Beyond the limestone facade of a grand building with arching entranceways, dozens of students have occupied a space at Harvard Law School for the past three weeks. They’ve re-named the room “Belinda Hall,” in honor of a woman who was a slave of law school founder Isaac Royall.
Despite strong suggestions from the administration that they should end the protest, the students haven’t been ordered to leave. Circular tables and beige couches are spread across the room, a student lounge presided over by a large, modern chandelier. There are signs that students have taken up residence around the clock: sleeping bags, books, coffee cups, and MacBooks cover every open surface. Last week, students said the administration sent cleaners with instructions to rearrange the hall to its initial configuration. They helped the cleaners tidy up—and then promptly changed everything back after they left.
“The institution sent a bunch of black and brown people to deal with a group of black and brown people,” said Bianca Tylek, a 29-year-old Latina student with long, wavy brown hair, in her final year of law school, who told me she has been mistaken for janitorial staff before.
The students, who call themselves Reclaim Harvard Law, say they’re creating their own space to help each other where they feel the university fails them. The issues for them are two-fold: a sense of having their presence at the school questioned, and a curriculum students say fails to provide crucial social context to many cases rooted in systemic racism or even ones directly dealing with civil rights figures.
Harvard is the number two ranked law school in the country (behind Yale) according to the US News and World Report. Its graduates include President Obama and Michelle Obama, several Supreme Court Justices and Texas senator and presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, just to name a few. Students come to Harvard, specifically, for the possibility of that kind of influence: to have a voice, to make a difference, or to go on to prestigious jobs at top law firms.
But they told me racism in the classroom and on campus confronts them every day–and, they said, that shouldn't be the trade-off for choosing a top law school. The environment at Harvard Law took some of these students by surprise–partly because many didn't have family or friends who had a history with the school. There was no real sense of what it was like on the inside.
The Reclaim Harvard Law students are asking themselves and the school this question: Can the nation’s oldest law school, historically a bastion of white privilege, change to reflect the needs of a student body that’s more diverse than ever?
The tension at Harvard Law has been building since an incident in November, when someone vandalized portraits of black law school professors by placing black tape over their faces. Local police investigated as a hate crime, but no one was arrested. This moment was a tipping point for students of color. It spoke to the underlying questions some students had about whether they are welcome on campus–and whether their place in the institution is respected. They felt the school administration's response—which was to investigate, hold town hall meetings, and install security cameras—was woefully inadequate.
The number of students of color at the law school has grown from 33% in 2009 to 44% in 2015. At Harvard College, 47.2% of the class of 2019 are students of color. Since current law school dean Martha Minow was appointed in 2013, the school has added five tenure and tenure-track faculty members of color, meaning there are now 15 faculty members of color.
But, for the half dozen law students I spoke to, something has felt amiss since they arrived at Harvard.
“From my first semester here I was like, something is wrong,” said Tylek. “There are things that happen, whether it’s walking down the hallway or in classes, things that professors say or things that the students say, that just kind of tell you what position you hold within the community.”
Keaton Allen-Gessesse, a 28-year-old from Chicago in her final year of law school, told me, “There's really no place in the classroom for understanding issues of racial inequality or white supremacy. And when you bring up any sort of context or critical engagement with the material you're you're very much seen as being on the fringe.”
Allen-Gessesse’s father was a political refugee from Ethiopia and her mother is African-American. She applied for law school wanting to learn about how legal structures have a role in social justice and how the law has developed in the context of race relations in America.
The students gave several examples of cases where they felt those connections were essential, but were not touched on at all. For example one student told me a professor taught one case, People v. Newton, in which Black Panther leader Huey Newton was convicted of manslaughter for killing a police officer in 1960s California. There were questions in the case about whether or not Newton was technically conscious while firing his weapon–he may have been shot by the officer before firing back. The students say that they were taught the case with no mention of Newton being related to the Black Panthers or the implications of him possibly having been shot by the officer first. The focus of the teaching, they said, was solely on whether or not a defendant could be considered guilty if possibly unconscious.
“Now that you have the people in the room about which you’re speaking, yeah–you should have been speaking about them with some level of humanity before. But sure as hell now you’re going to,” said Tylek, referring to cases like this that deal with people of color.
The dean of student affairs, Marcia Sells, said the school has improved the environment for minority students over the past several decades. “I understand what the students are asking for but some of it is, I think, we also have to do more in helping them understand that this is a little bit how the pedagogy works, this is also how it's changed,” she told me, adding that she thinks the school needs to do a better job of pointing out to students where they're already teaching historical context at the school, rather than having a separate dedicated critical race theory program.
Reclaim Harvard Law has issued a list of demands to the law school administration, which includes establishing an office of diversity and inclusion, curriculum reform that has more context on race and social inequality, and improving financial aid and support for students of color. Students say they won’t be satisfied until they see concrete changes and a more robust system in place. They want a clearer commitment from the school to teach them in a way that explicitly covers race and social context. And they say that appointing one new officer–the school has said they’ll hire a director of community engagement and equity–is not enough to combat the widespread issues of inequality and exclusion.
The protest has drawn some attention, but mostly in the form of local coverage, including in the Harvard Crimson, a few brief stories in the Boston Globe, and one story focusing on the shield committee from NPR’s Code Switch. But momentum is building: last week, the Harvard protesters were joined by student leaders from Mizzou and USC. Students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and Harvard Divinity School have both thrown their support behind the law students. And every day, Reclaim Harvard Law has a schedule of talks and discussions aimed at sifting through their experiences at the school, and preparing themselves for life after Harvard Law. They show no signs of leaving their encampment.
Isaac Cameron, 27, never planned to go to law school when he was growing up in Seattle. His single mother struggled financially to raise him and get him through school–some of his closest friends back home did not go to college. But two years out of his undergraduate degree at Amherst College, as he watched the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case go in favor of his killer George Zimmerman, something changed.
“That's the day I really considered going back to school,” Cameron, tall and soft-spoken, told me. He wanted to be in a position to do something, to channel his frustration and disappointment.
For Cameron, Tylek, and others, investing in law school was largely motivated by the desire to take an active role in shaping the criminal justice system after the systemic failures they saw around them: watching case after case of police officers who had shot unarmed black people not being indicted; people dying in custody around the country; and the rampant abuses at Rikers Island in New York.
But the students say they haven’t found much opportunity for those conversations at Harvard Law.
“I didn’t find really a space for that at all. I didn’t find that at all in my classrooms, I didn’t find that at all with the other student body, and I was amazed at the lack of socio-economic diversity,” Cameron said.
After the black tape vandalism in November, the group of students (many of them students of color) got together to talk about this sense of being on the fringe. And though some of them want to go into public interest law, there are others who are aiming for private law firms–either way, they said, the school is letting them down. This movement comes less than two years after black students at the undergraduate college launched a campaign called “I, Too, Am Harvard,” protesting their sense of being marginalized in classrooms and more generally on campus.
In one incident on the undergrad campus that students told me about, white students called campus security claiming local kids were trespassing on a Harvard lawn. The young people in question were actually Harvard students of color playing football.
Another student, AJ Clayborne, a skinny 24-year-old with a scruffy beard, from Montgomery County, Maryland, interned with the Maryland ACLU. He vividly recalls how he felt as he saw people marching through Baltimore with loudspeakers and banners, demanding justice for Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody last April.
“I just remember sitting in the lounge in my student dorm and I was watching the television while trying to study for my exams, and I just realized that I didn’t care about the exams at all. I wanted to be involved,” he said. “Especially since I’m here, my responsibility is to change that to the extent that I can.”
The law school’s faculty, many of whom passed through the institution as students before going on to become professors, have not been silent on the issues the students are concerned about: in an open letter of support for the students signed by 322 faculty members on Jan. 5, they acknowledge that this is a landmark moment for justice in America:
“Recognizing the long history of discrimination and violence against black people and other people of color and acknowledging the racial injustices within our legal system are necessary first steps to changing that system. The killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have brought these issues into stark relief once again. We have been particularly inspired by students on campus, in Boston, and throughout the country who are pushing for change. We believe students should not be raising their voices alone.”
Tylek, who will be graduating in a few months and beginning a prestigious legal fellowship in New York City through Equal Justice Works, told me about a conversation she had with a white student about his summer plans. He was going to intern at the same law firm where her aunt works as a receptionist.
“He says to me, ‘Oh well then I probably won’t interact with her much unless she’s getting me coffee,’” she said. “If you knew me in real life you would understand that I am very seldomly rendered speechless. That was one of those moments where I was just like, ‘Wow, I don’t know what to say to you.’ I know that people think like that here, but the audacity you have to say that to my face–you understand that’s my aunt, that’s my family, right?”
Marcia Sells, the Dean of Student Affairs, said she understands the concerns of the students, and that the school has made some changes in line with–and pre-empting—the demands. She cites the fact that the school established a committee to review its official shield, which also pays tribute to slave-owner Isaac Royall by using his family crest. That committee concluded last week that the shield should be changed (a decision that’s ultimately up to the Harvard Corporation).
Sells said the school is in the process of hiring a director of community engagement and equity, and conducting a “climate” survey asking students about diversity, equity, and inclusion. It turns out a survey like this was done at least once before, in 2002, with its results never released until last week. When I spoke to Sells, she said the current administration had not been aware of the previous survey until they requested a new one this past month. The results of that first study, which interviewed 41 students of color at the school, were just published by the school: it contains many of the same complaints that Reclaim Harvard Law has now.
"Black students interviewed eloquently explained in focus groups that the cost of learning in a racially insensitive environment is a level of academic disengagement and emotional stress," the report concludes, along with a list of recommendations, many of which align with the students' demands today.
But Sells said the report the school has commissioned now will canvass many more students, and told me the school will develop an action plan based on its recommendations–which, for reasons that remain unclear, was never developed after that initial report 14 years ago. She also said that some faculty are already teaching courses with an emphasis on social context and race. She said the school is already providing much of what the students are asking for, but not under the guise of separate courses or in a way that’s clearly codified into the curriculum.
These measures so far feel like tokenism, the students told me, and they're concerned the report is just for show: that it will, once again, be conducted and then forgotten after the current class graduates.
“I mean they're making some small minor tweaks but like this is a structural issue at Harvard. It’s been the case at Harvard since Harvard has been founded, since Harvard first let in black students and other students of color,” said Allen-Gessessee. “This is not something that novel to Harvard and it does feel a bit offensive that they think they could bring in one person under the dean of students who is going to be able to magically transform this place into a place of equity and inclusion and justice.”
At the heart of this tension—between the law school adapting to the wider national climate and the voices of the students essential to the conversation—is a challenge faced by college campuses across the country and an especially daunting one at Harvard: How do you change the culture of a storied institution?
Sells, herself a woman of color, told me these attitudes about race have been around since she herself was in law school decades ago, and that they don’t stop at law school–which is something she thinks students should be prepared to deal with as they begin their careers.
“It's hard to make that change happen just across the board. And that [discrimination] is going to happen, quite honestly,” Sells told me. “You're going to walk into court rooms where I remember a judge asking me, ‘Witnesses need to wait outside.’ And I'm like, ‘No I'm the ADA.’ It wasn’t pleasant. Was that a ‘microaggression’? I can't even begin to think of what people before me went through.”
The students acknowledged that there are faculty who are exceptionally interested in teaching social context and talking about discrimination. But they said that presenting the law and the school itself in a light that addresses institutionalized racism should be codified in the way the institution works, not left to individual professors to engage with if they want to.
“If people come in with perspectives that demean marginalized people–or any people for that matter–you don’t let them leave that way,” she said. “And I don’t think it’s fair for the institution to say, ‘Oh that’s not our job.’ It is your job. You assume responsibility over your students when you admit and they enroll.”
As both the law school and the undergraduate college consider phasing out symbols of Harvard’s oppressive historical links, the Reclaim Harvard Law students are still occupying the student center–they seem determined to keep to their demands: Harvard Law must move past its exclusionary roots.
“We actually probably should take some ownership for the racism that exists in the world because we’re at one of the top law schools in the country, from where graduates go on to be leading attorneys at law firms, with the Department of Justice, at different districts, and they go on to be judges, and supreme court justices and presidents and policy makers, legislators. We have a lot of responsibility for that,” said Tylek. “And that was the dream we were sold.”