11/16/2012 10:07 am ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

Another Race Controversy at Harvard

A version of this article first appeared in the Harvard Political Review.

It's official: Harvard undergrads are incapable of having a rational discussion about race.

The last two weeks were thoroughly depressing for any student who hoped that Harvard would be a place where people of different opinions could engage with each other in a civil search for the truth.

Three articles were published in the school newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, about race-based affirmative action. The first, by Jane Doe*, argued against it. The second and third responded to Doe and argued for it. All three articles, however, failed to do the subject justice.

Talking Past Each Other

In a case study in talking past -- instead of to -- each other, all three articles neglected to even address the major arguments against them. There was no word from Doe about the possible value of diversity in the classroom, our possible need to compensate for structural racism today or in the past, or the stabilizing effects that a diverse elite could have on American society.

Nor did we hear anything from the other authors about the injustice done to white and Asian applicants disadvantaged in the admissions process simply because of the color of their skin, the racial division and resentment that follows, or why class-based affirmative action wouldn't be an appropriate substitute for race-based affirmative action.

On an extremely controversial issue, these articles failed to move the conversation forward. They were written more to reaffirm the beliefs of those who already supported the author's stance than to persuade students on the other side.

Hateful Backlash

But while the quality of the articles themselves was disappointing, what was truly unsettling was the reaction to Doe's. Harvard is a liberal campus, and it wasn't surprising that coming out against affirmative action earned her some stiff pushback. What was surprising was the massive backlash of hateful personal attacks she received.

I Saw You Harvard, a website for missed connections and general student venting and as good a barometer of the campus' mood as any, was vicious. Posters derided Doe as "that jew" and "a dumb illiterate piece of [sh*t]." Jezebel, ostensibly written by adults, called the college student a "snide, rude little baby" and "one of the most dangerous types of rich white people." Dozens of students shared or liked links to the Jezebel article on Facebook.

When Doe objected to people assuming she was wealthy because of her legacy status in the comments of one of the links, a Harvard alum mocked her: "Wait, are you not wealthy [Jane]? Cause those profile pictures look hella expensive..." The top comment on the second article cheered, "Way to go...! Stick it to that nasty, err, vehement, white bitch." The comment has 34 likes and has not been taken down by the Crimson.

Carelessness and Misunderstanding

Much of the anger was provoked by Doe's argument that affirmative action means Harvard lowers its academic standards for minority applicants. I won't get into the weeds of this dust-up, but it seems that this is a question on which admissions data must be the backbone of any argument. It has not been, on either side.

Another lightning rod was Doe's unwise question, "How would you feel if you were assured before going into surgery that your surgeon was the beneficiary of affirmative action in medical school?"

We have here carelessness and misunderstanding. Doe should have been much more careful and avoided generalizing about the competence of all affirmative action beneficiaries, since many of them are excellent at what they do and would have succeeded even without affirmative action. But nothing Doe said indicated that she feels that minorities don't belong at Harvard, as her critics have charged.

Doe pointed out that giving an applicant an admissions boost based on non-academic criteria will produce doubt about the academic qualifications of that applicant, if accepted, relative to those who didn't receive such a boost. Due to Doe's failure to better highlight the many different types of applicants who receive such boosts besides minorities, many people understandably interpreted her to be unfairly singling out minority students for scrutiny.

Given that her article is full of arguments that appear never to have reached maturity, let's give her the benefit of the doubt and assume this was instead an oversight. If it was, then Doe's taken a legitimate position. Affirmative action has both benefits and costs. Those costs include doubt being cast on the credentials of all under-represented-minority students and professionals (both Clarence Thomas and Barack Obama routinely endure this indignity publicly). Affirmative action's proponents should not be attacking anyone who acknowledges those costs as a racist. They should be explaining why the benefits are worth the costs. Reasoning persuades. Name-calling doesn't.

The Way Forward

I've seen smaller-scale versions of this ordeal play out many times in dorm rooms and dining halls here. A student is discussing a social issue frankly and before long another student accuses him or her of being a racist or a bigot. Discussion is shut down, there are a lot of hurt feelings on both sides, and no one is any better off.

This is what has surprised me most about Harvard. When I chose to go here, I never thought the students would be so intolerant of opinions different than their own, so judgmental, and so quick to call anyone who disagrees with them names. Before Harvard, I'd never met people who unashamedly admit they won't be friends with people who disagree with them on politics.

On all issues, but especially race, this climate is poisonous. Several white students I know say they are unwilling to discuss race on campus, for fear that they will be rewarded for their honesty with a Doe-like wave of character defamation. After this, who can blame them?

And isn't this incident a microcosm of everything that's wrong with race relations in America today? The best Harvard and America seem to be able to manage are long stretches of tense silence punctuated by firestorms of name-calling and people angrily talking past each other.

We can do better than this. We come to Harvard, in large part, because we can learn so much from each other. But that doesn't happen when we're afraid to speak our minds.

Let's talk to each other. Let's be honest but respectful, while realizing that honesty will result in some unintentionally offensive remarks. Let's respond to these awkward moments not by disengaging and calling each other names, but by making a good-faith effort to educate with reason and hard evidence and not with talking points.

Let's be more like junior Monique Hassel, who offered to get coffee with Doe with these words: "I just want you to understand why your words might be offensive."

That's how progress happens. Not by what happened these last two weeks. We can do better than this.

*I have altered the first author's name to protect her from being further connected with the hateful response to her article.