Posted on September 2, 2008

At Harvard, Blacks Perceive Culture of Prejudice

Tracy Jan, Boston Globe, August 29, 2008

It was the quintessential college scene: dozens of students from the Harvard Black Men’s Forum and the Association of Black Harvard Women picnicking on the Radcliffe Quad, playing capture-the-flag and running relay races at their end-of-the-year field day.

But just an hour into the festivities on the sunny afternoon in May 2007, the fun screeched to a halt. Two campus police officers rode up on motorcycles. Were they students, the officers asked. Did they have permission to be there?

The young men and women, dressed in Harvard T-shirts, would discover that a fellow student in a nearby dorm had mistaken them for trespassers, according to students who were there and whose account was confirmed by Harvard officials.

The incident, which ignited criticism from black students and faculty, highlighted the prejudices that many black students say they continue to face at Harvard, not only from police, but from classmates, as well.

Leaders of black student and faculty groups say they hope that Harvard’s review of campus Police Department practices will help spark a wide-ranging conversation about the racial climate on campus and lead to other concrete steps by the university to improve it. The review, announced Tuesday, follows long-standing complaints of racial profiling by police.

“The alarming thing is that this happens in one of the most progressive towns, the most progressive university, and there’s this reluctance on behalf of students to even acknowledge that there is some covert racism going on,” said Bryan Barnhill, a Harvard senior and former president of the Black Men’s Forum.


“Rather than just focusing on the Police Department, it would be a brave step if the president would ignite a broader and more honest discussion about race,” he said.

Leaders of Harvard’s Association of Black Faculty, Administrators, and Fellows, who met with Faust last fall to discuss their concerns, also want her to go further as she enters her second year at the helm. They are calling for Harvard to create a campus climate committee and a police community board, among other initiatives, to foster cross-racial understanding among students, as well as with the predominantly white Police Department, a private force overseen by the school.


Interviews with black students and faculty reflect a perceived climate of underlying racial insensitivity on campus that goes beyond the police. The students recounted incidents when they said white students made them feel as though they do not belong. Their sentiments echoed those of W.E.B. Du Bois, the university’s first black PhD, who famously said, “I was in Harvard, but not of it.”

Some white classmates assume they are outsiders, black students said, even though they live in the same dorms. Black students account for 8 percent of the school’s 6,600 undergraduates.

Sangu Delle, president of the Black Men’s Forum, recalled an incident last school year when a white student followed him into his dorm’s computer lab and questioned his presence.


Encounters with police, black students and faculty said, further fuel their sense of not belonging.

S. Allen Counter, a well-known neuroscience professor, said two officers stopped him as he walked across Harvard Yard in 2004 and threatened to arrest him when he could not produce identification. Not believing Counter was a professor, despite his three-piece suit and tie, the officers entered Thayer Hall and questioned students about his identity.

Hours later, Counter learned that he had been stopped because he fit the profile of a well-dressed robbery suspect.


J. Lorand Matory, a professor of anthropology and African and African-American studies who cochairs the black faculty association, said that establishing a police community board—made up of faculty, police, administrators, and students—would help solve problems and build goodwill. But Longbrake said the university has no plans for such a board.

The association is also calling for a more diverse police force, as well as increased hiring of black faculty and administrators. Within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, 3.2 percent of tenure-track faculty are black. In the spring, Faust oversaw appointment of the first black dean of Harvard College, Evelynn Hammonds.

After police rode away from field day in May 2007, the black students learned about a series of e-mails over a dormitory e-mail list accusing them of ruining the lawn, just weeks before a graduation ceremony would be held there. The black students pointed out that days earlier, a group of mostly white students had held a bash that included alcohol and a slip-and-slide that muddied the freshly seeded lawn. No one alerted police.