In response to the national spotlight on anti-Black police violence, the president of Harvard hoped that the university would “find the strength and determination to act on [our] beliefs—to repair and perfect this imperfect world.” The Dean of Harvard Law School (HLS) encouraged us to gather the “courage and dedication” necessary “to make a world where all people, regardless of their race, enjoy  safety, dignity, equal treatment, and justice.” The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB), which works with Black and Brown community organizers to provide civil legal aid to low-income Black and Brown communities, must think about how to respond to these calls of action in a meaningful way. By turning our focus to the carceral and capitalist roots of anti-Black racism, HLAB is beginning to think critically about how to stand by its statements of solidarity and redistribute power to Black people.
The disparate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent spotlight on racist policing both result from centuries of systemic anti-Black racism and exploitation. Both crises disproportionately affect all low-income people of color, and Black people in particular. Black people are disproportionately targeted by the police today because of the police’s origins as slave patrollers and white vigilantes whose main purpose was to protect white property, white wealth and white supremacy through the exploitation and control of Black lives.1,2,3,4 Black people are dying from COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates5 because, as Dr. Camara Jones aptly stated, “COVID is just unmasking the deep disinvestment in our communities, the historical injustices and the impact of residential segregation.”6 Redlining7 has disproportionately forced Black people into neighborhoods that have restricted access to healthcare, fewer opportunities for recreational exercise and less healthy food.8 Legally enforced systemic racism has restricted Black people’s economic opportunities so severely that the median net worth of Black Bostonians is only $8.9 Meanwhile, the median net worth for white Bostonians is $247,500.10 The resulting economic inequality exposes Black people to COVID-19 at higher rates by making us more likely to be public transit users,11 tenants in overcrowded housing and “essential” low-wage workers.13,14
With the ongoing COVID-19 and policing crises and America’s generally anti-Black history, HLAB has to interrogate and uproot its own complicity in anti-Blackness as a part of both Harvard University and Harvard Law School (HLS). Isaac Royall Jr. used wealth created by the 64 enslaved Black human beings he owned to make a bequest in his will that founded HLS in 1817.15 The Harvard University Police Department has acted in alignment with its racist origins by using the pretense of “safety” to suppress Black Lives Matter16 and anti-ICE protests,17 brutally beat Black students18 and inappropriately surveil students of color.19 Legally enforced segregation mechanisms have protected Harvard’s property and wealth for decades20 And the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau itself is not exempt from these racist origins. About 100 years after Isaac Royall’s founding donation, twenty-seven white male students created HLAB to “render legal aid and assistance gratuitously to all persons who may appear worthy thereof” and to “avoid as far as possible the undesirable result of giving aid to the unworthy” (emphasis added).21 Practicing at HLAB was a chance to provide aid to those deemed “worthy” and gain legal skills, not work collaboratively with communities being most disadvantaged by our legal system.
In spite of these anti-Black histories, HLAB today is explicitly committed to providing legal aid “in a way that responds to the systemic racial, social, and economic inequalities that are the causes and consequences of poverty.”22 In an effort to stay true to that mission, HLAB’s Housing, Family and Wage/Benefits practice areas collaborate with several community organizations led by working class Black and Brown people to implement litigation strategies that align with the priorities of communities we serve. The makeup of HLAB itself has also changed dramatically from the organization’s founding. Over 80% of the student attorneys in HLAB’s class of 2021 are people of color, 50% are Black, and many are immigrants, LGBTQ+, and/or from working class families. HLAB’s diverse membership has allowed the organization to provide more holistic and nuanced support to low-income communities of color, and has pushed the organization to make its lawyering more queer affirming, economically just, anti-racist, anti-colonial and anti-carceral. HLAB’s practice areas already partner with Black communities to fight the housing insecurity, wage theft and separation of families that impede Black liberation. This “sword and shield” model combines direct action and legal defense in order to build collective power to overcome structural racism. Despite our best efforts, we still have a lot of work to do to dismantle Harvard’s exploitative and anti-Black contributions to the immense violence that Black people face today.
It is HLAB and Harvard’s responsibility to engage in reparatory justice processes that redistribute power and resources back to Black communities. The housing insecurity and labor exploitation resulting from centuries of anti-Black systemic racism should compel us to think about how we can move funding from those racist systems to community-led initiatives that invest in Black futures. Student activists23 and community organizers24 have given us the opportunity to repair the harm that the police have caused and put our words of solidarity into action by redistributing the police’s funding to initiatives that support low-income communities of color. They have given us the opportunity to stop actively exploiting and killing Black people by divesting from the prison industrial complex.25 As Dean Manning said, we cannot further our commitments in the abstract. HLAB will invest in Black futures, work to repair Harvard’s anti-Black harm and redistribute power and resources to Black people by continuing to fight housing insecurity, labor exploitation and the separation of families under Black communities’ leadership. HLAB will not only declare that Black Lives Matter, but organize its practice to ensure that they do.
President, Harvard Legal Aid Bureau
- Alexander, Michelle. “The New Jim Crow.” Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, vol. 9, no. 1, Fall 2011, p. 7-26. HeinOnline, https://heinonline-org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/HOL/P?h=hein.journals/osjcl9&i=13.
- Hadden, Sally E. Slave Patrols : Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. Harvard University Press, 2001.
- McDowell, Meghan G., and Luis A. Fernandez. “‘Disband, Disempower, and Disarm’: Amplifying the Theory and Practice of Police Abolition.” Critical Criminology, vol. 26, no. 3, 2018, pp. 373-391. ProQuest, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/2072559484?accountid=11311, doi: http://dx.doi.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.1007/s10612-018-9400-4.
- “The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.” Harvard Law Review, vol. 27, no. 2, 1913, pp. 161–162. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1325879. Accessed 6 June 2020.