Harvard University had only just announced its next president before he came under attack — not for anything he did, but for who he is.
That is, in the eyes of his critics, at least, a “white male.”
The New York Times greeted the selection with a news article reporting in its second paragraph that, in selecting Lawrence Bacow earlier this month, the search committee had missed “an opportunity for Harvard to choose a leader who would reflect the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements.”
Harvard’s student newspaper, the Crimson, of which I was president 25 years ago, reported that the announcement, “surprised and disappointed some College students who had hoped a person of color would take the University’s top job.”
Such intense reaction tells two newsworthy stories: a negative tale about the politics of race and gender on campus and a positive one about America and its Jews.
The Crimson described the incoming president as “the 28th white male to sit in the president’s Massachusetts Hall corner office.” The newspaper quoted a college junior, Sebastian Reyes, who said, “I think the one sort of thing I had in mind for the new president was that it would be a person of color, so it was really disheartening.”
Then the Crimson followed up with an op-ed column by Ruben Reyes Jr., who denounced the choice as “uninspiring and frankly a bit disappointing.” He described Mr. Bacow as “the second white, male economist named Lawrence to serve as Harvard’s president.” (Larry Summers, call your office.)
The Crimson columnist complained that Mr. Bacow “does not understand, first-hand, what it means to be reduced to your gender or the color of your skin.”
And there, precisely, is encapsulated the irony of the situation. The vanguard of the anti-racism, anti-sexism movement on campus looks at an individual chosen for a job and can’t see past his skin color or his gender. If Mr. Bacow didn’t “understand, first-hand” what it means to be reduced to gender or skin color before he was chosen for this job, he sure does now, because it appears to be the only thing, or the main thing, that his critics can see about him.
Had those critics bothered to look beyond appearances, they might see someone who introduced himself to the university in a YouTube video as the son of two Jewish refugees. His mother was an Auschwitz survivor and his father was an immigrant from Minsk. As the grandson of a Jewish immigrant from Minsk myself, I’ve got experience with this issue. Personally, when the racial record-keepers ask me to check a box, I don’t go with “white,” but put “other” and write in “Jew.”
It’s not that I’m unaware of the privilege of being able to pass, or of the differences and overlaps between categories and constructs of race, religion, culture, and nationalism. I’m also acutely cognizant of the 20th century European history in which whatever my family members were categorized as, “white” wasn’t it. How American Jews — or, for that matter, Italians or Irish — came to be defined as “white” is a fine topic for a Harvard course or a doctoral dissertation. An anthropology professor wrote a book about it in the 1990s, “How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America.”
The short story of “what that says” is that discrimination has receded to the point where Jews, in America at least, are no longer a persecuted minority and are instead integrated into the majority culture. Though that isn’t without drawbacks, such as the threats that assimilation can pose to distinctive traditions, it is far preferable to the alternative.
Nor was 20th century discrimination against Jews limited to Europe. The first of the three “white male Larrys” to be president of Harvard, A. Lawrence Lowell, who was in office from 1909 to 1933, proposed a quota to limit Jewish students: “The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate . . . because they drive away the Gentiles, and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also.”
As a Jewish Harvard undergraduate in the 1990s, I thought of Lowell as a white male oppressor. Years later, in researching early Harvard and Massachusetts history for my biography of Samuel Adams, I came to understand that the Puritan ancestors of Adams and Lowell were themselves refugees who had fled war-torn Europe on boats seeking religious liberty. Those Massachusetts Bay colonists were not all that different from my grandfather or Mr. Bacow’s mother.
With some combination of luck, open-mindedness, and exposure to Harvard’s extensive library resources, the students and others upset at Mr. Bacow’s selection may eventually get past their perception of his skin color and gender and find a more nuanced and accurate way to place his family story in the context of the university’s and their own.
Maybe they’ll even see him as an individual rather than as a “white male.” If the new Harvard president can help the critics appreciate that perspective, he’ll be teaching something about world history and perhaps more importantly about examining assumptions. Isn’t that what education is all about?