I just learned on Twitter that someone has defaced the official portraits of black professors at Harvard Law School with black tape.
Let’s talk about this.
This defacement could be some sort of hoax or inside joke. It could be somehow meaningless or random. It’s not an act of physical violence or a direct threat, and if the tape comes off easily and cleanly, it’s not even destruction of property. Taken in isolation, it’s easy to dismiss. There’s no way to know for sure what it means. And so people who think everything is fine on campus will shrug. In isolation, it could mean anything or nothing.
But at the same time, there’s something really chilling about it. It’s creepy. It’s nasty. It could be a threat, or a warning. And it turns out that it didn’t happen in isolation.
Here’s some context: Harvard Law School’s seal features three sheaves of wheat commemorating the coat-of-arms of HLS’s founding benefactor — Isaac Royall Jr., a slaveowner and slave-trader. Students at the law school have been campaigning for a new seal for months, and last night activists taped over the existing seal on a variety of signs around HLS. The tape on the photographs of black HLS professors was discovered today.
It seems clear, then, that the defacement of the professors’ portraits was a response to the campaign against the seal — an erasure of black faculty in response to the proposed erasure of the school’s slaveowning founder.
Even so, of course, some will say it’s just tape. (It is.) Some will say it might be the work of the anti-racist activists themselves. (It could be.) Others will say it’s an ugly incident but a small one — cause for ridicule, perhaps, but not outrage, or just some scraps of adhesive to be tossed in the trash and forgotten.
If you start from the premise that this was a minor deviation from a generally supportive environment for black students at Harvard Law, or from the premise that anyone who’s made it as far as HLS is doing pretty well, all things considered, you’re not going to see it as a big deal. And if students rise up in protest against it, if they stage a rally or a sit-in or start reading lists of demands, you’re going to be bewildered, and maybe annoyed.
But student activists on campus don’t see this as an isolated incident. They walk past a seal that honors a slaver every day, and when they speak up against it, they’re told that it’s not a symbol of hate, but of history, and that at any rate the history of racism and the history of Harvard are so intertwined that it’d be impossible to purge all such symbols — so there’s no reason to try.
In that context, and in the context of your other experiences at Harvard, the tape on your professors’ photos — and only on the photos of the professors who look like you — may feel like an attack, like an assault, like an attempt to purge you, and them, from the institution.
And if you feel it that way, then at some point you’re going to get angry. At some point you’re going to stand up.
And if, when you start standing up, a bunch of people start attacking you as intolerant and obnoxious and hostile, you’re going to wonder where those people’s anger has been all this time. And if they, watching you yell or hearing your demands, condemn you as an enemy of free speech while remaining silent about your right and need to speak out against the stream of provocations that brought you to this point, you’re going to start drawing some conclusions about those critics.
Because if they’re not standing up for your free speech rights as a protester, and they are standing up for the free speech rights of the people lurking in the shadows trying to intimidate you and scare you and shut you up?
Well, you may well conclude that that tells you something about what they think free speech is, what they think free speech means, and who they think free speech is for.