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July|August 2002
Dog Docket By Dashka Slater
Zero L By Ayo Griffin
Almost Homeless By Jonathan L. Hafetz
Bad Fences By Sari Bashi
Misquoting Madison By Michael Doyle
Blessing Sham Shelters By Sheldon D. Pollack

Zero L

By Ayo Griffin

Monday, April 15. From the privileged seat of a recently admitted applicant, I'm observing the climax of the racial disturbance that recently erupted at Harvard Law School. I was accepted to the school a week ago, and on this pre-appointed day, I'm here to see the place firsthand along with several hundred other admitted students. I see a sprinkling of fellow black admits among those gathered.

At 10:30 a.m. I take a seat in Professor Mary Ann Glendon's first-year property class in an immense auditorium in Langdell Hall. The law school feels like an empire unto itself, and Langdell is the most imposing of the school's many buildings. A few dozen admits, like the unprepared law students we will soon be, fearfully settle in the back of the auditorium. We needn't worry. As one of Glendon's students tells me, her class is like "taking property with your grandmother." Before beginning her lecture, she makes a point of coming over to us and saying she hopes to see all of us in the fall. It's a nice gesture.

The discussion of a disputed will is engaging, which surprises me—I didn't expect much, since by now I've sat through a number of abstruse classes, about case materials I haven't read, that might as well have been conducted in Turkish. In the several days I end up spending as a visitor at Harvard and other law schools, Glendon's is the only class that I manage to ride out until the end.

A few minutes before we're due to exit, Glendon calls on a black student who has raised her hand, as if to answer a question from the professor. The student stands to speak, and it's clear that she has something different in mind. I cringe at the breach of protocol as she calmly yet forcefully announces that Harvard's Black Law Students Association is staging a protest to express "outrage" over the inadequate response of the school's administration to a string of incidents of racial harassment. She invites everyone there who shares this sentiment to join BLSA members outside of Harkness Commons, the student center. Ten or so black students rise and file out of the room. I later hear about a similar exodus from every other first-year class in session that morning.

The central chain of events in what BLSA is calling Harvard's "systematic problem" of racial harassment began when a first-year student used the word "nigs" to refer to black people. The student made the reference in outlining a case on HL Central, a note-sharing website not officially affiliated with the school. Not surprisingly, black students noticed, and they complained to the law school's administration. The offensive outline was removed.

A few days later, another student, using the pseudonym "gcrocodile," sent an e-mail to one of the black students who had complained. "We are at Harvard Law School, a free, private community where any member wishing to use the word 'nigger' in any form should not be prevented from doing so.... Shame on you!" gcrocodile wrote. "If you, as a race, want to prove that you do not deserve to be called by that word, work hard, and you will be recognized."

An uproar ensued and Charles Nesson, a senior member of the law school faculty, injected himself into it. He volunteered to defend gcrocodile, who had since been identified as first-year student Matthias Scholl, in a mock trial at the school. Nesson saw the incident as an opportunity for an educational moment. A generation ago, the evidence teacher became one of Harvard's youngest tenured professors at 27. In 1995, he founded the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, a leading locus of legal scholarship about cyberspace. But at 63, Nesson is known as a notoriously eccentric teacher. He's been involved in many a controversy over the years, including self-generated ones—he told students this past winter that he regularly smokes marijuana before class, a moment of candor that probably bothered his audience less than it did administrators.

In an open letter to Robert C. Clark, dean of the faculty of law, and to Todd D. Rakoff, dean of the J.D. program, BLSA condemned as "inadequate" and "insincere" the administration's response to the recent "eruptions of anti-Black racism." The students asked for a more comprehensive policy on racial harassment at the law school and for the creation of an office on multicultural affairs, with a full-time staff person. They also demanded "appropriate administrative action" against the offending students. Objecting to Nesson's mock-trial proposal, BLSA asked the dean to reprimand the professor publicly and bar him from teaching required first-year classes for the unspecified future.

When the student finishes her speech in Glendon's class, butts shift audibly. It feels as if the air has been sucked from the cavernous room. Then Glendon, who is white, offers her general take on the student's remarks. In a measured tone she sketches her work as a civil rights lawyer in Mississippi during the '60s and the birth of her black child in a Southern hospital's segregated ward. Choosing her words carefully, she goes on to say that sometimes the death throes of a cultural attitude, in this case racism, are not recognized as such, and so lead to overreaction. I agree, to an extent. BLSA's grievances are genuine, but disrupting class and protesting in front of prospective students seems like killing a fly with a sledgehammer.

Earlier in the day, in the bookstore at Harkness Commons, I noticed copies of Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, in which Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy examines the history and cultural significance of that charged epithet. Now, about 300 students are gathered outside the commons in silent protest, most of them black. I'm startled to see the unmistakable Afro and thick-framed glasses of Cornel West, the well-known African-American studies professor who just announced that he would be leaving for Princeton after a protracted dispute with Harvard's new president, Lawrence Summers. The protesters close in to hear West; though he speaks with passion, his voice is not loud. He talks briefly about the problem of "white supremacy" and about not allowing the gains of minorities over the last 40 years to be rolled back.

The appearance of West, whom I'd seen before only on book jackets, reinforces the morning's surreal gloss. I didn't come to Harvard expecting to be in the audience for a public spat over race and free speech. I thought I'd pass through the same series of classes, library tours, and cocktail receptions I'd enjoyed during similar visits to the law schools at Columbia and New York University. Those gatherings gave me a chance to compare and contrast with other people enjoying similar choices to my own. (A couple of weeks later, I will fly out to Chicago for a sorority semiformal as the date of a woman I got to know at Columbia, NYU, and Harvard.)

Some of BLSA's demands seem reasonable to me, others less so. I admire the group's emphatic and reasoned response to the two students' ill-advised and ugly sentiments. On the other hand, the evidence doesn't suggest to me that Harvard has a systematic problem with racism. The original offensive posting was by Kiwi Camara, who started at the law school when he was only 17. According to Harvard students I've spoken with, Camara's intellect and oddness are completely off the map. As far as I can tell, no one has explicitly accused him of being a racist. Scholl, aka gcrocodile, is an older student and a self-proclaimed civil-libertarian who has publicly claimed that he took issue with questions of free speech rather than of race. As for Nesson, his stated motive was to turn a contentious incident into a chance to talk through difficult issues—not necessarily a bad thing.

It's disconcerting to find myself explaining away these words and deeds, but it's hard for me to condemn gestures that seem more misguided than malicious. Looking at the big picture, it's also hard to think that life for black students at Harvard is worse than at any other school. Eleven percent of first-year students there are black, which puts Harvard somewhere in the middle of the diversity rankings among law schools. The numbers for tenure-track faculty are low (7 of 80) but better than at NYU, for example, and at Yale, where this spring students have been campaigning for more teachers of color.

The protest, however, risks scaring away admitted black students—not in BLSA's interests. Yet since a less diverse entering class also will reflect badly on the administration, that threat may give BLSA some short-term leverage. Five days after my visit, The New York Times reports that Nesson is stepping down from teaching his first-year class for the rest of the semester—his choice, he says, but also on the advice of Dean Rakoff—to help refocus his distracted class. The school's deans agree to hold faculty workshops on race and teaching over the summer, and to set up a committee to deal with racial issues.

On April 24, two weeks before the deposit deadline for reserving a spot for the fall, the Harvard admissions office forwards me and all other admitted students an e-mail on behalf of BLSA. The message congratulates us on our admission, and says succinctly, "We hope that you decide to accept the invitation to attend Harvard Law School." No mention of the controversy—perhaps a condition of the administration's decision to yield to some BLSA demands. Two days later, another BLSA-via-admissions e-mail arrives. This one stresses the size and vitality of Harvard's black community. It also assures me that while "like every other sector of American society, Harvard Law School sometimes falls short of its expressed goal of fostering respectful, open dialogue both inside and outside the classroom," BLSA is working with administrators to improve things.

I don't think the controversy that riled the law school has clouded my decision about whether to enroll at Harvard. In a way, I find the P.R.-speak of the second e-mail more unsettling than the protest. It may be counterproductive for current students to sabotage the recruitment process by airing grievances in front of prospective students. Still, there is something to be said for letting us in on the conversation. It's the kind of debate you hope for in law school.

Ayo Griffin is a publishing assistant at Legal Affairs. At press time, he was still deciding which law school he would attend in the fall.

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