It was recently announced that Harvard University has admitted a record number of African American students this year. The UK Guardian has revealed that 11.8% of Harvard’s incoming freshmen are African American. This is quite an achievement for nearly any university, especially one that exists among the elite. Harvard’s latest president, Drew Gilpin Faust, should be congratulated on her accomplishment.
While we are tempted to jump up and down in excitement over the school’s decision to accept the fact that blacks are just as bright as whites, we might need to take a moment of pause. Even though the presence of black students is very important to a campus, the reality is that admitting students of color neither requires significant courage nor shows any real sign of meaningful progress when it comes to truly shaping the direction of a university. The holy grail of power in any academic environment is the number of tenured faculty positions, which Harvard continues to keep African Americans from obtaining.
Students come and go. They are on campus for four years, maybe a little longer, and then they hit the road. They come to absorb information, but have little role in deciding what information will be disseminated. They are invited temporary guests to what some would define to be an academic plantation, where black folks are allowed to ride in the car, but almost never given the right to drive it.
To some extent, admitting black students into Harvard is a form of academic and social imperialism, where we are allegedly given access to the American dream, as long as we are willing to clean ourselves up and earn the right to be accepted by others. But like the many black male athletes who play NCAA sports and are never given a chance to become coaches, almost none of the black students being admitted to Harvard will ever be allowed to teach on that campus.
No one understands the impact of history better than Harvard President Faust. As an historian herself, she knows that many of our universities are built on an undeniably racist and white supremacist foundation. Campuses like Harvard University are near the top of the list, where disrespect of African Americans goes largely unnoticed and unpunished. Dr. Faust’s predecessor, Lawrence Summers, began his tenure by immediately criticizing the funding of the African American Studies Department. He then went on to disrespect the value of the scholarship being done by Cornel West and even implied that women might be intellectually inferior to men. What happened to Professor Summers after all of his disrespect toward the black community? He was rewarded by being appointed head of the National Economic Council by our nation’s first black president (the irony is astonishing, isn’t it?).
Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan served as the Dean of the Harvard Law School for six years, hiring 32 tenured and tenure track faculty during that time period. Not one single faculty member hired by Kagan was African American, Latino or Native American. If she’d gone that long without hiring a white man, she would never have been allowed onto the Supreme Court. Instead, both Kagan and Summers were able to exhibit the most blatant disrespect for black people and still obtain positions in the highest offices in the land. And yes, we should still be shaking our heads about the fact that they were both nominated by a black man. But then again, President Obama does show more loyalty toward Harvard than to the entire black community.
The cheering for Harvard after their decision to admit so many black students is likely driven by an interesting self-esteem problem for African Americans. We are so used to being unconditionally abused and disrespected that we are happy to eat whatever crumbs the rest of America chooses to give us. Being admitted to Harvard is certainly a thing of pride (I was proud when I was admitted to Columbia for my PhD, so even I am subject to Ivy League bias), but the truth is that the historical racism of the Harvard University faculty still lies as deeply entrenched as the ivy coming out of the walls of its buildings. Until Harvard faculty directly confront the modern day impact of this school’s disturbing racial past, they will continue consoling themselves with insignificant, symbolic victories. Perhaps the new black students coming to campus can put the administration’s feet to the fire and actually change this campus for the better.