The Racist Breeding Grounds Of Harvard Law School


Diane Lucas is a Harvard Law School graduate and an attorney in New York. After the jump, she discusses the Stephanie Grace scandal in the context of her own experiences of sexism and racism at Harvard.

Earlier this week, a Harvard 3L named Stephanie Grace [Ed. — pictured] was introduced to many people in the country (or at least to people who follow legal blogs). She has a resume that could make her the next president of the USA. Grace went to HLS and Princeton undergrad. (the same pedigree as Michelle Obama). She is an editor on the Harvard Law review and has a federal clerkship lined up. Yet Grace still holds some archaic, backwards, and flat-out racist views. In short, Grace believes that there is a scientific possibility of black people being genetically inferior to white people. She equates it to being as simple as Irish people being more likely to have red hair, and African Americans being more likely to have darker skin. Of course, she explains intellect is about nature–for example, if her baby is raised by her in America or in a Nigerian orphanage, her baby would still share her intellectual prowess (wow, that is just too much ignorance in one sentence). Grace first spewed her racist statements at a law school dinner and then later clarified her views over an email. It was sent to a Black Law Students Association (BLSA) member, and then became viral. I refuse to waste my time and energy refuting a point as ridiculous as this, as I literally cannot have the intellectual equality of black people be open for debate.

The deeper issue here is how and why Harvard Law breeds a racially tense environment, which often culminates in “race wars.” And why the administration often ignores or ridicules any backlash from black students after a racist incident. As an African-American woman and a HLS alum, I dealt with the Harvard racism everyday. I felt like I was an outsider on campus; and often invisible. When I felt accepted, I sometimes felt exoticized. My classmates would refer to me as “homegirl” or “diva”, but call other students by their given name. Worse, black students were often racially profiled on campus– made to show identification to and from class. In classes I was often confused with the five other black women in an 80-person class. And then of course, there were the infamous classroom discussions. I heard the statistical explanations for why black people were pre-disposed to be more violent, which of course was cited in support of racial profiling; or the affirmative action discussions in which, essentially, some of my white classmates explained why black students in the class did not deserve to be there.

Interestingly, Harvard Law has deep ties with racism. It was built from the proceeds of Antiguan slave labor on wheat plantations, which is reflected today by the three wheat sheaves in the HLS school crest. I believe HLS’ current battles with race are a result of it having a significant population of sheltered, often white-bred students, who went to non-diverse prep schools, many of whom were made to think at an early age they were geniuses and everything they spewed was brilliant. When these students attempt to intellectualize racist views, they often cite statistics and/or science to support their views. This leads to a false sense of validity and creates a twilight zone in which the irrational somehow becomes acceptable in intellectual, legal debate. Problematically, HLS fails to address the racial tension until it reaches a boiling point. Even then, in recent history, HLS has failed to take appropriate steps to discuss or address the racist acts of students, and has even condoned them in certain instances. The HLS administration has criticized students who take a stand as being over sensitive, overly passionate, irrational and/or not appreciating the right to freedom of speech. So with that in mind, I was not surprised at all when I read Grace’s email.

Back in 2002, Kiwi Camara, a native Filipino who grew up in Hawaii, enrolled at HLS at age 16, making him the youngest person to matriculate at HLS. As a 1L, Camara posted an outline on HL Central, a student run outline database. It was an outline of the Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer, which barred restrictive covenants in real estate based on race. Camara referenced African Americans as “nigs” in his summary of the case. For example, he wrote “Nigs buy land with no nig covenant.” Cite. Professor Charles Nesson decided to have an open debate and have students defend Camara in class, in a mock trial-like setting. The purpose was to promote free discussion on the issue. But this completely backfired, and many students, especially African-Americans, were very offended. In response, Professor Nesson was asked to step down from teaching 1L classes, in which students did not have an election of professors. I know Professor Nesson very, very well (I call him “Poppa”), and I am very confident that he did not have a malicious or racist intent. To be clear, he is and was an avid civil rights activist. And he stepped up and tried to diffuse a very tense, highly racialized situation when no one else did. Many students, however, thought it was an inappropriate reaction to a sensitive situation. Students did not, at that time, need a lesson on free speech. Rather, there was a desperate need for an open forum to discuss how offensive the use of the word “nig” was in that context, particularly in discussing a landmark civil rights case; there should have also been a discussion as to why Kiwi felt so comfortable using that word, and there should have been some action from HLS to improve the situation. Of course, HLS did not provide any meaningful forum to discuss this incident and the racist tension just continued to brew.

Further, African-American students who criticized this incident were portrayed as overly-sensitive and opposed to free speech. HLS professor Charles Fried described student reaction as a “hysterical, ridiculous overreaction to a couple of unfortunate incidents.” According to Wikipedia, the controversy is also the subject of the book The People Vs. Harvard Law: How America’s Oldest Law School Turned Its Back on Free Speech and a talk at the New England Appellate Judges’ Conference. There is more about the controversy here.

When I was at HLS in 2006, there was a student-run but HLS-endorsed parody play featuring students and professors, in which individual students, mostly women of color, were roasted using highly offensive racial, gender and classist stereotypes–basically a modern day minstrel show. I was disgusted. One of my friends who is a very articulate, intelligent, black woman, was made to sound like a Shanaynay-like character from the show, Martin (I love Shanaynay – who doesn’t? But, really?!). Another woman, who is Cuban-American was depicted as having very large breasts, which were actually balloons that were violently popped during the play. They portrayed another woman, who is Dominican-American and speaks fluent English, as barely speaking a word of English. Another black woman was depicted as being sexually promiscuous with classmates and professors. These women were/are my friends, and it was very difficult for them and for me to cope with this parody. HLS is already a hostile place to be for a black woman. The parody made it worse, but it gave us more insight into what our classmates really thought of us. Some of the women who were depicted in the play were so deeply offended they wanted to transfer schools. When we protested and communicated how upset many of the black and Latino students were, we were criticized as being too sensitive, for not being able to take a joke and for trying to suppress free speech. Dean Elana Kagan refused to take a stand, stating that she could not take responsibility for the parody – even though she actually had an on-stage role in its performance. After many requests from concerned students, including myself, Professor Charles Ogletree, Jr. and Professor Martha Minow (now Dean Minow) took the lead in organizing a town hall, which was extremely well attended. Other concerned students and I specifically asked Dean Kagan to start diversity sessions to keep the conversation going, and . . . crickets. That was another missed opportunity for HLS to be an institution that cares about racial issues, and prepares and encourages its students, of all backgrounds, to be racially sensitive.

Well, here we are again. Members of BLSA and others were disparaged by Above the Law and other bloggers for making too much of this story, for suppressing freedom of speech and intellectual debate and for disclosing Stephanie Grace’s name.

Since when does freedom of speech mean not speaking out in outrage when you are in a racially hostile environment and are subjected to racist statements? Freedom of speech was not in any way suppressed. It would be ludicrous, however, to give validity and legitimacy to Grace’s arguments by encouraging intellectual debate on the genetic equality of black people. (I couldn’t even write that without cringing). This is, however, another opportunity for Harvard Law to open a dialogue about race and hopefully institutionalize diversity training and routine dialogues.

Further, BLSA had every right to make this email viral, and by so doing, it did all of us a service. Some people may wonder, what is the big deal? This is one woman with isolated, extreme views. Well, this is a huge deal. This is a public concern. Let’s look at the facts: HLS grads run and will continue to run our country and make our laws. Grace has a federal clerkship in which she will help interpret the laws of our country. With her credentials, she could be a powerhouse attorney determining the fate of her subordinates. Or she could have a high-powered position in government making decisions affecting us all. Like I said before, she could even be president. To be clear, Grace’s views are very dangerous, and as seen from some comments on some legal blogs, they are not isolated. The theory that black people are on the bottom of the chain of evolution and have intellect slightly higher than apes was a central tool in justifying efforts to colonize, enslave, and even exterminate people. The theory was, they are less human and intellectually inferior, so we can treat them accordingly. Today, this theory can be and is used to determine that a black applicant is unqualified for a job, to vet black political candidates more extensively than others, and to deny educational grants to predominantly black schools (reasoning that they are genetically inferior, so why waste the money).

Lastly, there seems to be something peculiar about my profession. I have encountered more than a few racists throughout my law school and professional career – so many that it seems vastly disproportionate in comparison to other professions. Maybe it is just that by nature we, as attorneys and advocates, are more vocal with our opinions. But it is especially disturbing because we are a service profession, and most lawyers inevitably have to interact with others who are not like them in a professional context. Many of our country’s leaders are lawyers, or individuals with legal backgrounds. It is imperative that law schools, including HLS, make an effort to increase racial sensitivity in law schools, before their graduates enter the real world and cause a lot of damage.

This post originally appeared at Feministe. Republished with permission.

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