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Remarks at Celebration of Black Alumni

Harvard Law School

Thank you, Professor Ogletree for that introduction and for bringing this group together. I am honored to be here.

I was also honored to play a part in yesterday’s opening of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute. Professor Ogletree’s persistence, his dedication, and his commitment to issues of equality and justice are what brought the Institute into being and will drive its commitment to excellence in the years ahead. Thank you, Professor Ogletree, for all that you have done and all that you will continue to do. I urge all of you to visit the Charles Hamilton Houston exhibit in the Caspersen Room in Langdell before the weekend is over.

I would also like to thank Professor David Wilkins for his remarks. I know the program says that today we are honoring Judge Leighton, but I think that is only partially true. I think we all recognize that Judge Leighton honors us with his presence, and I would very much like to thank him for being here.

Let me also thank Dean Elena Kagan, the Charles Hamilton Houston Professor of Law. Elena is doing an extraordinary job as Dean, and all of us are benefiting from her leadership.

I want to focus on three things today that I believe are central to the mission of our university: how graduates of this institution step up and serve; the diversity of our faculty, students and administration; and the knowledge we produce and the impact that knowledge can have on the world.

I. Leadership and Service

Since this law school was founded in 1817, far too few African Americans have been given the chance to attend. Yet those who did have that opportunity made the most of their time here. Anyone associated with Harvard Law School can take pride in their accomplishments – whether leading the nation’s largest financial services or media companies, giving the keynote address at last year’s Democratic National Convention, or serving as leading members of public and private organizations throughout the country.

We can also be proud of the role black alumni of the law school have played in reshaping the legal and social fabric of our nation. Charles Hamilton Houston’s work with the NAACP fighting for civil rights was just the beginning. For the last 100 years, black alumni of this law school have been breaking down the barriers that have kept African Americans from fully participating in the life of our nation. To name just a few:

  • William Henry Hastie ’30, who served as aide to the Secretary of War during World War II and was the first African American appointed to the Federal bench;

  • Lila Fenwick ’56, the first African-American woman to graduate from Harvard Law School, who went on to serve as Chief of the Human Rights Division at the United Nations;

  • Bill Coleman ’46, first in his class at Harvard Law, served as the first African-American clerk on the Supreme Court for another illustrious graduate of this institution, Felix Frankfurter, and was one of the lawyers on the brief in Brown;

  • Barack Obama ’91, who you will hear from tomorrow, was the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review and is currently the only African American in the United States Senate.

    The list goes on. We can all be proud of them and the role Harvard played in encouraging them to step up and serve.

    I want to thank one law school alumnus in particular: Conrad Harper. I want to thank Conrad for his service on the Harvard Corporation and for his service to our country. We are in the process of looking for his successor, and it is my hope that we will be able to find an equally outstanding individual to help guide Harvard in the years ahead.

    II. Environment

    This brings me to my next point – the success of our alumni is critically dependent on the environment that we create for them while they are students. Whether we are inclusive and welcoming – whether we create an environment that encourages students to learn not just from casebooks and in classrooms, but from other students who have had very different experiences than themselves – all of this plays a vital role in determining whether our students will have the skills and experiences needed to be effective leaders.

    W.E.B. Du Bois wrote famously that, “The function of the university is not simply to teach breadwinning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools or to be a center of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.” If that adjustment is to be successful, it requires a commitment to diversity. Without it, we will not be as excellent as we can be, nor will we be as true to our mission as we can be.

    The Law School led the way in this regard by awarding the first J.D. in our nation’s history to an African American in 1869, but the University as a whole has often lagged behind. Harvard did not allow African Americans to live with white students in its dormitories until the 1920s. In the 1960s, despite enrolling over 1,000 undergraduates a year, Harvard admitted only 6 or 7 African-American students in each class. And here at the law school, you need look no farther back than 1965 to find a class with just one African-American student.

    And yet, looking back on the last 50 years, while recognizing all the problems, we can take considerable pride in what Harvard has done to contribute to America’s progress toward more equal opportunity. Whether it was:

  • Our programs of admission, which this year resulted in a law school class that was 13% African-American; or

  • The growing diversity of our faculty; or

  • The work our scholars have done to help us understand the nature of the prejudices within ourselves.

    All have played an important part.

    And even though we may have reached a point of understanding and fairly universal acceptance in the broader society of these basic moral principles, mere acceptance of these principles is not genuine equality and it is not genuine fairness.

    That is why Harvard will continue to ensure that, as Justice O’Connor said, “the path to leadership” is “visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.” As she said, “nothing less than the nation’s future,” is at stake.

    There are many ways we can contribute. It starts with the kind of community that we are. It starts with assuring that everyone can look around and see other students like themselves, professors like themselves, and portraits of people who look like themselves hanging on the walls.

    That is why we continue to take race into account as a factor in the individualized review of an applicant’s qualifications for admission to this law school. That is why we have eliminated the expected parental financial contribution for students entering Harvard College whose families make less than $40,000 a year.

    That is why we appointed Evelynn Hammond earlier this year as Senior Vice Provost for Diversity and Faculty Development, where she will have a broad mandate to look at our policies and procedures in every aspect of faculty hiring and retention to make sure that we are doing all we possibly can to have the most diverse faculty possible.

    That is why it is essential that as we prepare our students for the world of legal practice, we must globalize not only our future, but our past as well. That means continuing the task of ensuring that our libraries, art collections, and course catalogues reflect the diversity and vibrancy of all mankind, and not just Western Europe. It means expanding, as we have done, the University’s African Studies program. It means requiring, as I understand the Law School is moving toward, the study of international law as a critical component of every law student’s education.

    III. Knowledge

    Finally, what can we hope will be said, when people look back at our university 50 years from now? Yes, the fraction of our faculty and students who are African-American will have increased. Yes, we will have embarked on major new initiatives to pursue the study of the African continent. Yes, our School of Public Health will have established a major presence in Africa for the treatment of AIDS as part of that. Yes, the African-American studies program will have experienced its most rapid years of expansion in its history.

    But we will not have done our part if we have only strengthened our ivory tower. We will only do our part if we meet the central civil rights challenge of this day and go far beyond questions of access to institutions like this – by assuring not just de jure equality, but genuine equality of opportunity and genuinely equal participation in American society. Genuine equality of opportunity is not true today:

  • When those left behind to face the ravages of Hurricane Katrina without means of escape or assistance from the government were overwhelmingly African-American.

  • When a black male child born in Washington, D.C., has less of a chance of surviving to his first birthday than a child born in urban parts of Kerala, India, and when that child is twice as likely to die before reaching age 20 than a white child.

  • When one third of black males in their 20s are incarcerated, on probation, or on parole – when more African Americans are in prison than in higher education.

  • When a vote cast in an African-American precinct is nearly 10 times more likely to be rejected than a vote cast in a white precinct.

  • When an African American is almost 10 times more likely to die from homicide than a white person.

  • When the typical African-American family earns just 60% of what the typical white family does.

  • When African Americans are less likely to have health insurance, be vaccinated, or receive prenatal care. When a black man is 40% more likely to die of cancer than a similarly diagnosed white man. When the black-white health care gap costs the lives of more than 83,000 African Americans each year.

    The only way in which we will be able to address the problems of the achievement gap and the health gap and all the other ways in which racial gaps persist in our society will be through the pooling of knowledge, of energy and of conviction to develop new ideas and strategies for tackling these problems. There is no place where these ingredients exist in more abundance than at our nation’s leading research universities – and no university where there is more commitment to addressing these issues than Harvard University.

    Indeed, the greatness of this university lies very importantly in the strength of its professional schools – it lies in the fact that while we venerate the ivory tower and the search of truth for its own sake, we also seek to make a contribution to our society.

    We will not have met our obligation in medicine and public health if we have not made a positive contribution to assuring that the ability to get health care is open to every American. We must use the same kinds of powerful ingenuity that have led us to find solutions to complex diseases to address the complex social disease of lack of access to the most basic health care.

    Our school of education, which is working to try and improve the way education is delivered to students around the country and around the world, will not have met its obligation if it does not devote a substantial amount of its energy and creativity to addressing the large gap in educational achievement between African-American and white children – (and we are already doing that through the Achievement Gap Initiative, under the leadership of Ron Ferguson and Charles Ogletree and others).

    Our business school, which is committed to training those who will lead the institutions that will serve as engines of prosperity in our economy, will not have met its obligation if we do not work to ensure that these engines of prosperity are engines for all. President Clinton used to say that there are emerging markets outside our country, but there are also very important emerging markets inside of our country and we need to train the leaders who will assure that those markets are served.

    And here, at the Law School, as we think about questions of crime and punishment – about the structure of government and the protection of the basic rights of the least among us – we must do everything possible to close the dramatic gap separating African-American and white children.

    In a world where the very category of race is becoming less sharply defined as society evolves, there are large questions as to how we are to address these manifestations of continuing racial inequality. There are huge unanswered questions that I hope scholars at Harvard will be able to provide answers to.

    If, as Du Bois recognized, the “color line” was the central problem of the 20th century, we were reminded by Hurricane Katrina – which held up a mirror to American society – that the “color line” and achieving social justice remain central challenges in the 21st. And I hope that 50 years from now a gathering very much like this one will be able to say Harvard did more than its part – by developing new knowledge, by educating a new generation of leaders, and by setting an example for our country and our world. Anything less is unacceptable.