This spring, African-American students at Harvard captured national media attention with their “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign. The organizers described their goals, writing, “Our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are devalued, our presence is questioned—this project is our way of speaking back, of claiming this campus, of standing up to say: We are here. This place is ours. We, TOO, are Harvard.”
This year, Harvard admitted a record number of black students, and it boasts the highest black graduation rate in the Ivy League. The faculty, facilities and programming budget at Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute make it the envy of the American academy. There is an active, thirty-seven-year-old Black Students Association on campus. The Hutchins Center houses a hip-hop archive and publishes the well-regarded Du Bois Review. The president and first lady of the United States are both graduates of Harvard Law School.
By meaningful measures of resource commitment, academic outcomes and historical legacy, Harvard could easily claim to be the best campus in the country for black students. So how should we understand a student-led effort emerging from a sense of racial alienation?
The I, Too, Am Harvard campaign is driven by a politics of recognition, not resources. In my 2011 book Sister Citizen, I show that people from marginal social groups desire recognition for their group, and they also want recognition of their individuality. Many African-Americans bristle at the idea of color blindness, because it makes race irrelevant to identity. At the same time, black people do not want to be reduced to their racial identity alone. W.E.B. Du Bois explained the feeling of being reduced to a category, asking, “How does it feel to be a problem?”
These students are not arguing that Harvard has failed to invest adequate resources; they are revealing that as black students they are routinely “misrecognized” and subjected to micro-aggressions, such as presumptions about having lower intelligence, which diminish their ability to act as full citizens of the Harvard community. This struggle is not limited to a single Cambridge campus. It is also at the heart of an ongoing debate about the meaning of racial politics in the Obama era, initiated most recently by the April 7 cover story of New York magazine, “The Color of His Presidency.”
Written by Jonathan Chait, the piece asserts that if you “set out to write a social history of the Obama years, one that captured the day-to-day experience of political life, you would find that race has saturated everything as perhaps never before.” Chait defines this racial saturation of political life as the effect of the Obama presidency on debates between white liberals and white conservatives. He points to dueling paranoias about racism and racial innocence that infuse every policy conversation and media moment. Chait’s argument is not wholly inaccurate: he offers evidence that white elites indeed talk more about race in the Obama era. However, any claim that race as a framework for political and policy debates emerged in 2008 must necessarily rest on ignoring black political life. This is nothing new. Gone are black people from the “day-to-day experience of political life.”