t be expected to have an opinion just because a Harvard Law School student questioned the intellectual capacity of average black people. Last night, Dean of Students Ellen Cosgrove sent us this message:

It is incredibly unfortunate that in the midst of our final exam period, some of the people posting on Above the Law are choosing to direct the spotlight on BLSA, a group of students who had absolutely nothing to do with this incident.

The initial email was not sent to the group, it was eventually circulated broadly on campus to a number of students. The apology was directed to a number of student leaders on campus, faculty, administrators and the Dean.

To put this kind of responsibility on one group of students for a discussion that should have, and does have, broad ramifications for the entire community is simply unfair.

I know this is interesting blog fodder but people here really are trying to stay focused on exams and constructive dialog.


Ellen Cosgrove
Dean of Students

Well, for the record, the only copy of the apology that we had was addressed specifically to the incoming and outgoing presidents of Harvard BLSA — not to “a number of student leaders on campus, faculty, administrators and the Dean.” Dean Cosgrove informed us, however, that an apology with identical wording was sent to a wider group.

But I am more than a little surprised that BLSA is so aggressively trying to not be a part of this debate. From a certain point of view, this controversy is an opportunity for HBLSA to engage and expose the “soft racism” of what some white people say when they think people of color are not listening. Right now — based on our traffic numbers, and the way this story has been discussed in the mainstream media — the entire law school world is watching. Seems like a perfect time to say … something.

That’s not just my opinion. It appears that, at least initially, HBLSA recognized that there was a way to turn this sad email into a teachable moment. From the BLSA open letter:

Harvard BLSA recognizes the opportunity – After learning of this disappointing email and before this incident ever went viral, the outgoing and incoming HBLSA Presidents immediately sent an email to our members calling for a “well thought-out and strategic” response. We began brainstorming and soliciting ideas from our members to determine the best way to seize this opportunity. We called for strategies that would promote constructive dialogue and meaningful solutions, not those that would merely serve to further inflame racial prejudices. Moreover, we foresaw that sensationalized blogging would be reactive and counterproductive.

Further inflame racial prejudices? One of your white classmates said that “I think it is at least possible that African Americans are less intelligent on a genetic level,” and then that email was forwarded around the entire school (and beyond). I think racial prejudices are pretty much erupting on a Mount Eyjafjallajokull level at that point. You can’t sensationalize something that already goes all the way up to 11.

Enough about the past. What about the future?

Harvard BLSA is moving forward – What is needed in this hour is a well-developed and effective course of action. After all, true advocacy is not a rash, knee-jerk, or emotionally charged response. Words are incredibly powerful. And as future attorneys, we realize that our words are our stock in trade. They can be used as a weapon to divide and tear down, or they can be used as a tool to unite and restore. HBLSA has chosen the latter approach. In so doing, HBLSA will continue to be a voice against injustice on our campus and in our community.

Clearly, there’s only one way to handle this in true Harvard Law fashion: a cognac summit.

Since BLSA doesn’t want to be the focus of this, I’ll happily reprise my role as “loud black guy in Cambridge.” Me, Crimson DNA, Crimson Outrage, and Dean Minow.

What could possibly go wrong? Start pouring the Hennessy.

An Open Letter From The Harvard Black Law Students Association [Harvard Black Law Student’s Association]

Earlier: Harvard Law School 3L’s Racist Email Goes National
Harvard Law School BLSA and the Banality of Evil

(hidden for your protection)

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