My MPP cohort-mate, Nicholas Hanson, wrote a piece last week outlining the lack of “diversity of thought” and political discourse at Harvard Kennedy School. I want to use this piece to provide a teachable moment for my classmates, particularly my White classmates, at the Harvard Kennedy School.
My peer argues that HKS is isolated from “mainstream political thought.” He’s right, but not in the way he presumes. The reality is that mainstream political thought is personified by the moderate White Americans whose upbringing has been founded on mantras such as “I don’t see color” and “I can understand both sides.” The same people who voted for Hillary Clinton but “respected” the decision of others to vote for Trump and saw it merely as “freedom of opinion.”
They often embody the passive bystander who choose to observe injustice and explain it away, only to be perplexed by the presence of protests and destruction of property when the marginalized can no longer make progress by working “within the system.” For many White students at HKS, this is their first time entering an academic space where the number of Black or Latinx students exceeds 2-3%, so they are unsure how to navigate conversations that reveal the violent harm of their ideologies. The opposite is true for students of color. Because we are literally called a minority, most of our upbringings have been defined by trying to survive white supremacy, xenophobia, and police brutality in predominantly white spaces. We understand the White American all too well, including their propensity for violence against those who challenge the status quo.
You might be asking, why I am making this about race if Nick never explicitly discussed race in his piece?
Because it’s always been about race. And it’s always been codified to appear as something else. We cannot move forward as a society until we call things by their name. My classmate writes that “Attempts by faculty & staff to bring conservative-leaning voices to campus are met with fierce opposition by a small, but highly vocal minority that claims absolute moral superiority.”
Nick, just call us by our name. You are expressing frustration with people of color. If we take the time to put names to faces and see who has led these “small minorities” it’s always been people of color, especially womyn and LGBTQ+ people of color. If you were to ask, “Who are the thorns on the side of administration in the 2021 class year who protest the presence of conservative voices on campus?”, the names that would come to mind are myself, D’Seante Parks, Nneka Onwuzurike, Abhinaya Narayanan, etc. In the 2020 class, these efforts were often led by Yohana Beyene, Danielle Simms, Sophie Dover, Emily Chi, Charlene Wang, and Karl Kumodzi, yet again all students of color & predominantly womyn of color. In the 2019 MPP class, efforts to challenge harmful conservative views on campus were often led by Akina Younge, Janice Tolbert, and Priyanka Kaura. And these activists have all expanded upon the labor of our predecessors who gave us the foundation of racial justice that we carry today. This is not a comprehensive list of all the activists at HKS but just a few of the people that come to mind when we think of “hyper-vocal minorities.”
There is a crystal-clear theme at Harvard Kennedy School of people of color screaming for support and survival on campus only to be reciprocated with “you make it feel unsafe to voice my right-leaning views” or “we need to hear all sides.”
This is the greatest failure of Harvard Kennedy School, its desire to parade political neutrality in hopes of avoiding the responsibility of holding firm moral stances.
To be clear, “conservative and moderate students being afraid to voice their opinion” and “students of color feeling unsafe” are not the same thing. Not by a longshot. One group has political control of this country, is not destined for violent death based on their skin tone or zip code, and navigate society as “innocent until proven guilty.” For the other group, none of these things is true.
Nick writes, “if public servants want to be stronger advocates for their beliefs, they need to be willing and able to stand up to the best counter argument.” To that I say, NO. Opinions and discourse are for subjective questions like “how to fund the state park” or “which vendor to use for a supply chain.” A “debate” on whether children should be stripped from their parents by I.C.E. agents or whether modern day lynching by police is the result of “a few bad apples” are not acceptable. Why do people of color have to continue to debate and convince white peers of their right to live? Framing discourse as “convince me that you merit survival” is how genocides are naturally born. Some things are grey in society, but others are black and white and choosing to avoid moral stances comes at the cost of lives for Black and Brown people.
You might say, “but HKS is inviting senators to speak not leaders of the KKK or some terrorist group!”
It is a gross miscalculation to presume that these two entities are mutually exclusive. One need only a history book to understand that this nation was founded by political leaders who saw “minorities” as less than human beings. Our nation’s backbone is soaked in the blood of Black people who were enslaved for centuries, only to later be labeled as second-class citizens by segregation and mass incarceration; indigenous people who suffered genocide; Asian people who were abused for labor and tossed in internment camps; Latinx people separated and killed at the border.
Make no mistake, we are not far removed from these violent events. President Trump is a White supremacist, xenophobic rapist. He endorses the slaughter of people of color. But he’s not the sole culprit. He didn’t get to be President just because of “active racists.” He was uplifted and supported by the very legislators we see as “harmless guests” on our campus, including Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, etc. Legislators who chose to turn a blind eye to Trump’s homicidal propaganda because they preferred the death of Brown and Black people over losing control of our nation’s government. It is with that understanding that students of color justly repel their presence on campus.
You might rebut, “but there are Republicans who are people of color, and LGBTQ people who are conservative.”
And to that I say, internalized racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. are a real sociological phenomenon. If you are a person of color who thinks stripping families apart and shooting Black people makes sense, let’s talk. Because there is some serious psychological unpacking we need to do to help unearth all the white supremacy you’re reinforcing. Remember, oppression can institutional, structural, interpersonal, and internal!
Finally, my classmate remarks that these issues could be remedied by “a rigorous leadership development program.” This is the wrong answer. A class on “adaptive leadership” or “negotiations” by white men will do nothing for your constituents of color. What they need are political officials who understand their history of trauma, give them political power, and help them create the solutions they need. They need an official who understands this nation’s violent history against people of color and grasps how affluent white people manipulated poor white people into joining their race war so they could sustain their power and affluence. They need an official who grasps power dynamics. And those classes have ALWAYS been there! Whether in academic lecture halls, community centers, or street protests. People of color have constantly provided white students with the resources to identify the answers for upward mobility and equity, but white students choose not to take them. I ask all white students at HKS, how many of you have signed up for courses on racial justice or criminal justice reform since you enrolled? And how many of you have taken classes on finance and cyber security instead?
That’s a rhetorical question – we both know the answer. We don’t need a leadership program. What we need is for each of you to self-reflect and ask yourself why you’re only interested in taking courses and listening to speakers that sustain the status quo?
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