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Harvard Law incident stirs racial debate on campus

Students at the law school discovered someone put strips of black tape over images of black professors.Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Tuttle

When someone placed strips of black tape over the faces of black professors’ portraits at Harvard Law School on Thursday, many people were appalled. But Derecka Purnell, a black law student, said she wasn’t surprised.

Purnell and other students of color said racism — intentional or otherwise — occurs frequently on campus. But unfortunately, they said, it often takes something as egregious as the tape incident for others to notice.

“What’s happens is, it’s not public and ... it typically stays among the group that’s impacted,” Purcell, a second-year student from St. Louis.

Issues of race and inclusion have bubbled at Harvard from time to time, but this week they seemed to spill over.


In addition to the defaced portraits, a group of law students launched a campaign to remove the school’s seal, which contains the coat of arms of a slaveowner. Students held two protests this week in solidarity with students at the University of Missouri and Yale University, who have demonstrated in response to racial issues on their campuses.

This fall, several elite all-male final clubs announced that they would consider admitting women and the university announced it will allow students to select their own gender pronouns.

Last year, in another high-profile step, a group of students launched the “I, too, am Harvard” multimedia campaign that laid bare racial tensions on campus amid what they perceive as its stubborn white, male-dominated culture.

Many students said it is the daily, little-noticed acts of racism that affect their lives the most.

Harvard College senior Brianna Suslovic, an anthropology major from Syracuse, N.Y, said Harvard’s exclusivity can be hard to explain. Often, she said, exclusion is as subtle as social and bureaucratic systems set up in ways familiar to white, upper-middle-class students but foreign to minorities.

Suslovic said many times she has been asked where she went to high school, what extracurricular activities she took part in, as a not-so-subtle way for others to deduce her socioeconomic background. She has heard debates at nearby cafeteria tables about why affirmative action is wrong.


Some parties are open only to guests who know certain people, she said, or others “who pass the visual test.”

She and others said they are glad the events and protests in the past week have given students a chance to discuss challenges they have experienced for years.

“It sort of showcases the breaking point of students of color who are really tired of having to explain why certain things upset us, are tired of having to prove that we deserve to be on these campuses as well,” Suslovic said.

Law professor Ronald Sullivan Jr., whose portrait was among those defaced, said that in his 25 years as a student at the law school and now a professor and a housemaster, he could not recall any act that was as “boorish” as this.

“To say that there is unfair treatment is not to say that these places were absolutely horrible and the experiences of black students were always intolerable,” Sullivan said in a telephone interview. “It is to say, however, that with all the progress we’ve seen, there are still areas that need to be addressed.”

Purnell, the law student, said black students experience “black tape” all the time at the law school, such as when someone makes a racist comment in class or by fact that there are only nine black professors and one Latino among a total of more than 100 on the faculty.


“To be honest, the tape did not mean a whole lot to me,” Purnell said. “But for many of my colleagues, it literally took this visible, overt act of racism for their compassion to manifest.”

Anthony Sawyer, a graduate student in public health, said people are listening more now to conversations that minorities have tried to start for years. He described what are known as “microaggressions,” or small actions that demonstrate a biased mind-set, such as “you’re black, but you’re so articulate.”

At the school of public health, he said, students want to help be part of the solution. Sawyer said he hopes that when the school hires a new dean, it will be someone who takes racial issues seriously. He praised the school for developing a training program against microaggressions.

Amanda Klonsky, a doctoral student in educational leadership who is white, said she was surprised not to receive a university
e-mail about the tape incident, which campus police are investigating as a hate crime. The school frequently puts out e-mails on
other types of crime in Harvard Square, she said.

“If they’re both crimes, why are they handled differently?’’ she asked.

Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, released a campuswide letter Thursday in conjunction with a report on how to improve diversity and equality on campus. She said it is “well beyond time” for the college to ensure it is an open and accepting community.


“We have much work to do to make certain that Harvard belongs to every one of us, that the diversity we strive to achieve also becomes belonging,” Faust wrote.

Steve Annear of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.