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A host of Harvard departments are offering courses this semester that aim to engage with the racial injustice in America after a summer of protests over anti-Black racism.
Professors from various departments — including History, English, Economics, Philosophy, Sociology, and African and African American Studies — are discussing topics like cultural appropriation, racial and economic inequality, social change, constitutional justice, and the relationship between Asian complicity and anti-Blackness, in their classes this semester.
For some faculty, present-day events strengthened pre-existing themes in their fall curriculum. Other professors have incorporated new readings, guest speakers, and discussions in response to the current racial climate.
The murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police earlier this year prompted a meeting within the Economics department about implementing discussions of race into current coursework. Economics Director of Undergraduate Studies Jeffrey A. Miron said he followed that discussion by surveying Economics faculty members last month for courses addressing race in the Fall.
“The hope is that students will have a deeper understanding of all the reasons why these phenomena occur,” Miron said. “And they’ll be equipped with tools to think about which policies are likely to be most effective in reducing racial inequality and racial injustices, because economics is trying to be careful in understanding what works and what doesn't.”
A number of fall courses approach discussions of race through a historical lens. During the first week of class for GENED 1002: “The Democracy Project,” a course taught by History professor Jill Lepore, students drew parallels between the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and today’s Black Lives Matter movement, according to Enrique R. Sanchez ’23, who is taking the class.
“I just really enjoy studying history, not just for the sake of learning what happened in the past, but for the sake of taking lessons from that and applying it to our society today and the problems that we face today,” Sanchez said.
Harvard College Fellow Seth A. Robertson said he hopes to bring a similarly critical view to his study on the history of ethics and philosophy. He said his course, PHIL 18: “Human Ethics: A Brief History,” seeks to combat the “old, ingrained narratives of prejudice that have just been built into the discipline.”
Other classes encourage students to look toward the future.
In AFRAMER 189Y: “Sources of Interracial Economic Inequality in the United States,”African and African American Studies lecturer Jacqueline O. Cooke-Rivers said she expects students will gain greater insight into the systemic sources of racial inequality and then consider how to address current issues in the black community such as residential inequality, inequal access to high quality education, and mass incarceration.
Associate Professor of African and African-American Studies and History of Art and Architecture Sarah E. Lewis ’01, who is teaching HAA274: “American Racial Ground” this semester, asks students to examine the relationship between visual art and the hyper-visuality of modern racial injustices.
In the course, Lewis contrasts “stand-your-ground” laws — which studies have shown disproportionately harm Black Americans — with the reclamation of “physical ground” through recently established landmarks like the National Memorial to Peace and Justice in 2018 and the creation of the Black Lives Matter Plaza last June.
Several faculty teaching race-related classes said they think such courses should always form a part of students’ education.
Visiting English lecturer Joan N. Kane said she believes Harvard must offer curricula that substantively engage with race.
“There's a feeling of missed opportunity when you don't have the chance to center issues of the Black and Brown and Indigenous experience,” Kane said. “I think that continuing to pretend as if these matters are resolved, or addressed in other ways, or don't exist can contribute to creating a really harmful and hostile environment for students.”
Abigail Mariam ’15, who is a teaching fellow for SOCIOL 1152: “Conflict, Healing, and Justice,” also said she thinks students benefit from discussing racism in the classroom.
“For people who have experienced racial injustice, seeing that experience of racial injustice brought to the fore in a classroom allows them to see that their experiences, their pain, their soul, their challenges, their joys, their resistance — all of that is important,” Mariam said. “I believe that in working in solidarity with one other, students will be able to find solutions and ways to collectively resist racial inequity.”
—Staff writer Jessica Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Christina T. Pham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Christina_TPham.
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