In the Fight for Social Justice, HKS is Not an Ally, It Is the System
I have always been appalled by the mistreatment of Black people in America and around the world, but the racist and cruel events on this past Memorial Day have made me sick to my stomach. That pain was intensified by the empty-worded emails from Harvard Kennedy School leaders that followed. This is because expressing empathy while refusing to use one’s institutional power to change a system of oppression is its own form of violence—structural violence.
One of those emails came from the Dean, who this year denied the HKS Equity Coalition’s demand for a mandatory class on institutional racism and systems of oppression, among other things, that would promote an anti-racist culture and environment at HKS. His response was that he “[is] not convinced” that would be the best approach.
It is time for the Harvard Kennedy School administration to listen to students’ repeated demands for a required core class on institutional racism and how to combat systems of oppression.
As a Black man from Haiti, the United States has given me more opportunities than I could have ever dreamed of. I received cancer treatment here at the age of 12, when I was on the brink of dying. I received an excellent undergraduate education at a U.S. institution and am receiving an unparalleled graduate school education at the Harvard Kennedy School. In the U.S., I have been able to imagine a better future for myself, different from what my home country could provide me.
Even with this sincere gratitude, I am not happy. I am not, because I attended college in Central Virginia, where the ubiquity of the N-word made me indifferent to its sound or how I felt when it was directed towards me. Until then, I had only internalized one unforgiving use of that word, and that was when Jennings Bryan, the Secretary of State to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, described the Haitian people as “Niggers speaking French.” In the U.S., I became more aware of the color of my skin, and why it matters. While in college, a fellow classmate in the same honors program once spitefully told me “whites only” as I was about to get into the elevator he was already on. Multiple subsequent racist events directed towards me kept me on my toes.
Today, living in Boston—the most racist city in the U.S.—has not made life easy. I am always conscious of where I am and who I am with. To be completely honest, I feel safer around my white friends, because the police might actually listen to them if fate were to ask me for dividends one day.
During my racial awakening in the U.S., I watched on social media how the bestial killings of Black people become increasingly commonplace. I saw the rise of the “Black Lives Matter” movement—a movement which inexplicably became controversial, with people rebutting with “All Lives Matter” as if they were making a more important point. Just recently, I saw on the news the killing of a Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, while he was on his daily jog. As a runner, running is the only activity I used to look forward to during this depressing global pandemic, but it has since become more stressful than relaxing. These combined events have caused me considerable fear and emotional distress.
That fear and emotional distress, along with a zeal to alleviate the poverty in my home country which centuries of colonial exploitation has caused, are what brought me to the Harvard Kennedy School. But as a student at HKS, I have been dissatisfied and frustrated with how conversations on race issues and inequality in the U.S., and around the world, have taken place. The required core classes, which are supposed to give students an important foundation in policymaking, fell short of creating an environment where these conversations could take place. As a Black, but non-African-American person, I have also felt that we were always lumped into one group in these discussions, as if our years of mental trauma from racial mistreatment are the same. These distinctions are important in the fight for social justice.
Moreover, instructors of the required core classes sometimes initiated conversations on race with no tact and with visibly minimal knowledge of the intricacies of these issues, leaving students angrier than before and more distrustful of one another. To be fair to those instructors, it’s obvious that race issues are not their domain, which begs the question: why is the school asking professors to sprinkle conversations about race in their syllabi rather than offering a class on these issues by an expert?
Without a mandatory class on institutional racism and systems of oppression taught by an expert, that burden ends up falling on students of color. In fact, I sometimes find myself being more of a teacher than a student at HKS. Consistently, I have had to educate my American classmates on the connection between the instability in my home country and the United States, whose current President referred to Haiti as a “shithole” country. This is something that I believe they should know, for the manipulation and oppression of the Haitian people by countless U.S. administrations is not accidental, but calculated and political. It is not without reason that one of the countries where the United States has had the longest presence in the Western Hemisphere is also a failing democracy with protracted instability and civil unrest.
So, when the Harvard Kennedy School administration refuses to offer mandatory class on institutional racism and systems of oppression, yet its leaders are willing to send empty-worded emails to students in response to those recent racist events, it makes me angry. This is structural violence, not just hypocrisy—and probably the most insidious of the sort—when people in positions of power tell you that they understand you, but are unwilling to use that power to change the system. It is also a pedagogical failure to send leaders and policymakers onto a battlefield of historic and systemic proportions without the essential tools needed to understand society and improve it.
The fact of the matter is that technocratic solutions, economics formulas or memo writing cannot equip us to address these inequalities when we as leaders and policymakers fail to have a deep understanding of the systemic oppression that created and continues to rule the world that we live in. More importantly, providing such a required core course is critical to building allyship. Because, for us people of color, not even a Harvard education can shield us from persecution or being preyed upon. Christian Cooper is a prime example of how the color of your skin—and not your Harvard education—determines your fate. This means we need allies to help change the system. If the HKS senior leadership continues to refuse to offer a required core class on these subjects in this premier public policy program, this makes HKS an accomplice in the ominous fate of Black people and other people of color.
Dean Elmendorf, given past and recent racist events globally, particularly in the United States, are you willing to offer a required core class on institutional racism and how to combat systems of oppression? If the answer is no, then HKS is not an ally in the fight for social justice, it is instead willfully complicit in an unjust system.
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