The Problem with ‘Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery’

On the morning of April 26, the entire community of Harvard University and its alumni received what, in any sane society, would be seen as a grossly inappropriate emailed letter signed by Harvard’s president, Lawrence S. Bacow, along with a list of other high-up Harvard officiants, titled “Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery.” The letter transmits a 134-page report, the product of a committee established to document Harvard’s entanglement with slavery, a project that, especially since the Black Lives Matter riots of 2020, has preoccupied certain left-bubble institutions and universities such as Columbia, Brown, and Harvard. 

Like Google dressing up its logo for Halloween, Harvard’s homepage, to commemorate the occasion, is donned in mournful black, in contrast to its usual white, and dedicated entirely to the topic of its grand “reckoning.” Academics are an afterthought. 

Bacow’s cover email, which also appears here, where it is accompanied by a video of him reading its text in the same self-satisfied tone in which he might deliver an address commemorating the dedication of a new university building, gives us all the familiar clichés of this now well-established “antiracist” genre. It gives us talk of “reckon[ing] honestly with our history,” “dismantl[ing] . . . contemporary injustice,” the “embedded[ness]” of slavery “in [our] fabric and . . .  institutions,” how “[t]he legacy of slavery, including the persistence of both overt and subtle discrimination against people of color, continues to influence the world in the form of disparities in education, health, wealth, income, social mobility, and almost any other metric we might use to measure equality,” how “Harvard benefited from and in some ways perpetuated practices that were profoundly immoral” and, of course, our “moral responsibility to do what we can to address the persistent corrosive effects of those historical practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society.” 

The report itself is one giant, embarrassing, repetitively tedious mea culpa. As far as “do[ing] what we can do” to begin to atone for past wrongs, this, for Bacow, entails the appointment of yet another committee, an “implementation committee,” to implement the recommendations contained in the first committee’s report and a commitment of $100 million to that end—significantly more than the amounts committed by similar universities, amounts recited in the report, as Harvard, befitting its prestigious place in society, is anxious to be the nation’s leader in the specialized  study colloquially known as “self-flagellation.”

The recommendations in the report entail yet more familiar antiracist tropes: “Engage and Support Descendant Communities by Leveraging Harvard’s Excellence in Education,” e.g., creating course offerings in “descendant communities”; “Honor Enslaved People through Memorialization, Research, Curricula, and Knowledge Dissemination,” i.e., yet more anti-racist memorials, education and research; “Develop Enduring Partnerships with Black Colleges and Universities,” e.g., research collaborations and subsidized, extended Harvard visits from historically black college students; “Identify, Engage, and Support Direct Descendants,” i.e., finding and engaging with descendants of enslaved persons who worked at Harvard so that they can “tell their stories, and pursue empowering knowledge”; “Honor, Engage, and Support Native Communities,” e.g., “financial support for research, dissemination of knowledge, recruitment of students from tribal communities, and other reparative efforts benefiting members of New England’s Native communities”; “Establish an Endowed Legacy of Slavery Fund to Support the University’s Reparative Efforts,” i.e., creating a “generously funded” “Legacy of Slavery Fund” to support implementation of the Report’s recommendations; and “Ensure Institutional Accountability,” i.e., “a commitment to ongoing engagement, dialogue, information sharing, and relationship building with community.” 

Bacow’s cover email also “strongly encourage[s] every member of our community—students, faculty, staff, and alumni—to read the committee’s report.” Having waded through it, I strongly advise against thisas, if you have been remotely conscious since the summer of 2020, you already know exactly what it says. After making my way through these materials, I felt the need to give Bacow and his co-conspirators in this shameful enterprise a small piece of my mind. I did this precisely because so many of us stay silent in the face of such indignities, an unfortunate tendency that assures these out-of-touch university bureaucrats their actions are appropriate or even welcome. To that same end, I am sharing my email response to Bacow here. 

I hope it encourages others on the receiving end of such repugnant communications from universities and other institutions to know they are not alone and speak out. The more we start speaking up to make our true feelings clear and stop mindlessly contributing to these self- and nation-destroying institutions, the greater our chances of forcing them to reckon with something far more significant and timely than the legacy of slavery: their direct complicity in America’s cultural suicide. 

My email to Dr. Bacow follows.

***

Dear Dr. Bacow:

I am in receipt of your letter and the accompanying report on “Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery.” They are pathetic missives from a once-great institution now overseen by committees of overpaid, groveling cowards. Harvard has done many marvelous things and many horrible things in its history . . . and hopefully more of the former than the latter. But, as few would dispute, if we were to start compiling lists of Harvard’s misdeeds, those lists would be long and damning, with complicity in slavery being nowhere near the top of the list.

Chronicling such misdeeds, however, is not your job, any more than it is the job of the president of a corporation to send out letters or transmit reports to its shareholders explaining how horrible the corporation has been in centuries past. If the CEO of a corporation were to send out such a letter, its reputation would be traduced, its share price would plunge, and shareholders would be justly calling for the president’s head.

It is only within the insular monoculture of academia that the president of America’s most prestigious university can send out a shameful letter and report of the sort you just sent and face no consequences—or, at least, no obvious consequences, for, in truth, what you may not realize is that you are writing for the benefit of a rather small and unrepresentative claque of like-minded activists, radicals, blatherers and weak-kneed adherents (with that last group, of which you are undoubtedly a member, being, by far, the largest of the bunch). 

Such individuals are, alas, overrepresented in the toxic brew that American academia has become, and within that polluted environment, your letter and report will be received as a welcome measure . . . though, of course, you will inevitably be criticized for not doing enough, as it is never enough for these people. Seeing the letter and report as sure signs of weakness, they will do what predators always do when they see their fleeing prey hesitate and peer over its shoulder in fear: pounce. Your $100 million committed to their cause will be seen as a drop in the bucket. They will call for more and more in money and damaging statements and remedial measures until they bleed Harvard dry and reduce it to still more of a hollowed-out husk than it has already become.

But there is also a very different reality that prevails outside Cambridge and similar environs. Whether or not you understand this, the general population and even much of the larger Harvard community, of which I am a member, see missives like yours as punchlines. Many of them may not say anything for fear of hurting their own kids’ chances of becoming “legacy” admissions—such people are happy to fulminate ad nauseam against “slavery and its legacy” when their words have no personal consequences but, hypocritically, take a very different view when the rubber hits the road and they move heaven and earth to reproduce the very social hierarchies they claim to despise in hankering to secure their own “legacies”—but very few of us will see your letter as reflecting anything more than capitulation to the activist hordes.

Please be assured that you are needlessly damaging Harvard’s reputation and the reputation of elite institutions of higher education as a whole. More and more of us see such institutions today as walking corpses propped up by little more than their own glorious pasts—pasts they are racing to tarnish and abandon. More and more of us do not want our children anywhere near suicidal, self-hating, and politically intolerant indoctrination mills like yours. 

There is a place for investigating the history of slavery and the legacy of slavery, and even the abstruse, limited-interest topic of Harvard’s own role in that history. But that place is amid dusty tomes deep inside the bosom of an academic history department, where—when everything is functioning as it should—any such discussion is nuanced, properly contextualized, footnoted, subjected to scholarly debate and conducted out of the public eye. That place is not in letters and reports sent out for public consumption, where the most strident voices of sensationalizing journalists, rabid activists and impressionable, untutored students will sound off in shrieks, gasps and howls as they seize upon the most scandalous passages to misconstrue and misinterpret. 

As great thinkers from Matthew Arnold to T. S. Eliot to Philip Rieff have made clear, the role of intellectuals and elites should be to preserve and transmit culture, high culture especially. It is their sacred duty, the responsibility with which they are charged by virtue of their privileged position in society. You and your peers, instead, are publicly staging a maudlin morality play in which you are attacking yourselves, attacking your institutions, attacking our culture and taking a chainsaw to the posts propping up your own elevated platforms. What do you expect the result of your actions will be? How do you think the onlooking masses will see you and the institutions you represent? 

All throughout history, people have shown they admire strength and despise weakness. For better or for worse—and largely, I would claim, for better—they admire displays of beauty, riches, sublimity, glory and majesty. They admire boldness and confidence. They despise ugliness, neediness, insecurity, groveling and cowardice. And yet it is the latter set of despicable traits you are regaling us with now. It is a shameful display, one unworthy of someone in your position. It is my hope and, I expect, the hope of many of my like-minded peers that that position will soon be occupied by someone else, someone who treats the institutional role with the respect it deserves, or, at least, once deserved . . . or, failing that, that you and your peers persist in your present course of action so thoroughly and completely that you bring Harvard and its equally self-hating peer institutions down with you when the levee breaks and the deluge comes.  

Best,

Alexander Zubatov
Harvard Law School, Class of 2000

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