Last Fall, faculty and students arriving in the Wasserstein Hall in Harvard Law School found black tape on the portraits of several black faculty members. The discovery caused an immediate uproar. Stories appeared in the Boston Globe, the New York Times, CNN, and the Guardian, among many others.
By noon on the day of the discovery, hundreds of students and faculty members had gathered in a community meeting. Law School Dean Martha Minow announced: “Racism exists in America and in the United States and in Harvard and in Harvard Law School.” She called racism a “serious problem” at Harvard. The president of the student body called the incident “a pretty clear act of intolerance, racism.” The President of the Harvard Black Law Student Association described it as “one of the most clear-cut, overt instances of very, very vile and disrespectful behavior.” A second year law student said: “I’m disgusted and outraged that it happened, but I’m also not surprised. Microaggressions and macroagressions happen every day, and that’s the reality of being a student of color at Harvard ….”
Reaction among the black faculty members themselves was more restrained. Professor Charles J. Ogletree said that he was “still waiting to learn more about the incident before making too strong a judgment.” And in an op-ed column the following week, Professor Randall Kennedy cautioned:
The identity and motives of the person or people behind the taping have not been determined…. Perhaps the defacer is white. But maybe not. Perhaps the taping is meant to convey anti-black contempt or hatred for the African-American professors. But maybe it was … a hoax meant to look like a racial insult in order to provoke a crisis.
In the days following the discovery of the tape, Dean Minow stepped back, albeit subtly. In a statement to the Law School faculty and students immediately following the discovery, she had pronounced herself “outraged.” A week later, in a statement to alumni, her “outrage” had vanished, and she pronounced herself merely “shocked and saddened.” In the earlier statement to faculty and students, she had called the incident “a hate crime.” A week later, writing to alumni, she referred to it as “a possible hate crime.” If these verbal modifications seem minor, remember that this is Harvard Law School, where students are taught to dissect the language of statutes and contracts, and to hunt for shades of difference.
Then last week, the Harvard Crimson reported that the University Police Department was shutting down its investigation.
There were no protests. There were no demonstrations.
What happened to the outrage?
The outrage vanished because long before the University Police Department closed the case, it had become evident that Professor Kennedy’s speculation was correct: the taping incident was a hoax, an act of counterfeit racism designed to provoke a crisis.
The first clue was the black tape itself. The night of the incident, student activists had roamed the campus, surreptitiously placing the same type of black tape over the Law School seal. This was part of a campaign to change the seal, which happens to be the family crest of the slave-owing Royall family.
The anti-Royall activists claimed that racists must have removed the tape they were using, and reaffixed it on the faculty portraits. But their theory assumed that racists were lurking around the campus, monitoring the anti-Royall activists, stealing their tape, gaining access to Wasserstein Hall after hours on the very same night, and then committing their outrage on the portraits. No one took that scenario seriously.
The second clue was the fact that covering faculty portraits in Wasserstein Hall had been done before. In December 2014, “Black Lives Matter” protestors had covered faculty portraits with fliers bearing the last words of black men who had died at the hands of the police or under other controversial circumstances, including Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, and Trayvon Martin.
The third clue was the mounting evidence of similar incidents of faked racism at college campuses across the country. At the University of Chicago, a student admitted to posting racist messages against himself on his Facebook page. At Grand Valley State University, police determined that a student who found racist graffiti on her dorm whiteboard – including “black bitch die” and “fuck black history month” – had written it herself. At Vassar College, two students withdrew from the school after admitting that hateful messages supposedly targeting them – including “Avoid Being Bitches” and “Fuck Niggers” – had been posted by themselves. One of the students was a member of the school’s Bias Incident Response Team. A week before the Harvard Law School incident, Commentary published a piece entitled “A Plague of Racial Hoaxes on Campus.”
Finally, there was plain old common sense. A racist law student planning to commit the defacement would have had to consider the consequences of getting caught on his career. As journalist Heather MacDonald noted:
Perhaps there exists a Harvard law student so unable to control his impulses, or so clueless about today’s political environment, that he is willing to risk being expelled and banished from every high-powered job that would otherwise be available to him, simply in order to engage in a juvenile prank. But I am not betting on it.
And so, by the time the University Police announced the end to their investigation, there was no surprise. In fact, the Harvard Crimson story reporting on the termination of the investigation generated 14 student comments, and every one of them agreed that the defacement had been a hoax. The only outrage expressed was that those involved in the hoax were not found and punished.
What did the perpetrators of the black tape racial hoax hope to accomplish?
The answer may be found in the response by Harvard Law School to the hoax. As the Harvard Crimson reported:
The vandalism prompted student activism on campus, as a group of Law students released a set of demands in early December calling for better treatment of minority students on campus, later protesting what they called an inadequate response from administrators. Meanwhile, Minow and other administrators said they would work to diversify the Law School’s faculty and hire a staff member to focus on issues related to diversity.
The incident also intensified existing calls by student members of the group Royall Must Fall to change the Law School’s controversial seal, which features the crest of a slaveholding family. In late November, Law School Dean Martha L. Minow created a committee to reconsider the seal. The committee is scheduled to release its recommendations in March.
In short, while the racism was a mirage, the School’s reaction was very real. As soon as the incident was reported, the Dean went into a defensive crouch – the customary reflex of liberal institutions under attack – and began issuing concessions in the form of commitments to hire more “diverse” faculty and staff, and to reconsider the seal. When it became clear that the incident was a hoax, none of these concessions were withdrawn. The mere appearance of a hate crime was enough to allow the activists to demonstrate their irrevocable power.
Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff and the current Mayor of Chicago, famously observed: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” The “social justice” activists on college campuses today have taken Emanuel’s adage, and improved upon it. They will never let a hate crime go to waste. And if there is no hate crime, they will make one.