HOME SHORT TAKES OUR ESSAYS PODCASTS LINKS ABOUT US CAU  Subscribe MTC on Facebook  Find us on Twitter

OUR ESSAYS


June 4, 2009

The Murder At Harvard

By John McWhorter

A few weeks ago a teenaged pot dealer was shot dead in a Harvard dormitory.

That alone was depressing enough. However, Harvard suspects a black senior, Chanequa Campbell, of an association with the pot dealer -- Justin Cosby, also black -- and last week was barred from her dormitory and prevented from graduating. Campbell grew up in the depressed Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, but was a star student, a product of elite prep school Packer Collegiate Institiute, and four years ago was celebrated for her achievement.

The details have yet to be released. But one of the three men who planned the murder, and a suspect in the shooting itself, Jabrai Copney, is a songwriter from New York who was dating another Harvard undergrad named Brittany Smith who also grew up in Brooklyn. Copney and Smith are black.

Campbell denies knowing the pot dealer or having given him her swipe card to enter the dormitory, and has presented solid alibis as to her whereabouts when the murders took place. However, she acknowledges knowing Copney through her friend Brittany Smith.

At this writing, Harvard has not released an explanation as to why Campbell has been disciplined while Smith has not. However, the main question amidst all of this is a simple one: why was Chanequa Campbell, as a Harvard student who had triumphed over such odds, associating at all with a shady character like Jabrai Copney or anyone else who would? Or, of all of the men Harvard offered for her to date, including black ones, why was Brittany Smith "dating" Copney long-distance?

The good-thinking idea is, of course, that the problem is Harvard. The big bad bastion of White Power needs to look inward to figure out how neglect - surely racist on some level - left Campbell and Smith holding on to shady operators from back home for a sense of belonging.

Typical is Jacqueline Rivers, co-director of a program that works with black high schoolers at Harvard, telling the Boston Globe that "there needs to be a lot of work thinking about how you help kids manage the transition in a setting where you're going to be rubbing shoulders with really wealthy people."

But what does that mean? How would Harvard teach black students from poor neighborhoods how to "manage the transition" to an environment full of affluent white kids any more than they do now?

What, precisely, is there to teach? What wine goes with chicken? Dialect coaching? Unlikely, given that Campbell is clearly well-spoken. A six-week music appreciation program on white groups like Coldplay? What about that these days even affluent white students love the same hip hop Campbell does?

To what, then, is Jacqueline Rivers or anyone who says anything similar referring? Nothing real. It's a statement typical of the "dance" Shelby Steele eloquently writes about, in which it is eternally whites' job to seek redemption for America's racist past while for blacks, as Steele put it in a recent Wall Street Journal piece, "the feeling of being aggrieved by American bigotry is far more a matter of identity than of actual aggrievement."

What, for example, do we make of Campbell's claim that she has been targeted because "I'm black and I'm poor and I'm from New York and I walk a certain way and I keep my clothes a certain way"? Brittany Smith, after all, is black and from Brooklyn too, and I will venture, especially if she was dating someone of Copney's, shall we say, demographic, that she is no Malia Obama, overlapping to some relevant extent with Campbell in the kinds of traits Campbell was referring or alluding to.

The idea that Harvard was at fault becomes even harder to process when we consider the conflict between teaching students like Campbell to "manage the transition" and the noble idea that students like her contribute "diversity" to the campus. There would be a fine line between teaching students like Campbell how to "manage" the differences between them and Caitlin and Justin and teaching them how to be like Caitlin and Justin.

Last time I checked, the idea was that Caitlin and Justin were the ones who were supposed to do the "managing," with taking in the "diversity" of students like Campbell as a key component of a liberal arts education.

"Students of all kinds should work together in managing the cultural differences between them" would be the administrator-speak answer - which looks great in print, but again, what, precisely would this mean in practice? What programs could be set in place to do better than the current situation at Harvard, where Campbell was apparently valued by non-black students for a warm, outgoing personality despite her "background" and, for the record, was not prosecuted for a case of check fraud during her first year (perhaps allowing for the "diversity" of her background)?

Chanequa Campbell (and Brittany Smith, of whom we will likely hear more later) demonstrate not that Harvard has an under-the-board problem with racism, but that cultural legacies die hard for all of our good intentions. Campbell is clearly a star, as likely is Smith. However, they remain to some extent culturally rooted in the neighborhoods they grew up in, where activity on the wrong side of the law is, sadly, a familiar sight to all.

There's no need to assail either woman as criminals themselves, and the comment board chatter along the lines of "You can take the ****** out of the neighborhood, but ..." are contemptible. Yet, the fact is that Campbell and Smith lacked the basic sense of recoil from people of shady inclinations that most Harvard students have. The typical Harvard undergrad knows no one who gives the slightest indication of being capable of casual murder, or even of owning a weapon. A person in Bedford-Stuyvesant is much more likely to know such people. For Campbell and Smith, four years in Cambridge did not change that.

The case is reminiscent of the one in New York in 1985 where Edmund Perry, black, 17, fresh from Exeter and on his way to Stanford, was shot dead by an off-duty policeman he tried to rob with his brother, a sophomore engineer at Cornell who fled. Robbing a passerby on impulse was not as foreign a concept to these Harlem brothers despite their promising futures. "We got a D.T.!" Edmund's brother Jonah yelled as he ran away, as familiar with the local slang for "detective" as someone who had stayed behind on the corners.

Edmund Perry himself harbored the idea that whites were in some way responsible for adjusting to his blackness, having stated in the Exeter yearbook "It's a pity that we part on less than a friendly basis. Work to adjust yourself to a changing world, as will I." But whatever he expected those Exeter scions to do by way of adjustment, it would appear that neither he nor Chanequa Campbell and Brittany Smith managed to do their share of "adjustment."
The simple truth is that any meaningful "transition management" will entail teaching Harvard's students of poor background out of a sense of identity that includes hanging out with questionable characters from home. Harvard's black studies department is named after W.E.B. DuBois, celebrated for his plangent exploration of black people's "double consciousness" between American and Negro, "two warring ideals in one dark body." Okay, but Du Bois wouldn't think twice about associating with riffraff.

---------------------------------------

John McWhorter is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute




Comments (13)

tamisha:

as we saw with the duke rape case and the other ivey league schools there is institionalized rascism. and especialy harvard. as a person of color i have seen this first hand at my school, if you people did not segregat and marginallise blacks this would not have happen!

no matter what we do we are not acepted. nothing is good enuogh. and you ask why. duh

were not ever given a chance! thats why

LLDonovan:

About 15 years ago I held an administrative director position at an elite women's college in the northeast. Just as in this story, bright young women of color maintained relationships with undesirable guys from their home neighborhoods. I recall one stabbing incident in a dormitory - our student was the perpetrator. There were security problems and overall concern about unwanted "guests" on campus.

In trying to find some understanding of the issue at the time, here is what we found. Criminal activity gives stature and resources (funds, cars, jewelry, nightclub access) to under-educated young men. These are attractive to female undergraduates even after education opens doors for them. The student body had bifurcated along racial and economic lines. The wealth and legacy of one portion of the students, vs. the middle class/poverty and being first to go to college in the family. It was not always racial. There was no hostility. Just distance and lack of interest in one another.

You are correct to say that these two young women "lacked the basic sense of recoil from people of shady inclinations that most Harvard students have". At 21 years of age, they have learned to live in the midst of and associate with people of questionable values and undesirable behavior. There is no unlearning intentionally offered at Harvard or anywhere else to cause them to reflect on what to re-evaluate or leave behind in these relationships. Cutting all ties from their past would be devastating in practical and psychic terms. The social network that sustained them in the past needs to be rewoven by higher education institutions in a sensitive, consistent and thoughtful approach or the stories of lost opportunities and broken lives will continue.

haskell:

Black or White or Asian, campus life can be very dangerous. Please remember Eve Carson, from UNC-CH, and Abhijit Mahato, from Duke. The shining stars at Harvard would do much better to turn their powerful intellects on dissecting the murderous pathology of Lawrence Alvin Lovette, Jr.

Fred F.:

The writer tries to blame the university; then some commenters try to blame "racism" and defective social networks.

But it looks like this : that even in a great environment, which consistently encourages good behavior and good thinking in many ways - Campbell made some bad decisions - she chose to hang out with some bad people - she's caught up in bad consequences - and now she has nobody to blame but herself.

It's very sad. But entirely avoidable, if she had been determined to steer clear of trouble.

Like the old boat captain said, "the best way to stay out of trouble is to give it a wide berth."

Hopefully Ms. Campbell is learning that now. If so, all to the good, and her life will be OK.

Granny Grammar:

"However, Harvard suspects a black senior, Chanequa Campbell, of an association with the pot dealer -- Justin Cosby, also black -- and last week was barred from her dormitory and prevented from graduating."

Harvard was not barred from any dormitory room and was not prevented from graduating. Editing the sentence down to "Harvard suspects a black senior, and last week was barred...." shows the error more clearly. The parenthetic "...Chanequa Campbell...also black" is irrelevant, because it has no link to "was barred...and prevented...." Is the author British? Errors like this are more common in the UK than in the USA.

Texan99:

If people come from broken cultures, but lack the personal resources to "cut all ties from their past" because it would be too "devastating in practical and psychic terms," then it is sadly inevitable that they will neither escape nor fix their broken cultures. You can offer them escape or change, but if they don't want escape or change they're not going to get it.

haskell:

LLDonovan "The social network that sustained them in the past needs to be rewoven by higher education institutions in a sensitive, consistent and thoughtful approach or the stories of lost opportunities and broken lives will continue." You assume that all of these people want to succeed. Many have hustled the system, and have been moved to some of the highest political positions in our country.
They play on anger and resentment. And, since when is the university system responsible for correcting these underlying pathologies? Make no mistake, the culture from which they arise is pathologic. The university experience comes far too late, these children need opportunities in early childhood, and, in fact, should be removed from their toxic environment as soon as possible.

XLiberal:

tamisha:

as we saw with the duke rape case....there is institionalized rascism.

The DA and Duke University were ready to railroad innocent students on a spurious rape charge. If this is "institutionalized racism," it is an interesting example, because the students so falsely accused and later exonerated were white.

Curtis:

I see what this article talks about all the time, so much so it is depressing to even read objectively about it.

In Baltimore, there is the lure of the "street" which takes down nearly every younger person, regardless of class background. Black youth even from impeccable middle class, tree-lined neighborhoods flock to the corners looking for "excitement."

The impasse of the dialogue on this problem is palpable: it gets stuck on the same dead end arguments about structural racism, with the left affirming and the right denying.

This sidesteps the magnitude of the problem. These kids don't even run into racism and out of despair then head for the corners. They go there directly like moths to the flame. It's like pointing to a rock across the road and saying that rock blocks passage. But the drivers have run off the road before they even encountered the obstacle.

Alex Bensky:

I'll pass by tamisha's language use, which speaks for itself, but I'll pose the question--rhetorically, in case she reads this--as to whether she participates in non-black extracurricular activities, either lives in or supports a black-themed dormitory, and majors in or supports a black studies department.

A lot of the segregation on many campuses is self-imposed.

Rocky Janoski:

You are so right Greg. We must act now, not wait until Nov. Look what just got passed. He is out to destroy us. Look at his latest xecutive order. Impeach him now, that is your duty.

Loch:

The greatest failure is a person who never admits that he can be a failure.

It's hard to come across good posts about this topic, but you do seem an expert...

Post a comment

Leave comments here. Unless they are vicious or obscene, they will be printed.


MONTHLY ARCHIVES:

 

RECENT ESSAYS

Texas Leads the Way on Higher-Ed Accountability
Thomas K. Lindsay

More Decline in the U. of Chicago Core
Adam Kissel

Do We Over-Invest in Non-Traditional Students?
Richard Vedder

The Liberal Arts Are in Trouble--Should We Celebrate?: Part 2
Symposium

The Liberal Arts Are in Trouble--Should We Celebrate?
Symposium

All Essays >>>

Diversity

Published by the Manhattan Institute
The Manhattan Insitute's Center for the American University.