Thirty two years ago, a San Jose State University English professor named Shelby Steele published a short book entitled The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America. Steele perceived an unholy bargain between white and black Americans. Under its terms, whites, burdened with guilt for their history of discrimination, would exercise the power to bestow preferential treatment on blacks, and in return blacks, commanding the asset of innocence, would exercise the power to bestow absolution on whites.

Steele deemed the bargain harmful for both sides, but especially so for blacks:

I think the reason there has been more entitlement than development is … the unacknowledged white need for redemption – not true redemption, which would have focused policy on black development, but the appearance of redemption which requires only that society, in the name of development, seem to be paying back its former victims with preferences. One of the effects of entitlements, I believe, has been to encourage in blacks a dependency both on the entitlements and on the white guilt that generates them.

Last month, in a letter to the “Members of the Harvard Community,” President Lawrence Bacow announced the release of a 134-page report documenting the history of Harvard’s “extensive entanglements” with slavery. At the same time, President Bacow  announced a $100 million commitment to implement the authors’ recommendations on “how we as a community can redress – through teaching, research, and service – our legacies with slavery.”

Is this an exercise in true redemption? Or is it an engagement in the kind of superficial trade-off that Shelby Steele analyzed three decades ago?

The report itself is an admirable work scholarship, documenting in fascinating detail the University’s  connection with slavery.  It identifies (sometimes by name; sometimes only by description – for example “the Moor” or “a little boy”) 70 persons actually enslaved at the University by Harvard presidents, teachers, and staff. It shows that after slavery was abolished in Harvard’s home state of Massachusetts in 1783, the school continued to derive financial benefit from the institution in the form of donations from philanthropists whose fortunes were made, at least in part, from commercial relations with the slave-owning operations of the West Indies. It describes how after the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery nationwide, Harvard engaged in discriminatory practices aimed at minimizing the presence of blacks, along with Jews and other minorities.

But context is important.

At a time when the rest of the entire world – including Africa – practiced slavery, Harvard was a hotbed of abolitionist intellectual sentiment. Students and alumni backed up their words with deeds. A total of 1,358 Harvard men fought for the North in the Civil War, of whom 136 died. Thus, for every individual enslaved at Harvard, there were 20 Harvard men who fought to end slavery, and two who paid the ultimate price.

It is also questionable whether Harvard actually benefited from its early 19th century donors’ commercial ties to the West Indies.  If slavery produced an economic benefit for the school, one would have expected its termination in 1865 to result in financial harm. But the opposite occurred. The report describes the period “from 1869 to the 20th century” as a time when Harvard grew into a truly “national” institution, enlarging its infrastructure, expanding its student body, and recruiting new faculty. Some of this growth was attributable to the ambitions of its leaders, particularly Presidents Eliot and Lowell. But fulfilling those ambitions required money. The report shows – inadvertently – that Harvard actually benefited from the abolition of slavery, as industrial capitalism replaced agricultural servitude as a source of wealth for its donors.

The report concludes with a number of recommendations, including the creation of a “Legacy of Slavery Fund” to provide ongoing financial support for the production of curricula about Harvard’s ties to slavery. It also urges the University to endeavor to identify the direct descendants of slaves who labored on the campus, and to acknowledge their lineage as “a vital step in the quest for truth, reconciliation, and repair.”

The obvious inspiration for this recommendation is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in post-apartheid South Africa. That tribunal was set up following the end of apartheid to enable oppressors and victims to meet face-to-face — the oppressors to confront the truth, and their victims to bestow reconciliation.

It requires a giant leap of imagination to equate Harvard University with apartheid South Africa. The fact that the University supports and intends to fund a tribunal premised on that equation demonstrates that the Legacy of Slavery campaign is more performative than reformative.

After all, how would Harvard’s oppressors and victims meet face-to-face? The last individuals enslaved at Harvard were owned by Thomas Oliver, a Harvard overseer and the last Royal Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts. His property was confiscated in 1778 during the Revolution, after he fled the country for England. Where would Harvard find candidates able to bestow forgiveness?

And who would represent Harvard in seeking absolution? President Bacow is the symbol of the University, but he is an unlikely candidate. The son of immigrants, Bacow’s mother arrived in the United States at the age of 19, the sole member of her family to survive Auschwitz. His father was born in Minsk and was brought to the United States as a child to escape the pogroms. President Bacow’s background is typical of thousands of Members of the Harvard Community, who are the victims or the descendants of victims of historic crimes other than slavery. Are they all obliged to seek absolution?

Much of the funding will likely go to the creation of additional “inclusion” posts. But Harvard already fields a veritable army of bureaucrats to police any vestiges of slavery and racism. The focal point is Harvard’s Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging. Within the Office are the following positions, each with its own imposing title and staff: 

  • Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer
  • Senior Outreach and Digital Strategy Officer
  • Associate Director for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging Research and Assessment
  • Director, HR Diversity Analytics
  • Affirmative Action Program Analyst
  • Senior Manager for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Community Engagement
  • Project Coordinator
  • Associate Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer

Then there is the Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging Leadership Council, which enlists leaders from all corners of the University, each again his or her own impressive title and staff:

  • Chief Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging Officer, School of Public Health
  • Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging, Divinity School
  • Chief Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Officer, Graduate School of Design
  • Associate Dean for Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging, Kennedy School
  • Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Harvard Business School
  • Associate Dean for Inclusion and Belonging, Harvard College
  • Associate University Librarian for Antiracism, Harvard Library
  • Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
  • Dean for Diversity and Community Partnership, Harvard Medical School
  • Interim Assistant Dean for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, Harvard School of Dental Medicine
  • Dean for Academic Programs and Diversity, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Each of these positions, with one exception, is currently filled by a person of color. We know this because Harvard helpfully includes a photograph of each officer on its website, allowing the school to broadcast stark, visual evidence of its supposed commitment to “diversity.”

Creating these positions, and filling nearly all of them with people of color, allows Harvard to fulfill its part of the bargain identified and analyzed by Shelby Steele in his Content of Our Character. They do little or nothing for black development, but they do a lot for Harvard’s need to signal its virtue.

If Harvard were serious about encouraging black development, it might focus attention on the crisis in reading. According to the 2019 National Association of Education Progress (NAEP) Report, sometimes called the Nation’s Report Card, 52 percent of black children read below “basic” (defined as the ability to make simple inferences and to interpret the meaning of a word in the text) in fourth grade. Kay Hymowitz, writing in the City Journal, recently pointed out that “the numbers in the nation’s majority-black cities are so low that they flirt with zero.” In Baltimore, where 80 percent of the student body is black, 61 percent of these students are below basic; only 9 percent of fourth-graders and 10 percent of eighth-graders are reading proficiently. In Detroit, the American city with the highest percentage of black residents, only 5 percent of fourth-graders scored at or above proficient. Sadly, low reading scores at age 8 are reliable predictors of who will and who will not enter college.

The purpose of historical research is to expand the scope of knowledge. Harvard’s Legacy of Slavery campaign appears designed primarily to expand the scope of guilt. Its quest for absolution evokes the quest for the “appearance of redemption” that Shelby Steele identified three decades ago. It assuages white guilt while doing little or nothing for black development. The likely result of Harvard’s Legacy of Slavery Fund will be the generation of more and more academic papers on slavery which fewer and fewer black students will be capable of reading.


Filed under Culture


  1. emma

    The statement that “the rest of the world” practiced slavery is a falsehood. It was unknown, for instance, among the Bushmen, Nguni and Sotho peoples of southern Africa.

  2. Jonathan

    Thanks again for this great essay.

    Perhaps alumni would support an initiative under which a significant part of the University’s endowment income if endowment was applied to failing primary and secondary schools that agree to monitored performance, with rewards for achievement. Perhaps some of Harvard’s DEI bureaucrats could be reassigned to that endeavor, to actually perform work that improved education. As an alumnus of two Harvard schools, I’d support that.

  3. Clark Bouwman

    Larry, this is an interesting essay, and, of course, well written. However, I tend to disagree with several of its premises: That admissions programs that consciously favor black applicants create a sense of entitlement. I also disagree with the notion that whites who favor such programs do so in order to receive absolution from blacks for the historical sins of slavery and discrimination. I actually think most of us who support preferential hiring or admissions for blacks or other underrepresented groups do so in the hope of actually helping matters. Nevertheless, I’ll take a look for Shelby Steele’s book when I have a chance.

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