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Commentary By John H. McWhorter

The Murder At Harvard

Education Pre K-12

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.

This piece originally appeared in Minding the Campus

This piece originally appeared in Minding the Campus