Harvard Law School, History and Race

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I want to comment on the relevance of history for understanding ourselves and our institutions today, using two case studies, both responses to the material in Dan Coquillette’s new book on the history of Harvard Law School, On the Battlefield of Merit. The first is an article about the book in Harvard Law Today (who have some great articles!). The second is an event called Race and Social Movement at Harvard Law School: A Retrospective, part of the Law School Matters: Reassessing Legal Education Post-Ferguson conference organized by Students for Inclusion. Coquillette spoke at that event about the history of HLS’s interaction with race and gender, describing On the Battlefield of Merit as being “about race and racism and the experience of [HLS] as an exclusive school”. The Harvard Law Today article reflects that in the following paragraph:

With an eye toward full disclosure, “Battlefield” includes HLS’s connection to profits from slavery and its brush with a long-ago era’s mistrust of America’s cultural outliers, including blacks, Irish, Asians, Jews, Italians, and Roman Catholics (a target of explicit institutional vitriol). Evidence of “racism,” most of all, says Coquillette, “runs like a river through volumes 1 and 2.” In addition, there is the exclusion of women from law classes until 1950. (A 1967 history of HLS devotes only three pages to the subject.)

The words “brush” and “long-ago era” and “mistrust” are in stark contrast to Kimberle Crenshaw’s remarks on Coquillette’s presentation, which include the following lines about a not very long-ago era (via Rena Karefa-Johnson):

What we were confronting was a failure to recognize that the very sites of contestations that had made the original civil rights movement — the lunch counters and the buses — were now moved. So that was no longer the site of engagement. That was no longer the site where racial power was expressed. It was in institutions of higher education. It was in law firms. It was in places like these that were never explicitly discriminatory but actually held up an understanding of how their institutions were constructed as white institutions but that construction was not seen as racially problematic. So that was a generational conflict in the 80s that may be a parallel to the kinds of struggle you all are facing now.

In almost every generation in the United States, we have congratulated ourselves on our progress on racial justice, and in every generation so far we have congratulated ourselves too early. The mission had not yet been accomplished. This is a point made powerfully by, among many others, Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, and by Malcolm X when he said, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress.”

Based on his descriptions of it, I know that Coquillette’s book will not downplay HLS’s historical connection to racism. The law school shield is the shield of the slaveowner who endowed the school, with wheat representing his plantations. As HL Today observes, “eleven Confederate generals and 40 colonels went to HLS”, and as Crenshaw reminds us, an institution as influential as Harvard Law School cannot but be implicated in issues of racial justice, and that is as true today in the context of #Blacklivesmatter as it ever has been. Coquillette’s book should be an occasion for a thorough self-examination about the historical and present role of Harvard Law School, particularly as it relates to racial and other injustices. As Crenshaw said:

I was stunned by how much our assumptions around those debates were based on accepting the idea that Harvard was relatively benign when it came to the past. By benign I mean not actively participating in racial structures but instead just representing a more liberal perspective on it.

If you are a student interested in that kind of discussion (and extending it far beyond HLS), you might want to consider taking the Systemic Justice course next semester.

The full HL Today piece is here, you can find the full video of the Students for Inclusion event here, and On the Battlefield of Merit is here and here. Dan Coquillette will be speaking about these issues and his book at noon on October 27th in WCC 2004 at HLS. Check back for more information on that.

(h/t Jacob Reisberg and Rena Karefa-Johnson)

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