Black Public Scholars

May 13, 2010

Black Harvard Professors Should Stop Excusing the Inexcusable

by Dr. Boyce Watkins

Politicians make promises, and they keep almost none of them. The most common game is “Scratch my back today and I’ll scratch yours next week.” When the next week arrives, the politician is off making promises to somebody else. African Americans are typically fed the political scraps and then asked to get on board with a broader liberal strategy that blatantly puts our needs and issues at the bottom of the list. That is the message being sent with the Supreme Court nomination of Elena Kagan, a woman who didn’t hire one single Black, Latino or Native American person during her tenure as Dean at The Harvard Law School or as Solicitor General of the United States.

The White House has been on the defensive when it comes to Kagan’s sad hiring record. I am not the only person to receive talking points from the White House media team in my email, as they seem to be putting on the full court press. wrote a long piece describing the information they received from The White House and why the information is fundamentally flawed. The White House is in the unenviable position of having to turn a rotten egg into a tasty omelet, arguing that Kagan’s record of hiring zero black or brown people while teaching at Harvard is somehow not as bad as it looks. Let’s be clear: It is certainly as bad as it looks, since David Duke couldn’t have done any worse. Even if you buy into the argument that Kagan (the woman with more Washington connections than the electric company) was somehow the weak and powerless dean who couldn’t influence hiring decisions, I would presume that the Solicitor General has a significant say in who she hires on her watch.

My favorite part of the spectacle has been the army of African American Harvard Law professors called out to defend Kagan in public, all of whom oddly seem to have the same arguments. They point to Kagan’s affiliation with Thurgood Marshall, which is strange, given that Kagan has compiled a hiring record that would make Marshall turn over in his grave. Being affiliated with Marshall doesn’t imply that Kagan learned anything from him or embraced any of his values. They also point to the fact that Kagan took an endowed chair named after a black man. I am sure that their Harvard-educated brains are sweating over the fact that they have to dig so deeply to find any scrap of infinitely recycled evidence that this woman is anything more than another paternalistic liberal who expects black people to love her because she doesn’t abuse them as much as the Republicans. Trying to get intelligent black folks on the Elena Kagan bandwagon is like trying to explain to a man why he should let Tiger Woods give his wife a bath. Taking money under the name of a black man doesn’t exactly make you a champion for civil rights. The other Harvard professors then point to the slew of temporary hires and black student admissions that occurred under Kagan’s watch. I’ll explain that one in a second.

Faye Anderson, a citizen journalist and graduate of The Stanford University Law School who has also heard from The White House, had this to say: “The push is on to round up African American support for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.”

The talking points by the White House and black Harvard Law professors are all fine and good, but the key issue to remember is that the only hires that matter when making decisions in a law school are tenured and tenure-track appointments. Comparing tenured appointments and tenure track positions to temporary appointments is like comparing marriage to dating or having sex: a man having sex with a woman doesn’t mean that he values her as a potential spouse. Many universities run through a slew of minority professors for visiting positions in order to temporarily boost their diversity numbers or to fulfill teaching requirements, but when the faculty member asks for a long-term commitment, they spit out the black scholar and hire a white one. Another game is to offer minority candidates administrative or practitioner/clinical positions, like running a center or serving as a liaison to urban communities. Not that these positions are not important, but they ultimately become the academic ghetto which keeps black scholars from having the opportunity to do what they were trained to do. That’s the Jim Crow system which exists in academia, and I am saddened that there are black professors being pressured to support it. The collective self-esteem of the African American community must rise to the point that we demand what we truly deserve, not simply accept what people like Elena Kagan are willing to give us. Kagan reminds me of the fact that many African Americans were led to believe that Bill Clinton was truly the first black president. I never accepted such an assertion because I believed we could get something better.

Mark Thompson, host of “Make it Plain,” a Sirius/XM Satellite show, says that “I think there’s pressure both explicit and implicit for African Americans to accept that Obama’s blackness and Marshall’s blackness are transferable to Kagan. The bottom line is that we need a genuine African American on the court because there isn’t one.”

The great education we’re receiving about the nomination of Elena Kagan is two-fold: First, we are learning that black Harvard professors defending a person who has shown black people such little respect is not about standing up for the rights of common black folks. It’s about standing up for the elitist power of the Harvard Law School, which stands to dominate the Supreme Court. Notice that the three black professors most vocally supporting Kagan (Kennedy, Ogletree and Sullivan, all of whom I respect) are from Harvard and nowhere else. Secondly, it says that African Americans are expected to follow-suit on liberal agenda items, even when we’ve received the most blatant insults imaginable. The marriage between white liberals and African Americans is flooded with mistreatment, yet we are expected to suck it up and toe the company line. Rather than pushing to get people to believe something that simply isn’t true, I am hopeful that The White House can actually create change we can believe in. Elena Kagan will be nearly as bad for the civil rights as the infamous Clarence Thomas. The only difference is that Thomas may have hired at least one black person.



  1. The stats:

    Comment by NoLaughingMatter — May 13, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

  2. Breaking News that Tiger will be working airport security – an SPN Headlines story just published at:

    Keep smiling! 🙂

    Comment by Beaver Falls Bob — May 13, 2010 @ 8:54 pm

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