A recent report, “Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery,” notes that the university’s faculty, staff and leaders held more than 70 black slaves between 1636, when Harvard was founded, and 1783, when Massachusetts abolished slavery. In atonement, President
reports, the university intends to dedicate $100 million of its endowment to help address “the persistent corrosive effects of those historical practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society.”
A Harvard Crimson editorial speaks with even stronger moral conviction of the desire for rightful justice that spreads “like wildfire” when oppression strikes anywhere in the world. Moved to right past wrongs, the editors propose to help “free Palestine” by boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, which stands accused of pushing “Palestinians toward indefinite statelessness, combining ethnonationalist legislation and a continued assault on the sovereignty of the West Bank through illegal settlements that difficults [sic] the prospect of a two-state solution.”
Despite differences in literacy and purpose, the initiatives from Harvard’s president and Harvard’s students are eerily similar. Addressing genuine distress—of American blacks in one case, Palestinian Arabs in the other—both gestures misidentify the cause and, by misdirecting responsibility for the misery, make it impossible to ameliorate deplorable conditions.
Black Americans indeed still struggle to overcome the corrosive effects of slavery, but Harvard’s administration wouldn’t have insinuated itself into the problem by misappropriating guilt for deeds it didn’t commit in the past unless it means to obscure the wrongs it is committing in the present.
In the America we inherited, citizens bear responsibility for their actions, not blame for institutional history. For much longer than it housed slave-owners, Harvard did the hard work of transmitting the founding principles and texts of this country to those who must inspire and strengthen Americans of the next generation. A truthful inquiry would have featured professors who taught and students who fought to overcome slavery, 117 of them killed in that brave cause.
Indulgent self-blame is an escape from moral responsibility, and in this case from the university’s proper purpose. Harvard has harmed African-Americans—and every other minority—by transgressing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which belatedly, in what
Martin Luther King Jr.
called “a second emancipation,” outlawed racial discrimination. Rather than foster an integrated intellectual community, Harvard has used group preferences in hiring and admissions. The resulting explosion of racial politics ought to have inspired an investigation into the relation between declared intentions and their outcome. Instead, Harvard intends to double down on its misdirected benevolence.
Compensating further, Harvard now tries to appease the campaign to shame white Americans into self-renunciation. It thus betrays the founders of the school, its alumni and the descendants of slaves who know the only antidote to slavery is self-reliance. The focus on white guilt deprives African Americans of agency.
False expiation also obscures what a bold Harvard professor described as the “hateful sport of victimology” that converts “a tragic past into a game of recrimination.” That sport, practiced against the Jews and once encouraged by a handful of unscrupulous black leaders, has now become the trendiest grievance movement on campus. Anti-Semitism was already a problem when Harvard’s Prof.
Henry Louis Gates
lamented it in 1992. Rather than investigate its meteoric rise in the form of anti-Zionism, Harvard is expunging Jewish visibility (in 2020, for example, removing the word “Semitic” from the name of a museum that had been established to demonstrate the common origin of “three Abrahamic faiths”). Meanwhile, Harvard allows thuggish students to harass Israeli speakers.
As for the Crimson editorial, Arab claims of victimhood at the hands of the Jews is the most daring political inversion since
preached anti-Semitism to prevent Jews from “conquering Germany from within.” The 21 Arab countries occupy 640 times more land than Israel. The Arab League, not the Jews, refused to partition Palestine in 1947, the better to ensure their refugees were a permanent casus belli. The Crimson’s editors can’t plead stupidity as an excuse for their calumnies—unless they claim they were admitted through preferential treatment for underachievers.
I was privileged to teach at Harvard for 21 years, and the gratitude I feel is in no way diminished by my dismay at seeing this great university succumb to ideas that, if left unchallenged, may yet bring down the republic. This country was founded not on slavery but on ideas of human worth, and Harvard was entrusted with their protection. May it yet surprise us by recovering its moral compass.
Ms. Wisse is a professor emerita at Harvard and author of the memoir “Free as a Jew.”
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Appeared in the May 14, 2022, print edition.