When a group of JD candidates of Harvard Law School posted a photo, a racist man decided to call them "gang members."
Trigger Warning: Racism
Earlier this month, a group of Harvard Law School’s Black JD candidates posted to various social media platforms a photo they had taken in the spring of 2019 standing proudly in front of the college campus' library. The photo went viral, most prominently on the career networking website LinkedIn. It was particularly special as the students, part of the Class of 2021, comprised one of the largest classes of Black students in Harvard Law School’s history. While most folks were full of praise, there was one LinkedIn user, Gene Smith, who shared the post and commented, "Looks like gang members to me."
Before you ask, yes, he was White. In the image, the students are wearing all-black casualwear. To someone who is quick to judge folks on the basis of racist stereotypes, sure, the JD candidates look like "gang members." However, the comment was only a testament to the fact that Black people can do everything in their capability to break free of all the tropes that they have been boxed in to - but still fail in the eyes of White America. After all, Harvard Law School is perhaps the most prestigious academic institution in the country. Yet, even making it into the crème de la crème of academia is not enough if you're Black.
One of the members of the group, Daniel Oyolu, explained that it was incidents specifically like this one that motivated him to become a lawyer in the first place. "My classmates and I organized this photoshoot last year aware of a continued need to expand the broader narrative of how society and the media portray Black people in the US and around the world," he wrote on LinkedIn. "These gentlemen in the photo are some of the most accomplished people you can meet, even at such young ages. Still, other people can look at this picture and only see gang members. These types of issues were part of my motivation to pursue a law degree. We will continue to speak up and speak out. We can't afford to be silent."
The photo was taken long before Black Lives Matter demonstrations erupted across the United States. Sadly, the ongoing protests only prove that the image was a necessary reminder about how much we are yet to achieve. In an interview, Smith clarified that he was in fact racist. Though he tried to claim his comment was strictly about what the students were wearing, there was little substance to his explanation. He stated, "I only spoke to their dress. You cannot say they are not trying to portray a gang mentality... I would recommend withholding their diploma."
Sadly, this group of Harvard students is not the first to be targeted for their race (and they likely will not be the last). Speaking to The New Yorker, best-selling author and African-American lawyer Bryan Stevenson shared his experiences of navigating similar situations. "I’m sixty years old and have been practicing law for thirty-five years," he said. "I have a lot of honorary degrees and went to Harvard. And I still go places where I am presumed dangerous. I have been told to leave courtrooms because the presumption was that I was the defendant and not the lawyer. I have been pulled out of my car by police who pointed a gun on me. And I can just tell you that, when you have to navigate this presumption of guilt, day in and day out, and when the burden is on you to make the people around you see you as fully human and equal, you get exhausted. You are tired. And I would argue that the Black people in the streets are expressing their fatigue, their anger, and their frustration at having to live this menaced life in America." The ongoing protests aren't just about George Floyd - they're about simply letting Black people lead normal lives, not ones punctuated by violence and grief.