Saturday, 2:15 PM
Black students, faculty hope Harvard police review sparks wider dialogue on race
(Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)
Tim Turner, president of the Black Students Association at Harvard, center, talks with Tyrell Carter, 16, of Dorchester, who attends Harvard Crimson Academy.
By Tracy Jan, Globe Staff
It was the quintessential college scene: dozens of students from the Harvard Black Men’s Forum and the Association of Black Harvard Women picnicking on the Radcliffe Quad, playing capture-the-flag and running relay races at their end-of-the-year field day.
But just an hour into the festivities on the sunny afternoon in May 2007, the fun screeched to a halt. Two campus police officers rode up on motorcycles. Were they students? the officers asked. Did they have permission to be there? The young men and women, dressed in Harvard T-shirts, would discover that a fellow student in a nearby dorm had mistaken them for trespassers, according to students who were there and whose account was confirmed by Harvard officials.
The incident, which ignited criticism from black students and faculty, highlighted the prejudices that many black students say they continue to face at Harvard — not only from police, but from classmates as well.
Leaders of black student and faculty groups say they hope Harvard’s review of campus Police Department practices will help spark a wide-ranging conversation about the racial climate on campus and lead to other concrete steps by the university to improve it. The review, announced Tuesday, follows long-standing complaints of racial profiling by police.
‘‘The alarming thing is that this happens in one of the most progressive towns, the most progressive university, and there's this reluctance on behalf of students to even acknowledge that there is some covert racism going on,’’ said Bryan Barnhill, a Harvard senior and former president of the Black Men’s Forum.
Barnhill said he would like to see President Drew Gilpin Faust deliver a university-wide speech that makes it clear Harvard will acknowledge and address racial misunderstandings and biases.
‘‘Rather than just focusing on the Police Department, it would be a brave step if the president would ignite a broader and more honest discussion about race,’’ he said.
Leaders of Harvard’s Association of Black Faculty, Administrators and Fellows, who met with Faust last fall to discuss their concerns, also want her to go further as she enters her second year at the helm. They are calling for Harvard to create a campus-climate committee and a police community board, among other initiatives, to foster cross-racial understanding among students as well as with the predominantly white Police Department, a private force overseen by the university.
Faust could not be reached for comment on the racial climate at Harvard. Her spokesman, John Longbrake, said she is ‘‘strongly committed to ensuring that Harvard is a community that celebrates diversity and promotes cultural and ethnic awareness.’’
Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, said he has spoken with Faust about improving the racial climate and believes she takes the problem seriously.
‘‘We have to have zero tolerance,’’ Gates said. ‘‘Any example of racism is one example too much, from the police or any other sector of Harvard University.’’
Harvard police officials would not comment on the quad incident or accusations of racial bias. They said Tuesday in a statement that the review of its diversity training, community outreach, and recruitment efforts would help them better serve a diverse community.
Interviews with black students and faculty reflect a perceived climate of underlying racial insensitivity on campus that goes beyond the police. The students recounted incidents when white students made them feel as though they do not belong — echoing the sentiments of W.E.B. Du Bois, the university’s first black PhD, who famously said, ‘‘I was in Harvard, but not of it.’’
Some white classmates assume they are outsiders, black students said, even though they live in the same dorms. Black students account for 8 percent of the school’s 6,600 undergraduates.
Sangu Delle, president of the Black Men’s Forum, recalled an incident last school year when a white student followed him into his dorm’s computer lab and questioned his presence.
‘‘He basically treated me as if I were not a student, as if I had broken in and was a thief walking through the halls of my own dorm,’’ said the 21-year-old junior.
The white student later apologized, Delle said. "I hold no grudges, because for me the most important thing is reaching a place of mutual understanding."
Encounters with police, black students and faculty said, further fuel their sense of not belonging.
S. Allen Counter, a well-known neuroscience professor, said two officers stopped him as he walked across Harvard Yard in 2004 and threatened to arrest him when he could not produce identification. Not believing Counter was a professor, despite his three-piece suit and tie, the officers entered Thayer Hall and questioned students about his identity.
Hours later, Counter learned that he had been stopped because he fit the profile of a well-dressed robbery suspect.
‘‘What offended me most was not that I was stopped, it was seeing the faces of my students who said, ‘Dr. Counter, they interrogated us about you,’ ’’ said Counter, who also heads the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations.
Tim Turner, president of the Black Student Association, said a police car pulled up as he and minority high school students he mentors in a Harvard program played Frisbee this summer next to the Malkin Athletic Center.
‘‘The worst part is that the high school students notice,’’ Turner said. ‘‘They automatically feel like they have targets on their back.’’
J. Lorand Matory, a professor of anthropology and African and African-American studies who co-chairs the black faculty association, said that establishing a police community board — made up of faculty, police, administrators, and students — would help solve problems and build goodwill. Longbrake said the university has no plans for such a board.
The association is also calling for a more diverse police force, as well as increased hiring of black faculty and administrators. Within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, 3.2 percent of tenure-track faculty are black. Faust oversaw the appointment of the first black dean of Harvard College, Evelynn Hammonds, in the spring.
Previous efforts to improve the racial climate included a report on student racial dynamics in 1980 that lead to the creation of the Harvard Foundation and the installation of race-relations tutors in each dorm.
In 1992, black students complained of poor treatment by university police in a pamphlet titled “On the Harvard Plantation.” In response, the university’s office of race relations and minority affairs organized a meeting between students and the police chief.
After police rode away from field day in May 2007, the black students learned about a series of e-mails over a dorm list serve accusing them of ruining the lawn, just weeks before a graduation ceremony would be held there. The black students noted that days earlier, a group of mostly white students had held a bash that included alcohol and a slip-and-slide that muddied the freshly seeded lawn. No one alerted police.
Black students and faculty leaders say the quad incident should be discussed in freshmen orientation as an exercise for students of all backgrounds to acknowledge their racial biases. The upcoming orientation program will feature a more general race discussion centered on a reading list.
‘‘People cannot forget,’’ said Natasha S. Alford, former president of the Association of Black Harvard Women who graduated in June and helped organize the field day. ‘‘If people forget, the exact same thing will repeat itself. Many people can give the textbook answer to what our principles at Harvard are, but when it comes to practice, we are very much a reflection of the greater society."
Tracy Jan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.