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In the quest for social justice, symbolic changes go only so far

A harsh truth I’ve learned while breaking down barriers at Harvard Medical School.

A memorial dedicated to Breonna Taylor in Louisville in September.
A memorial dedicated to Breonna Taylor in Louisville in September.Jon Cherry/Getty

I exist in parallel universes. In one, I am a medical student and campus leader. In the other, I am a member of a systemically oppressive society and steward of my ancestors’ sacrifices. In both, I exist as a Black woman — and sometimes that identity makes these two universes clash.

A perfect example came on the morning of Sept. 23, when I celebrated long-awaited good news from Harvard Medical School. That day the medical school announced that it would rename the “Holmes” academic society the “Hinton” society. Harvard Medical School has five of these academic societies, which it created in the mid-1980s to divide the medical school class into smaller groups and promote inclusive learning environments. However, the legacy of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the namesake for the Holmes society, did everything but.

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Holmes might be best known as the poet who wrote “Old Ironsides,” but he was also a physician who served as dean of Harvard Medical School from 1847 to 1853. In 1850, the medical school admitted its first three Black students, but after a group of their white classmates protested and threatened to withdraw, Holmes expelled the Black students in 1851. (From 1850 to 1968, Harvard Medical School admitted only 85 Black students, averaging less than one student per year.) Holmes also openly expressed support for eugenics and the genocide of Native Americans. His son Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. became a Supreme Court justice who wrote the infamous decision in Buck v. Bell in 1927 that supported forced sterilization.

After years of student-led advocacy, university committee meetings, and a recent petition created by me and my classmate Jalen Benson, that morning the long-needed change was finally announced: The Holmes society would be renamed the Hinton society. The new namesake is Dr. William Augustus Hinton, the first Black full professor at both Harvard College and Harvard Medical School. Despite encountering blatant racism throughout his career, Hinton gained respect as a public health expert, especially when it came to the study and treatment of syphilis — the same disease for which Black men would be denied treatment in the federally funded atrocity known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

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Hinton’s name represents power, comfort, and inspiration for students of marginalized identities at Harvard Medical School. It’s a reminder that all are welcome in our community. Therefore, it was natural that I spent the day responding to celebratory texts and tweets from students and alumni.

But the celebration ended prematurely. News delivered late that afternoon reminded me that symbolic reform within institutions does little to change the social injustices that exist beyond them. The Breonna Taylor case was my heartbreaking reminder.

On March 13, police in Louisville, Ky., raided Taylor’s home and shot her numerous times, killing her. Six months later, after various SayHerName hashtags and trivializing memes, I read on my phone — that September day — the news that no officers were charged for her brutal killing.

Suddenly I felt naked. Vulnerable. Exposed. An unshakable chill propagated through my bones as I thought about how Breonna’s mother wondered where her daughter was for hours; how her partner, Kenneth, watched a lifetime with her vanish with each bullet; how drywall and chipped paint had more value than her dreams.

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In so many ways I saw justice for Breonna inextricably connected to my freedom — freedom for all Black women to exist, dream, and be loved. A freedom that was snatched away from her when police invaded her space and robbed her of her future. A freedom denied our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunties, cousins, and nieces.

Breonna was loved. She and her mother were best friends, much like me and my mom. They jumped Double Dutch together and dreamed of one day riding matching motorcycles. My grandfather made me a lover of the blues; Breonna was an old soul drawn to hits by greats like Johnnie Taylor. She wasn’t afraid to break out in song in front of family either.

Just one year older than me, she was a dedicated EMT with aspirations of becoming a nurse. As I am training to become a healer for my community, she was dedicated to helping hers and hoped to do so for the rest of her career.

On Sept. 23 I sat through meetings celebrating the changes in my elite institution knowing deep down that Breonna — like so many other Black women — would never have the opportunity to benefit from them. Even as academic programs across the nation make reforms to make their spaces “safer,” I knew that their protection was reserved for those who make it through their doors. An opportunity Breonna was fatally denied.

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As a student leader, I am passionate about efforts to make the Black experience at my institution a positive one. My dream is for all students of marginalized identities to thrive. Oftentimes my wins as a student activist make my worldly battles as a Black woman more bearable. But I also realize this isn’t enough.

As we continue to make institutional reforms, it is imperative that we not forget about those who never will get the chance to step foot inside these institutions because of the injustice they face in the world. Like the Atatianas, the Sandras, the Rekias, and so many others.

All organizations must acknowledge their racist pasts and remove vestiges of white supremacy to work toward an antiracist future. Symbols matter, and these changes have the potential to make a positive difference. But the slimness of Joe Biden’s margin over Donald Trump indicates these reforms are no panacea for the enduring racism that exists in this country.

In my 25 years, I’ve learned my melanated skin, full lips, and kinky hair put me among the least protected people in America. Black women continue to be politically, financially, and professionally marginalized, even as our country expects us to save it from its innumerable sins.

Therefore, while I proudly celebrate the fact that Kamala Harris is poised to become our first Black woman vice president — just as she celebrated me when I became class president at Harvard Medical School — I do so cautiously. Because I have learned that symbolic changes can distract people from seeing the most heinous forms of racism. As long as no-knock warrants, qualified immunity for police officers, and private prisons are accepted in our society, our work is incomplete.

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Just as mine is. Even though it was a great victory that Black and Native American students at Harvard Medical School no longer have to be members of a society named for a person who invalidated their existence, I know Breonna Taylor isn’t with us today because the world invalidated hers. Just as it invalidates the experience of my most vulnerable patients. And our work will not be done until that is no longer true.

LaShyra “Lash” Nolen is a writer, activist, and student at Harvard Medical School. Her commentaries on health equity, racism, and medical education have been featured in the New England Journal of Medicine, HuffPost, WBUR, Teen Vogue, and STAT. Follow her on Twitter @LashNolen.