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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

“People Who Look like You”

January-February 2004

Sitting on a radiator in a Science Center corridor, Deborah A. Batts '69, J.D. '72, who is U.S. district judge for the Southern District of New York, described coming to Cambridge to find herself one of eight African-American undergraduates in her Radcliffe class of 282 students. "In 1965, I was pleased that there were eight people," she remembered, her eyes wandering to a row of linen-draped tables around which clusters of silver-haired alumni and well-dressed undergraduates juggled program booklets, styrofoam cups, and breakfast pastries. "Looking back and seeing what Harvard is today, it's extremely surprising to me that I thought eight was all right." Batts, who had just shared her experience of finding an African-American community in the overwhelmingly white Harvard of the 1960s, was one of several panelists at the third Black Alumni Weekend, a three-day program (October 3-5) sponsored by the Harvard Alumni Association, the Black Alumni Society, and the Black Students Association that drew nearly 600 former students back to Cambridge.

Batts described the black community she knew at Harvard and Radcliffe—growing slowly out of interaction in the classroom—as a major opportunity for her personal development. Its intimacy and unentrenched scholastic culture supported individuation, Batts said. "There was no pressure and concept of conformity," she explained. "People were free to decide who they wanted to be and how they wanted to be."

The weekend's events let several generations of alumni, the oldest hailing from the class of 1947, learn precisely what their predecessors and successors had become—and how to get there. After a Saturday lunchtime report about the Black Alumni Society's current projects, alumni featured in a series of career panels discussed their professional lives after Harvard and proffered advice for success in their fields. At a black-tie dinner at the Cambridge Marriott that evening, president and CEO of CNBC Pamela Thomas-Graham '85, J.D.-M.B.A. '89, urged young graduates to follow her lead and enter the business world. Influence in business today, she told the sea of dinner guests, offers work at the "next front" of the civil-rights movement

But for other weekend guests, the vanguard of opportunity remained in academe, where Harvard African Americans' struggle for recognition in the classroom began. Batts's classmate and fellow panelist Charles J. Hamilton Jr. '69, J.D. '74, now a partner in an international law firm, recalled the first student-motivated steps to establish a program of African-American study in a time when the College's black community was small and close-knit. "On a cold fall or winter morning, if you saw someone [African-American] coming through the north gate [of the Yard], you probably knew who they were," he said. "Little did we know that a group of us would sit in front of [former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS)] Henry Rosovsky and debate the beginning of the African-American studies program." Harvard, according to Hamilton, meant an assiduous effort to escape a Greyhound ride home to the life that otherwise would have awaited him. "We only knew one thing: We couldn't go back unsuccessfully," he mused. "We were here because of opportunity, not because of privilege."

According to Du Bois professor of the humanities Henry Louis Gates Jr. (visiting Cambridge for the weekend from a sabbatical in Princeton), the distinction between opportunity and privilege remains a vital one. After praising the work of Hamilton and his student contemporaries and leading a standing ovation for Ethiopian scholar Ephraim Isaac, B.D. '63, Ph.D. '69, of Princeton—whose tenure denial in Harvard's young Afro-American studies department more than 20 years ago became a topic of national controversy—Gates kicked off a faculty panel on affirmative action by energetically condemning suggestions that the existing admissions system gives minority applications an unfair advantage. "There's nothing worse than a self-loathing black person who feels guilty because of his own access to higher education and who stands in front of the gate and prevents people from coming through. That's Clarence Thomas's problem," he said, criticizing in particular U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thomas's resistance to affirmative action in the recent University of Michigan Law School decision. Bobbing briskly at the podium and frequently drawing eruptions of laughter and applause from the audience with his cheeky wit, Gates built on earlier comments from the alumni and unearthed his own background as a Yalie from West Virginia to suggest that education remains for marginalized young people the most expedient route to the opportunities needed for social change.

But to Boskey professor of law Lani Guinier '71, who followed Gates at the microphone, improving African-American access to higher education means reform deeper than simply adopting an affirmative-action program; it begins with scrutiny of admissions at Harvard itself. Although the University has increased African-American representation within its community since her undergraduate years, its diversity is still "a question of aesthetics," she said, because admitted black students are largely drawn from foreign countries and an already-elite cadre of African Americans. "If you look around Harvard College today, how many black people will you see who grew up in the U.S., went to public elementary school, went to public high school, and made it to Harvard?" she asked, gesturing for emphasis. She suggested that students from such backgrounds who arrive here often feel estranged from the rest of the African-American community at the College: "Students say, 'Where are all the black people like the ones I knew at home?'"

Guinier—who went so far as to suggest that unwittingly favoring foreign or privileged black applicants limits graduates' inclinations to give back to less advantaged African-American communities ("If you don't identify with African Americans and you get into Harvard because of that, that's a problem for all of us")—proposed that prospective undergraduates be asked to write about their stances on diversity as part of the application process. Building a class of students committed to diversity of background as well as skin color would ensure an undergraduate body diverse beyond the "checking of boxes," she contended.

Guinier was not alone in suggesting that Harvard had progress left to make in its commitment to its African-American community: trenchant criticism came from Massachusetts Hall itself as alumni heard from a series of key administrators on Saturday morning. University president Lawrence H. Summers told his audience that even though the number of African-American tenure-track faculty in FAS (18 as of this year) has doubled since 1994, progress must continue beyond this "milestone" because the current situation is "not what we would all, as a society, like it to be." A chorus of affirmative murmurs answered, as had happened at a cocktail party the previous evening when FAS dean William C. Kirby told alumni that, in spite of its progress in improving the African-American experience so far, the University needed reason "to be able to feel a hell of a lot better." Summers, who was introduced by African and African-American studies donor Alphonse Fletcher Jr. '87, received one standing ovation after his extemporaneous talk and another during a question-and-answer session he held: a warm response after tension over his role in the departure of Fletcher University Professor Cornel West in 2002.

Alumni and a sprinkling of current students alike beat their hands together at a Sunday-morning brunch in the Lowell House dining hall as the undergraduate Kuumba Singers performed a series of traditional and gospel tunes, finally weaving musically inclined alumni into the chorus for a rendition of "May the Lord Bless and Keep You" that brought the weekend to a close. A few minutes earlier, gazing over the expanse of Harvard men and women from the raised platform at one end of the dining hall, Plummer professor of Christian morals and Pusey minister in the Memorial Church Peter J. Gomes had honored Harvard's deceased African-American alumni, all of whose names fit on double-sided sheets dispersed among the tables. "Never in my 33 years [in the Memorial Church]," he told the assembled alumni and undergraduates, "did I expect to look out from High Table at Lowell House and see a roomful of people who look like you."