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When campus police profiled Black students, Harvard’s Black undergraduates protested.
When Harvard’s president soured on legendary professor Cornel West, prompting West to take a job at Princeton, Harvard’s Black students petitioned for him to stay.
But in the wake of the suspension of two Black students, fallout from a current on-campus murder investigation, the typically vocal Black student community at Harvard has remained curiously silent.
Last month Cambridge resident and alleged drug-dealer Justin Cosby was shot to death in a campus dorm, Kirkland House, reportedly in an attempted robbery gone awry. Two Black Harvard seniors, Brittany Smith and Chanequa Campbell, were connected with the incident by the university administration and police. Both women have been barred from graduating with their class today. Campbell, who has repeatedly denied any involvement with the shooting, has since taken her story to the media.
“I do believe I am being singled out,” Campbell told the Boston Globe last week when asked why she was being banned from campus. “The honest answer to that is that I’m Black and I’m poor and I’m from New York and I walk a certain way and I keep my clothes a certain way. . . . It’s something that labels me as different from everyone else.”
Her charge of racism has attracted national attention. Yet Black Harvard students — who normally spring to fight for racial justice — have said nary a word in support of Campbell, nor of her campaign to graduate. Most Black student group leaders have declined to comment on the situation, and several have instructed the members of their respective organizations to do the same. The reasons for students’ silence run the gamut, from doubts about Campbell’s guilt or innocence; to fear of antagonizing the university administration; and good old-fashioned self-interest.
Resentment of Campbell
Campbell was active in Harvard’s Black community. She was a member of the Black Students Association and Association of Black Harvard Women, and participated in the production of the annual fashion show put on by Harvard’s Black Community and Student Theater (BlackCAST), and the Tribute to Black Men awards dinner. However, Campbell was dogged by persistent rumors that she was involved in campus drug dealing, rumors which, in light of the murder, have done little to help her credibility with fellow students.
“People are pretty sure she did something, they just don’t know what,” said a Black classmate in Campbell’s graduating class, who requested anonymity. “We can’t rally behind somebody we don’t necessarily believe in.”
Black students are a particularly visible group on campus. But because two of their own have been associated with the murder, the community is squirming under the increased scrutiny. And some resent that Campbell blames her current predicament in part on racial bias.
“Students feel, to some degree, like she’s trying to sell Black people up the river,” Campbell’s classmate said. “It’s like she gets busted, and suddenly it’s a fight for freedom. People feel like she thought she was going to get Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton up here, and all she got was a bunch of n****s looking at her like, ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’”
History of Racial Concerns
Campbell’s complaints of racial bias are the most recent of several occurrences highlighting the sometimes tense race relations at Harvard. Groups like the BSA, the ABHW, and the Black Men’s Forum (BMF) have been at the forefront of the push for greater discussion.
In spring of 2007, for example, non-Black students called the police on ABHW and BMF members who were holding an event on the Quad lawn, claiming that they didn’t look like Harvard students and were therefore trespassing. University police arrived and reportedly asked the students to show their ID cards.
In response, the presidents of Black student groups began the “I Am Harvard” campaign, with the slogan, “My skin belongs at Harvard.” The campaign began with a march in Harvard Yard and a rally outside of the university’s main offices. Students shared stories of racial incidents they had experienced on campus, including several stories of profiling by campus police and other students.
To address this incident and others, the University created a committee to review the practices of the Harvard University Police Department. The committee met with cultural and other student group leaders to hear their concerns, and in April it released a report critiquing the department and offering recommendations for improving relations with the student community.
Black students on campus have also pushed for greater faculty diversity, and recently met with some success when a Latina professor of English and African-American studies was granted tenure.
“Some of us still want to have a future”
Despite the considerable influence that Black students wield on campus, none of it has been used to help Campbell. Since she was barred from graduation, friends of Campbell’s from outside the campus Black community have started a petition on her behalf, addressing the president of the university, and asking for Campbell to be told why she has been barred from campus. Although a link to sign the petition was forwarded to the email lists of at least two Black student groups, only one of the 133 signatures appears to be from a Black member of her graduating class.
Another Black student, who hasn’t signed the petition and also requested anonymity, explains what appears to be widespread reluctance: “Some of us are still looking for jobs, some of us still want to have a future,” he said. “We don’t want our names affiliated with this.”
Fear of rocking the boat
Black student group leaders must also contend with the fear that directly supporting Campbell might be interpreted as an affront to the university.
“The Black community and Black organizations… have such a unique relationship with the administrators,” says Timothy Turner, a classmate of Campbell’s and the former president of the BSA. Turner notes that, over the years, Black students groups have been increasingly successful in getting their concerns heard and addressed by the university, on issues ranging from faculty diversity and police profiling to social space. He believes that the current student group leaders are waiting for the full story to come out before they express their opinions on the university’s handling of Campbell’s situation.
“Without having all the information we don’t want to do or say anything or try to make any judgment calls that would jeopardize those relationships,” Turner said. “We want to make sure we can continue to trust them and they can continue to trust us in the future.”
He also notes that Black university officials have kept mum in the wake of the murder.
“Black faculty and Black administrators haven’t given comment or any word on it either, so we’re just following suit,” Turner said.
Concerns that Black admissions will suffer
Rather than focusing on the fate of Campbell, some Black Harvard students and alumni find the issue of future Black admissions in the wake of the murder to be more pressing.
“I think what people are rallying around is concern about poor Black students at Harvard,” said Campbell’s classmate. “I think that poor Black kids from urban communities are going to have a tougher time. The number of Black people from underprivileged backgrounds or poor neighborhoods is going to decrease, or at least [the College] is going to rethink its admissions policy. No one named ‘Chanequa’ is ever getting into Harvard again.”
Some alumni echoed that concern.
“The fact that there’s been such a big focus on the race of the women involved is allowing people to leap to conclusions,” said Kaya Williams, who graduated from Harvard in 2007. Williams points to much online commentary that depicts the botched drug robbery and resulting murder as a result of affirmative action gone wrong.
Brandon Terry, a Black student who graduated in 2005, also recognized the slant the discussion seemed to be taking, and worries about the consequences.
“It would be a shame if this situation kept students from a similar background to Chanequa’s from being admitted in the future,” said Terry.
But others, like former BSA president Turner, are more hopeful, and note that campus drug use isn’t just a Black Harvard problem.
“I believe that the administration and the admissions office wouldn’t make a conscious effort to exclude any group from being admitted to Harvard. There are plenty of poor black Harvard students who have gone through their four years here without having any issues, and who have gone on to do wonderful things,” Turner said. “At the same time, there are plenty of rich white kids who have been involved with drugs on campus. So you can’t really marginalize one group of people and expect that that’s going to solve the problem.”