If you walk through Wasserstein Hall of Harvard’s law school, you will notice that framed portraits of the school’s esteemed professors adorn the walls. Given that Harvard Law School routinely ranks #1 or 2 in the U.S. News & World Report’s annual law school rankings, these portraits represent the best and brightest who teach law. It is a veritable hall of fame for law professors. On Thursday, this wall was defaced in an unspeakable way, leaving no doubt that, like so many campuses across America, Harvard has a serious racism problem.
According to the Washington Post, black tape was discovered Thursday morning across the faces of each African American member of the the law school’s faculty. Campus police immediately began investigating the matter as a hate crime, and Harvard Law dean Martha Minow condemned the act with words that were clear and unambiguous.
“Expressions of hatred are abhorrent, whether they be directed at race, sex, sexual preference, gender identity, religion or any other targets of bigotry,” Minow decried.
Calling this incident “hateful retaliation,” student activists suggested it was a response to the organized efforts of a student group named The Royal Must Fall. According to the Washington Post article, the group is leading a campaign to have the law school change its crest, “which is the same as the coat-of-arms of slaveholder Isaac Royall Jr,” one of the school’s founders.
It is also worth noting that that the portraits were defaced the day after many of Harvard’s students demonstrated with students from other nearby schools in support for African-American activists on campuses throughout the country. According to the Boston Globe, a large assemblage of Harvard’s students marched to Porter Square on Wednesday to join students from Tufts University to protest “in solidarity with students of color across the country who say they are fighting racial injustices at their campuses.” As third-year law student Jonathan Wall noted, the defacing “seems to be in response to yesterday’s day of activism.”
Second-year law student Michele Hall wrote a powerful response to this this incident on Blavity.com. First, she explains in moving detail the meaning these portraits hold for law students of color: “As a first-year law student, the first time that I walked down those hallways I was painfully aware of the white men that take up most of the space on the walls, but also proud to see black professors hanging right beside them. The portraits make me feel a strange tension of pain yet promise.”
Then, she articulates how the pain outweighed the promise Thursday morning.
“Their faces were slashed through, X-ing them out, marking them as maybe unwanted or maybe unworthy or maybe simply too antithetical to the legacy of white supremacy on which Harvard Law School has been built,” Hall writes. “The defacing of the portraits of black professors this morning is a further reminder that white supremacy built this place, is the foundation of this place, and that we never have and still do not belong here.”
As Hall powerfully articulates, Thursday morning was a moment in which the pain far outweighed the promise. However, Harvard’s law students quickly tipped the scales in the other direction. By midday, all traces of black tape had been replaced by bouquets of post-it notes from the professors’ students expressing their love, reverence, and boundless gratitude for them.
The discovery of these post-it notes prompted Harvard Law professor Ronald S. Sullivan to joyfully tweet, “I love my HLS students! They’ve replaced the act of defacement with `love notes’ to all the black faculty.”
While the black tape was a tragic reminder that this tension between pain and promise persists at Harvard Law, it is clear that promise ultimately prevailed in Wasserstein Hall on Thursday. Harvard’s law students quietly erased symbols of hate with notes of love, and that is incredibly promising.