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Selling Out and Fitting In

“We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.” —Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1994, The Crimson published a letter to the editor from a conservative student from Indiana whose freshman year had been difficult because of his political views. He wrote about having to endure “the punches, scratches and cries of ‘Die, Republican dog.’” But Jose Mauricio Padilla ’97 was not like most conservatives on campus at the time because he is Latino.

Padilla is the son of two Honduran immigrants and was the only conservative among approximately fifty “Other Hispanics,” the category the College used at the time to refer to Latinos who were not of Mexican or Puerto Rican descent. The assumption from his classmates was that, because of his race and ethnicity, he’d be a liberal. This led to, in his own words, a series of “ethno-political struggles.”

Because of his political ideology, he sometimes found himself “feeling lonely and paranoid,” and unable to turn to other Latino students for support. “Sitting with conservative Anglos is supposed to deny me true Hispanic hood,” he wrote, “but sitting with other Latinos usually ends up in political discussion when I just want to eat.” While Padilla wore his Harvard Republican Club shirt at the Coop, “[a] sales person asked a couple of Hispanic girls if they required assistance, to which one answered, ‘No but you can help that sell-out over there.’”

Over the past two decades, instances of students of color contradicting the politics expected of them have become more common. The idea that certain ethnicities have to subscribe to certain politics have persisted, and voices contradicting that notion have followed. In 2016, Dan A. Valenzuela ’17-’18, the son of a Guatemalan cook and a Salvadoran housekeeper, wrote against identity politics. Last summer, Natalie Bao Tram Le penned a Crimson op-ed outlining why she, as a minority female at Harvard, was against PC culture.

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As non-white students constitute a larger and larger percentage of the College, conservative students of color are sure to become an even more noticeable presence on campus. They, like Padilla did in 1994, will likely find themselves in a precarious position. Conservative students of color may be shunned in a cultural organization where the majority of members lean liberal. Seeking out organizations that speak to their race, ethnicity, culture, or upbringing becomes a challenge precisely because of their politics.

Belonging is a difficult thing to fully feel at Harvard. Conservatives of color should have a place where they can belong, and cultural groups should be that space. Not all Latinx students are involved with Fuerza Latina, and not all black students are involved in the Black Students Association. But cultural organizations do play a positive role in making many students of color feel accepted on campus. If a conservative student wants to be involved in a cultural group to find sense of belonging, they should be able to do so.

The central question then becomes how to make these organizations as open as possible—including to students who have right-leaning beliefs—while also respecting the collective needs of communities of color. This is where conservative students of color have to own the fact that their views lead to policies that actively hurt the communities of which they seek to be a part.

Ronald Reagan is the poster-child of conservatism, on this campus and elsewhere, but his presidency was disastrous for communities of color. The war on drugs escalated under his administration, sharply increasing the amount of people imprisoned in the United States. There were ten times as many people in prison for drug offenses in 2015 than there were in 1980. Black and Latinx people continue to be prosecuted for drug offenses more frequently than white people because of the campaign Reagan started.

On immigration, conservative lawmakers further hurt communities of color. In 2010, Republican senators blocked a DREAM Act that would have helped up to 500,000 young people of color. Obama was no angel when it came to immigration, but the Trump administration has been much worse. Deportations have increased, arrests of “non-criminal” immigrants have more than doubled, and immigrant families have been ripped apart by an ICE reenergized under Trump.

Conservatives of color belong in any space that they feel they have a stake in, including among communities of color. But to be accepted by those communities, they have to respect the way their ideology has informed damaging legislation and practices that disproportionately hurt those very groups. There are versions of conservatism that focus on an abstract desire for “smaller government” and “individualism,” but too often conservatism manifests in a way harmful to the communities from which black and brown Harvard students come.

Conservative policies often take communities of color as collateral. Conservative students of color at Harvard have to engage with that reality, especially when navigating the liminal space between their politics and the racial and ethnic communities of which they are a part.

Padilla was the only Latinx person in the town in Indiana where he grew up. Maybe that was precisely why he did not consider the link between his beliefs and their negative effects on Latinx communities. But the political landscape has changed dramatically since 1994. We now have a conservative president who does not hide his racism or vitriol. He is comfortable disparaging Mexicans (they’re “rapists” and “criminals”), Muslims (“total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”), and poor black and Latinx Americans (“carnage” in “inner cities”). Now, more than ever, conservative students of color must explain what separates their politics from those damaging the communities that look, sound, and share multitudes with them.

Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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