Magazine June 26, 2017, Issue

Segregation on the Charles

Oprah Winfrey (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

If there’s any place on earth where you’d think people would feel relatively chipper about themselves and life in general, it’s Harvard. “Harvard: The Harvard of the North” read a T-shirt I recall from my youthful visits to the sanctuary by the Charles. Harvard’s prestige and mystique can only be growing as the place becomes ever more exclusive: 94.8 percent of applicants for the class of 2021 were rejected. Those superlative few who earned admittance can be forgiven should they harbor any slight feelings of resultant smugness. As for those who made it all the way to securing a Harvard graduate degree, they’re the elite of the elite. All doors in life fling themselves open when you come calling with an advanced degree from a university with an unsurpassed reputation. Those scarce few who hold such degrees are not 1 percenters; more like 0.001 percenters.

Yet how were Harvard’s advanced-degree recipients feeling last week at commencement ceremonies? Some seemed surprisingly hurt. The black graduate students were so aggrieved that, to assuage their feelings, Harvard allowed what appeared to be its first-ever graduation ceremonies segregated by skin color. The university chafed at that characterization, noting in a curious locution that the event held for blacks (which took place in addition to the ordinary commencement ceremonies) was not racial. “Black Commencement is open to ALL students regardless of race, color or creed. This is not about segregation, but a celebration of the African Diaspora at Harvard,” Harvard said in a statement. So: An event is defined as being for blacks, also called members of the African Diaspora — but shame on you if for some odd reason you’re thinking that it has anything to do with race separatism.

“We have endured the constant questioning of our legitimacy and our capacity, and yet here we are,” Duwain Pinder, who received a master’s in business and public policy, said in a keynote speech. The innuendo was unmistakable: Black students at Harvard are victims of racism. “Many of the speakers,” noted the New York Times, “talked about a different, more personal kind of struggle, the struggle to be black at Harvard.” No doubt. I’m sure it is a challenge to be black at Harvard. But it’s still taking place at Harvard. There is, I expect, rancor and discord within the co-op board at 740 Park Avenue, a.k.a. the “Tower of Power,” the home to Steven Mnuchin, David Koch, and Vera Wang. But if you’re fortunate enough to live there in the first place, woe is not you.

One wonders how the non-black population of Harvard felt to learn that black students were hiving off to have their own ceremony. Here we have one of the world’s most exclusive clubs. Invited to join that club, a group forms a breakaway band within, and at its most prominent public appearance, its speakers cast aspersions on the majority. It seems likely that race resentment is now going both ways at Harvard. Is holding more and more separate ceremonies likely to diminish that?

In keeping with the new rule that inclusion means factionalism, Harvard also hosted, for the third year, a “LatinX” ceremony for graduating Latino students. The University of Delaware is among those offering a “Lavender” graduation ceremony for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. At Columbia University this year, students who were the first in their families to obtain college degrees were granted a separate commencement ceremony of their own. As it happens, I would have been qualified to attend such a ceremony when I graduated from Yale — and mortified by it had it existed. Why would I have wanted to march separately from most of my friends? Why would I have felt the need to make some public display of having risen from the working class? Membership in the Yale community was to me not just a tonic but an exhilarant. The last thing I would have wanted to do during graduation was to be tarred with some mark of apartness. That would have felt like a badge of inferiority to me.

Today’s students are so steeped in grievance politics, though, that learning to express grudges starts to seem the central point of college. The victim’s mantle becomes as vital as the scholar’s mortarboard. It’s not difficult to imagine further proliferation of splinter ceremonies. Why not hold a commencement for Asians, or immigrants, or child-abuse survivors, or Muslims, or adoptees? Why not one for survivors of sexual assault? Or one for those suffering from physical handicaps? Or for Appalachians? Then we come to the matter of “intersectionality.” What if Dad identifies with Between the World and Me and Mom with Hillbilly Elegy, and you’re gender-non-conforming and have type 2 diabetes to boot? Why shouldn’t commencement be an opportunity for you to parade your sense of being multifariously underprivileged? The potential quantity of separate ceremonies becomes dizzying.

So here’s a unifying thought: How about we go back to having one commencement ceremony but each student who feels victimized in some way gets to wear a scarlet letter V for each class of victim to which he, she, or they belongs? The more V’s you have, the greater your sense of honor. You could wear a gown as festooned with V’s as a four-star general’s chest is bedecked with colorful ribbons. The bonus is that if we did commencement that way, there’d be an irresistible payoff: After the ceremony, every young student would be obliged to take off that gown forever, put all those V’s back in a box, and prepare for a grown-up existence in which what matters is not how much you think you’ve suffered but what you can actually do.

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